Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Frescoes torn from Paestum tomb walls found

Friday, November 27th, 2015

A group of five frescoes torn from the walls of a tomb in Paestum, southern Italy, have been found by the Carabinieri art theft squad. The frescoes date to around the 4th century B.C. and depict a warrior returning triumphant from battle on his horse followed by attendants, one of them driving a mule laden with spoils, and being greeted by the lady of the household and two of her servants. They originally adorned the tomb of a wealthy man of the indigenous southern Italian tribe of the Lucanians before looters got to them. Unfortunately, since the frescoes were brutally removed and smuggled into the netherworld of the antiquities trade, we don’t know which tomb they came from or anything about its contents that might give us more information about the tomb’s owner.

The slabs were discovered last May, 20 years after the seminal investigation that first alerted the art squad to their theft. Operation Geryon was launched by the Carabinieri in 1995 after the theft of eight Greek vases from a Castle of Melfi in south central Italy. A fatal accident ultimately broke the case, when dealer Pasquale Camera crashed his car and died. Highway police found Polaroids of what appeared to be freshly looted artifacts in Camera’s car. A subsequent search of his house which turned up hundreds more pictures and a paper trail a mile long which named names, leading to 70 more raids and the arrest of close to 20 people involved in the looted antiquities trade.

The frescoes were found locked in a bank in Campione d’Italia, a town in Lombardy just a few miles form the Swiss border, which is a shocking twist to the oft-told tale because usually the ill-gotten goods cross the border into Switzerland as soon as possible. The collector who was in illegal possession of them claimed he had no idea they were stolen. We’re to believe he saw five Lucanian fresco panels, each of them cracked and damaged in the same way across the middle, and didn’t realize those were the characteristic wounds left by smugglers when they broken the frescoes in half for easier illegal export.

The recovered paintings will be on display at the Historic Museum of the Carabinieri in Rome before moving to their permanent home at the Paestum Archaeological Museum on January 10th.

Paestum was a Greek colony founded around 600 B.C. 65 miles south of Naples on the southwestern coast of Italy. They called it Poseidonia after Poseidon, god of the sea. The Lucanians conquered the city in the late 5th century B.C. and renamed it Paistos. The name was Latinized to Paestum when the Romans took control in 273 B.C. after their final defeat of King Pyrrhus of Epirus whom the Lucanians had sided with against Rome.

The Lucanians left behind hundreds of richly decorated tombs in necropoli around Paestum. They are and have long been a prime target for tombaroli, the Italian term for the grave robbers who, through chains of increasingly well-connected and well-paid dealers, supply the international antiquities market with archaeological treasures that auction houses and museums can pretend come from “a Swiss private collection.”

Browse this Flickr album for a marvelous collection of photographs of Lucanian tomb frescoes from the Paestum Archaeological Museum. The ones with men reclining at a symposium and the last picture of the diver are from the Tomb of Diver and are Greek, not Lucanian. The painting of the diver is unique in its iconography and is the most famous artifact in the museum, so much so that the silhouette of the man diving is the museum’s logo. Wikimedia has a great many pictures of Lucanian tomb frescoes from the museum as well.


Totem pole looted by John Barrymore returns home

Monday, October 26th, 2015

In 1931, star of stage and screen John Barrymore sailed to Alaska aboard his new 120-foot yacht the Infanta. His purpose was to hunt Kodiak bear, but he took a different kind of trophy when he visited the village of Tuxecan on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska: a totem pole 25 feet high. Barrymore had the pole sawn down leaving just a stump behind, then had it sawn into three sections to make it easier to carry on the deck of his yacht. Once home, the actor installed the totem pole on the grounds of his Beverly Hills estate, Bella Vista.

Tuxecan had been abandoned 30 years earlier when a clan leader convinced the Tlingit tribe members who lived there to move south to the town of Klawock where there was a new school and the state’s first cannery. They left behind a forest of totem poles which the villagers occasionally returned to tend to, but over time began to tip over and decay, a process that the Tlingit held to be part of the natural lifecycle of kooteeyaa (totem poles).

Tlingit totem poles were carved from single trunks of Western red cedar and raised outside people’s homes. The animals from a clan’s crest were carved on the poles, but each one had a different combination of figures and a different meaning. They celebrated family history, could commemorate a person or event or broadcast a wrong done to the pole’s owner. Some were funerary monuments that included the ashes of the dead in bentwood boxes placed in niches in the back the pole. While the were not objects of religious veneration per se, they were and are held to be sacred.

