Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

“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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691 artifacts seized in Spain returned to Colombia

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

A trove of 691 pre-Colombian artifacts seized by the Spanish police in a 2003 drug raid has finally been repatriated to Colombia after more than a decade of legal limbo. It’s one of the largest lots of illegally exported artifacts ever returned to Colombia, and it’s of inestimable value because of the breadth of cultures, periods and artistic styles represented. There are examples from all of the major civilizations to have flourished in Colombia over the course of 10 centuries before the arrival of the Spanish.

Eighty percent of the artifacts are clay pieces smaller than 12 inches high. These small pieces are disproportionately significant because there are very few examples in the warehouses of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), the National Museum of Colombia or in the collections of the archaeological parks of St. Augustine and Tierradentro. The other 20% are larger pieces including funerary urns and vases from St. Augustine, anthropomorphic figures, faces and masks from the archaeological site of Tumaco, ocarinas, whistles and other musical instruments shaped like snail shells from the Nariño region, whistles from Tayrona, ceramic vessels and bowls from the Calima region, stamps, rollers and human figurines from the Quimbaya area, metal votive objects (tunjos) from the Muisca culture, and an unusual collection of tubular glasses and ceramics from Tolima.

These treasures were part of a group of 894 artifacts from different countries confiscated 11 years ago in Operation Florence, a police operation against drug cartels and money laundering. The authorities gave the artifacts to the Museum of the Americas in Madrid for proper safekeeping. Space was made for the vast collection in the museum stores with constant climate control and high security. The museum director and his team of experts began cataloging and conserving the pieces in 2005. The process of identifying each artifact and determining a place of origin took years.

When careful analysis proved that the bulk of the collection came from Colombia, the museum informed the Spanish Police who in turn notified the Colombian Embassy. That was in 2011. The artifacts weren’t immediately returned because it wasn’t clear who owned them. Apparently they were smuggled out of Colombia by a man who laundered money for drug cartels. They don’t appear to have been stolen from museums or archaeological sites, not that anyone can prove, at any rate, so there was some question of whether a previous legitimate owner should get them back or if, as confiscated proceeds of illegal activity they were now property of the state under Spain’s version of asset forfeiture laws.

Colombia formally applied for repatriation of the artifacts to the Spanish cultural and law enforcement authorities in 2012. While the wheels of justice were slowly grinding, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History sent an archaeologist who examined the seized objects in the museum. His findings confirmed those of the Museum of the Americas’ experts that 691 of the 894 pieces seized originated in Colombia.

On June 24th of this year, a Spanish High Court ruled that the artifacts were Colombian cultural patrimony and thus should be immediately repatriated. The police picked up the 681 pieces from the museum and delivered them to the Colombian government via its ambassador in Madrid. The formal exchange being done, the Colombian ambassador asked the Museum of the Americas to keep them while arrangements were made for their return. An ICANH expert was on site to assess condition and help with the painstaking process of packing fragile artifacts for shipment across the Atlantic.

On Monday representatives from both countries took part in a repatriation ceremony in Bogotá.

The deputy attorney general of Colombia, Jorge Fernando Perdomo, said that after seeing these works “the efforts made by the entities” to recover the archaeological treasure give them added value.

“We have repatriated a museum which was abroad and which returns to Colombia to strengthen the historic identity of the country”, he said.

Perdomo thanked the Spanish government for the police work involved in seizing the items and for their return.

The director of the Colombian Anthropology and History Institute, Fabian Sanabria, announced that it was preparing an extensive exhibition for next year when the artifacts are to go on display.

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Guercino masterpiece stolen from Modena church

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hiker falls onto monolith, saves it from looters

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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Committee recommends British Library return 15th c. Sienese panel

Monday, July 7th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sheffield University returns looted tapestry to château

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Swedish city returns ancient textiles to Peru

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Norton Simon Museum to return Bhima to Cambodia

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stolen Rembrandt found after 15 years

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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