Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Mummy in Buddha statue goes to court

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Two years ago, a 1,000-year-old statue of the Buddha made headlines when a striking CT scan exposed the mummified monk within. The statue was scanned at a hospital in Amsterdam when it was in the country to take part in the Mummies exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, the Netherlands. The exhibition proffered the Buddha statue as an example of the extreme practice of self-mummification, in which Buddhist monks spent years starving and poisoning themselves before having themselves walled into a constricted space to die. If three years later their bodies were found mummified, they were considered to have attained the rank of Buddha and their remains were venerated.

According to the information on the exhibition’s website and labels, the monk sealed in the statue was believed to be Master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, aka Zen Buddhism, who died around 1100 A.D. There was no evidence offered in support of this surprisingly specific identification, nor were there any details about who owned the statue. The press materials alluded to this being the first time the statue was allowed to leave China and that it was the only Chinese Buddhist mummy made available for scientific study in the West.

Well, that may all be a big bunch of lies, or at least misinformation of the “Swiss private collection” variety to act as a smokescreen for some very shady dealings in stolen cultural heritage. A lawsuit currently in the Dutch courts presents an entirely different ownership history and identification of the statue and mummy. The plaintiff is the tea-farming mountain village of Yangchun in southeastern Chinese province of Fujian which claims the statue was stolen from a temple there in 1995. The defendant is a Dutch collector, who bought the statue and the human remains it contains in Hong Kong in 1996.

In March of 2015, one of the villagers saw a photograph of the statue on display at the Mummy World exhibition at Budapest’s Natural History Museum. He immediately recognized it as the Zhanggong Patriarch, a statue containing a mummified monk that he and his fellow villagers have venerated for centuries.

The lawyers will argue that according to Dutch law “a person is not allowed to have a known body in their possession,” Holthuis said.

“We also have enough evidence to prove that the statue is indeed the one that was stolen from the temple,” he added.

“The fact that it was sold a few months after it was stolen, that it contains certain texts referring to the name ‘Zhanggong’ and that its dating more or less corresponds to the period that the monk was alive,” were some of the arguments which will be presented, he said.

There are some pictures of it in the temple in 1989, and the village still has the clothes and crown the statue was wearing before the thieves stripped it. The picture alone isn’t as dispositive as you might think because of those clothes and crown. They obscure some of the identifying detail of the statue which has been displayed without its traditional accessories in the mummies exhibitions.

According to centuries of village tradition, the statue contains the remains of a monk named Zhang who moved to the village with his mother when he was a boy during the Song dynasty (960–1279). He went from cowherd to Buddhist monk to a gilded mummy worshipped by generations of residents. (There is no suggestion of self-mummification. He was mummified after his death as an indication of the great esteem in which he was held, an account that is consistent with the discovery that his organs had been removed and replaced with paper fill.) The villagers prayed to him at all major festivals and seasonal events. Each year the statue was transported through the village stopping at every house, and the monk’s birthday was celebrated every year with a grand festival. The village’s ancestral records seemingly confirm the oral history; they document the presence of the Patriarch as early as the Song Dynasty.

Villagers in Yangchun, China, pray in front of gray replica of the stolen statue. Photo by Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times.The theft of the Zhanggong Patriarch was devastating to the villagers. Some of the older residents had risked their lives to protect him from the iconoclastic marauders of the Cultural Revolution. The statue was kept constantly on the move for its safety, hidden in pits and people’s homes, sometimes moved twice in a night. They put a replica in his place, a rather rough grey version of the elegant gilded original, and the villagers still pray to it.

There’s one big problem. Nobody knows where the statue is right now. Apparently the collector, Dutch architect Oscar van Overeem, traded it with somebody in 2015 and he’s not saying who. The timing of this swap is curious, especially in the light of van Overeem’s strenuous denial that his mummy was the Zhanggong Patriarch. He insisted that he had easily disproven the village’s claim to the Chinese representative who contacted him to negotiate repatriation, but worked out a deal anyway to donate the statue to an unnamed Buddhist temple near Yangchun. He had struck this bargain, he said in May of 2015, “because he believed it deserved to return to its homeland ‘to be incorporated in truly Buddhist surroundings’ and worshiped ‘by those who love and appreciate him.'”

So in May of 2015, the collector believed that the mummy deserved to be home among those who love and pray to him, but I guess that belief wasn’t all that strongly held because the statue and mummy are not in any Buddhist temple near Yangchun. It’s nowhere to be found. Whoever the third party is has little incentive to come forward, so even if the village wins in court — which would be a landmark decision for Chinese cultural patrimony repatriation because it would be the first time a heritage object is returned due to the courts rather than through diplomatic channels — it could still be left bereft of its beloved Zhanggong Patriarch.

