Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Medieval panels looted from Devon church found

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Two 15th century painted oak panels ripped out of Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, Devon, almost two years ago have been recovered by police. A sharp-eyed and damn decent collector spotted them in an online sale and notified the authorities who traced them in a property in south London. The place was raided by detectives from the Metropolitan Police Art & Antiques Unit in January and the panels recovered. A 50-year-old man from Wales has been arrested for the theft.

The panels were part of a rood screen, a tracery partition separating the nave from the chancel, built between 1460 and 1470. Inset in Gothic arches that mimic the design of the church’s stained glass windows are a series of 40 oak panels painted with figures of God, Mary, the Apostles and a panoply of saints. They are of extremely high quality, “cathedral quality,” according to the art historian Dr. Neil Rushton of the Churches Conservation Trust. Painted by a top artist of the period at the same time the church was constructed, the rood screen panels are colorful evidence of how much money, mainly from the wool trade, was in the area in the second half of the 15th century. They are the country’s best surviving examples of this kind of art from the late Middle Ages, almost all of which was destroyed in the Reformation, and therefore of national importance.

The panels that were stolen depict St. Victor of Marseilles and St. Margaret of Antioch, lesser known saints which make them rarer than the panels with more common iconography. Because of their rarity, there was speculation at the time of the theft that it may have been commissioned by an underworld collector who coveted these specific pieces, but the commissioned theft idea always gets deployed after these sort of crimes and it usually turns out to be a lot more Keystone Cops and a lot less Thomas Crown. This case is no different. Commissioned thefts don’t wind up for sale online.

Churches have increasingly been frequent targets of thieves, often for the scrap value of their architectural materials like lead roof tiles or even paving stones and grave markers. Art is a riskier proposition since it’s more likely to be recognizable, but that hasn’t stopped thieves from taking the chance before at the Holy Trinity Church. Four of the original 40 panels were stolen in the 1990s and three more were taken in 2003. Those seven panels are still missing which makes the recovery of the two most recent thefts even more significant.

West Mercia Police are now leading the investigation into the theft as part of Operation Icarus, which has also recovered a treasure trove of other church artefacts, including stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass and bibles. The police are appealing for help in identifying the artefacts, which include the misericords from St Cuthbert’s Church at Holme Lacy in Herefordshire, also in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.

In response to the original theft, The Churches Conservation Trust conducted a thorough audit of security at Holy Trinity, Torbryan and a new alarm system is now in place at the church to protect its contents in future. A new scheme of interpretation is also being developed to explain the artworks and the history of this unique Grade I listed church to visitors. A service at the church on 30th May will give thanks for the return of the panels.

The 45 cm (17.7 inches) by 15 cm (6 inches) panels were stolen between August 2nd and 9th of 2013 when the church was open to the public. They are believed to have been pushed out of their casing from the front, but a panel of an unknown female saint to the immediately left of the stolen pieces was seriously damaged in the process. It was punched through and a large shard from the top of the panel to the saint’s legs broke off. Now that the missing panels have been recovered, it’s clear there was damage done to them as well during the theft. The restoration is expect to cost £7,000 ($10,843) and the Churches Conservation Trust has launched a campaign to raise the funds.

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Mithras tauroctony, Picasso painting found in Italy

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

The Carabinieri art theft squad has recovered two major artworks in separate investigations: an early Cubist work by Pablo Picasso and an ancient Roman sculptural group of Mithras slaying the bull, a scene known today as a tauroctony. Only one of them, the sculpture, is known to have been looted. The Picasso painting is currently under investigation, but its purported provenance is a classic art smuggler’s tall tale, and a particularly bold iteration at that. It could be true, sure, but the Carabinieri clearly don’t think so or they wouldn’t have confiscated it.

The Picasso came to light when Sotheby’s, in the name of the putative current owner, filed an export license request in Venice for the oil painting Violin and Bottle of Bass made in 1912 by Pablo Picasso. The painting is listed in the 1961 edition of the great multi-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works compiled by Christian Zervos. It was done in the early Analytic Cubist style developed by Picasso and Georges Braque characterized by a palette of browns and other neutrals and as such is extremely rare and desirable.

Yet, the declared value of this early work was 1.4 million euros ($1.5 million). That’s a ridiculously lowball figure for a painting that would go for at least 15 million euros ($16.2 million) in the open market and could easily make more at auction. The weirdly cheap Picasso drew the unblinking eye of art squad investigators who sought an explanation from the owner. Said owner turns out to be a retired Roman frame maker. In 1978, a gentleman of advanced age came to his shop holding a picture frame with a photo of his beloved late wife inside. The maid had apparently knocked over the frame and broken the glass, devastating the widower. The frame maker repaired the frame for free because it was such an easy fix. In gratitude, the customer repaid the frame maker by returning two days later with a gift: Violin and Bottle of Bass. The frame maker had no idea what a treasure he’d been given for replacing a two-cent piece of glass, so he just stashed it somewhere and forgot about it for 36 years until discovering by accident that he might have a Picasso.

