Tag Archives: looted antiquities

UPDATED: At Looted Temple In India, Locals Unwittingly Worship a Fake

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UPDATED BELOW

Earlier this month we revealed that a 900-year-old Indian sculpture at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (above) was stolen from an Indian temple and sold to the museum in 2004 by Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor.

We now have current pictures of the Vriddachalam temple in Tamil Nadu, where a modern replica (below) is today worshipped in place of the stolen piece.

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Both the ancient and the modern sculptures represent Ardhanarisvara, a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva and his lover Parvati. According to Vijay Kumar, an authority on Tamil Nadu temple sculptures, the current sculpture was installed in 2002 during a temple ritual. A local elder told Kumar that the original was stolen sometime in the 1980s. The replacement statue appears to be modern, Kumar notes, because of the position of the right hand: “Iconography stipulates that the hand lay flat on the head of the bull…But the sculptor who did this was most certainly a novice who [while] good in sculpting does not know the agamas (liturgical texts) well!”

In a recent report in The Hindu, journalist A. Srivathsan noted that temple authorities were not aware the original sculpture had been stolen. Srivathsan went on to describe the significance of the discovery:

With this revelation, that came during ongoing investigations involving Subhash Chandra Kapoor, a United States-based antiquities dealer arrested and jailed for his alleged involvement in an idol theft case, it has become apparent that the looting of Indian temple treasures is far more rampant than what was hitherto assumed or known. And, it would seem that even big and well-known temples have not been spared.

Ardhanarishvara receiptWhen The Hindu informed local authorities about the theft, the case was immediately referred to the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police for investigation. Kapoor is facing trial in the coming months in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai in a case built by the Idol Wing with the help of American investigators, who have seized more than $100 million in allegedly looted art from Kapoor. (Find our previous Kapoor coverage here.)

The Hindu also dug into a 1970 receipt (above) provided to the museum by Kapoor, who has been known to forge false ownership histories in other cases.

When The Hindu traced out the shop, which still exists in Old Delhi, and spoke to one of the sons of Uttam Singh over the phone, he said he was not aware of such a sale. He also clarified that his deceased father Uttam Singh signed only in Urdu. The receipt produced by the Australian gallery bears no signature.

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As Michaela Boland has noted in The Australian, authorities at the Art Gallery of New South Wales would have realized the statue they purchased for $300,000 had been stolen if they had simply walked seven minutes across town to the state library of New South Wales. There Douglas E. Barrett’s 1974 book Early Cola Architecture and Sculpture, 866-1014 AD has an image of the sculpture in its original context in the Vriddachalam temple.

Boland quotes Damien Huffer, archaeologist and author of the excellent blog It Surfaced Down Under, saying that the publication clearly establishes the sculpture was removed illegally from India, which has required a permit for the export of antiquities since 1972. Huffer also descries the lack of research performed by museum curators:

“For a museum or gallery to truly perform due diligence requires that they bring all of their often considerable resources to bear to assess all available published information, and not merely what the dealer suggests.”

The case shows once again that today investigators and journalists around the world are doing the research that museums should have done years ago.

UPDATE 7/29: Michaela Boland at The Australian has written a story with the latest developments, noting that Tamil Nadu authorities have been notified of the theft and are investigating. She includes this tidbit suggesting a failure of due diligence at Australian museums: “A researcher at the French Institute [ of Pondicherry, a research unit funded by the French government which maintains a database of significant antiquities in southern India] told The Australian that in 21 years he did not field an inquiry from an Australian art gallery researching Indian artefacts, despite the institute’s well-known database intended to serve exactly that purpose.” Boland also quotes Art Gallery NSW director Michael Brand saying he is “feeling a strong sense of deja vu,” a reference to his handling of similar antiquities scandals at the Getty Museum in 2007.

Coming Clean: Australia’s Art Gallery of New South Wales Releases Kapoor Documents

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The Art Gallery of New South Wales has released provenance information for one of the six objects it purchased from Subhash Kapoor, the New York antiquities dealer currently facing trial in India for trafficking in looted art. (Past coverage here.)

The release comes in the wake of our revelations about looted objects at the National Gallery of Australia, which acquired 21 objects from Kapoor, including a $5 million sculpture of Shiva that was stolen from an Indian temple not long before it was offered to the museum with bogus ownership history. The NGA has refused multiple requests to release provenance information on any of the objects in its collection, despite compelling evidence several of those objects were looted.

We made similar requests to Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has acknowledged acquiring six objects from Kapoor between 1994 and 2004. Last week, the museum posted information about the Kapoor objects on the provenance research section of its website, which had previously been dedicated to European paintings. After consulting with his board, museum director Michael Brand released on Tuesday the ownership history provided by Kapoor for one of those objects.

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Ardhanarishvara

In 2004, the Gallery purchased this Chola-period sculpture from Kapoor for more than $300,000. The 44-inch stone figure represents Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous form of Shiva and Parvati. It comes from Tamil Nadu, home to some 2500 important temples to Shiva. The image of Ardhanarishvara was likely in a niche on an external wall.

Kapoor provided two documents with the sculpture.

One is a receipt dated 1970, purportedly from Uttam Singh and Sons, the Delhi “copper and brass palace” that sold the sculpture to a private collector.

Ardhanarishvara receipt

The second document purports to be a 2003 “Letter of Provenance” on letterhead from Art of the Past, Kapoor’s Madison Ave. gallery. It is signed by “Raj Mehgoub,” who claims to be the wife of a diplomat who lived in Delhi from 1968 to 1971.

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It is unclear whether the documents are genuine. Uttam Singh and Sons appears to be a real business in Delhi, but we could not reach the owners and did not find record of a Raj or Abdulla Mehgoub.

The documents bear a striking resemblance to other ownership records provided by Kapoor that appear to have been falsified. See, for example, this receipt from a Calcutta gallery for a pair of statues that photos show were in India recently:

Dwarapalas receipt

The Art Gallery of New South Wales acknowledges it did not obtain provenance information for the other five objects acquired from Kapoor, whose total value was about $100,000. The museum says it has not yet been contacted by Indian or American authorities investigating Kapoor.

Michael Brand

Despite lapses in the past, the Gallery should be congratulated for its transparent approach in the current case. Clearly Michael Brand learned from his experience at the Getty Museum, where — as we recount in Chasing Aphrodite — his predecessors’ stonewalling of Italian investigators prolonged the Getty’s troubles for years.

Other museums should follow the Gallery’s lead and use their provenance websites to publish all relevant information about antiquities obtained from Kapoor.

UPDATED: Documents Suggest More Stolen Idols At National Gallery Of Australia

UPDATE 4/10/14: Indian authorities have asked regional police and the public to help identify the origin of the two Dvarapalas that Kapoor sold to the NGA.

Last week we revealed documents suggesting the $5 million bronze Dancing Shiva purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2005  had been stolen from an Indian temple not long before.

Shiva Nataraja2The story made immediate waves. You can find media coverage of our scoop here and here. Jason has a story in the June 11th Los Angeles Times on the case. We’ve also shared info with Michaela Boland, the national arts writer at The Australian, who has published additional material there.

As promised, here’s information on four more objects the museum acquired from Subhash Kapoor, whose Manhattan gallery Art of the Past has been selling ancient art to museums around the world since 1974.

Two Dvarapalas, or Door Guardians

In 2005, the National Gallery of Australia purchased a pair of 15th century stone Dvarapalas from Kapoor for nearly $500,000.

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Kapoor provided ownership records for the pair stating they were purchased by a New York collector in 1971 from a gallery in Calcutta .

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Kapoor included what he claimed to be an original receipt from the gallery.