The higher the pole, the more prestigious it was. The highest poles in Tuxecan reached 30 feet or so, which means the 25-footer Barrymore stole was a very important piece in its day. Its importance has only increased with the passage of time and the loss of almost all of the more than 100 totem poles that once graced Tuxecan. Only two other original totem poles survived, moved to Klawock along with the tribe at the turn of the last century.

The totem pole makes an ominous appearance in Gene Fowler’s biography of John Barrymore, Good Night, Sweet Prince. Barrymore was warned that removing the totem pole would bring him back luck, and Barrymore, who had an interest in diverse religious traditions, was somewhat concerned that the tribal gods “might take a notion into their whimsical noggins to wreak vengeance on the thief.” If they did, they used his preexisting alcohol addiction to get to him. John Barrymore died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1942.

The Barrymore estate was sold after his death, and the pole was bought by collector Ralph Altman. Altman sold it in the 1950s to actor, art historian and dedicated collector Vincent Price who had it installed next to his patio in his quarter-acre backyard in Benedict Canyon. Price loved it dearly, including photos of it in his books and showing it off to Edward R. Murrow in a 1958 episode of Person to Person. He described it in his memoirs as “sculptural and dignified and beautiful” with “its lovely warm browns and reds still glowing on the three great figures which compose its height. At the bottom a great bear-like creature, paws pleading; and on his head, a pale lean man who holds before him a gigantic fish which reaches from his shoulders to his toes; and on his head, hawk-nosed and savage, crouches a great bird, his tail behind him abristle with red feathers made of shingling.”

Price donated the totem pole to the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1981. The museum didn’t have space to exhibit the entire pole, so the top third was on display in the museum’s Kinau Courtyard while the rest was kept in climate-controlled storage. The top third joined its two brothers in storage 12 years ago when it was taken down during a renovation.

Meanwhile, University of Alaska Anchorage anthropology professor and Tlingit expert Steve Langdon stumbled on the totem pole in the 1990s while researching the Tlingit villages of Prince of Wales Island in a Ketchikan museum. He was looking through some old photographs when he came across a snapshot of Vincent Price standing in front of the totem pole. The cactuses indicated that this picture had not been taken in Alaska. Langdon consulted with Jonathan Rowan, a carver and cultural educator from Klawock, who helped him identify the pole in photographs of Tuxecan from the late 19th century.

Langdon, with the blessing of Tlingit leaders, visited the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2013 with his evidence in tow. Museum director Stephan Jost recognized that Langdon had the goods. A formal investigation by the museum determined that the totem pole was indeed an object of cultural patrimony and the official repatriation process began in January of this year. On Thursday, October 22nd, the kooteeyaa was formally returned to Tlingit tribal members including Jonathan Rowan and his daughter Eva in a ceremony at the Honolulu museum. This week it sails for Alaska.

Once home, the totem pole will be studied by Rowan and other experts in an attempt to identify which clan it originally belonged to and whether it was a mortuary monument. Altman told Price that it was, that the yacht crew members who cut it down “threw Mom and Dad in the creek” before sawing it in three. It will be difficult to determine whether it was a funerary piece because at some point during its California sojourn the back was back dug out to insert a pair of metal stabilizing rods and Barrymore had converted it into a fountain. Correcting Price’s understanding of the animals and identifying the crest is less daunting. Rowan believes from the photographs that the “bear-like creature” at the bottom may be a wolf, the “gigantic fish” is almost certainly a killer whale and the bird up top is an eagle.

If you’d like to learn more about the totem pole saga, Steve Langdon’s lecture at the University of Alaska Anchorage last year is on YouTube in two parts.


New clay tablet adds 20 lines to Epic of Gilgamesh

Monday, September 28th, 2015

A newly discovered clay tablet in the Sulaymaniah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has corrected the order of chapters, filled in blanks and added 20 lines to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Since the invasion of Iraq and subsequent orgy of looting, the museum has a matter of policy paid smugglers to keep artifacts from leaving the country, no questions asked. The tablet was acquired by the museum in late 2011 as part of a collection of 80-90 tablets sold by an unnamed shady character. Professor Farouk Al-Rawi examined the collection while the seller haggled with museum official Abdullah Hashim. When Al-Rawi he saw this tablet, he told Hashim to pay whatever the seller wanted: $800.

Even caked in mud the tablet’s importance was instantly recognizable to the expert. Once it was clean, Al-Rawi identified it as a fragment of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.
The tablet is the left half of a six-column tablet written in Neo-Babylonian. It’s composed of three fragments that have been glued together, oddly enough, probably either by the original excavators or the seller. It is 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) high, 9.5 cm (3.7 inchs) wide and three cm (1.2 inches) thick.

