Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Guercino masterpiece stolen from Modena church

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

A 17th century Baroque masterpiece by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known by his nickname Guercino, has been stolen from the Church of San Vincenzo in the historic center of Modena. The painting, Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus, was painted by the master in 1639 and has been in the church ever since. An allied bomb struck San Vincenzo on May 13th, 1944, destroying the presbytery and the choir and its late 17th century frescoes, but the Guercino survived. Let’s hope it can survive human greed.

The painting was not insured because “church cannot afford to insure every painting in its possession,” as San Vincenzo’s priest Father Gianni Gherardi put it, and as callous as that sounds, the truth is that practically every church in Italy is stuffed to the gills with masterpieces. It would be prohibitively expensive, even if private insurers could be secured, to cover everything. The alarm system installed with funding from the Modena Savings Bank Foundation a decade or so ago was turned off because “it was too expensive to keep up,” which I presume refers to the monthly bill.

San Vincenzo is not a parish church so it doesn’t stay open all week. The doors are opened every Sunday for mass and locked after the service is over. The thieves made their way inside, stole the painting and got out without leaving a trace. There is no sign of forced entry on the church door. The priest only realized something was wrong because the door was open.

Police believe at least three men were involved in the theft because the piece is so big and heavy, especially still inside the frame, that it one or two people wouldn’t be able to move it. They probably got in during mass on Sunday, August 10th, and hid until they could do their dirty deed under cover of night. They must have had transportation, most likely a van.

Not that insurance would be much consolation. The painting is invaluable and irreplaceable. It could be worth something like $8 million if we hypothetically considered a market value and if it were actually salable, but of course it’s not. It’s hugely famous and at nine and a half feet high and six feet wide, it’s impossibly conspicuous. Authorities are concerned that the thieves might cut it up into individual figures in the attempt to sell it, but they went through a lot of trouble to keep it whole. That’s why the current preferred theory is that it was a theft commissioned by a Bond-villainesque collector. That’s the go-to preferred theory, but time and time again we’ve seen thieves steal something first and only think of disposal once the object is burning a hole in their pockets. Then they bumble around for years trying to unload their ill-gotten gain in the most ridiculous ways, often to undercover cops.

The Carabinieri’s Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities) are in charge of the investigation. They’re looking through phone records and security camera footage from along the street. There are no cameras pointed at the church, but a van large enough to contain the painting should have been captured by other cameras.

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Hiker falls onto monolith, saves it from looters

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014


A tourist hiking in the foothills of a waterfall in Mexico two weeks ago fell from a branch onto a Mesoamerican monolith that was in the process of being carved out of the stone by looters. You’d think looters would be deterred by the weight of the stone — an estimated 10 tons — and its size — five feet wide, five feet high and almost seven feet deep — but no; they just started cutting the carving out of it, removing the porous red volcanic cantera stone around the figure which is about a foot and a half wide and two and a half feet high. Given enough time they would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that pesky hiker falling out of a tree.

The tourist reported the find to the authorities in the nearby city of Calvillo in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes who in turn called in regional experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Archaeologists examined the monolith and discovered it’s a unique piece of major historical import in the region. Carved in the image of a man with a headdress and earrings, its location near a waterfall and spring suggests a connection to a deity.

The figure shows a strong influence of Teotihuacan style from between 200 to 600 A.D. The urban center of Teotihuacan was 350 miles southeast of Calvillo, but its cultural sphere of influence was vast. Before now, however, archaeologists thought the local culture was entirely Chichimeca, nomadic hunter-gatherers of varied language and ethnicity, but no artifacts this old have been found in the state before. It significantly predates known Chichimeca settlements in the area.

In order to keep it safe from human depredation, experts will be completing the looters’ work. The 10-ton stone is simply too big and unwieldy to remove. It’s in the wilderness where there are no roads. It would require specialized equipment and a cargo helicopter to air lift it out of the jungle, and officials have neither the material nor the funding to make that happen. Instead, they’ve installed a shelter around the stone and will have a joint police and army surveillance team on site while archaeologists detach the carved figure from its rocky home. The operation is expected to take 15 days to a month.

Once it’s been removed, the carving will be kept at the INAH lab where archaeologists can study it fully. Its ultimate destination will be the Municipal Museum that is currently under construction in Calvillo.

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Committee recommends British Library return 15th c. Sienese panel

Monday, July 7th, 2014

The Spoliation Advisory Panel, a committee of the British Department for Culture, Media & Sport, has issued a report (pdf) recommending that the British Library return a 15th century painted wood panel to the descendants of its 1936 owners. It’s not so much a matter of law — the original owners’ title would have expired by 1948 at the latest and the British Library didn’t take possession of the piece until 1968 — but rather the “moral strength of the Claimants’ case” that underpins the recommendation.