Dwarapalas receipt

Digital images sent to Kapoor, however, show the statues sitting on a dirt floor, propped up by a brick with a white cloth hanging behind them. Sources say the images were taken by Indian smugglers and sent to Kapoor via email in recent years.

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Nagaraja, the Serpent King

In 2006, Kapoor sold the NGA an 8th century sandstone sculpture of Nagaraja, the Serpent King, for $337,500.

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An ownership document supplied by Kapoor states the Nagaraja had been in a Japanese private collection since 1969.

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But among Kapoor’s records are digital pictures of the sculpture suggesting it was still in India in 2005. They show what appears to be the same sculpture sitting on a dirt floor and plaid blanket (above right), and in a warehouse leaning up against burlap packing materials (below.)

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Monumental Alam

In 2008, the NGA acquired a 19th century monumental brass Alam, or Islamic processional standard, from Kapoor for $195,000.

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The dealer provided a document claiming a diplomat from New York had purchased it in Delhi in the late 1960s.

Alam provDigital images allegedly sent to Kapoor by smugglers, however, suggest it was in India in 2006.

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The National Galley of Australia has not responded to multiple requests for comment. Perhaps none is needed?

UPDATE 6/13: Prompted by “media reports,” the National Gallery of Australia has released a statement acknowledging, “it is possible that the Gallery is a victim of fraud.”

The NGA details the due diligence process it took before acquiring the statue of Shiva include:

∙ the receipt of a certificate from the international Art Loss Register

∙ receiving and checking letters from the previous owner, including checking that the address of the former owner was legitimate

∙ consulting the Tamil Nadu Police website for stolen objects

∙ liaising with a Chola bronze expert in India, who was supportive of the acquisition

∙ checking the extensive records produced by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The steps were clearly not sufficient to prevent the museum from repeatedly acquiring recently looted antiquities from Kapoor. They raise several questions: Does  an Art Loss Register certificate for unprovenanced antiquities carry any meaning? If not, as many experts say, why is it continued to be offered evidence of due diligence by auction houses, dealers and museums? Why did the museum merely confirm the address of the previous owner, not contact him? When the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing website posted an image of the stolen Shiva in 2009, months after the NGA acquired the statue, did the museum contact authorities or do anything proactive to determine if their statue had indeed been stolen? And who was the Chola bronze expert in India who was consulted?

The statement concludes: “At this point the Gallery has been given no substantiated evidence to affect its belief that it owns a genuine item with proper documentation for its history of ownership and which was acquired within accepted museums standards.” Really?

The Australian case holds lessons for all museums that acquire ancient art. The “well regarded” dealers you do business with may someday end up like Kapoor. When that happens, how will your due dilligence efforts look in hindsight. In particular, good faith museums in possession of purported ownership histories from Kapoor should be actively investigating the true provenance of those objects — and making the results public.

Test Case: Peter Tompa on CPAC, the Supreme Court and the Trade in Ancient Coins

Athens Tetradrachm, ex Morcom Collection

On Monday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States is expected to respond to a petition from the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild challenging federal import restrictions on ancient coins with unclear ownership histories.

The ACCG case started in 2009 when the Guild illegally imported 23 Chinese and Cypriot coins of unclear provenance from London in an effort to challenge import restrictions granted to those countries by the State Department under the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). The coins were seized by US Customs officials and ACCG challenged the seizure in court. Both a district court and an appellate court have upheld the seizure and rejected the Guild’s arguments. If the Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, as is expected, the test case is effectively dead.

UPDATE: As expect, this morning the Court declined to hear the case.

So what was this costly legal experiment all about? We thought it a good opportunity to ask the man behind the lawsuit: Peter Tompa.

Tompa is a a lawyer, a collector of ancient coins and a registered lobbyist for several groups of coin collectors, for whom he frequently advocates at CPAC hearings at the State Department, one of the few places where issues relating to looting and the antiquities trade intersects with the federal government. He is also the author of the Cultural Property Observer blog, which champions “the longstanding interests of collectors in the preservation, study, display and enjoyment of cultural artifacts against an ‘archaeology over all’ perspective.” On the blog, he clearly relishes his role as a bête noire to archaeologists and foreign governments that are alarmed by the link between looting and the antiquities trade.

The dialogue between archaeologists and antiquities collectors like Tompa in online forums frequently starts with substance and quickly descends into sniping and personal attacks. Both groups share a passion for the ancient world but very different values about how to enjoy and preserve it. In an effort to open a more civil dialogue on the issues, we decided to launch our own test case and invited Tompa to answer a few questions here.

Chasing Aphrodite: You’re a collector of ancient coins and a registered lobbyist for several coin collecting groups. Broadly speaking, what’s the ultimate goal for these groups?

Peter Tompa: To ensure the continued access of Americans to ancient coins of the sort openly collected world-wide.

CA: Coin collectors seemingly have every reason to deplore the loss of archaeological context, and yet they often find themselves on opposite sides of the argument as archaeologists. Why is that?

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PT: The single-minded obsession with archaeological context puzzles most coin collectors. Numismatists derive their own context by studying the inscriptions and iconography found on coins, by reconstructing the chronology of dies used to strike a given series, and by analyzing the weight standard and the metallurgical content of each issue. The coins themselves often provide amazingly detailed information about the politics and economic circumstances of the time, the course of military campaigns, religious practices, and artistic development. Coins include portraits of individuals whose appearance is otherwise unknown and depictions of lost architectural and artistic monuments. That’s not to say preservation of archaeological context is not a worthy goal, just that it should not be allowed to control all else.

 CA:  Much of the debate revolves around the link between the antiquities trade and looting. In your view, what percentage of ancient coins on the market are the product of modern looting (ie post 1970)? Is looting a necessary consequence of a free market in ancient art? What do the various coin groups you’re associated with do to prevent looting and the discourage or expose the illicit trade?

PT: “Looting” is a rather loaded term, particularly when one jumps to the conclusion that anything that cannot be traced back to 1970 “must be looted.” Whatever laws may be on the books, countries like Bulgaria, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and China tolerate (if not encourage) their own citizens to collect unprovenanced coins. So, perhaps American collectors are being asked to be “holier than the Pope.”  Indeed, what’s most different today from when the Cultural Property Implementation Act (“CPIA”) was passed is that a number of “source countries” like Italy and China have also become major “market countries” due to their increasing wealth.

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I can’t say what percentages of coins were excavated since 1970. However, I suspect they vary by type and country. For example, coins have been found in Italy since the Renaissance. On the other hand, lots of mostly low value late Roman bronze coins came out of the Balkans right after the fall of Communism. Looting equates more closely with poor governance and political and economic turmoil than free markets.  Look currently at places like Egypt, Syria and Greece.    

Metal detectors are the real issue for coins. You simply can’t find ancient coins in any number without them. There are two rational ways to deal with the issue: an outright ban or a mandatory recording system that allows the State to retain any coin for its collections based on payment of a fair market value to the finder. The problem arises where you allow individuals to buy metal detectors, but then naively expect them to either not use them at sensitive sites or turn in whatever they might find for just a token reward.

Of course, the coin trade prefers a recording system like the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme (“PAS”) operating in England and Wales because most coins end up in the collector market after recordation. However, PAS has also garnered considerable support amongst local archaeologists because these reports have led archaeologists to sites they would not have otherwise have known existed.

Coin groups believe that such issues are best addressed at the source with such programs. Nonetheless, they also have codes of ethics.  For example, IAPN (The International Assoc. of Professional Numismatists) members agree “To guarantee that good title accompanies all items sold, and never knowingly deal in any numismatic items stolen from private or public collections or reasonably suspected to be the direct products of illicit excavations in contravention of national cultural heritage legislation.” Those who have been found in contravention of this requirement have been given the choice of either resigning voluntarily or being suspended.

