Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Renaissance shield looted by Nazis returned to Czech Republic

Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has agreed to return a 16th century shield that was looted by Nazis during World War II to the Czech Republic. The pageant shield, elaborately decorated with a scene of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus capturing what is now Cartagena in southern Spain during the Second Punic War, was created by  Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso around 1535 out of wood, linen, gesso, gold and pigment. It was part of the collection of Konopiště Castle in Benešov, about 25 miles southeast of Prague, that was stripped bare during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It will now go back on display in the castle 80 years after it was stolen.

The complex battle scene of the Roman army assaulting the rounded crenelated towers of the city was based on a tapestry from a series depicting scenes from the life of Scipio designed by Giulio Romano for King Francis I of France. Romano drew the cartoons for the tapestries in 1531-1533. The tapestries were then woven in Brussels and sent to the king in 1535. They fell victim to the French Revolution’s orgy of anti-monarchical iconoclasm in 1797, destroyed to harvest the gold and silver threads used in the weaving. Copies of the Scipio tapestries commissioned by Louis XIV in 1688 survived the Revolution and are now in the Louvre.

(Wee digression: Cartagena was founded by Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s younger brother, in 228 B.C. at the site of an earlier Iberian settlement. The Punic name for Carthage was Qart Hadasht, meaning New City, because it was founded by Phoenician colonists from Tyre (the old city). Hasdrubal named his foothold in Spain Qart Hadasht too. It was Scipio Africanus who renamed it Carthago Nova after his conquest of it in 209 B.C. to differentiate it from the original, so he basically copyedited Hasdrubal, correcting New City into the more precise New New City.)

Twenty-four inches in diameter, the round shield was made for ceremonial purposes, and the subject matter may have been chosen in homage to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who in 1535 captured Tunis, née Carthage, from the Ottoman Empire. Charles V’s victory over the Ottoman corsairs was analogized to Scipio’s defeat of Carthage, and upon his return, the Emperor was feted all over Italy.

The shield was not presented to Charles V. It stayed in Italy for more than three centuries. In the 1700s it was in the Castello del Catajo outside Padua, part of the vast collection of arms and armature amassed by the marquess Tommaso degli Obizzi. He was the last to hold the title, and he left his all of his family’s wealth and possessions to the House of Este. Those lands, estates and collections were absorbed into the Ducal House of Austria-Este, the fruit of a marriage between Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, son of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, and Maria Beatrice Este, last surviving heir of the Este family.

That wealth paid for Konopiště Castle. Originally built in the late 13th century, the castle was refashioned into a Baroque palace in the 1730s and 40s, but had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 19th century. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination in 1914 would set alight the powder keg that exploded into World War I, bought the castle in 1887 with money he inherited after the death of the last scion of the Austria-Este ducal house. That inheritance included the Obizzi-Este collection of arms and armature, the third largest collection of armory and medieval weapons in Europe.

The collection, including the da Treviso shield, was installed in Konopiště Castle in 1896 where it remained even after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire birthed Czechoslovakia. Then came the Second World War.

In 1939 the Nazi government annexed the part of Czechoslovakia where Konopiště was located, and in 1943 the German army (Wehrmacht) confiscated the Konopiště Castle armor collection, including the shield, and took it to Prague to be housed in a new military museum. However, Adolf Hitler’s arms and armor curator, Leopold Ruprecht, soon skimmed off the cream of the collection, inventoried it, and dispatched it to Vienna, intending the best for Hitler’s planned mega-museum in Linz, Austria. At the end of the war, large groups of Konopiště objects were recovered by the Allies and returned to Czech authorities in 1946, but among 15 objects that remained missing was a shield whose description was similar to the pageant shield.

Thirty years later, the pageant shield was bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by avid collector of medieval arms Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch. Its ownership history was threadbare and previous attempts to determine whether it was indeed the looted Konopiště Castle shield were inconclusive.

Since 2016, the museum has been collaborating with historians in the Czech Republic to evaluate the history and provenance of the Italian pageant shield. Recent research identified pre-WWII inventories which, in tandem with a photograph, dated to around 1913, showing the museum’s shield as displayed at Konopiště Castle provided by the museum, persuasively identify the shield as the one illegally taken from Konopiště Castle by the Nazis and never restituted. Based on these revelations, the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art unanimously concluded that rightful title in the work belonged to the Czech Republic and approved the return of the armor at its meeting of June 17, 2021.