The panel is a tempera on wood painting attributed to Guidoccio Cozzarelli that originally was used to cover ledgers and other financial records in the Biccherna, the Sienese treasury that managed all the city-state’s revenues and expenses. It depicts the entrance and the exit of public officers from the Biccherna in 1488. Underneath the cityscape are the coats of arms of the officials; underneath the coats of arms the officials’ names are listed.

The practice of covering the records of the Biccherna with painted panels began in the mid-13th century. They started off as simple designs — the camerlengo (the chamberlain or head treasury official) at his desk, the coats of arms of Biccherna officials — and became increasingly complex as the city grew in wealth and political prominence. They began to include historical scenes, current events and religious allegories, eventually growing beyond the constraints of the ledger cover into wood panel paintings commissioned from the area’s best artists that were hung on the treasury wall.

Although much of the vigour of the form was lost after Cosimo de’ Medici conquered Siena in 1555, Biccherne continued to be made into the 17th century. They began to be dispersed in the 18th century when local families claimed them as testaments to their lines’ histories and heraldry. The city’s archive of panels was plundered by Napoleon and shipped to Paris. They were sent back after the Bourbon Restoration (one cartload fell into the Rhône on the way), but some of them were sold off when they arrived. The city’s collection was gradually pieced back together starting in the 19th century. Today there are 105 Biccherne on display at the Siena State Archives.

The Biccherna panel now in the British Library was in a Jewish-owned Munich art gallery whose contents were forcibly sold at auction in June of 1936. The owners had been presented with an extortionate tax bill in 1935, a common Nazi practice which, coupled with banking restrictions and other fees and tariffs, ensured Jews would be stripped of all their property before they could leave the country. When, as expected, they couldn’t pay the bill, they were forced to sell their assets at absurdly low prices. In 1930 the Biccherna panel was priced at 15,000 Reichsmarks (about $3,500 dollars in 1930 because inflation in Germany was crazy; at 1936 rates it was worth nearly double). At the 1936 auction it sold for 2,800 Reichsmarks, the equivalent of about $1,100 at the more stable currency conversion rate.

There is no record of who bought it at the forced sale. The panel next appears at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1942. It was sold as part of the collection of Arthur Bendir and was purchased by Henry Davis, a collector of important book bindings. Davis donated it to the British Library in 1968 as part of a gift of 890 rare bindings. Its place in the Henry Davis Gift is one of the reasons the BL really wants to keep the panel. It wants to keep the collection intact and accessible to scholars.

The claimants submitted their case to the Spoliation Advisory Panel because the BL can only return an object of cultural heritage in its collection at the recommendation of the Panel and with the approval of Culture Minister. They want the Biccherna Panel back. The British Library hopes to negotiate payment in lieu of restitution. The Spoilation Panel is fine with that plan, but it’s the claimants that will make the final call. If they can’t agree to a compensation solution, then the BL will have to return the piece.

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Sheffield University returns looted tapestry to château

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

The University of Sheffield is returning an 18th century tapestry to the French château whence it was looted by Nazis during World War II. The University bought the 12-foot-high tapestry from an art dealer in 1959 for around £1,300, not realizing its ugly history, and put it on display in a meeting room in Firth Court which subsequently became known as The Tapestry Room. In 2013, they decided to sell the work. That’s when they found out that it was Nazi loot and began working with the Art Loss Register to trace its legitimate owner.

The tapestry was made around 1720 by the Beauvais Tapestry Manufacture, a privately owned workshop contracted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister of Louis XIV, for royal production in the second half of the 17th century. It depicts a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of a number of Beauvais tapestries to cover Ovid’s classic mythological tales.

This tapestry, along with two others still missing, was looted from the Château de Versainville in the northwestern province of Basse-Normandie in 1943 or 1944, at that time owned by the Comte Bernard de la Rochefoucauld. Bernard was the third son of the Comte Pierre de La Rochefoucauld, Duke of La Roche-Guyon. He was raised at Versainville and inherited the villa from his maternal grandmother in 1936. Dedicated to the management of his estate and deeply involved in the community, Bernard was mayor of the city of Versainville before the war. During the German occupation, he joined the Resistance and was part of the Prosper Network, a resistance network created and supported by the British Special Operations Executive. The Count was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in the summer of 1943 and interned at Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. He died there on June 4th, 1944, when he was just 43 years old. His wife was also arrested and interned, but she survived until liberation and went on to live a very long life, dying in 1999 three weeks shy of her 97th birthday.