Mysteries abound in this less than entirely believable story. Tests have confirmed the attribution of the painting to Picasso, but more will be forthcoming while the investigation proceeds.

The statue of Mithras is a looter’s special, too. The Carabinieri found it during a complex operation of surveillance centered in the Fiumicino area outside Rome where the airport is, a crossroads of the market in illicit archaeological goods. Carabinieri noticed a nondescript van with no external identifiers that for some reason had a motorized escort — a motorcycle in front and a Smart Car taking up the rear. They pulled the van over and searched it. The back was filled with flowers and plants under a tarp. Cops saw the nose of a bull sticking up through the plants and found the marble sculpture group with the soil from its illegal excavation still caked on it.

The sculpture dates from the 2nd-3rd century A.D. and depicts an iconic scene in Mithraism wherein the hero tilts back the bull’s head and slays the beast with a knife while a dog and snake lick its blood and a scorpion has a go at the bull’s testicles. Every Mithraeum had at least one representation of this scene, usually reliefs and frescoes. A large freestanding sculpture like this would have been extremely luxurious then, and it is even more so today. Experts put its value at a minimum of 8 million euros. Only two other large tauroctonies like this one are known to exist today, one in the British Museum, one in the Vatican Museums.

Soil tests of the dirt on the sculpture pinpointed two possible locations of origin in central Italy: the ancient Etruscan cities of Tarquinia and Vulci. The regional Culture Ministry immediately began emergency excavations at the possible sites and found the exact spot from which the statue had been looted. It was Tarquinia, and archaeologists found two smoking guns in the form of the little rampant dog missing from the sculpture and the head of the missing snake. They also unearthed a few other marble fragments, the remains of a mosaic floor and a terracotta tile floor that suggest this was once a Mithraem.

A map of Switzerland and Swiss traveling routes found in the van make it very clear where the tauroctony was headed if it hadn’t been intercepted. Its value on the open market would be something in the neighborhood of 8 million euros ($8.7 million), a meager thing compared to its immense historical value. The statue will go on temporary display at the Vatican Museums in a few weeks after which it will return to Tarquinia in July.

The Carabinieri announced a third recovery at the same press conference, an 18th century oil painting by Luca Carlevarijs entitled View of Piazza San Marco from the Dock. It was stolen on April 28th, 1984, from the home of a private collector and discovered last September in the hands of an art dealer in Milan indicted for receiving stolen goods and illegal export of a painting now in the United States. While searching the dealer’s home, cops found 190 photographs of paintings. One of them was the Carlevarijs. They compared the photos against the squad’s database of stolen cultural goods and discovered the 30-year-old theft. It seems the artwork had been given to the dealer by a collector in anticipation of its sale.

Carlevarijs was the founder of the Venetian school of vedute, meaning views or landscapes of the city, starting with etchings in 1703 and then moving on to oil paintings. Canaletto was strongly influenced by him, as you can see in this piece, and probably met Carlevarijs around 1720 when the young artist moved back home to Venice after studying in Rome. Canaletto may have been Carlevarijs’ pupil at this time — the sources are murky — but if so, he soon surpassed the master. In 1725, just five years after Canaletto’s return, art merchant Alessandro Marchesini would suggest to his client, collector Stefano Conti who was looking for vedute of Venice, that he acquire a piece by Canaletto who “inevitably amazes everyone here who sees his works, which are in the manner of Carlevaris, but light shines out from the sun.”

Compared to the Picasso and the tauroctony I’m afraid poor Mr. Carlevarijs doesn’t quite make the headline, but it amuses me how each of these stories touches on the standard tropes of the traffic in illicit art and antiquities. We’ve got a supershady provenance story, a recently excavated, high-quality ancient sculpture that was destined for surreptitious sale in Switzerland where it doubtless would have received brand new papers certifying it as having been in “an anonymous Swiss collection” for the past 50 years, and we have the art dealer acting as a fence and keeping a big cache of incriminating photographs of the pieces he is trying to sell/has sold illegally. It’s like looter’s bingo.

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Dutch hooligans riot, vandalize Barcaccia fountain

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

Fans of the Rotterdam soccer team Feyenoord ran riot in Rome’s historic center on Thursday, throwing bottles and flares and causing serious damage to the Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna. Built by Pietro Bernini, father of famous architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, between 1627 and 1629, the fountain just reopened in September after an extensive 10-month restoration. Now there are more than 110 gouges, scratches and chips on the travertine marble and several large chunks broken off the edge of the central basin.