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US returns looted royal seals to Korea

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned two looted royal seals from the Joseon Dynasty to the Republic of Korea at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C., on June 30th. The repatriation ceremony was planned to coincide with South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s visit to Washington so that Thomas D. Homan, acting director of ICE, could formally hand the seals over to the President who then carried them back to South Korea personally.

The two royal seals are the same size — four inches square — and both have handles shaped like turtles, but they were made a century apart from different materials. The oldest of them is the royal seal Queen Munjeong (1501-1565) which was made in 1547 out of gilt bronze. Technically 1547 was the second year of her son’s reign, but King Myeongjong was just 12 years old when he ascended the throne after his half-brother’s death under suspicious circumstances, so Queen Munjeong acted as regent. The seal uses a title given to Munjeong during her early regency.

(It was widely believed that Myeongjong’s half-brother King Injong, who reigned for only one year after his father’s death and was 30 years old when he died, was poisoned to death. Queen Munjeong was the prime suspect for the ringleader of the conspiracy to remove the young, reform-minded, active king and replace him with his kid brother whom she could easily manipulate. She stayed on as regent long past her son’s majority, remaining queen until her death 20 years later. Myeongjong was 32 years old when he finally became king in more than name.)

The second royal seal was made for the future King Hyeonjong (r. 1659-1674) to commemorate his becoming the crown prince in 1651. It’s carved out of highly prized white jade and is taller and more massive than the Queen’s seal.

Both of these are of a type of royal seal known as an “eobo,” used for ceremonial purposes rather than for official government documents which were the province of the “guksae” or the great seal. Because they were the official stamp of royal authority, the production, deployment and retirement of royal seals were stringently regulated by the Jongmyo, the Confucian shrine dedicated to the preserving the memory and rituals of the Joseon royals. The Joseon Dynasty is one of the longest ruling dynasties in the history of the world (1392 to 1897), so you might be forgiven for thinking they were lousy with royal seals after all that time, but because of that strict oversight, during the 500+ years of the Joseon Kingdom and Korean Empire only 37 guksae and 375 eobo were made.

They were all present and accounted for until the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). The seals were hot items for looters and pillagers, and continued to be actively stolen during the Korean War (1950-53). The two returned seals are microcosms of the larger syndrome. Queen Munjeong’s seal is believed to have been stolen during the Korean War, King Hyeonjong’s during the Japanese occupation. The Korean government has vigorously pursued all leads to track down their precious cultural heritage since the 1950s. Four of the great seals have been recovered and seven of the royal seals. There are still 29 great state seals and 46 royal ones unaccounted for as of today.

The seals are a microcosm of Korea’s assiduous attempts to reclaim their lost treasures too. There are US State Department records going back to the mid-1950s that document requests from the Korean ambassador to locate the stolen seals of Queen Munjeong and King Hyeonjong. There is no evidence of any investigation taking place at that time. That would have to wait until 2013 when ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division opened an investigation into Queen Munjeong’s royal seal at the request of South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) who had found out the seal at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and had been for 13 years. The Korean Broadcasting Service did a little digging and identified the private collector who sold the Queen’s seal to LACMA in 2000. They found the King’s seal at his house.

The seals will be conserved and stored at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul. They won’t go on display right away. The CHA is currently planned a special exhibit in August that will put the royal seals on public view.

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Dutch return head of Julia Domna to Italy

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

The head of a statue of Roman Empress Julia Domna that almost wound up on the auction block in Amsterdam has been returned to Italy after the Carabinieri Art Squad determined it had been recently stolen. In May of 2015, a man and a woman attempted to sell statue head through Christie’s Amstersdam office. The appraisers and experts were immediately suspicious, as they well should have been, and Christie’s lawyer called the Art Squad.

The piece, one foot high and dating to the 2nd century A.D., wasn’t on the Art Squad’s list of stolen and looted artworks, but their experts were able to trace its origins to Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, the imperial country retreat/enormous palace built by the Emperor Hadrian in second and third decades of the 2nd century. A number of Severan dynasty portrait busts were unearthed at the villa during excavations in the 1950s, evidence that it was used by the imperial family well into the 3rd century. It was last on display in 2012 at an exhibition held in the Museum of the Canopus. Someone apparently stole the head after that, possibly from storage.