After the war, the château was acquired by the Ford Motor Company for use as a summer camp for the children of its employees. It continued to be used as such until the late 1990s when it was sold to another car company, Peugeot Citroën. In 2002, the Château de Versainville was bought back for the family by the Comte Jacques de la Rochefoucauld, Bernard’s grand-nephew, who has worked hard to restore the property to its former splendor. The University of Sheffield’s return of one of the looted tapestries is a meaningful step towards this goal.

In response to the donation of the tapestry, Comte Jacques de la Rochefoucauld commented that: “I am delighted by this news and touched by the generosity of the University of Sheffield in making so kind a gesture. The example that the University has set is one which I hope others will follow in due course, and demonstrates their respect for those who have suffered in the past from the ravages of war. In the year marking the 70th anniversary of the death of Comte Bernard de la Rochefoucauld this donation brings us great happiness.”

Comte Jacques plans to put the tapestry on display at Versainville with a plaque detailing its vicissitudes, including the 50 years it spent at Sheffield.

This isn’t the La Rochefoucauld family’s only encounter with tapestry looting. They once owned some of the most famous tapestries in the world: the seven Unicorn Tapestries that are now the greatest stars of the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval art branch, The Cloisters. The series was made between 1495 and 1505 and first appeared in the 1728 inventory of the La Rouchefoucauld family seat the Chateau La Roche-Guyon in northern France, although they may not have been originally made for the family (another candidate for the original commissioner of the tapestries is the inimitable Anne of Brittany). They were looted during the French Revolution and used to cover potatoes. The La Rochefoucauld family eventually got the Unicorn Tapestries back in the 1880s only to sell them 40 years later to John D. Rockefeller. He donated them to the Met in 1938.

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Swedish city returns ancient textiles to Peru

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

Hummingbird tunic with fringe, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureAfter years of negotiations, the City of Gothenburg in southwestern Sweden has agreed to return its collection of 89 textiles from the Paracas peninsula to Peru. The 2,000-year-old textiles are in extremely fragile condition, so they will be repatriated in phases. The first four pieces arrive in Peru next week and will be unveiled on June 18th. The rest will be transported over the course of seven years until the whole collection is returned by 2021.

Julio C. TelloThese extraordinary embroidered textiles first came to archaeologists’ attention in the early 20th century when they began to appear in private collections. Their intensity of color, size, design and composition were unique, unlike any textiles from known Peruvian cultures. Realizing that the textiles had to have been looted from an unknown site, Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello hired professional looter Juan Quintana to guide him to the find spot in 1925. He led Tello to Paracas, a desert peninsula on the southern coast of Peru, where Tello’s team excavated the remains of a civilization that flourished from around 700 B.C. to the second century A.D. when it became assimilated into the Nazca culture.

Mantle with squares, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureThe people of the Paracas culture were able fishermen, farmers and craftspeople. They made obsidian tools, ceramics, hammered gold jewelry, basketry and most gloriously of all, complex and beautiful textiles. Made from the wool of camelids (llamas, alpacas and vicuñas) and cotton, the textiles were colored in more than 200 different bright shades using natural dyes. Every fabric was embroidered by hand with cactus thorn needles, and when you consider that textiles have been found that are 34 meters (112 feet) long, you can imagine what an incredibly labor-intensive process it was. Archaeologists believe it took years to produce a single such masterpiece.

Illustration of Paracas burial bundleCreating such intricate and large textiles was a collaborative effort, the work of many people working at once. The textiles had important religious significance and indicated a person’s status in the community. The most exceptional examples were discovered by Tello on October 1st, 1927, when he encountered a vast funerary complex he named the Wari Kayan necropolis. There 429 people were found buried wrapped in layer after layer of textiles. The dead were adorned in their most prized possessions — jewelry, clothes, headbands — and seated in fetal position in a basket. Grave goods, food and sacrificial objects were added, and then the entire basket was wrapped in layers of fine embroidered textiles with a rough cotton cloth on the outermost layer. That’s why the large textiles were needed, because by the time they got to the outer layers, the bundles got big, as much as five feet high and seven feet wide.

Killer whale turban, Paracas, 100 A.D. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureWhen Tello unearthed these marvels, they had been kept in pristine condition by the arid desert climate and the lack of oxygen and light in the underground burials. As soon as they were excavated, the textiles started to degrade. All the Paracas finds were sent to museums in Lima for study and conservation. In 1930, the dictatorship of Augusto B. Leguía was overthrown in a military coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro. The subsequent social and political upheaval and war with Colombia left the Paracas textiles vulnerable to depredation. Looting and smuggling increased dramatically.