On Friday morning public works crews sifted through broken glass, bottles and assorted trash to recover all the fragments they could find in the water. City restorers assessed the damage and it does not look good. There are broken pieces as large as 8 by 3.5 centimeters (3 by 1.4 inches). Even if the larger pieces can be reattached cleanly — not an easy feat with the highly porous travertine — the chips and scratches will likely remain. Expert Anna Maria Cerioni says that the damage to the fountain is permanent.

It’s unclear what set this barbarians off other than the usual metric ton of alcohol and whatever idiotic sports rivalry. They rampaged through the beautiful and historic Campo de’ Fiori piazza on Wednesday evening, throwing bottles at riot police and leaving the square covered in garbage. Over the two days of clashes between rioters and police, 10 police officers and three Dutch fans were wounded. A total of 28 were arrested and 19 of them have already been convicted and sentenced to six months in jail or a $50,000 fine.

All of this happened before the actual Europa League match between Feyenoord and Roma on Thursday afternoon. Additional police were dispatched to the Olympic Stadium for the event, in the expectation that violence might break out between the opposing teams’ fans, but nothing happened. The score was tied 1-1, Feyenoord moves on in the bracket and the 6,000 Dutch fans got on planes and headed home with no further trouble.

The mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, is incandescent with rage. He said that while several banks and organizations have contacted him offering financial support for the restoration, he thinks the Netherlands or the Feyenoord club should pay for the damage according to the principle of “who breaks it buys it.” The Dutch embassy’s public statements (you can see them on their Facebook page) focus on bringing the responsible parties to justice. “Soccer must be a party where there’s no room for violence. The Italian authorities can count on the total cooperation and committment of the Netherlands to ensure than the culpable are punished.” They also said an investigation has been opened in Holland to identify the perpetrators.

They haven’t excluded paying for it, however. When the mayor told the press after a long conversation with Dutch ambassador Michiel Den Hond that “they don’t feel responsible for the economic outlay to repair Bernini’s fountain,” Aart Heering, the ambassador’s spokesperson, said the mayor’s comment was premature, that before saying the Netherlands doesn’t want to pay for the damage, first the damages have to be quantified and the perpetrators identified.

The Feyenoord club’s general manager Eric Gudde described the rioting as “utterly reprehensible behavior … that fills every normal thinking Dutchman with horror.” There’s a bit of the No True Scotsman fallacy in the club’s reaction. The rioters aren’t real fans, you see, but rather lowlives who unlike the real fans went to Rome with the intent to “misbehave.”

Film of the clashes between rioters and police in Piazza di Spagna on Thursday:

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Ohio museum returns 16th c. astrolabe to Germany

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Germany giveth and Germany taketh away. Last month the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) announced it had acquired Napoleon’s brother’s exquisite spiral chandelier from a Hamburg art dealer. Two days ago the museum announced it would voluntarily return an exquisite 16th century astronomical instrument to the Gotha Museum in Germany after being presented with evidence that the object had been stolen from the museum after World War II.

The instrument is a multi-use device known as an astrological compendium made by Augsburg craftsman Christopher Schissler in 1567.
Schissler was considered the greatest of Augsburg’s instrument makers, crafting pieces of the highest quality from precious materials for the likes of August I, the Elector of Saxony, and Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor. Only around 100 instruments made by Christopher Schissler are known to have survived. This particular one was made for the Kunstkammer of Rudolf’s court in Prague. Rudolf was fascinated by mechanical devices and gave Schissler, along with other top instrument makers, access to court astronomers so they could be apprised of the latest research. He supported them financially and encouraged them to develop new designs and mechanisms.

This device is very much a show-off piece, a showcase for its owner’s wealth and scientific knowledge. Made from gilded bronze and enamel, it’s an astrolabe, but it also has a variety of other functions. The outside cover is a sun dial, the inside cover a map of the world from which a plumb-bob can be hung to calculate angle of inclination. Interior compartments include a wind rose, a compass, a lunary (a device to calculate the time based on the moon), a perpetual calendar and a zodiac showing which signs govern which days. It is inscribed along its octagonal edges “CHRISTOPHORUS SCHISSLER FACIEBAT AUGUSTAE VINDELICORUM – ANNO DOMINI 1567″ (Christopher Schissler made this, Augsburg ― Anno Domini 1567).

Image courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art.