The auction house cooperated with the investigation, suspending the sale so the Art Squad and the Dutch police could work together to research the head. In addition to confirming the true origin of the object, the joint investigation identified two Dutch citizens who were illegally in possession of the statue head. Armed with all the evidence, the police confiscated the portrait and returned it to representatives of the Carabinieri Art Squad. It will be kept with authorities in Rome while the legal case proceeds. When it’s all over, Julia Domna will go back to Hadrian’s Villa with all her family members.

Born in what is today Homs, Syria, to a wealthy family of senatorial rank, Julia Domna was the second wife of Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 A.D.). He chose her because she had been prophesied to marry a king, and Severus was a rising political and military star with ambitions for the imperial throne. They married in around 186 A.D. Their union was by all accounts a happy one. She was intelligent, highly educated, a patron of philosophers and politically astute. Severus relied on her counsel and very unusually for the time, took her with him on military campaigns.

Julia Domna bore him two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who hated each other bitterly. She tried to smooth things over between them and their father — Caracalla co-ruled with his father from 198 until his death — to ensure a smooth succession, never a simple thing at the best of times, and certainly not when a new dynasty was in play. When Severus died in Eboracum (modern-day York), he left the empire to both Caracalla and Geta. His last words to them, reported by Cassius Dio, “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.”

This was not advice the young men chose to follow to the letter. Caracalla had his brother killed by members of the Praetorian Guard before the year was out. He did follow his father’s dictum when it came to soldier pay, showering them with bonuses so generous that he soon had to debase the currency. It didn’t buy him security, though. In 217, he was killed by a disgruntled soldier egged on by the Praetorian Guard Prefect Macrinus, that same Macrinus who would just happened to become the next emperor.

During Caracalla’s six years of solo rule, his mother did all the grunt work of being emperor. Caracalla was on campaign most of the time, so it was Julia Domna who took on the onerous duties of administering a vast territory where every single legal dispute, no matter how picayune, was adjudicated by the emperor. The amount of paperwork the imperial administration had to deal with was staggering, hence the staff of thousands of slaves, freedmen, clerks, translators, etc. necessary to keep the wheels turning. Caracalla showed a mark disinterest in this aspect of the job, while his mother proved willing and able. After she heard of his assassination, Julia Domna committed suicide.

Her distinctive style, evident in her portraiture, and her great power and influence during the reings of her husband and son, make her busts among the most recognizable. The one, the only forensic hairdresser Janet Stephens covers Julia Domna’s styling in videos on her YouTube Channel.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/y4P2ZO6YEKs&w=430]

[youtube=https://youtu.be/68LEUXw2QJU&w=430]

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Stolen illuminated manuscript leaf to return to Italy

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

A stolen page from a 14th century illuminated manuscript that has been in the Cleveland Museum of Art since the 1950s is now in the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations division in preparation for its return to Italy. Codex D is an antiphonary, a book of chants used by liturgical choirs in the Middle Ages, which was once held by the Church of Saints Ippolito and Biagio in Castelfiorentino, Tuscany, a town about halfway between Florence in Pisa, and is now kept in a Castelfiorentino museum. It’s not certain exactly when, but two illuminated leaves were stolen from the manuscript. One of them was bought by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1952. It was attributed to a different illuminator at the time and the museum put it on display without realizing there was anything shady about its ownership history.

ICE only got involved recently when the second leaf from Codex D appeared on the art and antiquities Swiss market. That leaf was repatriated to Italy, but the investigation into its theft and recovery led to the leaf in Cleveland.

Working collaboratively with HSI to research the history of the leaf and after evaluating the information provided by the Italian government, the Museum agreed the leaf should be transferred to Italy to be reunited with the Antiphonary.

“Once we were able to substantiate the information provided, we decided that the best place for the leaf was back with the Antiphonary. We feel the leaf has greater significance if it is reunited with the other illuminations in the manuscript. Along with the recovery of a second leaf, the Antiphonary will now be complete” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The antiphonary was illuminated by one of the greatest artists of the first half of the 14th century. His name has yet to be discovered, but he is known as the Master of the Dominican Effigies. He was given his moniker by art historian Richard Offner after his magnum opus, a panel painting in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, entitled Christ and the Virgin Mary Enthroned, Attended by Seventeen Dominican Saints and Beati (beatified or blessed ones). His panel paintings were smaller triptychs and tabernacles characterized by complex narratives rendered on a miniature scale. He was one of a group of Florentine artists in the 14th century classified as painters of the “miniaturist tendency” who sought to capture the dynamism and emotion of life in the details of small scenes.