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Hero conservator busts huge loot collector

Monday, June 21st, 2021

The Italian Carabinieri Art Squad in collaboration with European authorities has confiscated almost 800 ancient southern Italian artifacts from the home of an unnamed wealthy collector in a town near Antwerp. The 782 archaeological objects were all illegally excavated from the region of Puglia. They date to between the 6th century B.C. and the 3rd century B.C. and are worth an estimated $13 million, if their immense archaeological value could ever be assessed in market terms.

This bust was the result of three years of investigation, and it all started thanks to an eagle-eyed conservator. In 2017, a conservator at the restoration laboratory for the Archaeological Superintendency of the Foggia area spotted a stele of the Daunian civilization published in the catalogue of a 1993 exhibition of ancient Italic art at the Rath Museum in Geneva. The stele was missing a central area. The incised design at the margins of the gap completed the design of a mounted warrior on a fragment of a stele in the Archaeological Museum of Trinitapoli.

The Daunian people inhabited the north of Apulia in the 1st millennium B.C., one of three tribes that grew from the union of Illyrian and Mycenean Greek settlers in the region. The Daunians assimilated less with the indigenous Italic peoples than the other two tribes and developed characteristic monuments and pottery unique to them. Of particular note are their funerary steles, made between the late 8th century B.C. and the 6th century B.C. and incised with elaborate decorations representing the deceased. No two are alike and they are very much peculiar to the Foggia-Barletta area that was the epicenter of Daunian culture.

So when the stele in the catalogue picture seemed to be an exact fit for a fragment in the museum, Italian authorities reached out to INTERPOL to find out who this Belgian owner was. His identity determined, the next step was securing a warrant to search his property and recover any other funerary artifacts looted from Apulian tombs.

The stele was found in his possession and it matched the fragment exactly, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Police confiscated an unprecedented quality of Apulian objects: red-figure, black-figure pottery and geometric pottery both Attic and local, Daunian steles, Greek terracotta figurines, clay heads, winged statuettes. Apulian works with anything like a legal ownership record are vanishingly rare and even the few in major institutions around the world can only be traced to the 1990s, so a full museum secreted in one guy’s house in Antwerp can only have been secured through years of dedicated traffic in looted archaeological objects. He didn’t just amass this number of high-quality Apulian artifacts in excellent condition by browsing flea markets and antique shops.

He, of course, contested the seizure of his looted antiquities, but all of his appeals have failed and the collection has now been transferred to Italy where archaeologists will study and document it thoroughly.

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Gold disc, symbol of Cusco, returned to Peru

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Echenique Disc repatriated to Peru. Photo courtesy the National Museum of the American IndianThe Smithsonian has agreed to repatriate a pre-Inca gold disc to Peru 119 years after its aquistion. The National Museum of the American Indian signed a memorandum of understanding with the Peruvian government for the return of the Echenique Disc, a gold disc whose design is the official symbol and shield of the city of Cusco. It was officially transferred to the Peruvian ambassador to the United States at his residence in Washington, D.C., on June 15th.

The object is a thin sheet of hammered gold about five inches in diameter. The alloy is relatively pure, composed of 90% gold, 5% silver and 5% copper, so just shy of 22 karats in modern classification. In the center is a fanged feline face with large rounded eyes and a snout-like nose, a design seen frequently in ancient Peruvian ornaments and pottery. It had a supernatural connotation — perhaps representing a deity — and indicated the high status of its owner. There are holes and slits cut into the sheet and it is believed to have been worn as a pectoral ornament.

The outer border is divided evenly into 20 sections that contain a variety of imagery including anthropomorphic figures, geometric shapes, crescent moons and other symbols. Their meaning has not been deciphered but may indicate the disc was a solar or lunar calendar. It is more than 2,000 years old, the most recent scholarship placing it between 800 B.C. and 1 A.D., and is a masterful example of ancient Andean goldsmithing.

As with so many cultural heritage artifacts that wound up far from their origins, the disc’s history is mysterious. It first emerged on the record in 1853 when it was given as a ceremonial gift along with several other ancient objects to then-Peruvian president José Rufino Echenique during an official visit to Cusco. Where it came from, who gave it to him, anything at all about its past before that point is unknown.