The Schissler Compendium remained in Prague Castle until 1620 when it was taken as plunder by the forces of Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, after their victory against Frederick I, King of Bohemia, at the Battle of the White Mountain, one of the early clashes of the Thirty Years’ War. It was taken to Munich. Twelve years later, it was plundered again, this time by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden who invaded Bavaria and in May of 1632, took Munich. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle later that year and after his ally Bernhard of Saxon-Weimar died in 1639, the spoils from Bavaria were divided among the survivors. The Schissler Compendium went to Bernhard’s brother Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Gotha, who installed it in his collection at Gotha.

Inventory records from the 19th century indicate the instrument stayed put in the collection of the Dukes of Gotha at Friedenstein Castle for 300 years. When the palace was converted to a museum, the compendium went on display alongside a larger astrolabe by Schissler. Much of the collection was moved during World War II for safekeeping and returned after the war was over. Thuringia was occupied by American forces for a few months after the end of the war, and then the Soviets took over. They took many of the Gotha Museum treasures to the Soviet Union only to return them after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. We know that the Schissler Compendium was not among the art and artifacts returned to the museum by the Soviets.

So somewhere in the chaos of wars world and cold, the instrument made its way to New York art dealers and thence to Toledo, Ohio. The Toledo Museum of Art had no knowledge of its checkered past until May of 2013 when Dr. Martin Eberle, director of the Gotha Museum, wrote them a letter about the astrolabe. He included considerable documentary and photographic evidence that Toledo’s Schissler Compendium and the Gotha Museum’s Schissler Compendium were the same piece. After a couple of months spent reviewing the documentation, TMA Director Dr. Brian Kennedy wrote back to Dr. Eberle acknowledging that it seemed their astrolabe was the one stolen from the German museum.

The institutions negotiated for a year after that, planning the repatriation of the object and the loan of artifacts from the Gotha collection to the Toledo Museum of Art in exchange. They still haven’t decided which pieces will be loaned, but they’ll sort that out in due course. Meanwhile, repatriation is nigh, tentatively scheduled for March or April of this year.

Kudos to the TMA for returning the piece. There’s no legal requirement that they do so. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property does not apply, nor do the protocols regarding Nazi loot. This was entirely an ethical choice they made because they think it’s the right thing to do.

[U]nlike earlier cases, this is one that involves no government bureaucracy or complications raised by potential thieves or distributors awaiting trial. It is, as Mr. Kennedy noted, simply an agreement between two museums to get a historically valuable piece back to its rightful owner.

“We’ve recognized there’s been a cultural shift in how museums conduct themselves,” Mr. Kennedy said. “There’s much more scrutiny in how museums obtain their objects and transparency now.”

He said the TMA had made it museum policy over the past 10 years to look harder into the ownership history of every piece.

“This was a one-of-a-kind scientific device,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It’s sad to see it go, but it’s not ours.”

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Codex Calixtinus thief sentenced to 10 years

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

On Wednesday the Provincial Court of La Coruña convicted former electrician José Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras of stealing the Codex Calixtinus, an invaluable 12th century manuscript that contains the first travel guide for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For the theft of the codex, ongoing burglaries of cash and other items and money laundering, Castiñeiras was sentenced to 10 years in prison (three for the codex, five for the burglaries, two for the laundering) and a 268,000 euro ($304,000) fine. His wife Remedios Nieto was sentenced to six months for money laundering and got her own 268,000 euro fine because she had to have known her husband’s wealth was ill-gotten. His son Jesus Fernández Nieto was acquitted as the court considered him a patsy used by his father who bought two apartments in his son’s name to launder some of the stolen money.

The court concluded that the electrician had taken keys to, among other locations, the office of the Dean and of the administrator, and used them to gain access to the Cathedral safe that regularly held large quantities of cash from sales of tickets to the Cathedral museum and roof, rent from Church properties and donations of the faithful. The total amount Castiñeiras stole in cash alone is 2.4 million euros ($2,735,000) in currency from 59 countries.

Defense counsel Carmen Ventoso tried the “this whole courtroom is out of order” defense, calling the trial a “procedural Guantanamo” in which the defendants’ rights had been trampled from before they were even on trial. She claimed police had broken into the house and installed monitoring devices a month before the arrest, that the official police search exceeded the parameters of the warrant, that the first interview in which Castiñeiras admitted he had stolen the Codex at 12:00 AM on July 4th, 2011, was full of errors and invalidated by the interrogator’s hardball tactics (“suggestive,” “argumentative” and “repetitive” questioning verging on duress), and that the Cathedral’s security camera footage showing the defendant shoving stacks o’ cash into his pockets was altered after the fact to incriminate her client. She wanted the search thrown out and all the evidence gathered as a result of it.

The court, unsurprisingly, was not persuaded by this argument or by Ventoso’s repeated imprecations against Judge José Antonio Vázquez Taín who, according to her, is a sterling example of “what shouldn’t be done.” The judge didn’t buy her next defense — that Castiñeiras had OCD and was a hoarder — either, on account of he somehow managed to overcome this compulsion just fine when he invested his filthy lucre in property.