Many of the miniaturists, the Master of the Dominican Effigies prominent among them, were also manuscript illuminators. Indeed, their illumination skills played an important role in the artists’ approach to panel painting. Panels by the Master of Dominican Effigies, for example, have exquisite freeform decorative details created with a stylus rather than the metal rods with patterns on one end, known as punch tools, that were frequently used by Tuscan painters from the early 14th century to stamp decorations onto the work. He did it by hand with what was basically a pen, just like he did in his manuscripts.

The Master was one of the preeminent illuminators of his age and was commissioned by secular and religious patrons to illuminate antiphonaries, hymnals, even copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Laudario of Sant’Agnese, a hymnal he illuminated together with his friend and the other preeminent illuminator of their time, Pacino di Bonaguida, is widely considered one of the most important illuminated manuscripts made in early 14th century Florence. Its pages are scattered in 16 collections in Europe and the United States, four of them in J. Paul Getty Museum.

Because of their rarity and art historical importance, individual pages from manuscripts illuminated by the Master of Dominican Effigies are highly prized and found in a number of top US museums, including the National Gallery of Art as well as the Getty. Even small fragments of his illuminations are considered museum quality and can be found in museums like the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the Getty’s Laudario holdings is a fragment, a cutout of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Pacino di Bonaguida.

Only one leaf from of The Laudario of Sant’Agnese is still in Italy, so the return of both stolen leafs from the Codex D antiphonary is a rare and precious thing. ICE and the Italian government are working out the details of the repatriation now.

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Greek police bust massive looting operating

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

Greek police have busted a large-scale criminal organization that trafficked in looted antiquities. More than 2,000 artifacts, most of them coins dating from as early as the 6th century B.C., were confiscated in the bust. There are 2024 coins, 126 assorted artifacts, the oldest of which is a marble Cycladic figurine from the 3rd millennium B.C. Other artifacts include gold jewelry, three gold plates weighing a total of 110 grams, bronze arrow tips, a bronze animal figurine, a glass vase, five Byzantine icons, a Byzantine cross, and two medieval statues of a male warrior and a woman which were found hidden in a well in Nemea.

Led by the police directorate in Patras, southwestern Greece, authorities investigated the operation for 14 months. More than 50 people are believed to have been part of the ring which ranged all over the country and covered every part of the traffic from illegal excavations to illegal export. The gang found artifacts by digging at or nearby known archaeological sites and by using satellite imagery to identify new potential sites. The worker bees would dig at night to avoid detection, and the leaders of the ring would then arranged for the sale of the artifacts by directly negotiating with auction houses and private buyers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK.

Thanks to extensive documentation found in the bust, police have the full receipts on who bought what when. The dirty auction houses, which Greek authorities are not naming because of laws protecting suspects from exposure before trial, not only knowingly ginned up bullshit ownership histories (heyo Swiss private collection!), they also conspired with the looters to artificially jack up the bids during live auctions to squeeze more money out of buyers and even went so far as to give these bastards tens of thousands of euros so they’d have the cash to buy black market artifacts, mainly coins, that they hadn’t themselves excavated.

Underscoring the wide range of the criminal conspiracy, police also found a cache of weapons — modern shotguns, rifles, pistols, air guns, bullets, a silencer, plus an antique pistol and antique swords — 21 metal detectors, 73 cellphones, 17 computers, currency measuring scales, piles of cash in euros, dollars and Kuwaiti dinars and counterfeit plates. But wait, there’s more! Seven cars and some cannabis, to be precise.

Two of the leaders of the gang, a 54-year-old father and 27-year-old son, were arrested Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border. Police found 946 ancient coins and 32 ancient artifacts hidden in the bumper of their car. Another 24 members of the gang were arrested as well. It seems this outfit has been operating for at least 10 years.

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Stolen Van Gogh paintings found after 14 years

Friday, September 30th, 2016

Two oil paintings stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in 2002 were found by Italian police in a town outside of Naples. The anti-mafia squad raided the apartment of Raffaele Imperiale, a major drug dealer who is currently on the lam probably in the United Arab Emirates, in the village of Castellammare di Stabia as part of a large-scale investigation into drug smuggling by the Amato Pagano clan affiliated with the Camorra, the mafia-like criminal organization centered in Naples. It was in the basement that they found the two paintings wrapped in cloth.