Things get murky again after that as the disc and other objects gifted to Echenique just sort of disappeared for a while. Julio Tello Rojas, father of Peruvian archaeology, tried to track them down in the 1920s and failed. He believed they had been sent to Chile and were destroyed in a fire in Santiago. He was wrong, at least in part, because in 1912 it was sold privately by Dr. Edward Gaffron, a German doctor who lived in Peru for decades and built an enormous collection of ancient Peruvian artifacts, to collector George Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian in New York which was later incorporated into the Smithsonian as the National Museum of the American Indian.

Gold ornamental plume or pin, ca. 200 B.C.–A.D. 400.  Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.The Smithsonian’s provenance for the disc records that in fact it was inherited by one of Echenique’s daughters who then sold it to Gaffron, and there are at least two other artifacts in museums that are believed to have been part of the Echenique group. One is a gold ornamental plume or pin incised on both sides with a similar supernatural feline figure, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They don’t know its provenance either. Big blank before 1850 and between then and its acquisition from a German private collection in 1942. Interesting German connection there; maybe Dr. Gaffron got his hands on more of the Echenique treasure than the one disc we know about.

The choice of the disc as the official shield of Cusco was a pointed one. In 1986, the city council passed a law prohibiting the use of any post-Conquest Spanish colonialist imagery in Cusco’s coat of arms. Today replicas of it adorns the streets, fountains and buildings of Cusco’s historic center. The original is expected to be returned to Cusco for permanent display, and Cusco’s mayor Victor Boluarte is hoping to coordinate with Peru’s Culture Ministry for its return by June 24th, the day of the Inti Raymi celebration, the Festival of the Sun, an ancient Inca ritual which is the culmination of the Jubilee month celebrating the heritage of the imperial city.

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Looted temple lintels repatriated to Thailand

Thursday, May 27th, 2021

Two hand-carved lintels have been returned to Thailand 50 years after they were stolen from ancient temples and smuggled out of the country. They were officially handed over to officials from the Royal Thai Consulate in a ceremony that included traditional Thai dancers and prayers at Los Angeles on Tuesday.

The 1,500-pound sandstone lintels were carved in the pre-Angkorean Baphuon style in the 9th-10th century when Thailand was part of the Khmer Empire. They were stolen from the Nong Hong Temple and the Khao Lon Temple in northeastern Thailand in the 1960s. The last time the Nong Hong lintel was documented in its original location was 1959. The Khao Lon lintel was in place until at least 1967. Avery Brundage, then President of the International Olympic Committee and an insatiable collector of Asian art, bought the former from a London auction house in 1966 and the latter from a gallery in Paris in 1968.

Brundage donated some of his enormous collection to the city of San Francisco and the Asian Art Museum was built to house it in 1966. He bequeathed the rest of his collection to his museum after his death in 1975. Today the museum has 7,700 Brundage pieces in its 17,000 piece collection. The problem is Brundage, a notorious anti-Semite and racist, gave not a single rat’s ass about the ownership histories of any of the loot in his collection, so now the museum is paying the price for Brundage’s cavalier covetousness.

The worm turned on the lintels in 2016. A picture of one of the lintels caught the eye of a Thai non-profit cultural heritage organization and in September of that year, Consul General of the Royal Thai Consulate in Los Angeles visited in person. He told museum curators that the lintels had been stolen and Thailand wanted them back. The museum ghosted him and other Thai officials until the Department of Justice opened an investigation in 2017.

After a long and thorough investigation, the US Attorney’s filed an asset forfeiture complaint against the City of San Francisco in October, 2020. It detailed the evidence that the lintels had been stolen, including correspondence between Brundage and both the London and Paris galleries concerning archaeological evidence that the lintels had been looted and appeals from Thai officials for their return.

The museum’s argument was that there was no explicit proof that the lintels were stolen, but temples do not willingly sell pieces of themselves, especially structural features carved with scenes of religious import, and Thai laws going back to 1935 prohibit the export of protected cultural artifacts except under extremely limited circumstances which require a license. They also claim the letters between Brundage and his loot suppliers were talking about a third piece which Brundage returned to Thailand in 1970. Those dogs didn’t hunt, as the saying goes, and in February 2021 the parties settled the case with the museum agreeing to consent to the forfeiture.

The lintels are scheduled to arrive in Thailand on Friday. After an initial examination by experts from the Thai Fine Arts Department, the carved stones will go on display at the Bangkok National Museum for three months.