The tablet adds new verses to the story of how Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the forest demigod Humbaba. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, gets the idea to kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, home of the gods, in Tablet II. He thinks accomplishing such a feat of strength will gain him eternal fame. His wise companion (and former wild man) Enkidu tries to talk him out of it — Humbaba was set to his task by the god Enlil — but stubborn Gilgamesh won’t budge, so Enkidu agrees to go with him on this quest. Together they overpower the giant. When the defeated Humbaba begs for mercy, offering to serve Gilgamesh forever and give him every sacred tree in the forest, Gilgamesh is moved to pity, but Enkidu’s blood is up now and he exhorts his friend to go through with the original plan to kill the giant and get that eternal renown he craves. Gilgamesh cuts Humbaba’s head off and then cuts down the sacred forest. The companions return to Uruk with the trophy head and lots of aromatic timber.

The newly discovered tablet casts a new whole light on Humbaba and his forest home. From the absolutely fascinating paper about the find (pdf), which includes the entire text of the tablet both transliterated and translated into English, published by Farouk Al-Rawi and Andrew George of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies:

The most interesting addition to knowledge provided by the new source is the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest, one of the very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape. The cedars drip their aromatic sap in cascades (ll. 12–16), a trope that gains power from cedar incense’s position in Babylonia as a rare luxury imported from afar. The abundance of exotic and costly materials in fabulous lands is a common literary motif. Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that the Cedar Forest was, in the Babylonian literary imagination, a dense jungle inhabited by exotic and noisy fauna (17–26). The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Ḫumbaba. The passage gives a context for the simile “like musicians” that occurs in very broken context in the Hittite version’s description of Gilgameš and Enkidu’s arrival at the Cedar Forest. Ḫumbaba’s jungle orchestra evokes those images found in ancient Near Eastern art, of animals playing musical instruments. Ḫumbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre and but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings, but music of a more exotic kind, played by a band of equally exotic musicians.

The aftermath of the heroes’ slaying of Ḫumbaba is now better preserved (300–308). The previously available text made it clear that Gilgameš and Enkidu knew, even before they killed Ḫumbaba, that what they were doing would anger the cosmic forces that governed the world, chiefly the god Enlil. Their reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience, when Enkidu remarks ruefully that [ana] tušār ništakan qišta, “we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland’ (303). The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret. Enkidu goes on to imagine the angry questions that Enlil will ask them when they arrive home: minû uzzakunūma taraḫḫisā qišta, “what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?” (306). In the theme of the angry gods, the poems about Ḫumbaba in both Sumerian and Akkadian already displayed an ethical ambivalence toward the expedition to his Cedar Forest, arising from what one commentator has called the “double nature” of the forest’s guardian as ogre and servant of Enlil (Forsyth 1981: 21). This newly recovered speech of Enkidu adds to the impression that, to the poets’ minds, the destruction of Ḫumbaba and his trees was morally wrong.

Here is a video of Hazha Jalal, curator of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, displaying the tablet and talking about it in Kurdish. Translation below courtesy of neurologist and Mesopotamian history buff Dr. Osama S. M. Amin.

“The tablet dates back to the Neo-Bablyonian period, 2000-1500 BCE. It is a part of tablet V of the epic. It was acquired by the Museum in the year 2011 and that Dr. Farouk Al-Raw transliterated it. It was written as a poem and many new things this version has added, for example Gilgamesh and his friend met a monkey. We are honored to house this tablet and any one can visit the Museum during its opening hours from 8:30 morning to noon. The entry is free for you and your guests. Thank you.”


Olmec relief looted 45 years ago found in France

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

An Olmec relief chiselled off a rock face in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in the early 70s has surfaced in France and was officially returned to Mexico in a ceremony at the Mexican Embassy in Paris.

The relief was discovered at the archaeological site of Xoc and dates to between 1,150 and 900 B.C. It’s 220 centimeters (7’2″) high, 115 cm (3’9″) wide and about 30 cm (one foot) deep. It depicts a man in profile, except for the chest an arms which face front. He has some characteristic Olmec features — thick legs, no neck, small feet, a very high headdress with a crossed band decoration — and some that are very rarely seen in Olmec art, like the round earplug with a curved tassel hanging from it and the sharp talons on his feet. He is clad in breechcloth tied by a large square element. He carries a baton or a knife in his right hand and a bundle in the crook of his right arm that is likely maize.