Fish turban, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIt was during this chaos that 89 Paracas textiles found their way to Sweden. They were smuggled out of Peru in the early 1930s by Sven Karell, then the Swedish Consul General in Peru, who acquired them on the black market and shipped them back home into the appreciative arms of the Ethnographic Department of Gothenburg Museum. They went on display in November of 1932, but they were exposed to UV light, varying levels of heat and moisture, and repeated handling, all of which contributed to their decay.

Cat poncho, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIn 1939 the museum was renovated. To prepare for their new exhibition, the Paracas textiles were sewn onto linen or dyed cotton and framed in glass. In 1963 the textiles were mounted vertically onto panels that could be pulled out. This turned out to be a disaster, as the vibrations from the pulling out damaged the increasingly delicate pieces. Finally in 1970 the textiles were taken out of public view. The museum moved to a new building in 1992, by which time the textiles had been installed in custom-built display cases. Then the Paracas collection moved again in 2001, this time to the Museum of World Culture. Because the fibers were in such poor condition, the textiles were moved on air suspended truck.

Four-color tunic, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureThey remained out of view until 2008, when after careful analysis the textiles which were found to be able to withstand movement were put on display. They were laid out horizontally and transported the short distance from the archives to the Museum of World Culture in vibration-free cases. A crane lifted them into the gallery through a window. The exhibition ran for three years. When the textiles returned to the museum archives, there was more fiber damage even with nothing but the utmost of caution employed in their transportation and display.

Black robe figure mantle, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIt was that 2008 exhibition that spurred the repatriation talks. Not only did the museum not deny that the textiles had been smuggled by the Consul General, the exhibition was entitled A Stolen World and detailed the whole saga without flinching. It’s quite remarkable, really. I’ve never seen a museum so directly confront its complicity in the traffic in looted antiquities. Peruse the museum’s dedicated Paracas website to see how they handle the issue and to view some exquisite photographs of the collection.

Fish mantle, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIn December of 2009, Peru contacted the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally requesting the return of the purloined Paracas textiles. Since the museum had just opened an exhibition whose catalog included copies of the letters between Karell and the Gothenburg Museum officials overtly plotting the receipt of stolen goods, there was none of the usual nonsense about “good faith” and “anonymous Swiss collections.” Peru’s legal right was undisputed. The main question was whether the textiles could stand transportation across the globe when they could barely stand to be transported a mile or so from storage to the display galleries.

Calendar cloak detail, Paracas, 100 A.D. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureNow those issues have been dealt with as responsibly as possible, and the first four Paracas textiles are on their way home. One of them is a particularly exceptional example, a cloak about 104 by 53 centimeters made of squares with 32 different figures of animals, humans, plants and tools. Paracas textiles usually employ single motifs repeated over and over, so this tiled design is unique. Archaeologists believe it represents the movement of time, like a gorgeously embroidered Advent calendar. According to the felicitously named Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, Peru’s Vice Minister of Cultural Patrimony, the Paracas calendar textile is “the most important textile from Peru and one of the most important in the world.”

Paracas calendar cloak, 100 A.D. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World Culture

 

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Norton Simon Museum to return Bhima to Cambodia

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Almost exactly one year ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return a pair of 10th century statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Cambodian archaeological site of Koh Ker in the early 1970s. Seven months later, Sotheby’s, after two years of fractious negotiations and under pressure from the US Attorney, agreed to return a much larger 10th century statue of the warrior Duryodhana that was also looted from Koh Ker in the early 70s. Now, five months after that, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has agreed to return their own Koh Ker loot: a 500-pound sandstone statue of the hero Bhima, Duryodhana’s cousin and opponent in the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

The museum purchased Bhima in 1976 from New York art dealer William Wolff. It has been on display since then, labeled “Temple Wrestler.” Cambodia has had more than enough problems to deal with at home since the brutal civil war that claimed the statues of Koh Ker as victims, so it didn’t begin to pursue its stolen cultural patrimony until the past few years.

The museum has previously said that Cambodian representatives had seen the statue on display in California and had not raised any objections. In a statement on Tuesday the Norton Simon said it continues to have “a good-faith disagreement” with Cambodia over ownership of the Bhima, but after sending representatives to Phnom Penh in March to meet with government officials, it has “worked directly with Cambodia to come up with a mutually acceptable solution,” and agreed to give it back as a gift.