On the stand last month, the first time he spoke publically about the theft, Castiñeiras admitted he had “probably” stolen all that cash (different news stories put the amount at anywhere from 1.7 to 2.4 million euros) from the Cathedral safe before he had a stroke in 2004, but he stopped keeping his accounts after the stroke and couldn’t remember if he kept stealing. When the magistrate asked him if he had stolen any other artworks or valuables from the church (a number of antiquities were also found in his home), the defendant replied that he woke up every day at 6:00 AM to work hard for the Cathedral. Because apparently early mornings and work entitle you to stuff millions in cash, art, church documents and whatever else into your pockets, seems to be the implication.

That fits with the disgruntled employee theory of the crime. He was let go in 2011, officially due to restructuring, but possibly because he was suspected of theft. That can’t have been the source of his cleptorage, however. He may have stolen the Codex Calixtinus in July of 2011 out of pique, but he’d been making off with huge fistfuls of cash regularly for something like a decade by then. In his confession he said he was acting against the institution that had failed to offer him permanent employment, but he also hinted darkly that the lack of poverty and chastity from certain Cathedral personnel his poor, traumatized eyes had witnessed during his many years on the job drove him to a decade of thievery. The lack of chastity was homosexual, gasp, and the lack of poverty consisted in staff taking money out of the offering bag and helping themselves to the best donations of silverware, hams and fine wines.

The Codex is now back at the Cathedral. It was returned on July 8th, 2012, four days after it was found in a garbage bag under some newspapers in Castiñeiras’ garage. It was on public display in the chapter house for the day, after which it was put in a safe location while the Cathedral looked into improving its obviously faulty security systems.

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Portrait attributed to Leonardo seized from Swiss bank vault

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Italian financial police and the Carabinieri art theft squad teamed up with Swiss federal authorities Monday to seize a painting some believe to be a lost portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci from a bank vault in Lugano, Switzerland. Clandestine sale negotiations were ongoing when the police nabbed the work. The top asking price was 120 million euros ($135.9 million). Prosecutor Manfredi Palumbo said at a press conference that there are 70 people of interest in this investigation, all potentially part of a large illegal art smuggling ring attempting to move multiple works out of Italy into the black market.

The painting was found as a result of a fortuitous encounter during an unrelated investigation last August. The finance police in Pesaro, a town on the northeast coast of Italy in the Marche region, were looking into an insurance fraud case when they discovered documents indicating the portrait was in Switzerland. The finance police teamed up with the Carabinieri and tracked down the painting in the private vault of a Lugano trust. There’s some raw footage of the bust here. All that teal makes for a pretty sad looking Swiss bank vault.

This isn’t the paintings first sojourn in a Swiss vault. When the news of it first emerged in October of 2013, the portrait was one of 400 artworks kept in a Swiss bank by an anonymous Italian family who claimed the collection had been in Switzerland since the early 20th century. Completely unpublished and undocumented, of course, because that’s how Swiss private collections like it. Family lore whispered of it being Leonardo’s portrait of Isabelle d’Este so finally around 2009 or so, likely in advance of sale, they began intensive research on the piece. Radiocarbon dating found that the work was painted between 1460 and 1650; X-ray fluorescence found that the primer and pigments are consistent with those used by the Renaissance master. UCLA emeritus art history professor and Leonardo expert Carlo Pedretti enthusiastically authenticated the portrait as Leonardo’s work.

The question of whether Leonardo ever painted a portrait of Isabella d’Este has been much debated by art historians over the centuries. In December of 1499, Leonardo da Vinci fled Milan after the city was conquered by the French and his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza was overthrown. On the way to Venice, he stopped in Mantua where he was welcomed by Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, who had met the artist at the double wedding where she married Francesco and her sister Beatrice d’Este married Ludovico Sforza. (Leonardo had actually designed some costumes for a joust held as part of the wedding celebrations.) He wasn’t in town for long, but Leonardo did make the time to draw a portrait of Isabella in black, red, white and ochre chalk on paper. He made at least two sketches of her portrait profile. One he took with him to Venice; the other he gave to Isabella’s husband Francesco Gonzaga. Multiple letters from Isabella to Leonardo asking him to make a painting from the sketch have survived, but there is no evidence that he ever did so. Isabella also asked him to make her another drawing after her husband gave hers away in 1501, but there’s no evidence he did that either. The sketch Leonardo gave to Gonzaga is now lost. The sketch he brought with him is now in the permanent collection of the Louvre.