It was first discovered in the 1920s, but its remote location and the sparsity of information kept people from exploring it any detail. A few archaeologists saw it, like B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which 20 years later would become an iconic Oscar-winning movie by John Houston starring Humphrey Bogart, who photographed it in the 20s. Thirty years later the relief was photographed by Wolfgang Cordan, a German-born poet, fighter in the Dutch resistance against Nazi occupation and anthropologist who roamed the ancient sites of Chiapas in the 1950s and together with William Brito Sansores devised the (now largely discredited) Mérida System of deciphering Maya hieroglyphics. Cordan published the picture in a 1964 book about his Mexican travels, but was deliberately vague on its location.

Because very few traces of an Olmec presence have been found in the hot, humid jungles of the eastern highlands of Chiapas and all of the previous finds were small, portable artifacts, the relief was of great archaeological significance. In 1968 Susanna Ekholm-Miller of the New World Archaeological Foundation undertook to locate the relief in Cordan’s picture. She found a reference in a 1957 survey narrowing down the Xoc site to somewhere between the towns of La Martinica and El Porvenir. She took a puddle jumper to the El Porvenir landing strip and quickly discovered that the locals knew about the site and the relief. An hour-and-a-half horseback ride later, she was standing in front of the rock carving.

Ekholm-Miller’s expedition was a brief one. Her field director approved a two-day trip, so she had less than two days to clean, photograph and map the site before flying back out. In July of 1972, she got approval for a second, longer trip with a larger team. The elements conspired to make it a much harder and longer slog this time giving them only a day and a half to work on the site. When they arrived, they found to their horror that the relief had been looted.

From her 1973 paper on the find, The Olmec Rock Carving at Xoc, Chiapas, Mexico:

[I]t is impossible to describe the shock and anger we felt when we approached the nearby rock face where previously Eduardo Martinez and I had viewed the magnificent Olmec figure. The carving was no longer there. It had been brutally and completely removed. Apparently it was chiselled off the rock face, probably piece by piece. At least a 30 cm-thick layer of the surface had been removed; a huge pile of fragments of the stone lay at its base, though we could find none that bore any definite carving. We assume that the carved surface is on its way to the antiquities market, undoubtedly in many pieces, as the rock had fissures in it besides being of a limestone which fractures easily.

In the hope that the unique and priceless artifact might someday be found again, Ekholm-Miller published all her photographs of the relief. They were used to make copies for scholars to study. Though her paper was widely disseminated and the lost relief was very famous among pre-Columbian experts, neither hide nor hair of it was seen or even heard of in the past 45 years.

Now that the relief has been recovered, we know that it was cut into four pieces for transportation. When it arrived in France is unknown, but it was soon after the theft. The previous “owners” inherited it and had no idea what it was or where it came from. They contacted pre-Columbian art expert Jacques Blazy and Drouot auctioneer Jean-Claude Binoche to have it appraised. Even stashed in a dark basement, cut into four pieces and filthy, the relief was immediately recognized by the experts, thanks to Ekholm-Miller’s work. They told the family that the piece could not be legally sold.

Blazy and Binoche took the relief to a conservator to have it cleaned and then had it authenticated by preeminent archaeologist Dominique Michelet. One the authenticity of the piece was confirmed, they contacted the Mexican Embassy and arranged for the formal repatriation ceremony.


Retired electrician found guilty of holding stolen Picassos

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Retired electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle have been convicted of possessing stolen goods, namely 271 drawings, collages and paintings by Pablo Picasso. The trove of previously unknown works came to light in September of 2010 when Pierre Le Guennec carried a suitcase full of them to the Picasso Administration to have them authenticated. His story was that either Picasso himself or his wife Jacqueline gave the art to Pierre as a gift for having installed a security system and done some other work around the Côte d’Azur estate.

Picasso’s son Claude found this account unbelievable because while the artist was generous with his prolific work, he routinely signed and dated a piece before giving it to someone. There was certainly no precedent for Picasso handing over hundreds of random, unsigned pieces at one time. Claude pressed charges against the Le Guennecs for receipt of stolen goods.

Pierre and Danielle gave different accounts of how they had acquired this multi-million dollar treasure.

[On the stand Pierre] recalled that one day, in a corridor, Jacqueline Picasso had handed him a closed box containing the works, saying: “Here, it’s for you. Take it home.” He said: “Thank you, madame” and they never discussed it again. During the inquiry, Danielle Le Guennec had separately recalled a different version: that her husband came home with a stuffed rubbish bag, and told her Picasso had given the works to him when tidying his studio.