CA: You’ve asked the US Supreme Court to hear your challenge of the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) decision to include ancient coins in import restrictions on antiquities from Cyprus and China. What’s the crux of your complaint?

The Ancient Coin Collector's Guild imported these Chinese and Cypriot coins into the United States to create a test case of the law barring their import.

The Ancient Coin Collector’s Guild imported these Chinese and Cypriot coins into the United States to test the law barring their import.

PT: I disagree with your premise. CPAC’s former Chairman has stated under oath that CPAC did not recommend import restrictions on Cypriot coins. We also have evidence China never specifically asked for import restrictions on coins. All we seek is judicial review of whether government decision-makers complied with the law before they changed prior precedent and placed import restrictions on coins.              

We also believe that current restrictions are grossly overbroad. The CPIA only authorizes restrictions on coins “first discovered in” and “subject to the export control” of a specific country, but U.S. Customs has instead placed far more extensive restrictions on coins based on their place of production. This has greatly limited the ability of American collectors to legally import historical coins openly available abroad.

 CA: As you’ve noted, two lower courts have both ruled against you and the odds are very slim that the high court will agree to hear your case. If the Supreme Court does not agree to review it, what next?    

PT: We will continue to press our case before Congress, CPAC and in the press.  Nor do we foreclose further litigation.

CA:  What’s your relationship with the museum community these days? In the past, you were often joined by museum officials in testifying against import restrictions before CPAC. These days, that is less common. What changed? What are your views of museums adopting the 1970 rule for acquisitions? Will coin collectors adopt similar standards?

PT: You should ask AAMD why it no longer presses government decision-makers to comply with the CPIA before imposing import restrictions. The 1970 rule is an arbitrary construct that has created a huge universe of “orphan artifacts,” — legitimate material that museums can no longer acquire. It has no impact on current looting, and indeed only distracts attention away from the poor stewardship of cultural resources in places like Greece and Italy.  Coins have routinely been traded for decades and centuries without ownership history being retained when they pass from one person to another, and only the smallest number of coins has records of sale or purchase.  I can think of no good reason for coin collectors to voluntarily adopt rule as flawed as the 1970 stipulation as a result.

We’re grateful to Peter for his responses and look forward to answering questions on his blog in the coming weeks. For more about the ACCG’s Petition for Certiorari, see hereFor more on coin collectors’ view oncultural patrimony issues, see here

 

 

The Danish Connection: Holding on to Loot at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotech of Copenhagen

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It is easy to forget that American museums were not the only ones caught in Italy’s investigation of the illicit antiquities trade.

The Getty, the Met, the Boston MFA, the Cleveland Museum and Princeton received most of the attention for being linked to the network supplied by antiquities trafficker Giacamo Medici. But Medici objects were also traced to museums and collectors in Germany, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Australia, Japan.

Today, eighteen years since the raid on Medici’s warehouse, at least one European museum is still refusing to return clearly looted material: the Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.

Camilla Stockmann, an arts journalist at the Danish daily Politiken, has followed the story since 2006 and recently wrote me with an update: despite years of negotiations, the Copenhagen museum and Italy have still not reached an agreement.

What makes the Glyptotek’s foot-dragging particularly striking is the quality of evidence supporting Italy’s claims. Medici’s criminal sentence identified several objects in the museum that are shown in Polaroids seized in Medici’s warehouse: a terracotta relief depicting a chariot race; an acroterion (roof ornament) depicting a winged sphinx; and terracotta reliefs that comprise a pair of mounted warriors.

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Then there is the tomb of an Etruscan prince from the Sabine Hills outside Rome, show above. It includes the Prince’s shield, weapons, banqueting equipment and bronze incense burners. Most striking are the remains of a horse-drawn carriage. “From Etruria and Latium, which stretched south west of the River Tiber, only a limited number of similar tombs are known,” the museum boasts in its display text.

The tomb in question, archaeologists have concluded, is in the Colle del Forno necropolis. It was looted shortly before being discovered by Italian archaeologists in 1970. “Fortunately the tomb raiders didn’t do a thorough job,” Italian archaeologist Daniela Rizzo testified in Medici’s trial. Additional material from the tomb was recovered and is now on display in the archaeological museum of Fara in Sabine, waiting to be reunited with the objects in Copenhagen.

Hecht’s memoir recounts purchasing the entire set from Medici for $67,000 and selling it to the Copenhagen museum for $1.2 million Swiss francs, or about $240,000.

Finally, there are the Glyptotek’s Etruscan antefixes depicting Maenad and Silenus. They bear an uncanny resemblance to the one the Getty Museum acquired in 1996 and put on the cover of the its antiquities catalog before returning it to Italy. The Getty acquired its antefix from the Fleischmans, who purchased it from the Hunt Collection, which was largely composed of material from Medici.

Are the antefixes related? Pictures tell the story: on the left if the Getty’s, returned to Italy in 2007. On the right is one of the Copenhagen antefix, which remain at the Glyptotek.

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And here are the Polaroids seized from Medici’s warehouse showing the antefixes soon after emerging from the ground:

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Further evidence about the Glyptotek’s role in the illicit trade comes from Medici’s principal connection to the art market, American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht.

Mogens Gjødesen, the museum’s director from 1970 to 1978, was tight with Hecht, a frequent visitor to the museum. In in his handwritten memoir, Hecht describes sharing pickled herring and drinking akvavit with Gjødesen and his wife on several occasions.  “A former curator told me that he (Hecht) was called the ironmonger amongst the employees since he always showed up with a plastic bag with artefacts that he wanted to sell,” says Stockmann.

A 1970 letter from Hecht to Mogens Gjødesen discusses sending "the children" to Copenhagen.

A 1970 letter from Hecht to Mogens Gjødesen discusses sending “the children” to Copenhagen.

Indeed, Hecht’s handwritten memoir reveals that when he first obtained the famous Euphronios krater from Medici, he offered it first to Gjødesen, who unsuccessfully “tried to get a Danish shipman to buy it for the Glypt.”

The journal also reveals that Hecht appears to have sold the Glyptotek illicitly exported silver figures from Greece: “After my wife’s departure I went to Greece and was shown a magnificent group of geometric AE figurina* (now in coppenhagen). (*Helmeted nude rider, 2) This group was appreciated by the Carlsberg Foundation & was acquired by the Glypotech within a few months. This group has both an artistic + a cultural interest. A helmeted mounted horseman, 2 horses back to back, the upper half of a youth, a potter at work, a miniature helmet, et. Al. The patina is smooth, pea green.”

The Danish Stonewall

When confronted with this evidence, the Glyptotek initially denied any acquisitions from Medici or his associates after 1970. As evidence emerged that contradicted that, their position shifted. Stockmann says:

“Until 2007 The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek denied any wrongdoing but after substantial politic pressure the museum sent documents about the items bought from Medici and Hecht during the 1970s to Italy. In 2007 Italy asked for a great number of items returned. Since 2008, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the Italian Ministry of Culture have tried to reach an agreement.”

In 2009, the New York Times reported that those negotiations had bogged down. While most American museums had managed to reach agreements with Italy on contested material, Italy’s top negotiator said the Glyptotek “had taken a very different attitude.”

Recently talks have restarted, Stockmann told me. Both sides agree that all items related to the tomb of the Etruscan Prince should be returned to Italy in exchange for comparable loans. But the terracotta antefixes have “been the subject of a conflict.” In particular, Italy objects to language in a draft agreement on cultural cooperation that would prevent it from bringing further claims in the future.

Usually, stonewalling is a good sign that problems go far deeper. So I’ve looked into our archives to see what else I could find.

Gjødesen and the Getty Forgeries

As it happens, Gjødesen was a visiting scholar at the Getty Museum in 1978 and 1978, just as his directorship at the Glyptotek was coming to an end. While at the Getty, he had the opportunity to weigh in on two important acquisitions being considered by the museum.