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Off-duty Carabinieri spot looted Roman statue in Brussels shop

Tuesday, April 13th, 2021

A marble statue of a togate man that was stolen a decade ago has been returned to Italy after it was discovered in a Brussels antique store by off-duty officers from Italy’s Carabinieri Art Squad. They were in Brussels on a business trip and after work one day they went for a stroll through the Sablon neighborhood of the historic upper city which is known for its many antique shops. The headless Togatus statue in one of the stores caught their eyes. It bore the telltale damage of excavation tools, the kind of sloppy work done by looters eager to get their payday out of the ground quickly.

The officers didn’t enter the store, but did take a photograph from the street. When they got home, they looked up the statue in Leonardo, the Carabinieri’s database of stolen antiquities, their suspicions were confirmed. A statue matching their picture was on the list as having been stolen in November 2011 from the Villa Marini Dettina, an archaeological park outside of Rome.

The statue dates to the 1st century B.C. The toga has stylistic features typical of late Republican figures: it is ankle-length instead of floor-length, draped comparatively narrowly around the legs and has a short arm sling that positions the right hand at the chest. The right arm, bent at the elbow and confined in the draped sling with only the hand emerging is the uniform pose of Republican togate statues.

Togate statues and reliefs were widespread in the Imperial Rome, especially in funerary monuments. Only Roman citizens were allowed to wear the toga, and a boy’s first toga marked his entry into manhood, so they were a powerful iconographic representation of Roman identity, freedman status and manhood. Statues from the Republican era, togate or otherwise, are much more rare. This one, headless, significantly worn and with simple draping, is worth an estimated $120,000.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office of Rome alerted Belgian authorities, and the statue was seized as stolen property. The investigation has revealed what looks to be an antiquities trafficking operation, not just a single dirty deal made without asking any questions. An Italian businessman operating under a Spanish alias is alleged to have received the statue in Italy and arranged for its smuggling to Brussels. He has been referred for prosecution, charged with receiving stolen goods and illegal export.

The Togatus was repatriated to Italy in February and is back at the Villa Marini Dettina.

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Poussin looted by Nazis returned to heirs

Friday, April 2nd, 2021

A large-scale painting by Nicolas Poussin that was looted by the Nazis during World War II has been returned to its legal owners. Lot with His Two Daughters Serving Him a Drink was found in Padua, northeastern Italy, by the Carabinieri Art Squad.

Before the war, the 4×5-foot painting belonged to Strasbourg industrialist René Bloch, scion of an old Alsatian Jewish family who had lived for five generations in Alsace when it was part of France. The remained loyal to France even when Alsace-Lorraine was ceded to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War and by 1938 René feared that Germany’s ambitions, which had already swallowed Austria in March, would turn to Alsace. He asked a cousin in Poitiers to take in his large collection of decorative arts, including all his furniture. He fled to Brittany in 1939 and made it alive to the United States, only to pass away in 1942.

In late January, 1944, the Nazi occupiers swept through Poitiers, arresting and deporting 481 Jews to the death camps. René Bloch’s cousin was among them. Nazi troops then looted the properties of the deported Jews. The Poussin disappeared between February and August.

As soon as the war was over, René Bloch’s heirs began searching for the objects stolen from their house, but to no avail. It was put on France’s list of Nazi-looted artworks (published in numerous volumes and supplements between 1947 and 1949). A photograph of Lot with His Two Daughters appeared in Volume 2 of the publication. Neither hide nor hair of it was seen in public for 80 years.

It emerged again in 2017 when it was bought from France by an Italian antiques dealer. It was exhibited in Belgium at that time, and then again in 2019 at TEFAF Maastricht, the most important art and antiques fair in the world. It was there that a Dutch art historian, now resident in Italy, recognized it from the old photograph as the Poussin looted from Poitiers in 1944. The legal heirs of the painting, Block’s 98-year-old daughter who lives in Switzerland and a 65-year-old American man, filed a complaint in Italy last year, triggering a Carabinieri investigation into the ownership history of the painting. They searched the home of another Italian antiques dealer and confiscated the painting as stolen goods.

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Alhambra frieze returned by looter’s family 187 years later

Thursday, February 4th, 2021

Detail of intricate carving on section of Alhambra frieze. Photo courtesy the Council of the Monumental Complex of the Alhambra and Generalife.A long section of an intricately carved wooden frieze looted from the Alhambra Palace in Granada has been returned by the descendants of the man who looted it 187 years ago. The panel is 7’5″ long and was part of the ornamental ceiling frieze in the main room of the Partal Palace. It was taken by Richard Ford, a travel writer and art collector who stayed in the Partal Palace for two summers during his sojourn in Spain between 1830 and 1833. His descendants, brothers Francis V. and Richard A. Ford, contacted the Council of the Monumental Complex of the Alhambra and Generalife in September and arranged for the repatriation of the long-lost piece.