Both stories strained credulity, as far as the Picasso heirs were concerned, and no clear answers were forthcoming in court. They do suspect that third parties may be involved.

The Picasso heirs’ lawyer had suggested in court that the couple might have been manipulated by an art smuggling ring. Pierre Le Guennec had claimed that, despite knowing nothing about art, he had personally used books about Picasso to draw up an inventory that was found with the cache of 180 lithographs, collages and paintings and 91 drawings. But in court, lawyers cast doubt over whether he wrote the inventory himself. It contained a note about a similarity to a Picasso work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But in court, Pierre Le Guennec seemed not to have ever heard of MoMA.

The couple are in the 70s now and won’t be going to jail. They were given a two-year suspended sentence and the collection will be returned to Picasso’s heirs. The court made no determination as to who was responsible for the theft.


Khaled al-Asaad. Archaeologist. Hero.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

I haven’t posted about the nightmare of IS’ systematic destruction and looting for profit of antiquities in territories under their control because it’s so horrifying I can barely stand to read the headlines, never mind do the additional research necessary for a post. Every new outrage is covered in excruciating detail by press outlets everywhere anyway, so I thought this blog might provide a little respite from the onslaught instead of adding to it. Today’s news requires that I make an exception.

Khaled al-Asaad, archaeologist, author and longtime director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra, Syria, was murdered by Islamic State fanatics yesterday. He was 82 years old. He was beheaded in front of an assembled crowd near the ancient ruins he spent his life studying and protecting. His body was then reportedly strung up on one of the Roman columns in Palmyra that he had helped restore with a placard listing his “crimes,” namely apostasy, loyalty to and regular communication with the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, representing Syria at conferences with “infidels” and being the director of Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” There are photographs that purport to be of his bloodied, decapitated body in other locations around the city as well.

While IS militants like to film themselves destroying archaeological sites and artifacts for propaganda purposes, the vast majority of their offenses against history are the same as any other criminal organization’s: the looting and sale of antiquities on the black market. They’ll sledgehammer a few statues in a museum on camera to make it look like they’re principled religious fanatics bringing down idols, but filthy lucre wins over so-called principles any day.

Asaad was involved in the transfer of the museum’s portable antiquities — the artifacts IS likes to steal to fund their wars — to comparative safety in Damascus. Before his death, he was held by militants who had heard some absurd rumor that ancient gold artifacts had been buried in the ruins instead of being shipped out with everything else. They interrogated him for over a month, by what atrocious means we do not know, but he refused to speak.

From a statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova:

“They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” the Director-General said. “Here is where he dedicated his life, revealing Palmyra’s precious history and interpreting it so that we could learn from this great city that was a crossroads of the ancient world. His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.”

A former colleague of his, Amr al-Azm, told The Guardian:

“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad. It’s like you can’t talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter.”

The Guardian also has a lovely article written by Jonathan Tubb, Assistant Keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East Department and a good friend of Asaad’s that testifies to his warmth, generosity and passion for the history of his native city.

When I was a kid, the notion of the archaeologist hero was defined by Indiana Jones, the swashbuckling adventurer saving treasures from Nazis and heart-extracting cult leaders. But Indiana Jones is fiction and if he weren’t he’d be a looter. A man who spends half a century dedicated to the study of his beautiful city’s rich history, excavating its ancient glories and sharing them with the world in museums and books; a man who, when the storm of violence approaches, works assiduously to hide those priceless artifacts from the monsters who would destroy them or disperse them into the hands of greedy, amoral collectors around the world; a man who then refuses to leave the city even though he knows he will almost certainly be a target of said monsters; a man who, at 82 years of age, sustains a month of God knows what kind of interrogation methods without breaking; a man who gives his life for love of history. That man is the hero.


30 euro “art craft” is $15 million Picasso

Monday, August 17th, 2015

A package described on the shipping label as an “art craft” worth 30 euros ($37) turns out to have been a stolen Picasso worth $15 million. The package was sent to the US from Belgium last December and was opened by customs agents at the Port of Newark who were acting on a lead. The sender’s name was listed only as “Robert” and the destination address was a climate-controlled warehouse in Queens. Because the statements on the label and the commercial invoice describing it as an “art craft/toy” were false, the painting was seized. Authorities have made no comment on any current investigation of the theft and attempted smuggling, who the “Robert” in Belgium might be, who the recipient in the United States was meant to be.