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The first was an archaic relief showing a Greek soldier binding the head of a fellow warrior. The Getty’s crooked antiquities curator Jiri Frel dubbed it The Death of a Hero. Several experts were dubious about the authenticity of the relief, noting the execution of details like the closed eye seemed off for the Archaic period. At $2.3 million dollars, it was not a decision to be made lightly.

Gjødesen’s opinion helped sway the board, Getty records show. In a letter to Frel dated December 14, 1978, he wrote:

From time to time it happens that a discovery is made which elaborates, extends or totally changes our conception of Greek art. This has happened once again. I am, of course, referring to the archaic Attic relief, dating from about 525 B.C. which you have determinedly tracked down during the past years and are now in a position to submit to the Board of Trustees of the J. Paul Getty Museum with a view to its acquisition.

You have asked my opinion. To put it bluntly, the relief is a sublime masterpiece of incredible subtlety, sentiment and expressiveness, a work of grace, intimacy and poetry, with a surprising touch of realism. It needs no letter of recommendation.

He added a key detail to clinch the objects’ authenticity:

So far the master remains anonymous, though not unknown to us, for in 1958 a relief, obviously by the same hand although of a different but for the time equally unexpected theme, was unearthed at Anavysos in Attica and brought to the Athens National Museum.

He concluded:

It is a miracle that this piece of sculpture was produced and is preserved. It is an even greater miracle that it is available. The opportunity should not be missed; it is unlikely to return. I cross my fingers for you and for the museum.

The Getty acquired the piece for $2.3 million in 1979. There are indications that Frel received a substantial kickback in the deal. Soon after, experts from around the world condemned the relief as a crude fake. The carving was incorrect, particularly the heads and hands, noted Brunhilde Ridgeway. The fragmentary image was impossible to reconstruct in a credible way, and no funerary relief of the Archaic period was known to have the same proportions.

In the 1980s, the Getty declared it a fake and returned it to the dealer.

url-1It was not the only fake whose praises Gjødesen sang while at the Getty. Soon after the archaic relief was acquired, a head attributed to the legendary master Skopas was offered to the Getty. It had been “in a private French collection since the 1830s” and considered “one of the most important pieces of ancient art in the United States,” Frel claimed.

Gjødesen was among the scholars who lent support to Frel’s claims. The Skopas head was later established to be a modern forgery.

Was Gjødesen fooled? Or was he, like Frel, part of a scheme whose depths we have not fully plumbed? And when will the Copenhagen museum come clean?

Decoding Eakin: Behind ‘Extortion’ Claim, Fear the Floodgates Have Opened

imgresIt is no coincidence that The Great Giveback, Hugh Eakin’s lengthy argument against the repatriation of looted antiquities, landed in The New York Times on Sunday, just as the directors of America’s leading art museums gathered in Kansas City for their annual meeting.

A key item on the agenda in Kansas City that day was the museum community’s handling of looted antiquities, an issue that has roiled the art world for more than a decade.  The Assoc. of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has repeatedly tried to put the issue to rest, adopting policy changes in 2001, in 2004 and again in 2006 as the controversy metastasized into a full bore international scandal. In 2008 the AAMD revisited the issue yet again, adopting acquisition guidelines that required a clear ownership history dating back to 1970, a position that put them in line with most archaeologists.

The 2008 policy was heralded as a turning point for the American museums and a victory for reformers like the Getty’s Michael Brand and Max Anderson, now in Dallas, who felt it was time for American museums to sever their ties to the black market. But those reforms are under attack. Museum directors are seeking to reverse the policy, which drives a wedge between them and wealthy patrons whose antiquities collections can no longer be donated in exchange for tax write-offs. These dissidents have made ample use of the policy’s major loophole, which allowed museums to violate the 1970 rule if they posted the acquisitions on the group’s Object Registry with a justification of why.

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As Lee Rosenbaum recently noted, sixteen museums have posted nearly 600 objects there, many with no clear justification for flouting the 1970 rule. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art, for example, acquired an unprovenanced collection of 31 pieces of ancient gold jewelry, saying it violated the 1970 rule so the objects could be “studied, displayed and publicized.” Last August, the Cleveland Museum posted a Roman portrait bust of Drusus (right) that has no documented ownership history prior to 2004 and was sold to the museum by the Aboutaam brothers, antiquities dealers who have been convicted of charges related to trafficking in looted art. “Museums should still be buying antiquities, and we shouldn’t shirk that responsibility, and I think it’s almost an ethical responsibility,” Cleveland museum director David Franklin told the New York Times. (Readers of Chasing Aphrodite will recognize the quote as a nearly verbatim echo of what the Getty’s John Walsh said in 1987 to justify the acquisition of the looted statue of Aphrodite.)

In short, the Object Registry has become a tool for laundering suspect antiquities. Once objects are posted there, museum officials believe, the statute of limitations clock starts ticking, giving foreign governments just a few years to investigate, build a case and file a claim before their time expires and the objects emerge sparkling and clean. More broadly, the series of reforms taken by many American museums in recent years — which include taking claims seriously and sending looted antiquities back to the countries from which they were stolen — are under attack from within.

That brewing fight is the context for Eakin’s polemic, which notably takes aim not at source countries so much as museums like the Getty and Dallas that have embraced reforms and begun to proactively search their collections for problematic objects. With Philippe de Montebello retired and Jim Cuno forced to moderate his view by the Getty board, Eakin has emerged as the spokesman for the dissidents.

Recent events have only raised the stakes, for the controversy over looted antiquities shows no signs of going away. The depth of the problem with American collections of Classical antiquities is just beginning to emerge, with more revelations certain to come as researchers comb through the seized archives of the illicit trade’s most prominent middlemen. Meanwhile, over the past year the search for loot in American collections has gone global, with countries like Cambodia, India and Turkey bringing claims. Museum directors know better than anyone that these claims are the tip of a very large iceberg.  

To the ears of some in the art world, that sound is the creaking of the floodgates swinging open.  

Spurious Claims

Eakin’s piece, then, is best understood as part of a broader effort to convince the public that claims involving looted antiquities are baseless and those who cave in to them, cowards. The reforms have not only failed to stop looting (a “scourge” often given lip service by museums, but never more.) They have “spurred a raft of extravagant new claims against museums — backed by menacing legal threats.” Unless American museums grow a backbone and fight these foreign claims to the death in court, Eakin suggests, someday soon they will be empty of ancient art.

As he has done in the past, Eakin relies on a mosaic of selective facts and careful omissions to cobble together his argument. Many of its most serious flaws have already been rebutted. Lee Rosenbaum — who herself is often skeptical of repatriation claims — denounced it as a “distorted, often mistaken opinion piece” and concluded Eakin was “an extremist on the anti-giveback side.” Archaeologist Paul Barford was less kind, saying the piece “illustrates quite clearly the robber baron attitude of entitlement, hypocrisy, xenophobia and supremecism when it comes to appropriating for their own uses other peoples’ cultural property, that internationally is losing America friends.” Cultural property lawyer Rick St. Hilaire noted that Eakin’s argument “overlooks the general principle that stolen property cannot be owned lawfully or that contraband antiquities (smuggled antiquities) are somehow legitimate.” Speaking in Eakin’s favor, I could only find three voices: Peter Tompa, the lobbyist for collecting interests; blogger Judith Dobrzynski, who calls the piece “pitch-perfect” but acknowledged a conflict of interest in the subject; and LA Times art critic Christopher Knight, who celebrated the piece’s “nuance” in a tweet.