In 2007, the pedestals of the Kneeling Attendants and the feet of both Duryodhana and Bhima were discovered in the Prasat Chen temple of the Koh Ker complex by conservators from the German Apsara Conservation Project. Archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau of the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient (the French School of Asian Studies) made a study of the pedestals and feet, virtually matching them up to photographs of the statues. They fit like a glove, and indeed you can clearly see the chisel marks looters left on the ankles, knees and feet of these otherwise perfectly preserved 1000-year-old statues.

All four of these statues — the attendants, Bhima and Duryodhana — were part of a group that stood inside the western gopura, one of two monumental towers at opposite entrances to the Prasat Chen temple. The tableau depicted a famous scene from the Mahabharata wherein Bhima duels with Duryodhana under the watchful gaze of seven kneeling and seated attendants. Koh Ker, the new capital of the Khmer Empire under King Jayavarman IV, was founded in 928 A.D., and a whole new style of sculpture was conceived there. The statues of Bhima and Duryodhana were revolutionary for their time, the first freestanding, dynamic figures in Khmer art which had previously been characterized by bas reliefs and static pieces.

Here’s a wonderful computer recreation by the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient of the western gopura and its sculptures:

In an unusual, hell-freezes-over move, Christie’s has bought another one of the attendants from this statue group to return it to Cambodia. The auction house had sold it twice, once in 2000 and then again to an anonymous collector in 2009. Earlier this year, after an internal investigation of a five-year-old sale that apparently determined that the sculpture had been looted from Koh Ker decades earlier, Christie’s contacted the buyer and arranged to buy the statue back. Christie’s will now foot the bill to ship the piece to Cambodia.

That leaves two known statues Cambodian experts believe were looted from Koh Ker still in the United States, one at the Denver Art Museum and one at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Those museums are still in the denial phase right now, but last year so was the Met, the Norton Simon, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Now Christie’s is doing its own investigations and buying looted artifacts back from the buyers (who would ever have seen that coming?), so the arc of this particular history appears to be bending rather strongly towards justice.

[Cambodia's secretary of state] Mr. Chan Tani said that recovering all the statues from the Prasat Chen temple is a national priority. The goal is to reattach the statues to their pedestals, which were left behind by the looters, and place them all together in a special display area in the national museum.

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Stolen Rembrandt found after 15 years

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

Rembrandt has the dubious distinction of being the most stolen old master, with 337 works of his listed on the Art Loss Register‘s database of stolen or lost art. One of those works, L’enfant à la Bulle de Savon (Child with a Soap Bubble), has been recovered after 15 years.

The painting was stolen from the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Draguignan, a town about 50 miles from Nice in France’s southeastern Provence region, on Bastille Day (July 14th) of 1999. Burglars broke in through the municipal library adjoining the museum while a military parade of tanks and armoured vehicles rumbled by. The alarm went off, but by the time the police arrived, the thieves and Child with a Soap Bubble were gone.

The date of the theft is almost poetic when you consider that the museum’s extensive collection of art and antiquities was seeded primarily by confiscations from aristocrats during the French Revolution. It’s a small town, but in 1790 Draguignan was made the prefecture (administrative capital) of the department of Var, so many of the goodies confiscated in the area were collected there, ultimately giving the modest town a very impressive museum. The Rembrandt painting was confiscated in 1794 from the Château de Valbelle, a medieval castle near the town of Tourves (40 miles west of Draguignan) that was used by the Revolutionary government as a hospital in 1792 and was sacked for its treasures a year later leaving it in ruins today.

After nearly 15 years with no leads, the Central Office for the Fight against Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC) in conjunction with the Nice police found the painting and made two arrests in just one day. On Monday, March 17th, they received a tip that a shady deal was scheduled to go down in a hotel the next day. On Tuesday, March 18th, they arrested two men, one in a building (presumably the hotel), the other in a car. One of them had the painting in his possession.

The men are 46 and 53 years old. One was formerly an insurance salesman and both of them were already known to the authorities as petty criminals. They have both reportedly confessed to their roles in the crime and have been charged with concealing a theft and conspiracy.

They weren’t charged with the theft itself, however. In a shocking turn of events, the actual thief has now stepped forward. Perhaps fearing that he was about to be snitched upon, the man turned himself into the police Wednesday on the advice of his attorney.

“He wants to draw a line under the matter. He is ready to take responsibility for his actions,” said his lawyer Franck Dupouy. “He now has a settled family life, he has children and a job, and therefore wishes to conclude this matter.”

The man kept the painting at his home up until 15 days ago, Dupouy said, and had “wrapped it with great care”.

His client “never earned a single centime” from the sale of the painting. “He was cheated,” he said, without explaining further.