Built by the Nasrid Sultan Muhammad III of Granada (r. 1302-1309), the Partal oldest remaining structure in the Alhambra complex. The Alhambra suffered for centuries after the fall of Granada to their Most Catholic Majesties in 1492. It was pillaged, neglected, subject to destructive renovations, damaged in wars and used as impromptu housing for invading armies, brigands and squatters. The openwork carving and stylized calligraphy on the frieze is characteristic of Nasrid Dynasty art in the time of Muhammad III.

After years of decline and abuse, the Alhambra’s return to glory began in the Napoleonic Wars. It was used as a barracks by French troops under the command of Count Horace Sébastiani during the Peninsular War. Sébastiani ordered repairs be done to the roofs, walls and gardens. The only problem was he also ordered several of its towers blown up on their way out the door in 1812. Still, the Duke of Wellington was captivated by the palace, even in its derelict condition, and his stamp of approval sparked renewed attention among Grand Tourists.

Washington Irving lived in the palace for a few months in 1829 and he wrote about it in his collection of stories, Tales of the Alhambra, published in 1832. Irving, who a decade later would go on to serve as US ambassador to Spain under President John Tyler, had already achieved internationally renown as an author thanks to the success of his short stories and romantic histories. Tales of the Alhambra was another bestseller and his high praise for its beauty vaulted the palace into refreshed prominence.

Richard Ford’s highly influential travelogue, A Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845), cemented the revival of interest in the Alhambra. He somehow failed to mention the bit about helping himself to eight feet of it by way of souvenir, however, and nobody had any idea where the missing section was or even if it still existed. The only documentation of the loss was recorded during a 1923 restoration when the presence of a plain, uncarved panel in place of the original frieze section was recorded.

The prodigal frieze was radiocarbon dated and the results confirm it was made in the early 14th century. Conservators in the palace’s restoration workshop with clean, analyze and stabilize it. The conserved panel will then be reintegrated with its brethren on the ceiling of the Partal Palace.

The return of the looted section of freeze to the Alhambra Palace
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Huge trove of antiquities seized from French looter

Thursday, December 17th, 2020

A total of more than 27,400 ancient coins and artifacts have been seized from a French metal detectorist. The collection of objects stolen from heritage sites in France is so enormous it makes him one of the greatest one-man looting operations in European history.

The story starts in September 2019 when a French national identified only as Patrice T declared to Belgian authorities that he’d discovered Roman coins while scanning an orchard he’d recently acquired in Gingelom, 40 miles east of Brussels. Flanders heritage agency archaeologist Marleen Martens expected him to present a handful of pieces. When he pulled two large plastic buckets filled to the brim with what turned out to be 14,154 ancient coins out of the trunk of his car, Martens’ spidey sense started tingling.

Initial examination of the contents of the buckets found a wide array coins dating as far back as the 1st century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D., a variety and significance that made the man’s orchard story highly implausible, to say the least. She inspected the supposed find site and found hard evidence that the story was a lie: the pit that supposedly held more than 14,000 Roman coins had been dug in a soil layer formed in the Middle Ages.

He had at least one glaring reason to conjure up a fairy tale discovery. Belgium’s cultural heritage laws allow landowners to keep any archaeological material unearthed on private property. Under French law, these types of finds are considered national patrimony and therefore property of the state.

Flanders heritage authorities reported their suspicions to the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) who relayed them to the investigation branch of French customs (DNRED). Under questioning, the Frenchman confessed that he had in fact illegally excavated the coins from archaeological sites in eastern France over the course of years, that he had acquired the orchard in Belgium to launder his loot.

After a year-long investigation, DNRED agents accompanied by DRAC archaeologists raided the man’s house and discovered an unexpectedly diverse and valuable group of artifacts including Bronze and Iron Age bangles and torques, Roman fibulae, Merovingian, high Medieval and Renaissance belt buckles, pieces of statues, more Roman coins plus Gallic coins that can only have been looted from certain known archaeological sites. This guy even got his grubby hands on a Roman dodecahedron, an extremely rare artifact (only 100 are known to exist) whose purpose remains an archaeological mystery to this day. A total of 13,246 artifacts were seized in the raid on his home and from several safety deposit boxes he rented in Lorraine.