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Let me focus on something I think Eakin gets almost right — his summary of recent events. (See below for his major omission.) Other archaeologically rich nations have been inspired by Italy’s success. In bringing their own claims, many have been less disciplined than Italy, which supported its demands with evidence — much of it photographic — gathered during a decade-long criminal investigation. But here Eakin misses an opportunity to articulate the key flaw of some recent repatriation requests — the conflation of historical gripes with the modern criminal behavior of looting, smuggling and fencing. For example, most of the objects Turkey is demanding from American museums were acquired since the 1960s and have no documented ownership history before that, suggesting they are likely the product of illicit excavations. Whether Turkey has evidence to support those claims remains to be seen — unlike Italy, the Turks are making their case to museums before sharing it with the public. But Turkey has also asked several European museums to return objects that were removed nearly a century ago, sometimes by archaeologists operating with government permission. And to increase their leverage, Turkey has denied digging permits to foreign archaeologists who played no role in the alleged wrongdoing. All of this — coupled with Turkey’s own history of plunder — has led to a skeptical reception of claims against American museums that may or may not be backed by clear evidence. And with good reason.

Likewise, Greece and Egypt have frequently included colonial-era claims with requests for the return of recently looted antiquities. Some of those historical claims may carry ethical weight, such as the reunification of the Parthenon marbles. But more often they blur the moral and legal clarity of claims involving modern looting. The same can be said for occasional statements that all things made in Country X should be returned to County X, which discredit the nations that make them.

So, there is legitimate reason for skepticism of repatriation claims. But these are not the arguments Eakin chose to make. Instead, he invents a picture of “terrified” museums being cowed by powerful foreign governments into giving back America’s innocently-acquired art. This description of the situation makes for an almost laughable reversal of reality.

American museums have long had the power when it comes to claims of restitution — the power to ignore claims, to withhold information and to create or defend false ownership histories. For decades, they have wielded this power freely, dismissing polite requests from foreign countries while continuing to buy looted art with impunity. For years, the Getty blew off Italian objections to their acquisitions of obviously looted art by simply refusing to respond to inquiries from senior government officials. The Met refused to allow scholars to look at its collection of looted Greek silver. Turkey has requested the return of the Sion Treasure from Harvard since the 1960s to no avail, while the university published a book about the treasure that detailed its illegal excavation and included a photo of the looter’s hole from which it was taken. Yet Eakin laments that today, 40 years later, Turkey has decided to begin withholding loans from Harvard until it responds. These are what he calls “blatantly extortionary demands.”

What motivates repatriation claims from source countries is not a desire for a few more pieces of ancient art. The basements of their museums overflow with the stuff. What they want is respect.

Let’s consider Eakin’s innocent acquisitions. If there has been a lesson from the last decade of controversy — and if there is one point made clearly in Chasing Aphrodite — it is that American museum officials were far from innocents. In case after case where internal museum records have come to light — via lawsuits or leaks to reporters — there is clear evidence that museums officials were aware they were buying recently looted antiquities. Met officials knew the Lydian Hoarde was looted and sought to hide it, as Turkey learned during its six year legal battle for their return. Dietrich von Bothmer kept a map of the precise tomb in Cerveteri from which the Euphronios krater had been looted, as we learned from Marion True’s sworn deposition. The Boston MFA’s longtime antiquities curator Cornelius Vermeule was close personal friends with Robert Hecht and acquired hundreds of looted objects from him, as the Italian investigation and Hecht’s own journal revealed.  

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

The Getty case, our most revealing window into a museum’s antiquities acquisition process, is startlingly clear: “We know it’s stolen,” Harold Williams said in a confidential 1987 meeting about the acquisition of suspect antiquities. “Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?” Marion True discussed the contents of looted tombs in correspondence with Giacamo Medici, and declared the golden funerary wreath “too dangerous” before greed got the better of her. Her predecessor Arthur Houghton visited Medici’s Swiss warehouse and sought his help tracing the Getty’s griffins to tombs in Southern Italy. Houghton’s predecessor Jiri Frel ran a provenance forgery workshop out of the antiquities department and acquired thousands of looted objects through a tax fraud scheme whose scope is just now becoming apparent.

In other words, the evidence amassed to date makes abundantly clear that many of our highly educated antiquities curators and museum directors were not total dupes when it came to their role in the illicit antiquities trade.

They knew.

This is Eakin’s most glaring omission and the reason why repatriation is — at times — a reasonable response to foreign claims. They are the pound of flesh that must be paid for our collective cultural sins.

What standard?

How much evidence is needed to establish that an object is the product of the illicit antiquities trade and should be returned to the country from which it was stolen? For all the debate about acquisition policies, there has been nearly no debate or policy papers on this question, which is far more pressing concern facing museums today.

Eakin reminds us repeatedly that museums have returned contested antiquities under no legal order and often with no knowledge of their precise findspots. Such statements remind me of a phone conversation I had in 2006 with the Met’s de Montebello. He told me that the Met was prepared to give up its beloved Euphronios krater if Italy could present “irrefutable proof” of the precise spot from which it had been looted. Soon after, the Met’s general counsel informed him that there was no such legal standard — not even in cases of capital murder. Montebello left it to a spokesman to call back and sheepishly clarify that under the law, the vase could be seized by US law enforcement based upon probable cause. That is the legal standard for civil forfeitures. Apparently Eakin did not get the memo.

Orpheus mosaic in situThe cases that Eakin suggests are spurious are still being negotiated, and we don’t yet have access to the full array of evidence. But what has come to light suggests they are far from fickle. In the case of Cambodia’s claim on the Khmer statue in the Norton Simon, the precise find-spot is well-known and not disputed — the statue’s feet remain in placed today at the temple complex from which it was looted. In the two cases where claims from Turkey have been resolved — Dallas and Penn — there was compelling evidence. Penn acquired the Trojan gold  in 1966 from Hecht, whose ties to Turkish looters are well documented, and scientific tests later found it was consistent with samples found in Turkey. In the case of the Orpheus mosaic, investigators found Polaroids of the mosaic in situ when it arrested the alleged looters.

Eakin’s call to legal arms betrays both his ignorance of the law and of museums’ dilemma. There is a very good reason why museums have voluntarily given back nearly $1 billion in looted antiquities with no legal fight — it was in their self-interest. As cultural property attorney Rick St. Hilaire notes, taking these cases to court “is fraught with danger.”

LACMA's Michael Govan

Museums hoping to fight in court had better make sure they have no damaging internal records detailing their acquisition of looted antiquities, for those are likely to come out in discovery, as Sotheby’s recent learned. They had better also be sure that no other objects in their collections have dubious origins, because their legal fight will inspire a thorough examination of their entire collection. This was the lesson learned by the Getty, which, as Eakin notes, chose to fight rather than accept the voluntary return of six clearly looted antiquities. Several years and millions of dollars in legal fees later, they ended up returning more than 40.

Eakin laments the cost to museums of dealing with repatriation claims. The cost of litigation is far far higher. This is not to mention the public relations consequences, which concern museums far more than a few pieces of ancient art. The true and lasting damage to American institutions over this past decade has not been legal fees or lost antiquities. It has been the growing public perception that they are engaged in an illegal activity that, at its heart, is a deep betrayal of their public mission. If they follow Eakin’s advice, they will double down on that betrayal.

Greek deal

The enlightened solution that Eakin seeks is the one being taken by the institutions he targets — rebuilding trust with the public and foreign governments by taking claims seriously, engaging in proactive research of their collections and sober evaluation of the evidence and when appropriate, returning a token of the stolen property in their collections in exchange for a collaborative relationship with a potential adversary.

As Eakin well knows, this approach is not “making great art ever less available.” It is providing museum visitors with remarkable rotating exhibits of the world’s great treasures while moving both source countries and museums toward a future where questions of ownership recede and the focus becomes cooperation and education. 