Cheated by Fric and Frac there 15 days ago? Because they didn’t earn a single centime either since they were busted trying to make the sale. Anyway, whatever he’s babbling about, he did take reasonable good care of the painting. The museum’s current curator Jeanine Bussièresa and her predecessor Régis Fabre who was curator at the time of the theft examined the painting to confirm it was the one stolen and they found it in good condition. It’s missing its frame, but other than that, it hasn’t suffered from spending a decade and a half wrapped up in this guy’s house.

The museum is delighted to have one of its most important paintings back, although there are questions about its attribution to Rembrandt. Since the painting’s disappearance in 1999, new technologies have developed to authenticate works. Now that he’s home safe and sound, Child with a Soap Bubble will be analyzed for conservation and to determine whether it was painted by the Dutch master himself or one of his students.

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Looter caught with Roman gold, silver hoard

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

An unnamed and unauthorized metal detectorist found a late Roman gold and silver hoard in the forest near Ruelzheim in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state and dug it up so he could sell it on the black market. The authorities are not releasing specifics on how this scofflaw was discovered hoarding an ancient hoard except to note that “the looter rendered up [the pieces] himself – but only under pressure from investigators.” That means they caught him first and persuaded him to surrender the loot. The police have reason to believe he may have already succeeded in selling some of the pieces overseas. They will continue to investigate the case, looking for missing artifacts. No announcement was made regarding whether the looter would be charged with any crimes.

By German law, all excavations for archaeological material must be authorized in advance by the government heritage authority. Different states have differing laws on the particulars. Some allow finders to keep half the value of a find, if not the find itself. The Rhineland-Palatinate is not one of them. Searching for ancient artifacts with a metal detector is a misdemeanor office. Removing any artifacts discovered without reporting them rises to the level of fraud, and selling them can result in a charge of receiving stolen property.

Certainly if monetary value plays a part in determining the severity of a property crime in Germany as it does in the US, this looter is going to be in big trouble. The hoard includes three dozen beautifully detailed solid gold brooches shaped like leaves even more gold square pyramids that archaeologists believe all once ornamented a ceremonial tunic of an important Roman official. There’s also a silver dish with the remains of gilding still visible that was cut into pieces, possibly to be used as hacksilver, a solid silver bowl with gold accents inset with semi-precious stones, a crumpled and folded highly decorated silver plate that may have been a chest cover. A set of silver and gold statuettes and pieces of fittings are the remarkable survivors of what was once a curule seat, a commander’s portable folding chair.

The hoard dates to the early part of the fifth century A.D., a time when Germanic tribes banged away at each other and at the weakening Roman Empire. The Battle of Mainz took place in 406 A.D. not far from where this treasure was buried and it was a watershed event in the collapse of Roman control of Europe. Pressured by Huns in the east, migrating allied tribes including Alans, Suevi and Vandals assembled on the east bank of the Rhine. The Franks sent a raiding party across the river and succeeded in killing the Vandal king Godigisel, but the Alans turned the tide and defeated the Franks. The tribes then crossed the Rhine into Gaul on December 31st, 406, breaching what had been for centuries one of Rome’s strongest boundaries and pillaging Mainz, Rheims, Amiens and Strasbourg among many other Roman cities. It marked the end of Roman political and military control in northern Gaul and ushered in the Migration Period.

It’s no wonder why someone might have sought to bury his most precious treasures under these circumstances. The jewels from ceremonial clothing, the elaborate silver and gold folding chair and the exquisite silver tableware all point to them having been the belongings of an important magistrate or even royalty. These were the highly recognizable attributes of Roman political authority. They were buried near a former Roman road, whether by its original owner of by marauders who wanted to keep it safe from competing marauders, in a relatively shallow hole. It’s a testament to how dangerous the roads were that nobody made it back to reclaim so vast a treasure.

The age and nature of this hoard makes it a unique find in Germany, worth at least a million euro on the market and worth far more than that in historical value. It would be worth inestimably more if it had been excavated with respect for its context. Instead, the looter pulled whatever he could out of the ground, having no care whatsoever for archaeological integrity. According to state archaeologist Axel von Berg, the curule chair, for example, was “brutally torn out of the earth and destroyed.” The site itself was deliberately damaged. Boy would I love to see this thief prosecuted just for doing that.

Meanwhile, some people are getting excited over the prospect that this could be part of the legendary Nibelung hoard, the Rhine gold that features in Norse and German sagas and Richard Wagner’s opera cycle based upon them. The evidence for this is nonexistent, of course. The fifth century dating and the location somewhere in the vague area where the Rhine may have once flowed but doesn’t any longer is all it took for the legend buzz to start.