The man is now awaiting trial in the French courts. He could be sentenced to hundreds of thousands of euros in customs fines as well as prison time.

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California man indicted for Roman mosaic looted from Syria

Saturday, August 1st, 2020

Four years after a massive mosaic looted from warn-torn Syria was first confiscated, its trafficker has been indicted in federal court. It’s not much of a charge for so bold a crime; just one count of entry of goods falsely classified, which he has admitted doing already.

The mosaic is 18 feet long, eight feet high and weighs one ton.  It depicts Hercules, the skin of the Nemean lion draped over his left arm, his club on the ground next to him, on his 11th Labour, stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides. In this scene he is shooting an arrow at the eagle coming to feast upon Prometheus’ endlessly regenerating liver. It is believed to date to the 3rd or 4th century A.D. and the style is consistent with mosaics found in Idlib, a city in northwest Syria near the border with Turkey.

The FBI seized the mosaic in 2016 in the home of Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi in Palmdale, California, as part of an investigation into looted antiquities. He had imported it through Long Beach in 2015 along with two other mosaics and 81 vases. The paperwork declared the mosaics to be “ceramic tiles” and the entire shipment, mosaics and modern vases, to have been been acquired in Define-Hatay, Turkey, and to be worth a total of $2,199. The raid on his house turned up another ginned up document which even more ridiculously claimed he had bought the mosaic rolled up like a carpet in a 2009 yard sale from a family who had owned it since the 1970s.

Alcharihi admitted to authorities that he had paid $12,000 for the objects and lied on the form to dodge duties. He also admitted that he knew the mosaic was ancient, not a vague assortment of “ceramic tiles.” The feds found emails from him to a potential buyer in which he said the mosaic had been lifted from a historical building in Idlib and which included photographs of the mosaic in situ in 2010.

In 2018, the US Attorney’s Office of Los Angeles filed an asset forfeiture complaint against the mosaic, alleging Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi had illegally imported it into the country using fraudulent documents. Only now have the slow wheels of justice ground out an indictment, meagre though it may be.

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Stolen Van Gogh “proof of life” pics circulate

Monday, June 29th, 2020

A “proof of life” picture of the Van Gogh painting stolen from a museum in March has emerged. The photograph shows the painting topped by a May 30th issue of the international edition of the New York Times on one side and a book on the other. The book is Meesterdief by Wilson Boldewijn, a biography of one of the art thieves who stole two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. A second photograph shows the label on the back of the painting.

(The choice of book is obviously pointed, the art crime version of a weird flex. One of the two paintings stolen in 2002 was Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, a different scene of the same church where Van Gogh’s father was minister. Both paintings were found outside of Naples in 2016 after having been passed around as currency in a Camorra organized crime network for years.)

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in the Spring (1884) was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum outside Amsterdam in the early hours of Monday, March 30th, what would have been Van Gogh’s 167th birthday. The smash-and-grab raid targeted the painting which was on loan from the Groninger Museum. The thieves broke in through the glass door, took the painting and fled before the police could arrive.

These are almost certainly photographs of the authentic work. The image of the label on the back of the painting is particularly telling because as far as Andreas Blühm, Director of the Groninger Museum, knows, no photograph of the label has ever been published before.

The images were received by Arthur Brand, a private eye who specializes in retrieving lost art works. He is not naming his source, but he has extensive knowledge of and connections to the art crime underworld. He has seen more than these two pictures of the stolen painting, so it seems that the thieves are circulating these snapshots to find a buyer.

“In some cases when art is stolen, the thieves get nervous, they can’t get rid of it or they think the police is on their tail so they destroy it,” [Brand] told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “So these pictures show that we are dealing with professionals. So the painting is still alive, I wanted to say.”

Brand said he had shared the photos with police investigating the theft.

Police spokeswoman Laetitia Griffioen said the photos “are part of the investigation.” She declined further comment.

Professionals though they may be, they are not handling their cash cow with anything like appropriate care. From the photo, it looks like the painting is on a garbage bag and the newspaper and book are casually plopped on top of its unprotected surface. There is also a white mark in the bottom center just below the fence posts. It could be a scratch because the original painting was done on paper and later mounted on board.

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