The Getty’s Looted Amber: A Window into the Museum’s Deepening Dilemma

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In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I have a story about Getty Museum’s efforts to find the true origins of its massive antiquities collection.

Here’s how the story starts:

In the wake of a scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum is trying to verify the ownership histories of 45,000 antiquities and publish the results in the museum’s online collections database.

The study, part of the museum’s efforts to be more transparent about the origins of ancient art in its collection, began last summer, said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

“In this effort, and in all our work, when we identify objects that warrant further discussion and research, we conduct the necessary research to determine whether an item should be returned,” Hartwig said in a statement to The Times.

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The review is likely to reveal that problems in the Getty’s collection go far deeper than the nearly 50 looted objects returned since 2007according to Getty records and interviews with antiquity dealers and former museum officials.

Hundreds of objects still in the collection were acquired with false ownership histories aimed at disguising their origins in the illicit antiquities trade, records and interviews show.

The depth of its problem was underscored in November, when the Getty published a catalog of 56 carved ambers, objects that the ancient Greeks and Etruscans used in amulets for the magical properties they were believed to possess.

At first look, “Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum” represents the museum at its finest — decades of scholarship published online in an illustrated catalog that engages the public in a rarely studied artifact of the ancient world.

But records — including internal Getty files — show that the ambers were almost certainly looted from tombs in northern Italy.

medici mugThe relics passed through the smuggling network of Giacomo Medici, who has been convicted in Italy of trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. Once in the United States, they were donated to the Getty as part of a tax fraud scheme that nearly brought the institution to its knees in the 1980s.

The catalog is silent on this history, which a Getty spokesman says the museum was not aware of at the time, but it does acknowledge the consequences. Because nothing is known of the context in which the ambers were found, little can be definitively concluded about their meaning to their ancient owners.

“Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts?” writes Faya Causey, author of the catalog. “Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part.”

The ambers capture the dilemma that the Getty faces today. Having largely abandoned the purchase of ancient art, it is using its unparalleled resources to restore meaning to objects whose history it had a hand in destroying.

You can read the full LA Times story here.

The Getty’s Study Collection

This is not the first time questions have been raised about the Getty’s study collection, the tens of thousands of artifacts in the museum’s collection deemed not worthy of display but held in storage for scholarly study.

In the 1990s, hundreds of pottery sherds and votive fragments in the collection were linked to a looted archaeological site in Francavilla Maritima. Under Marion True’s leadership, the Getty conducted an exhaustive scholarly study of the material, then returned it to Italy. 

Last year, the Getty quietly returned 150 marble fragments in the collection (88.AA.140 – 88.AA.144) to Italy after evidence emerged that they joined objects found in the same looted tombs of Ascoli Satriano that produced  the Getty’s Griffins and statue of Apollo, which were returned to Italy in 2007. The objects and fragments were acquired in the 1980s from London dealer Robin Symes.

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Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig described the voluntary returns as the result of cooperative research with Italian archaeologists:

In his letter to Director General Luigi Malnati last January, Jim Cuno said, “The Getty acquired these objects as a gift in 1988, in the hope that they would be preserved and studied and eventually reconnected with other fragments of the same objects.  Happily, careful scholarship has led to that result.  Working with colleagues in Italy, Getty curators have determined that the fragments in our possession are very likely to match with vessels from Ascoli Satriano.  It is our hope that the fragments can be examined to ascertain their pertinence, and rejoined to these vessels.” Dr. Malnati invited [Getty antiquities curator] Claire Lyons to join a committee formed as a research collaboration to examine the pieces.

01293001But the Getty’s problems are not confined to the study collection, as was demonstrated last week when the Getty announced it would return a terracotta head of Hades to Sicily. It will be reunited with the statue’s body, which was found at the archaeological site of Morgantina — the same source of the Getty’s looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned in 2010.

These returns are a reminder of the Getty’s crooked collecting practices, but they also offer some reason for hope. Each return has contributed to important new insights about archaeological sites that were despoiled by looters. The process of joint investigation and return has helped re-create some of the lost context — something Lord Colin Renfrew once described as “Post-disjunctive forensic re-contextualisation.”

Expect to see more if it in the year ahead. As noted in Saturday’s story, a large part of the Getty’s study collection was acquired in bulk donations in the 1970s and 1980s via the looting and tax fraud scheme we describe in Chapter 2 of Chasing Aprhodite. Records show that much of it passed through the smuggling networks of Medici, Hecht, Symes and Becchina, suggesting it will likely end up back in Italy sooner or later.  

The ambers are the latest tip to surface of a very large iceberg. As David Gill noted in November, “the scale of the problem for the Getty is massive.”

Chasing Aphrodite 2012: The Year in Review

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Happy New Year from Chasing Aphrodite.

It’s been a year and a half since our book was published, and during that time the hunt for looted antiquities at the world’s museums has gone global. Over the past 12 months we’ve revealed new information about objects looted from Turkey, Cambodia, India, Latin America, Italy and beyond. Visitors from 150 different countries came to read our weekly posts. (Those interested in a daily feed of relevant links and commentary should like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.) Our focus here is on scoops, and over the past year we broke several significant stories about the illicit trade, some of which led to the return of looted antiquities to the countries from which they were stolen.

Here are some highlights:

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

The year started with a bang in January with the arrest Arnold Peter Weiss, a prominent Rhode Island surgeon and collector of ancient coins who was arrested at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for felony possession of allegedly ancient coins that had been recently looted from Sicily. Our scoop a few days later revealed that Weiss had told a confidential informant that he knew he was dealing in looted coins:  “There’s no paperwork, I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago,” he said, according to the criminal complaint. We later traced Weiss’ donations to RISD and Harvard University Art Museums; revealed his business partner’s connection to the Getty; exposed the role of federal investigators in the case; and covered his guilty plea to selling what turned out to be clever fakes.

Princeton antiquities curator Michael PadgettAlmagia Returns: In January we also wrote about American museums returning a new wave of looted antiquities to Italy after the objects were tied to the criminal investigation of Italian antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia. The Met returned more than 40 vase fragments from the private collection of its former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. The Princeton Museum returned 160 objects and fragments, and stonewalled questions from the press about those returns. (The museum’s curator Michael Padgett, above, has been named as a target of the investigation.) In February we began tracking objects museums had acquired from Almagia and found several at the Dallas Museum of Art. We also traced Almagia objects to the Boston MFA, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Indiana University Art Museum and the Getty Museum. David Gill identified one additional Almagia object at the Tampa Museum. The Dallas Museum announced in December that five of the objects we had questioned would been returned to Italy.

Orpheus Mosaic

Orpheus Mosaic

Turkey’s claims: In March, we broke the news that Turkey was seeking the return of dozens of allegedly looted antiquities from American museums. We also listed the specific objects being sought at those museums, including: 10 objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum; 18 objects from the Schimmel Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 21 objects at the Cleveland Musuem of Art; and the Sion Treasure at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks. Since then, the Dallas Museum of Art has already agreed to return a looted mosaic to Turkey, and Bowling Green State University has signalled its intention to do the same. Negotiations with the other institutions are on-going, and we expect to have an update soon.

Koh Ker wrestlerCambodia vs. Sotheby’s — The Battle for Koh Ker. In April, we began following the legal battle between the US government and Sotheby’s over a 10th century Khmer statue allegedly looted from a temple complex deep in the Cambodian jungle. Government prosecutors, suing on behalf of Cambodia, alleged that Sotheby’s knew the statue was looted and and withheld the information from potential buyers, as well as government investigators. The auction house has denied those claims. Damning internal emails, however, revealed Sotheby’s knowledge about the statue’s suspect origins and the likely controversy its sale would cause. Also named in the case is a companion statue now at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, whose feet remain in situ in Cambodia. The man at the center of the case is Douglas Latchford, a British collector/dealer based in Bangkok whose name has been linked with sever pieces of suspect Khmer antiquities. In recent months we’ve traced Latchford’s objects to the Denver Museum of Art, the Kimbell Museum and the Met. The outcome of the case could prove an important precedent for legal claims against looted antiquities in the United States.