The treasure will soon go on display in Mainz and Speyer.

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Freud’s cinerary urn smashed in attempted robbery

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Some despicable piece of human garbage broke into the Golders Green Columbarium in London and, in an apparent robbery attempt, smashed the antique Greek vase that held the ashes of Sigmund Freud and his wife Martha. This happened on New Year’s Eve. When the Golders Green staff arrived on New Year’s Day, they found pieces of the 4th century B.C. urn on the floor in front of the plinth. There are no further details on the damage done to vase or about the fate of the ashes it contained. I imagine cemetery officials are being circumspect out of consideration for the Freud family.

The urn was on public display in the columbarium along with the cinerary urns of many other luminaries, among them ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, author Enid Blyton, The Who drummer Keith Moon, actor Peter Sellers and Dracula author Bram Stoker. The room is open to visitors who wish to pay their respects. Or rather it was. Golders Green is understandably reviewing its security arrangements after this horror. The severely damaged vase has been removed to a safe place where experts can examine it and hopefully put it back together. These Greek vases are often found in pieces, either through natural processes or because looters deliberately smash them to make them easier to smuggle out of the country, so I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that conservators will be able to restore the urn.

The vase was very important to Sigmund Freud. He was an avid collector of antiquities, amassing by the time of his death a collection nearing 2,500 pieces of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Asian artifacts. He used them in his practice with patients and famously included the mythology in his psychiatric theories. The Freud Museum in Hampstead, London, his former home and study, has his antiques collection, and there are multiple Oedipus themed pieces — vases, sculptures, even a fresco fragment.

The urn which would hold his ashes was a gift from Princess Marie Bonaparte, the extremely wealthy great-grand niece of Napoleon and wife of Prince George of Greece and Denmark. She was a patient of Freud’s starting in the 20s and did her own research on female sexuality with a particular focus on clitoral orgasm. The princess gave her analyst many gifts over the years, including his famous rug-draped sofa, but the southern Italian krater decorated with images of Dionysus, Greek god of wine, ecstasy and madness, and a maenad, was one of his most prized possessions. For years it stood on the windowsill behind his desk in his study in Vienna.

It was in significant part thanks to the financing and influence of Marie Bonaparte that Freud was able to get himself, his wife, his daughter and his antiquities out of Vienna in 1938. The Nazis hated Freud (his books were some of their favorites to burn), but the Nazi Kommissar in charge of his application to leave, Anton Sauerwald, had respect for Freud as a scholar, so he helped the family escape. He hid evidence of their foreign bank accounts to give them a chance to raise the extortionate “flight tax” but with his money out of reach to Freud, it was Marie who stepped in to pay the ransom. The family made it out of Austria on June 4th, 1938, and arrived in London two days later.

Princess Marie Bonaparte also helped him buy the Hampstead home and set up his office. She visited him there at the end of June to plan the escape of his sisters. Unfortunately, she was unable to secure exit visas for the four older women. They would all be murdered in the concentration camps.

They still outlived their brother, however. Freud had been diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1923 and over the next 15 years had dozens of surgical procedures to remove the tumors. By 1939, there was nothing left to operate on and Freud was in constant agony. His personal physician from 1929 on, Dr. Max Schur, had followed him to London. When Freud decided the pain was too great to live with, he reminded Schur that when they first met Freud had made him promise that “when the time comes, you won’t let them torment me unnecessarily.” Schur acquiesced and on September 23rd, 1939, he gave Sigmund Freud a fatal overdose of morphine.

The family decided to place his cremated remains in the vase, a fitting choice given that it was probably used as a cinerary urn in antiquity as well. The black granite plinth the urn stood on was designed by architect Ernst Freud, Sigmund’s middle son and the father of artist Lucien Freud who was almost 17 at the time of his grandfather’s death. When Martha Freud died in 1951, her ashes were added to her husband’s.

The London police have asked that anyone who may have information relevant to the attempted theft call DC Candler at 020 8733 4525 or Crimestoppers at 0800 555 111.

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Sotheby’s to return looted statue to Cambodia

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Seven months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a pair of 10th-century Khmer statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia, Sotheby’s has agreed to return a statue looted from the same temple that has pbeen blocked from sale for two years. It’s been a long, arduous process of diplomacy, negotiation and legal wrangling, none of it pretty and some of it impressively nasty, even for a cultural property dispute.