The police called in experts to confirm the identity of the paintings, but they already knew what they had. The theft from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum is notorious, one of the FBI’s top 10 art crimes thanks to the paintings’ (very conservative) estimated value of $30 million. The two thieves climbed a ladder to the roof and broke into the museum in December of 2002. They stole Seascape at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884/85), two of the artist’s important early works. Two men were convicted of the theft a year later, but the paintings were never recovered and how they wound up a thousand miles south of Amsterdam in the hands of Camorristi 14 years later remains a mystery.

Van Gogh Museum officials are ecstatic. Museum director Axel Rüger said at the press conference in Naples: “The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for.” The paintings are priceless to the museum, of course; their less left the collection with yawning lacunae.

The art historical value of the paintings for the collection is huge. Seascape at Scheveningen is the only painting in our museum collection dating from Van Gogh’s period in The Hague (1881-1883). It is one of the only two seascapes that he painted during his years in the Netherlands and it is a striking example of Van Gogh’s early style of painting, already showing his highly individual character. The hoped-for forthcoming return of the Seascape will fill an important gap in the museum presentation.

Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is a small canvas that Van Gogh painted for his mother in early 1884. It shows the church of the Reformed Church community in the Brabant village of Nuenen, Van Gogh’s father being its Minister. In 1885, after his father’s death, Van Gogh reworked the painting and added the churchgoers in the foreground, among them a few women in shawls worn in times of mourning. This may be a reference to his father’s death. The strong biographical undertones make this a work of great emotional value. The museum collection does not include any other painting depicting the church. Moreover, it is the only painting in the Van Gogh Museum collection still in its original stretcher frame. This frame is covered in splashes of paint because Van Gogh probably cleaned his brushes on it.

Colonel Giovanni Salerno, head of the Guardia di Finanzia (financial police) division that executed the raid, said they recognized those unique paint marks on the back even before the paintings were authenticated as the missing Van Goghs.

The works appear to be in good condition, all things considered. The frames are gone. Seascape at Scheveningen has suffered some damage and is missing a small rectangle of paint (5 x 2 cm) from the bottom left corner. Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen has some damage around the edges. Conservators will have to examine them more closely to assess their condition. Clearly they have not been kept in ideal climactic condition, so there’s bound to be issues there.

Because the paintings are evidence in a giant organized crime case, they won’t be heading back to Amsterdam anytime soon. They will remain in the hands of Italian law enforcement at least until the criminal case is presented in court, perhaps even through the trial, which could take years. Police in Italy are very sensitive to art theft issues, however, and the museum has every confidence that they’ll do their utmost to get the paintings home as soon as possible.

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Ukraine returns five paintings stolen from Dutch museum

Monday, September 19th, 2016

Five of the 24 paintings stolen from the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, northwestern Netherlands, on January 10th, 2005, have been returned to the Netherlands by the Ukrainian authorities. How they ended up in Ukraine is unclear. Museum officials searched constantly for their purloined works — 17th and 18th century oil paintings by Dutch masters and 70 pieces of silverware — for years before finally spotting a picture of one of the paintings on a Ukrainian website in 2014.

In July of 2015, two members of the ultra-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) militia contacted the Dutch embassy in Kiev claiming that their battalion had all 24 of the stolen paintings and all the silverware. They claimed to have found the loot in the villa of one of their political enemies, a crony of the former president, and were willing to sell it back for an astronomical sum based on their groundless assumption that the art and silver were worth 50 million euros, a figure more than 50 times greater than the realistic assessment of expert appraisers.

The museum got the Ukrainian police involved, then the Foreign Ministry, then diplomatic talks ensued. No progress was made. When in December of last year they heard that the militia were looking for other potential buyers, museum officials notified the media and the whole crazy story made international news.

Since then, all kinds of under-the-radar things have been happening. Seemingly out of nowhere and with little explanation of the turn of events, in April of this year four of the 24 paintings were recovered by the Ukrainian secret service (SBU). They announced at a press conference that the recovery was the result of a special operation conducted in 10 regions of Ukraine over the course of four months, but no details were forthcoming about who had them or any legal repercussions for the thieves. All they said is they were found “in the possession of criminal groups,” which yeah, duh.

The four recovered works were The Peasant Wedding by Hendrick Boogaert, Kitchen Piece, by Floris van Schooten, The Return of Jephta and Woman World, both by Jacob Waben. These were the most prized of the stolen paintings and the museum was excited to get them back, especially since curators were concerned about their condition. Two of the paintings were still rolled up after having been cut out of their frames in the heist. Two others had been reframed.