On January 30th, experts authenticated the work as La Coiffeusse (The Hairdresser), an early cubist piece painted by Picasso in 1911. It was once owned by art historian and hero of two world wars Georges Salles who bequeathed it to the National Museums of France after his death in 1966. Salles’ mother was Claire Eiffel, daughter of engineer Gustave Eiffel of tower fame, so from a young age he was traveled in high cultural circles. He studied literature and law and school and immersed himself in the rich artistic world of pre-war Paris. He fought for France in World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre twice. After the war he become the Louvre’s curator of Asian Art. He was the director of the Guimet Museum in Paris when World War II broke out. Again he fought for his country, this time in the French Resistance, and was instrumental in keeping the irreplaceable artistic patrimony of France’s museums out of Nazi hands. His efforts won him yet another Croix de Guerre.

Salles was a close friend of Picasso’s. There are four drawings of Salles by Picasso in the National Museums bequest, and it was Salles who persuaded Picasso to directly donate several major works to the National Museums. After Salles’ death, his Picassos were assigned to the Musée National d’Art Moderne in the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, among them La Coiffeusse. The painting was not on display when it disappeared. The last time it was exhibited was at the Kunsthalle Munich in 1998 after which it returned to the Pompidou Center where it was kept in storage. Only when another institution inquired about a possible loan of the piece in 2001 did museum personnel realize that it was gone. The museum reported the theft to the police in November, 2001, and the work has been listed on Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database since then.

Once the authenticity of the painting and was confirmed, Loretta Lynch, then US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and now Attorney General, filed a civil forfeiture complaint which allows the government to gain legal title to a forfeited good and, in this case, to return it to its rightful owner. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah R. Saldaña officially handed over the painting to Frédéric Doré, Deputy Chief of Mission of France at a ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., on August 13th.

While the museum is keen to kill the fatted calf and display its prodigal daughter as soon as she gets home, La Coiffeusse is going to need some recovery time. In the (at least) 14 years since the theft, the painting has significantly deteriorated. Apparently the thieves and whoever else has put their hands on it over the course of a decade and a half treated it like the 30 euro handicraft they claimed it was. It will require extensive conservation before it can be exhibited.


Head of F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu, stolen

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

The head of pioneering German film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau has been stolen from his grave in the historic Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery outside Berlin. The theft was discovered Monday by cemetery manager Olaf Ihlefeldt who found Murnau’s iron coffin had been broken into and his skull removed. Authorities aren’t certain when exactly the theft took place, sometime between July 4th and July 12th.

F.W. Murnau, one of the early cinematic masters who brought the sharp shadows and distortions of German Expressionism to film, died in 1931 at the age of 42 from injuries sustained in a car wreck near Santa Barbara, California. His embalmed body was returned to Germany and interred in a crypt in the bucolic forested splendor of the Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf. When they died years later, his two brothers Bernhard and Robert were laid to rest with him in the tomb. His brother’s coffins were not tampered with, so it seems this could have been a targeted theft rather than a random desecration. Someone wanted F.W. Murnau’s head.

Authorities found a candle inside the tomb. Murnau is most famous today as the director of cinematic masterpieces with occult themes — 1922′s Nosferatu vampires and 1926′s Faust Satan — so candles may have been part of some sad wanna-be ritual, or it may just have been used to cast some appropriately atmospheric light for a selfie.

Unfortunately this is not the first time the grave has been interfered with, although it is the first time any remains were stolen. The coffin was first damaged in the 1970s and there was another break-in as recently as February of this year. The cemetery is now considering walling in the burial chamber or separating F.W. Murnau’s remains from his family’s and burying them.

If you haven’t seen Nosferatu, or even if you have but it was some creaky old print, you must watch the version that was beautifully restored in 2006. They used a French tinted print as the basis then pulled in missing elements from other rare survivals. Even the score is a recreation of Hans Erdmann’s original, which is particularly meaningful because Nosferatu was one of the first feature films to have an original score.

It’s a miracle that we have any version of Nosferatu to enjoy. Bram Stoker’s widow Florence, her husband’s literary executor, sued Murnau and the production company for copyright infringement demanding full compensation and, brutally, the destruction of the movie which she never watched. Florence won. In 1925 the court ruled that the original negative and all existing prints of the movie were to be burned. It’s hard to put the movie genie back into the lamp three years after its premiere, however, even back when distribution wasn’t instantly global like it is now. Some prints survived the conflagration and began cropping up in theaters and private showings in the late 1920s.