Our story begins more than a 1,000 years ago when King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker, a remote site 75 miles northeast of Siem Reap and the previous capital of Angkor. It was 928 A.D. and up until this point, Khmer sculptural art was characterized by static figures, most of them carved bas reliefs of Hindu deities and mythology. Jayavarman IV commissioned a whole new style of carving for his new capital. In Koh Ker, statues of gods and warriors were made to be freestanding, their poses dynamic captures of figures in movement. One group in front of the western pavilion of Prasat Chen Temple featured 9 statues depicting the final battle between Duryodhana and his nemesis Bhima from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Massive 500-pound sandstone statues of the two enemies were posed facing each mid-fight, surrounded by their supporters.

Koh Ker only remained capital until 944, after which it decayed into ruin while the jungle reclaimed its former dominance. The site’s remoteness was both a blessing and a curse, contributing to its decay and keeping it safe from the kind of predation Angkor was victim to. It wasn’t until the 1950s that French archaeologists recognized Koh Ker’s historical significance and paid regular attention to it. In 1965, the site was explored and documented by Madeleine Giteau, curator of the National Museum, who found it exceptionally well-preserved with the statues and structures virtually untouched. When a French archaeologist returned two years later, he found looting had already begun, thanks in large part to the construction of a new road which made the removal of artifacts to Thailand for sale more practical. Political upheaval and spillover from the Vietnam War put a lot of local armed insurgent groups and foreign fighters in the area and made looting antiquities to sell for hard cash a particularly attractive prospect.

According to an amended complaint from the United States Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, the statue of Duryodhana was cut off its base in around 1972 by an organized network of looters and sold to a dealer in Bangkok. There it was purchased by Douglas Latchford, the same collector of Khmer art who donated the bodies of both Kneeling Attendants and one of their heads to the Met, who arranged for the illegal export of the statue to the London auction house of Spink & Son, the same auction house from which he either bought the Kneeling Attendants directly or acted as a front for the Met to buy them from, depending on whose story you believe. Spink & Son sold Duryodhana to a Belgian collector in 1975. The widow of said collector, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, consigned the statue to Sotheby’s for sale in 2010.

Duryodhana became the centerpiece of Sotheby’s Asian sale in March of 2011. He was on the cover of the catalog and was extolled as a unique and exceptional example of Khmer artistry. Just hours before it was to go on the block, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An sent a letter to the auction house officially requesting the return of the statue as an artifact illegally exported from Cambodia. Sotheby’s withdrew its flagship artifact, estimated to sell for $3 million – $4 million, from the sale. For a year after the first blocked sale attempt, Sotheby’s negotiated with the government of Cambodia to arrange a private sale. Hungarian art collector Istvan Zelnik volunteered to buy the statue for $1 million and donate it to Cambodia.

The talks fell through — Sotheby’s claimed it was the Department of Homeland Security’s fault because they pressured the Cambodian government not to agree to the sale so they could get all the kudos for a diplomatic arrangement; the US Attorney said it was Sotheby’s fault because they turned down the million dollar offer — and in April of 2012, the U.S. Attorney filed a civil suit in federal court seeking forfeiture of the statue on Cambodia’s behalf. Sotheby’s denied strenuously that there was sufficient evidence to prove the statue was looted (even though its matching feet are still in place in Koh Ker), denied knowing all along that it was stolen (even though there’s a long email discussion between the auction house and an expert they contracted to write up the statue before sale in which the expert underscores that it was recently removed from the temple but ultimately suggests they go ahead with the sale because her Cambodian sources say they have no interest in contesting it) and denied that there’s even an applicable law in Cambodian that makes the export of 1,000-year-old Khmer statues illegal.

On Thursday, December 12th, truce was called. Sotheby’s, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the federal government have come to an agreement and I’d say it’s a big win for Cambodia, although as so often happens everyone still gets to deny having willfully trafficked in stolen antiquities.

The Belgian woman who had consigned it for sale in 2011 will receive no compensation for the statue from Cambodia, and Sotheby’s has expressed a willingness to pick up the cost of shipping the 500-pound sandstone antiquity to that country within the next 90 days.

At the same time, lawyers from the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan who had been pursuing the statue on Cambodia’s behalf agreed to withdraw allegations that the auction house and the consignor knew of the statue’s disputed provenance before importing it for sale.

The accord said the consignor, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who had long owned the statue, and Sotheby’s had “voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage,” that it should be returned.

Andrew Gully, a spokesman for Sotheby’s, said the auction house was gladdened that “the agreement confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times.”

:lol: Oh yes, ever so properly. At all times. And ever so voluntary too. It just took them two years and a federal court case to volunteer.

Now we’ll see if the last domino falls: the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena which owns Duryodhana’s counterpart, Bhima.

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