Despite all the publicity about this caper and the artworks, the Ukrainian government dragged its heels about returning the paintings to the Westfries Museum. Officials decided they had to launch their own investigation of the pieces and who the legitimate owner was. The museum had supplied the authorities with ample documentation of their legal claim, which was doubted by nobody, not even the militia members themselves who had reached out to them directly, after all.

Then, in May, a fifth painting emerged, New Street in Hoorn by Izaak Ouwater. This one was handed in to the Dutch embassy in Kiev by an unknown buyer who apparently did not realize it was stolen when he purchased it. Again, no details were forthcoming.

Finally whatever kinks needed working out were worked out and on September 16th, all five of the paintings were formally returned to the Netherlands in a ceremony at the Dutch embassy in Kiev. Museum experts examined the works to authenticate them and assess their condition. The news for some of the works is grim.

[Museum director] Ad Geerdink: “Naturally I am very pleased about the return. But I am very sad about the condition of the paintings A Kitchen Scene by Floris van Schooten and A Peasants Wedding, by Hendrick Boogaert. For years, the paintings have been moved all over the place and they were folded or rolled up. They really suffered a lot. When unrolling them, a piece came loose. Luckily they can still be restored, but it will be a time-consuming effort. The costs will be significant, at least 100,000 Euros. As a museum, we are not able to bear these costs ourselves. We therefore hope that people will help us with the restoration by joining the crowd funding campaign. We will start the crowd funding when the paintings return to Hoorn. In the spring of 2017, we want to let the paintings shine again in full glory in the Westfries Museum.’

The paintings will be back on Dutch soil on October 7th and the museum is planning to welcome them with much happy fanfare. The five works will be briefly on display starting on October 8th and admission will be free for a week so the people of Hoorn can welcome back their long-lost prodigals.

I will post an update when the crowdfunding campaign is launched.

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Inverted Jenny stolen 61 years ago found in Ireland

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

An Inverted Jenny stamp that was stolen 61 years ago has been found and returned to its owner. The stamp, beloved by collectors for its mistakenly upside-down biplane, was consigned to New York auctioneer Spink USA by Keelin O’Neill of Northern Ireland. O’Neill got the stamp in October of 2013 from his late grandfather who he believed bought it at a garage sale. He had no idea of its value until recently when he did a little Google snooping and realized he might have a winning lottery ticket in stamp form.

At first the Spink appraiser thought it had to be fake, so he had it authenticated by the Philatelic Foundation in New York. There it was recognized as one of the block of four Inverted Jennies stolen in 1955. They notified the FBI and the owner, the American Philatelic Research Library (APRL). When he learned the stamp was stolen, O’Neill agreed to give it back to the APRL. He didn’t hit the jackpot he would have had the stamp been legitimately his — another Inverted Jenny, position 58, sold last Tuesday at auction for $1.175 million including buyer’s premium — but he wasn’t left empty-handed. O’Neill got a $10,000 reward from the American Philatelic Research Library and was just in the nick of time to collect a $50,000 reward offered by Donald Sundman of Mystic Stamp which was set to expire Saturday.

The Inverted Jenny was coveted by collectors before it was even sold. The US Post Office created the stamp to coincide with the launch of the first regular airmail routes on May 15th, 1918, in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. A fleet of six modified (the co-pilot seat was removed to make space for more mailbags) Curtiss JN-4H biplanes would transport the mail. Flying was a more expensive proposition so the three-cent stamps of standard first-class mail wouldn’t cut it. The price of an airmail stamp was set to a whopping 24 cents, and the first series of stamps would celebrate the new medium by featuring the Curtiss JN-4H in blue against a carmine rose frame for a patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme.

This was a very last-minute operation. The engraving began on May 4th, printing on May 10th. The first deliveries reached post offices in D.C., New York and Philly on May 13th and the stamps went on sale May 14th, just under the wire for the inaugural airmail flight from Washington, D.C. the next day. Collectors were on high alert already, knowing that this speedy print run was susceptible to inverts. At least three sheets with upside-down biplanes were spotted by inspectors and destroyed. A single sheet of 100 stamps managed to slip through quality control and into history.

Collector William T. Robey hit the philatelic lottery when he bought that sheet at the New York Avenue Post Office in Washington, D.C. on May 14th, 1918. He bought it for face value, of course: $24. Robey spread the news of his score to other collectors and the media and within a week he was assailed by all manner of folks clamoring to buy it, not to mention several postal inspectors who wanted the error sheet back. He sold it to Philadelphia stamp dealer Eugene Klein for $15,000. By the end of the month, Klein had sold it collector Colonel Edward H.R. Green for $20,000. It was Green who broke up the sheet. He had Klein divvy it all up into single stamps and small blocks. They wrote a number in light pencil on the back of each stamp so they could be identified by their original positions on the sheet. Those numbers are still in use today. Green kept a few blocks and sold the rest.