The discovery of an oil painting undeniably modeled after the drawing sparked much discussion as other experts disagreed with Pedretti’s attribution. One glaring issue is that the portrait is on canvas while Leonardo and his school used wood panels. This would be the only known work he ever did on canvas. It’s also a remarkably accurate match to the sketch considering that it was ostensibly painted years after the drawing was done (Pedretti posits that it was painted in 1514 when Leonardo met Isabella again in Rome). Then there are the quality concerns. Parts of it — the crown and that atrocious palm frond she’s holding — are clearly not the work of the master.

Just to add another layer of labyrinthine complexity to this case, recall that the news of the Isabella portrait broke in the Corriere della Sera’s Sette magazine the first week of October, 2013. Less than two months earlier on August 27th, 2013, Pesaro police received a tip that a local lawyer, Sergio Shawo, was found in possession of a letter from one Emidia Cecchini, the 70-year-old putative owner of the portrait, in which she exhorts him to sell the painting for no less than 95 million euros ($107 million). By Italian law, all art works more than 50 years old cannot leave Italy without a special export license and there was no license pertaining to the portrait. Pesaro authorities asked their Swiss colleagues to execute a search warrant on the Swiss bank vault where the painting was believed to be kept, but they were unable to find it there.

So when all the big publicity about this incredible find in the Swiss vault was going down with the dueling experts and the lab testing and all that, as far as authorities were concerned at least, the painting was actively on the lam. Police suspected it had been smuggled back into Italy in a dastardly game of keep-away, and indeed it may have been before returning to Switzerland the next year where it cropped up in that insurance fraud case.

The painting is still in Switzerland for now where it will stay until legal ownership can be determined. Cecchini, the nice old lady in reduced circumstances whose grandparents put together so fine an art collection, may be the legitimate owner trying to win the lottery by the illegal export and sale of her property, or that whole 400 paintings in a Swiss vault since the early 1900s story may be a complete and total fabrication to cover an art smuggling conspiracy. Two art dealers are under investigation for involvement in this case, and they were looking to sell other Old Master works at the same time.

Once ownership is established, the Italian authorities want the painting back in Italy. Until then, additional authentication research is on hold.

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Mark Twain plaque stolen from his grave

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

A bronze plaque bearing a profile of Mark Twain has been stolen from a monument on his grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, upstate New York. The missing plaque was reported to cemetery authorities by a visitor to the grave over the holidays. It’s not clear when exactly it was stolen, but it was sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The culprit had to use a ladder to reach the one foot square plaque, so it wasn’t a random vandal, and it’s unlikely to have been stolen just for its scrap value because the plaque right below it depicting Ossip Gabrilowitsch, husband of Twain’s daughter Clara, is still in place.

Mark Twain died in 1910 and was buried in his wife Olivia Langdon’s family plot in her hometown of Elmira. The 12-foot granite monument was commissioned in 1937 by Clara to honor her father and husband. Swedish immigrant and Elmira resident Ernfred Anderson designed the piece after Clara was impressed by a bust he had made of her father. The height of the marker is a deliberate reference to the great author. Twelve feet is two fathoms, the safe depth for a steamboat. Riverboat leadsmen on the Mississippi in the 1850s would call out “mark twain” to alert the crew they were in safe waters. The young Samuel Clemens trained as a pilot aboard a steamboat on the Mighty Mississip from 1857 to 1859 and continued to pilot a riverboat until the Civil War broke out in 1861. He first signed the pen name Mark Twain to an 1863 article for the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada.

Woodlawn workers did a thorough search of the cemetery grounds and adjoining woods looking for the plaque, but there was no sign of it. The Elmira community has rallied around the cause, offering reward money for any information leading to the recovery of the plaque. If worst comes to worst, the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes has pledged to donated up to $10,000 to replace the plaque. Rare bookseller and Mark Twain expert Kevin MacDonnell has offered the use of a plaster cast of Twain made by Ernfred Anderson to make a new mold for a replacement. It wouldn’t be the same as the missing piece, however, so local artist Denny Smith is working with Anderson’s family to locate the original plaster cast he used to make the bronze plaque.

Next, a foundry and a bronze artist will have to be selected. Also, the replacement plaque will need to be given a patina to match what is already on the Gabrilowitsch plaque so they look similar, she said. Finally, a decision will need to be made on who will install the plaque, she said.

“What’s been wonderful has been the community outpouring,” Hayden said. “Also, the Community Foundation is interested in the future in working with the Friends of Woodlawn to investigate the possibility of installing a security device to see that this doesn’t happen again.”

The cemetery hasn’t given up on getting the original plaque back. They’re asking for anyone who might have information on the theft to contact the Elmira Police Department at (607) 271-HALT or (607) 737-5626.