James-CunoJim Cuno’s shakeup at the Getty: In May, the board of the J. Paul Getty Trust hired James Cuno to lead the organization. It was an odd choice — The Getty was still recovering from a devastating international scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, and had enacted a new acquisition policy that respected foreign ownership laws. Cuno had long been a vocal critic of those laws and advocate for the type of unfettered collecting that had gotten the Getty into trouble. One of Cuno’s first moves was the elimination of 34 positions at the Getty Museum, including two respected veterans and 12 professional gallery teachers who were replaced by volunteer docents. We broke the news, published Cuno’s memo to staff and covered the fallout. We also wrote about his decision to hire Timothy Potts, another advocate of unfettered collecting, and raised questions about Pott’s acquisition of a 5th century BC Greek cup at his previous post, the Kimbell Art Museum. In response to our questions, the Kimbell announced they would post the vase on the AAMD’s registry of ancient objects with unclear ownership histories. They never did.

PS1_TL.2009.20The Bourne Collection: Also in May, we featured a guest post by Roger Atwood on the Walter’s newly acquired collection of unprovenanced Pre-Colombian Art. Atwood described the “long and checkered history” of the Borne collection, which is sprinkled with fakes and at least one piece suspected of having been looted from Sipan, Peru.

subhash kapoorSubhash Kapoor Case: In July we began writing about the investigation of Subhash Kapoor, the New York based antiquities dealer specializing in Indian antiquities and temple idols. After federal agents raided his New York warehouse, we  identified more than 240 objects acquired from him in museums around the world. In December, federal investigators announced they had seized some $150 million in antiquities from him and consider Kapoor “one of the most prolific commodities smuggler in the world.” The case is on-going.

This Polaroid seized from the warehouse of dealer Giacomo Medici shows the Getty Museum's Statue of Apollo shortly after it was looted from a tomb in Southern Italy.

This Polaroid seized from the warehouse of dealer Giacomo Medici shows the Getty Museum’s Statue of Apollo shortly after it was looted from a tomb in Southern Italy.

WikiLoot: Finally, this year we announced our plans to crowd-source the study of the black market in looted antiquities. We’re still in the development phase of the project — raising money, building partnerships and considering the structure of the site. But WikiLoot, as we’re calling the project for now, has already attracted substantial interest and media attention from the Guardian, the Economist, CNN, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and others. This spring we’ll be developing a prototype of the site and reaching out to more potential partners. Stay tuned for updates.

Thanks for reading. Our best wishes for 2013, and we hope you will join the hunt!

Latchford’s Footprints: Suspect Khmer Art at the Kimbell and the Met

We’re continuing to trace suspect Cambodian antiquities linked to Douglas Latchford, the man at the center of the on-going federal looting probe that we’ve detailed in previous posts here. Last week we wrote about suspect Khmer antiquities at the Denver Art Museum. Here are our latest finds:

The Kimbell Art Museum

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In 1988, the Kimbell Art Museum purchased an important 7th century Khmer sculpture from Latchford.

At the time of purchase, the statue had no documented ownership history. The only record the Kimbell obtained about its origins was a signed guarantee from Latchford claiming the statue had been in his possession in Thailand since 1968 and had legally been shipped to the UK in 1987, a museum spokeswoman said.

Latchford has made similar claims about contested Khmer statues at Sotheby’s and the Norton Simon Museum that are now the focus on a federal lawsuit. Federal investigators have alleged in court filings that Latchford purchased those statues after they were looted in the early 1970s and smuggled to Thailand, a claim Latchford denies. (See our previous coverage of the case here.)

The statue represents Harihara, a Hindu deity that combined the destructive force of Shiva and the creative power of Vishnu. The statue’s style suggests the piece came from the pre-Angkor ruins of Prasat Andet, in central Cambodia. The Kimbell has no evidence of legal export from Cambodian, a museum spokeswoman confirmed.

Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite)Acquiring an object based exclusively on a dealer’s warranty — rather than an actual documented ownership history that proves it was not looted — was a common tactic in the 1980s, particularly for pieces that were likely looted. As we described in Chasing Aphrodite, the J. Paul Getty Museum passed a new acquisition policy for antiquities in 1987 that called for a dealer warranty in place of an inquiry into an object’s origins. The practice allowed the Getty to continue acquiring objects it knew or suspected had been looted — including an $18 million statue of Aphrodite — while providing a modicum of legal and public relations cover if the statue were later questioned. But the policy failed: The Getty returned the Aphrodite to Italy in 2010 after our investigation in the LA Times made clear the dealer warranty was a thin cover for the truth — the statue had been looted from an archaeological site in central Sicily.

Kimbell1The Kimbell believes the Harihara is the only object in its collection with ties to Latchford, but can’t be certain, a museum spokeswoman said. It is not the only suspect piece of ancient art to surface at the museum. In February, we wrote about the Kimbell’s 5th century BC Greek cup by the Douris painter. After we noted the cup’s ownership history had been traced to Elie Borowski, a dealer who has been linked to the illicit trade in Classical antiquities, the Kimbell announced it would publish the cup on a registry of objects maintained by the Association of Art Museum Directors. The cup was never listed in the registry — likely because it was acquired prior to 2008, when the directors group began requiring suspect antiquities to be posted. (This leaves the question: where should suspect antiquities acquired before 2008 be posted publicly to encourage further provenance research? Museums should be publishing the complete known provenance of all their antiquities, but don’t. We’ve proposed our own answer.)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

met.hariharaWhile researching the Kimbell’s Harihara, we noticed that The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a similar Harihara, also linked to Prasat Andet, in 1977. We’ve asked the Met for the provenance of the statue, as none is listed on their website.

The Met also has several pieces from Latchford. The New York Times has previously noted that Cambodia will ask the museum to return its two prominently displayed Standing Attendants, which also came through Latchford from Koh Ker. As Paul Barford has noted, the knees of those statues bear clear signs of having been hacked from a base by looters. (The Met’s high resolution photos and zoom tool are quite useful here.) Screen Shot 2012-12-23 at 10.50.29 PM

David Gill has also noted that the statues came to the museum in fragments from different sources acquired over several years and were reassembled at the Met. Martin Lerner, the Met’s former Asian Art curator, noted the happy coincidence in the catalog: “It is particularly gratifying that the monumental bodies join up with heads already in the collection.” This appears similar to a pattern we’ve seen in objects passed through smuggling networks that dealt in Classical antiquities, the so-called “fragments game” identified by Italian investigators and noted by Gill here.

Gill has also helpfully identified several other Latchford donations at the Met:

1983_551_232391-1A 10th century Khmer Head of Buddha acquired in 1983 as a gift from Latchford. (1983.551)

A 12th century Bodhisattva from Nepal acquired in 1989 as a gift from Spink & Son Ltd. and Douglas A. J. Latchford.  (1989.237.1)

A bronze 9th century Bodhisattva Maitreya from Thailand acquired in 1989 as a gift from Spink & Son Ltd. and Douglas A. J. Latchford. (1989.237.2)

A 2nd century Ghandaran plaque from Pakistan acquired as  gift of Spink & Son Ltd. and Douglas A. J. Latchford in 1989. (1989.237.3)

DT5214The gifts suggest several things: Latchford was a generous donor to the Met over several years, and dealt not just in Khmer art but also material from South Asia. It would be worth perusing the Met’s 1994 catalog of Asian Art for other examples of material from South East Asia. For example, given the history of looting at Koh Ker, we were interested in how this gilt bronze statue of a king from Kor Ker (left) ended up in the collection Walter Annenberg before being acquired by the Met in 1988.