The great find and great loss of Childeric’s treasure

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Childeric I was the king of the Salian Franks from 457 until his death in 481/2 A.D., and the father of Clovis I, the man who would unite the Frankish tribes under his rulership and become the first of the Merovingian kings of France. Childeric established a capital at Tournai on lands he had received as a foederatus (a military ally who received money and lands in exchange for fighting for Rome) in what was then the province of Belgica Secunda.

Clovis moved the capital to Paris and over time the location of his father’s tomb was lost. It was rediscovered on May 27th, 1653, by one Adrien Quinquin who was doing some work on the church of Saint-Brice when his shovel suddenly turned up a cache of gold coins. Further excavation revealed a tomb full of treasures, among them a throwing axe, a spear, a long sword called a spatha and a short scramasax with scabbard, both richly ornamented with gold and garnet cloisonné, a solid gold torc bracelet, part of an iron horseshoe with nails still in it, belt and shoe buckles and horse harness fittings also decorated in cloisonné gold and garnets, a leather purse containing more than a hundred gold and silver coins, the most recent bearing the image of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (474-491 A.D.), a gold bull’s head with a solar disc on its forehead, a crystal ball and a gold signet ring.

The signet ring was the proverbial smoking gun that identified the tomb as Childeric’s. It’s a heavy gold ring 27mm (one inch) in diameter (Childeric had some large fingers). On top is an oval bezel bearing the effigy of a beardless man with long hair parted in the center. He wears a paludamentum (a draped cloak fastened at one shoulder worn by Roman military leaders and emperors in statuary and on coinage) and holds a spear in his right hand. Around the head is the inscription CHILDERICI REGIS (Childeric King).

More than 300 golden bees with red glass wings were also found that are thought to have adorned Childeric’s ceremonial cloak. Centuries later, when Napoleon Bonaparte was about to be crowned Emperor of the French, he turned to the most ancient French monarch for iconography that would connect him to royal history while bypassing the still-loathed Bourbons and their fleur-de-lys. Napoleon adopted Childeric’s heraldry as his own. His coronation robe was embroidered with 300 gold bees and bees became the symbol of the new French Empire.

When Childeric’s treasure was discovered, Tournai was part of the Spanish Netherlands, governed by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, younger brother of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. The bulk of Childeric’s grave goods (there was much pilfering, apparently, during the dig) went to the Archduke who had the great good sense to order his physician Jean-Jacques Chifflet to document every piece thoroughly. Chifflet’s meticulous study, complete with extremely detailed engravings of the artifacts, was published in 1655 as Anastasis Childerici I. Francorvm Regis, sive Thesavrvs Sepvlchralis Tornaci Neruiorum (The Resurrection of Childeric the First, King of the Franks, or the Funerary Treasure of Tournai of the Nervians). Dependant on ancient sources and comparisons with other artifacts, Chifflet made some errors and misidentified some of the pieces, but his careful recording of every object is today considered the first scientific archaeological publication before there was such a thing as archaeological science.

Archduke Leopold brought Childeric’s treasure with him to Vienna when he left the Spanish Netherlands in 1656. Upon his death in 1662, he bequeathed his extensive gallery of art and artifacts, including Childeric’s grave goods, to his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. In 1665, Leopold I gifted the Childeric treasure to King Louis XIV in gratitude for his military aid against the Ottoman Empire in Hungary the year before. Louis, reportedly unimpressed by the 5th century version of luxury goods, had them stored in his Cabinet of Medals in the Louvre palace. After the French Revolution, Childeric’s treasure became part of the Cabinet of Medals of the Imperial Library, later the Royal Library, now the National Library.

During the night of November 5th 1831, thieves broke into the Cabinet of Medals of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and stole more than 2,000 gold objects for a total weight of 80 kilos, including all of Childeric’s treasure. Accounts of what happened afterwards differ because many of the records were destroyed during the Paris Commune of 1871. Either a couple of suspects were arrested within a few days of the theft and refused to talk leaving the police to search for the treasures for 8 months, or the police searched 8 months before finding the culprits and what was left of the treasure. Whichever way it went, the theft was a huge scandal and the police were under great pressure to come up with results. They even enlisted the aid of the legendary Eugène-François Vidocq, head of the Sûreté, Paris’ first-of-its-kind plainclothes detective bureau that he had founded in 1812. Vidocq had quit in 1827 but was reappointed head of the Sûreté in early 1832 and he and his team were on the Childeric case.