One of those blocks — positions 65, 66, 75, 76 — was acquired in 1936 for $16,000 by philatelist Ethel Bergstresser McCoy, daughter of Charles M. Bergstresser, silent partner and co-founder of Dow Jones & Company. McCoy was one of very few women to break into the old boys’ club that was philately at that time. She was widely respected as an expert in the field and had a particular interest in stamps with airplanes and palm trees. The McCoy block of Inverted Jennies was on display at a convention of the American Philatelic Society in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1955 when it was stolen by person or persons unknown.

Before her death in 1980, Ethel McCoy signed an agreement assigning all title to the stamp block to the American Philatelic Research Library. The FBI recovered the position 75 (lower left of the block) stamp in 1977 and position 65 in 1982. They were both in the hands of Chicago dealers and had been altered to make them less recognizable as McCoy block stamps. Now the first of the stamps on the right side has been recovered, leaving only position 66 still missing.

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Looters dig up Petersburg National Battlefield

Monday, May 30th, 2016

Just in time for Memorial Day, the National Park Service has discovered extensive looting of the Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia. Rangers found a large number of pits dug by treasure hunters looking to steal Civil War artifacts. They likely used metal detectors to discover small, easily removed and carried objects like uniform buttons, buckles and bullets.

These excavation pits were discovered by park staff last week. That area has now been sealed off as an active crime scene while the rest of the park remains open to visitors who, unlike the looters, have respect for thousands of Union and Confederate troops who were killed and wounded in the Siege of Petersburg.

Since the park is nestled in an urban setting, Rogers said, “Someone may have seen something we need to know. The public can help by calling in any tips or other information. The toll-free number is 888-653-0009 and callers can leave a message.”

The looting at Petersburg National Battlefield is a federal crime covered by the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Violators, upon conviction, can be fined up to $20,000.00 or imprisoned for two years, or both.

Unfortunately it will be difficult to recover any looted artifacts. The kinds of things likely to have been found would be next to impossible to trace specifically to the Petersburg battlefield as opposed to the Civil War period in general.

Petersburg is where the battles that finally ended the Civil War took place, and much like the war itself, it took far longer and claimed more casualties than anyone expected. The longest siege in US history began in June of 1864 after General Ulysses S. Grant put a stop to six weeks of failed frontal assaults on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army defending Richmond and withdrew to Petersburg. Then the second largest city in Virginia, Petersburg was a railroad hub and an essential supply line to Richmond.

The Union army failed to take Petersburg thanks to its leaders’ usual lack of coordination and failure to immediately press hard-won advantages, so they settled in for the long haul, digging trenches that would ultimately cover 30 miles of ground from the outskirts of Richmond to the outskirts of Petersburg. The subsequent siege lasted nine and a half months and saw a dozen major engagements between the Union and Confederate armies. With soldiers digging ever-growing networks of trenches, long periods of inaction peppered with battles that achieved few tactical goals at a great cost of human life, Petersburg presaged the approach that would characterize the First World War.

The Third Battle of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, was the last battle of the siege. The Union victory forced General Lee to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond. The city of Richmond surrendered on April 3rd. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, mortally wounded by exhaustion, disease, hunger and desertion, fought on for another week until it was defeated at the Battle of Appomattox Court House and Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th, 1865. That triggered the surrender of the rest of the surviving Confederate forces and the end of the American Civil War.

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14 men convicted in massive museum theft ring

Friday, March 4th, 2016

Remember the bumbling idiots who stole two Chinese Qing Dynasty artifacts worth $3 million from the Durham University Oriental Museum in April of 2012? It turns out they were just the stupid tip of a large and dangerous organized crime iceberg. Fourteen of them have been found guilty of stealing and plotting to steal Chinese antiquities and rhino horns from multiple museums and auction houses. Four masterminds were convicted on Monday, which allowed the Durham police to release the news about the full scope the plot and the connection between all these cases.

This is the culmination of a four-year investigation named Operation Griffin that began with the April 2012 thefts at Durham University, but the Oriental Museum was first targeted in January of that year. An Irishman tried to use decorators’ tools to steal a Ming Dynasty ceramic sculpture from a cabinet. The glass broke and the would-be thief was caught in the attempt to flee. In February four men tried to steal a rhino head from the Norwich Castle Museum. The head was so heavy they dropped it and ran. These four were later arrested and convicted. In March another bunch of crappy criminals tried to steal a rhino libation cup from Gorringes auction house in Lewes. They got confused and took a much cheaper bamboo bowl instead and were overpowered and arrested outside the building.