We’ll continue looking for Latchford objects in other museums. If you’ve got any tips, drop us at line at ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com

Dallas Museum of Art Returns Orpheus Mosaic, Five Other Looted Treasures in Announcing New Art Loans Initiative

Orpheus Mosaic

The Dallas Museum of Art has agreed to return six looted antiquities from its collection and announced a broad new initiative to exchange expertise and artwork with cultural institutions around the world.

“The problems of illegal excavation and the illicit import of cultural property require the consideration of new models of cooperation among institutions,” the museum said in a release announcing the initiative, dubbed the Dallas Museum of Art Exchange Program, or DMX.

The effort was announced Monday while signing an agreement with Turkey, the museum’s first partner, for the return of the Orpheus Mosaic, a Roman mosaic floor looted near Edessa (today’s Sanliurfa) and acquired at a Christies auction by the DMA in 1999.

Microsoft Word - Orpheus mosaic in situ.docxIn explaining the return, the museum cited compelling new evidence presented by Turkish investigators about the mosaic’s illicit origins: “Two newly recovered in situ photos of the mosaic showing it being removed by the smugglers. The photographs also show the full work with its decorative borders intact, prior to it being removed from the ground. The photographs were printed by a local photo shop in Sanliurfa and are currently evidence in a criminal investigation being carried out by the Sanliurfa Head Prosecutor in order to identify everyone involved in the crime.” The image shows the mosaic with a border that was likely removed by looters, the museum notes, adding, ” The canister visible in the lower right contains a Turkish brand of glue, which looters–not archaeologists–would have used to make repairs.”

Notably, the Dallas museum initiated the return of the mosaic instead of waiting for it to be identified by Turkish authorities, who have been on a campaign to repatriate looted antiquities. Soon after Maxwell Anderson started as director in January, he asked the museum’s antiquities curators to identify objects with troubling ownership histories. The mosaic was found to be nearly identical to several published on a website of Turkey of looted objects. Anderson told the Dallas Morning News:

the last thing he wanted was “to be the recipient of a claim by Turkey and be unprepared, seeing all of that evidence. So, I wrote to the embassy, saying if you have any information about this mosaic, please let us know. I didn’t have any specific information, but it seemed circumstantially that it was very likely that it was removed from that site.” Turkish officials came forward with the photograph of the mosaic, “which is all you need to know,” Anderson said.

In addition to the Orpheus mosaic, the Dallas museum agreed to return five antiquities to Italy in response to law enforcement requests. All five  Two of those objects were first questioned by us in a Jan. 11 email to the museum inquiring about links between the DMA and the illicit trade, including antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia. After our inquiry, the DMA contacted Italy and has now agreed to return them.

UPDATE: In February, we requested provenance information for 15 of the DMA’s recent acquisitions, including the five pieces returned this week, that we selected at random. They helpfully provided the list we posted here. We asked yesterday on Twitter whether other objects on that list might also be returned — several come from dealers who have also been implicated in the illicit trade. A museum spokeswoman now tells us: “Italian and Greek authorities have reviewed  our collections records, including the works you refer to in your recent post, and have advanced no other claims.” Of course, some of the material on the list, such as the Cycladic figurine, likely came from other countries.

The objects going back to Italy — and the DMA’s explanation for their return — offer a helpful who’s who of the illicit antiquities trade.

dma_507360

Two Etruscan shields with the head of Acheloos (Etruscan 6th Century BC)

Volute Krater (Pulian, 4th Century BC). 

As we noted in February, both were purchased from  antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagià in 1998.  The museum describes Almagià as “a former New York antiquities dealer…currently named in a criminal case for conspiracy to commit the illegal export and smuggling of cultural property pending before the Public Prosecutor of Rome. Almagià has been under investigation since at least 2006, when U.S. Customs officials raided his New York apartment, confiscating photographs, documents, and archaeological material. He was also the subject of a New York Times story in 2010 that revealed he and Michael Padgett, former antiquities curator at the Princeton University Art Museum, were the focus of an investigation of the illegal export and laundering of Italian archaeological objects. The Italian government named Almagià in the criminal case for having ‘sold, donated, or lent’ nearly two dozen works looted from Italian sites to the Princeton Museum. Roughly twenty other objects are listed in the case as having been obtained illegally by Almagià and sold to other American institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, including this pair of shields.” UPDATE: The DMA incorrectly referred to Padgett as the former antiquities curator at Princeton. The Princeton Museum confirms he remains on staff there, and the DMA has corrected is post.

dma_507363As evidence that the statue and krater were looted, the museum cited “photographs provided that were seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials” and “archival evidence seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, including records of sales and correspondence currently serving as evidence in the criminal investigation and court case.”

Dallas now joins the Met and Princeton in returning objects linked to the dealer. (We’ve written about those returns here and here.) Will the other museums we’ve identified with Almagia material — including the Getty, the Boston MFA, San Antonio Museum of Art, Indiana University — now be motivated to do the same?

dma_507366A Red Figure krater (Apulia, 4th Century BC) acquired by DMA at Sotheby’s in 1996.

A Calxy Krater (Campagnia, 4th Century BC) acquired from the vases form Ward and Co. around 2005, said to be from a “Swiss private collection.” 

Both vases have been linked to Gianfranco Becchina, who the museum describes as “a Sicilian antiquities dealer who has been convicted in Italy of dealing in stolen antiquities. Becchina started dealing in antiquities from his premises in Basel, Switzerland, in the 1970s and is said to have sold to several major museums, sometimes through Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in London. In May 2002, the Carabinieri, in collaboration with the Swiss police, raided his storage facilities in Basel, recovering thousands of objects in various stages of restorations, photographs of artifacts, and other documents.”

dma_507370“The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art have both returned material to Italy that was acquired from Becchina and subsequently shown to have been illegally exported.”

“In April 2012 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized two works from Christie’s New York auction house that were associated with the investigation of Becchina. According to the Carabinieri, Gianfranco Becchina has been identified as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage, and all property that has been shown to have been illicitly trafficked by Becchina is subject to confiscation.”

You can find a list of our previous posts mentioning Becchina here.

dma_507364Etruscan head of an Antefix. Said to be from Henri Jacques of Geneva. Purchased from Robin Symes in about 1999.

A photograph linked this antefix to Giacomo Medici, who the museum describes as “a former antiquities dealer based in Rome, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland, who was found guilty of receiving stolen goods, illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic by the Italian government and sentenced to ten years in prison and a €10 million fine. In 1995 the Carabinieri, in concert with Swiss police, raided Medici’s storage space in Geneva, which contained thousands of objects, photographs (including many Polaroids), and documents relating to his business practices and connections. The Cleveland Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art have all returned objects that were acquired via Giacomo Medici. Along with Gianfranco Becchina, he has been identified by the Carabinieri as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage.”

Robin Symes, the dealer form whom the DMA purchased the objects, has also been linked to the illicit trade, the museum notes. “Symes is also accused of playing a pivotal role in the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, have already returned several objects acquired through Symes. He is known to have commercial relations with dealer Giacomo Medici, who was the ultimate source of the artifacts that would subsequently be sold through dealers or auction houses. Prior to the Medici conviction, Robin Symes had been involved in a civil court case, and in January 2005 he was sentenced to two years in prison for contempt of court for not fully disclosing his assets.”

You can find our other posts mentioning Symes here.

We’ll have more on the significance of the returns and the DMA’s new loans initiative in a future post.