While we’re on the subject of Mark Twain-related monuments, I have to recommend the outstanding Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, where Mark, Olivia and their children lived from 1874 until money troubles forced them to move to Europe in 1891. Twain still loved the Gothic Revival masterpiece most of all, even though he never lived there again. It’s gorgeous inside and out.

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16th c. Faith stolen by priest found after 70 years

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

The Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit of the Carabinieri, a division of Italy’s national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities, has found a 16th century painting by Alessandro Bonvicino, better known as Moretto da Brescia, that disappeared from a church 60 years ago. It was discovered in Brescia, in the home of a businessman who had owned it for years without knowing its shady history.

Faith, one of six known paintings Moretto made depicting the allegorical figure of Faith holding the Holy Chalice, was removed from the small parish church of Santa Maria in Valverde in the community of Padernello near Brescia in 1944. It was an inside job: the thief was the parish priest, don Staurenghi. He had noble (by his standards) motives for running what proved to be a very effective, long-lasting scam. The church needed money to build an oratory, so he took it upon himself to secure funding by selling the church’s Renaissance gem to an old friend from his hometown of Verolanuova who happened to be the town magistrate.

To ensure their backdoor shenanigans weren’t found out, the magistrate hired painter and restorer Giambattista Bertelli (who not coincidentally was also from Verolanuova) to make a copy of the painting to hang in the church. He made no bones about the nature of the gig. Bertelli was explicitly told that he had to do a really good job because his work was going to be passed off as Moretto’s in the parish church and it was imperative that nobody notice the switcheroo. From October 19th until October 28th of 1944, Bertelli had the original in his studio (he would decades later note that it’s much easier to forge a painting when you have the original in your workspace) while he painted the copy on a 500-year-old canvas he’d sourced specifically for the job in Milan.

His copy of course included a later modification of Moretto’s design overpainting the Host with the three nails of the crucifixion. That iconographic alteration was the distinguishing feature of the Padernello version. While the apocryphal Faith deceived the faithful in church, in 1969 the original was restored to Moretto’s original image of the Eucharist. I’ll give you one guess who the restorer was. If you guessed Giambattista Bertelli, congratulations. Truly you have a dizzying intellect. Or you just figured out that to run a con without a false step for decades, you’ve got to dance with them that brung you. Over time the copy disappeared too and the fact that the church had ever had one of Moretto’s Faith paintings faded from memory.

The first clue to unlock the mystery was found in 1998, 54 years after the theft, in the Castle of Padernello. A group of volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the castle were cleaning up a pile of trash in an area that had been inhabited by the family of the Counts Salvadego until the 60s when they came across a “santino” (a card with holy imagery, often of a saint, that was traditionally printed to hand out on the more important days of the liturgical calendar) bearing a picture of Faith. It was labelled “Faith, parish of Padernello.” This was evidence that one of the six Moretto Faith paintings had once hung in the parish church.

Historian Gian Mario Andrico set to researching the whereabouts of the original. He found that the santino card had been printed by don Staurenghi for Easter of 1945, months after the copy was in place with no one the wiser (I’m rather in awe of his shamelessness). A few of the old timers remembered that the painting had once hung in the chapel with the baptismal font. Then Andrico tracked down Giambattista Bertelli. Proud of his meticulously maintained records documenting his involvement in this fraud (and since I’d wager his co-conspirators were dead and buried by then), Bertelli cheerfully spilled the beans.

In 2008, the Castle hosted an exhibition entitled Moretto, Faith, The Return that told the story of the purloined painting and displayed another version of it from a private collection. The Carabinieri used the catalogue from this exhibition as the starting point for an official investigation this year. It only took them a few months to locate the long-lost work along with a black-and-white photograph of it from the late 1960s. The magistrate had sold it to an antiques dealer who in turn sold it to the businessman in Brescia.

The art squad searched the church and found an altarpiece painting on the theme of the Sacred Heart that when viewed against the light showed anomalous elements. To ensure they had located the Padernello Faith instead of another version by the master or a copy, the police took the sequestered Faith, the black-and-white photograph and the altarpiece an to the laboratory of the Physics department of the State University of Milan for analysis. Infrared reflectography confirmed that the photograph was of the painting found in the apartment with it and that it was Moretto’s original. X-ray imaging found that the altarpiece had painted over a large cross that matched the one held by the allegorical Faith. Thus the fate of Bertelli’s copy was revealed.

The Carabinieri transferred legal custody of Faith to a representative of the parish but it’s not hanging in the church. Right now it’s in the Diocesan Museum of Brescia. I suspect this will be the long-term home for it, even though the church officially owns it again at long last.