This pathetic litany of failure seemed to come to an end with the April 5th theft of the two Chinese jade pieces from the Durham Oriental Museum. At least they managed to cut a hole in the wall, take the objects they meant to take and get out before the police arrived. The dumbassness kicked in when they hid the loot on wasteland next to Harle Street on the outskirts of Durham. They neglected to note the exact spot and when the team of people dispatched to retrieve the artifacts arrived 16 hours later, they were unable to find them.

We owe this marvelous failure to a local resident who, after trimming his Leylandii hedge, threw the branches over his fence, unwittingly covering up a few million dollars worth of jade. Many frantic phone calls between the thieves and their bosses ensued. The police dubbed this “Panic Day” and it was key to their understanding that these thefts were part of a major criminal conspiracy.

The two dimwits were caught by the police so the gang wrote the loot off and quickly planned to replace the stolen goods with new stolen goods. On Friday the 13th of April, four thieves broke into the Fitzwilliam Museum and stole 18 very valuable pieces of Chinese jade. After so many failures, this was the motherlode. The thefts from Durham and Cambridge combined were worth about £17 million ($24,197,000) on the legal market, but on the Far East black market they were worth far more. Police estimate they could have gone for as much as £57 million ($81,131,000). Deep-pocketed Chinese collectors have been spending millions for heritage pieces at auctions and from dealers. Many have no particular concern about how the objects were acquired and are willing to pay whatever price no questions asked.

Another succesful raid took place a year later on April 17th, 2013, when three men broke in the National Museum of Ireland Archives and stole four 100-year-old rhino heads to sell their horns on the Chinese market. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and with so few rhinos left in the wild, the price of their horns is astronomical. Those eight horns on the rhino heads in the museum’s storage facility were worth an estimated £428,000 ($610,000).

Six of the men convicted for this conspiracy are connected by family or business to a community of Irish Travellers in Rathkeale, County Limerick. That’s why the gang is known as the Rathkeale Rovers. The four convicted Monday — Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, John “Kerry” O’Brien, Richard “Kerry” O’Brien Jr. and Michael Hegarty — are all family or friends. They didn’t sully their hands doing any of the burglaries. They just coordinated things from the safety of the Traveller camps. Instead, petty criminals were hired to do their dirty work, which is why so many of these thefts ended in ridiculousness, and why a slow 15-year-old boy who had never been to secondary school was arrested for the Fitzwilliam thefts, convicted and ultimately sentenced to four months.

Police believe at least one of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwillian was deliberately chosen as a replacement for the jade bowl lost in Durham, which means this may well have been a commissioned theft, something often bandied about after important art and artifacts are stolen, but almost never really happens. One of the 14 convicted in the plot is Chi Chong Donald Wong, an antique-watch dealer and property owner in London and Hong Kong who acted as fence and middle-man between the Rathkeale leaders and buyers in Hong Kong. Police busted him twice with plastic bags stuffed full of thousands of pounds in cash.

The police investigation found that the conspiracy reaches far beyond the borders of the UK. The gang has been stealing and smuggling rhino horn all over the world for years.

The robberies in Britain were part of a much wider picture of criminality across Europe. A year before Supt Green’s team started work, the European policing agency Europol released details of its own assessment of an organised crime group stealing rhino horn across Europe.

Europol charted dozens of robberies of rhino horn and had identified an organised crime group Irish Travellers – dubbed by the media as the Rathkeale Rovers or the Dead Zoo gang – as being behind them. A single rhino horn – valued for its (ineffective) medicinal qualities in China and the Far East – could reach €200,000 (£156,000), it said. The group was active in North and South America, South Africa, China and Australia.

For years, the gang had been targeting museums, but because there were only a few raids in each country, nobody had joined up the dots. The criminals reinvested the proceeds in property and luxury cars – much of it back in Rathkeale in Co Limerick – while continuing to live in their caravans. All of the key players were still in circulation.

The British team fed their information about telephone numbers, suspects, car number plates into the intelligence pool gathered by Europol. “It lit up their database like a Christmas tree,” a police source told The Independent.

Since the arrests, there have been no new thefts of Chinese artifacts or rhino horns in the UK. Unfortunately none of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwilliam have been found. Police think they were quickly shifted overseas for sale to Chinese buyers and are likely gone forever.

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