(They were on a lot of other cases at the same time, like ruthlessly suppressing the June Rebellion in Paris after the death from cholera of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was set against the backdrop of this rebellion and Vidocq was the inspiration for Javert. He was the inspiration for Valjean as well, believe it or not, because he had been a criminal in his youth, done hard labour in the galleys of Brest, escaped, been caught, escaped again, got caught again, did more time before finally turning his particular set of skills to the aid of law enforcement by becoming an informant. He parlayed that into undercover detective work. Under him, the Sûreté was staffed by convicts operating under the it-takes-one-to-know-one premise. It was highly effective. Crime rates in Paris dropped 40% after the Sûreté began doing its thing. Vidocq was also the inspiration for the character of C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the first detective story.)

Anyway, eight months after the theft, the police busted a gang of thieves and found 20 ingots of gold in their hideout. Upon interrogation the thieves admitted they had melted down the pure gold objects into ingots while those with inlaid stones or that were harder to melt down for whatever reason were put in sacs of leather and immersed in the Seine either at the Pont Marie or the Pont de la Tournelle. (The bridges are in the same spot on the Seine. The Pont Marie connects the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank; the Pont de la Tournelle is its mirror, connecting the island to the Left Bank.) When the police dragged the river, they found eight bags holding around 1,500 pieces of the 2,000 stolen, 75 of the 80 kilos. Added to the ingot weight, the recovered objects were determined to be the entirety of the burgled treasure and the case was closed. In January of 1833, three of the thieves were convicted of the crime. One was sentenced to 40 years in prison, one to 20 years, one to 10.

Devastatingly, Childeric’s treasure was almost entirely lost. Authorities recovered two coins, two bees and the gold and garnet cloisonné fittings from Childeric’s sword and scramasax. The signet ring was gone, only surviving as reproductions made by the Habsburgs and in imprints taken of the seal. Chifflet’s recorded data and illustrations are virtually all that remains of this historic treasure

One of the recovered artifacts from the 1831 theft at the Bibliothèque Nationale is actually in the United States right now. The Rennes patera, an early 3rd century Roman shallow libation bowl made of no less than three pounds of very pure solid 23-carat gold, somehow survived being melted down in the thieves’ initial orgy of ingot production. It was loaned by National Library to the Getty Villa in Malibu for the Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibition and will be in California through August 17th before returning to Paris.


Plunderer of Swedish Churches arrested, plunder returned

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Spanish police have arrested an infamous cultural heritage thief known as “el expoliador de iglesias suecas,” or “the plunderer of Swedish churches.” The 63-year-old Spanish man was arrested last month at his home in Tenerife, Canary Islands, where police found 46 artifacts stolen from Swedish churches and museums. Twelve of those pieces — 11 carved wooden statuettes and one wood chest — have now officially been returned to the Swedish embassy in Madrid.

The bust was a joint operation of the Spanish National Police, Swedish police, German police and Danish authorities. The Spaniard was a target of the Swedish police first who suspected him of being responsible for a rash of thefts from churches and small museums in Sweden over the past two years. He had already been convicted of similar property crimes in Sweden and served a five-year prison sentence, so when stuff started to go missing again, the police zeroed in on him. Swedish authorities alerted the Spanish police and they investigated the case together.

In May, the Spanish National Police searched the suspect’s Tenerife home and found 43 objects including candlesticks, metal and wood vessels, four carved wooden figures from the 15th century, a 15th century wood chest, an 18th century bible and an oil painting of canvas of unknown age but significant cultural interest. Another four carved figures part of a matched set with the four found in the home were recovered after being sold at auction in Madrid.

Then the investigation found that the suspect had a storage unit or warehouse in Denmark. The Swedish police and judicial authorities contacted the Danish authorities to discover the location of the warehouse and any records they might have of it. Danish police found two storage units connected to the suspected. Searches of both locations and found more carvings and religious objects stolen from Sweden. Based on information from the material recovered in Denmark, the Spanish police returned to the man’s Tenerife home and searched it again, finding three more carved wooden figures of the Holy Family that were part of a 15th century altarpiece.

The 12 objects returned were the eight 15th century wooden statuettes, the three carvings from the 15th century altarpiece and the 15th century wooden chest. Presumably the rest of the plunder will be returned as well, perhaps after they’re used in court against the plunderer. Meanwhile, Sweden is delighted to have halted the remorseless advance of the Plunderer of Swedish Churches and to have gotten their religious treasures back. They may look a little rough-hewn, but they’re historically and culturally significant. Sweden’s ambassador to Spain, Cecilia Julin:

“I think people will be celebrating in some parts of central Sweden. It is a fantastic story. Sometimes justice is done,” she said.

“It is not possible to put a price on the items.”





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