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“Arbeit Macht Frei” gate stolen from Dachau

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

In what is becoming a sickening trend, the wrought iron gate bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will set you free”) at the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp was stolen in the early hours of Sunday. There are private security guards on the premises, but the camp has no surveillance system, a deliberate choice to eschew the ugly association of constant monitoring.

Gabriele Hammermann, [Director of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial], said Monday. “We have irregular guard patrols six to seven times per night at the camp, but all of the former concentration camps in Germany have so far not installed cameras, as we do not want to make these locations once again a high-security facility in respect for the deceased.”

The theft happened while the guards were patrolling sometime between 11:45 PM Saturday and 5:30 AM Sunday. The thieves, and there had to have been at least two of them, scaled the outer gate to reach the wrought iron one, then removed the entire door that carries the slogan off its hinges. They then had the heft it back over the outer gate. Because it’s six-and-a-half-feet high, three feet wide and weighs an estimated 225 pounds, the thieves must have had a getaway vehicle.

Police and state security are investigating the theft. They have appealed to anyone who might have seen a vehicle or suspicious people in the area Sunday morning to come forward with any information. Authorities suspect it may be a politically motivated act by right-wing extremists, although a commissioned theft is certainly possible. It has happened before.

The large “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign above the entrance to Auschwitz was stolen in December of 2009 only to be recovered less than 72 hours later. The thieves were Polish men hired by Swedish neo-Nazi Anders Högström who claimed to have acted solely as a middle man but ultimately pleaded guilty to masterminding the theft and was sentenced to serve two years and eight months in a Swedish prison.

I think this theft is slightly less likely to have been a deranged collector because the sign is not actually original. Dachau was the first concentration camp opened by the Nazi government on March 22nd, 1933, less than two months after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30th. It was built on the site of an abandoned munitions factory on the outskirts of the Bavarian town of Dachau, 10 miles northwest of Munich, as a forced labour camp for political prisoners. One of those political prisoners, Communist Karl Röder, was ordered to craft the iron lettering by the SS in 1936. Röder’s sign was removed after the war. A replica was installed in its place when the memorial was created in 1965.

That does not diminish the symbolic significance of the theft. Dr. Gabriele Hammermann considers it a:

“deliberate, reprehensible attempt to deny and obliterate the memory of the crimes committed in this place. The assault on this relict of highly symbolic importance demonstrates a new dimension, since it is an attempt to demolish the memorial at its very core.”

More than 200,000 people — political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, gyspies, clergy, reistance fighters, POWs (mainly Poles) — from all over Europe were imprisoned at Dachau in its 12 years of operation. More than 40,000 died from starvation, disease, torture, executions and death marches before US Army forces liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Today Dachau has the most visitors of any concentration camp memorial in Germany, approximately 800,000 a year.

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Pharaonic temple found under house in Egypt

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

The remains of a 3,400-year-old temple from the reign of Tuthmose III (1479-1425 B.C.) have been found underneath a house in the Egyptian town of Badrashin 25 miles south of Cairo. It was discovered two weeks ago under shady circumstances. A group of seven men dug nearly 30 feet (nine meters) under their home, even going so far as to secure wet suits, oxygen tanks and diving masks so they could keep digging after they hit the water table. The Tourism and Antiquities Police heard about the clandestine dig and arrested the men for illegal excavation. They were detained briefly but had to be released because the area where they were digging was not a designated archaeological site.

It is now. The entire Hod Zeleikha neighborhood has been declared an archeological site and is now under the control of the Antiquities Ministry. The unauthorized amateur excavation has been replaced with an official dig by archaeologists from Egypt’s antiquities ministry and workers from the state-owned Arab Contractors Company. After pumping out the groundwater, the team discovered seven large limestone blocks engraved with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the bases of several columns and a piece of a colossal statue. The colossus fragment is 6.2 feet high and carved out of pink granite. It depicts a seated person.

The hieroglyphics date the structure to the New Kingdom period (1539-1075 B.C.) and at least some of the inscriptions date to the reign of the pharaoh Tuthmose III (1490-1436 B.C.). The reign of Tuthmose III is considered a golden age in Egyptian history. The stepson and nephew of pharaoh Hatshepsut, Tuthmose III was technically pharaoh from the age of two, co-ruler with his stepmother. In practise he didn’t rule until Hatshepsut died 22 years after they ascended to the throne. He ruled another 32 years after Hatshepsut’s death. Under his reign, the Egypt empire reached its greatest extent, from northern Syria to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in Nubia.

The recovered artifacts have been transported to Saqqara for conservation and study. Archaeologists hope the inscriptions and future discoveries will reveal more about the history of Egypt under Tuthmose III. The ministry plans to continue the archaeological survey of the site and excavate more of the temple.

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