Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Met returns two stolen artifacts to Nepal

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has returned two stolen religious icons to Nepal more than 30 years after they were looted. One is a 11th-12th century Standing Buddha that was stolen from a shrine in the Yatkha Tole neighborhood of Kathmandu in 1986. The other is a stele known as the Uma Maheshwor idol that depicts the god Shiva and his wife Parvati and is estimated to date to the 12th-13th century. It was stolen from the Tangal Hiti temple in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Patan in the Kathmandu Valley. The third largest city in Nepal, Patan is famed for its temples, palaces and rich tradition of artisan crafts.

The Met was given the Uma Maheshwor by a private collector in 1983. It wasn’t until the donation of the Standing Buddha in 2015 that the museum realized both pieces had been looted. Both statues feature in a 1989 book entitled Stolen Images of Nepal by Nepalese art expert Lain Singh Bangdel documenting the uncontrolled rash of thefts that ravaged Nepal from the 1950s through the 1980s. Temple deities were particular targets, stolen by the thousands. Easily portable — nobody thought to anchor them firmly when they were created a thousand or so years ago — and highly desirable to collectors, they weren’t guarded by security personnel. The local residents who worshipped them and prayed to them didn’t imagine they’d be ripped off and sold to unscrupulous Western collectors and institutions.

To its credit, the Metropolitan Museum of Art reached out to Nepal once it became aware the pieces were stolen. On March 6th, museum officials and Nepal’s Consul General in New York City signed a repatriation agreement, and less than a month later both idols were back in their native land.

The sculptures arrived at the Department of Archaeology in Kathmandu last Wednesday, April 4th. After the crates were opened, three men from the city of Patan traveled to Kathmandu to see their revered Uma Maheshwor stele for the first time in 35 years. The moment was all the more meaningful because Patan was devastated by the Gorkha earthquake that struck on April 25th, 2015, and many historical and religious structures and art works were damaged or destroyed.

Both works will now go the National Museum of Nepal in Kathmandu. This decision is not an uncontroversial one. The idols have profound spiritual meaning to the communities from which they were looted. They are considered living representations of deities. When they are put on display in a museum, they are exhibited as mere art pieces, a sharp decline in significance compared to the reverence they receive in their communities of origin.

There is a chance they might return to their shrines, however. By the terms of Nepal’s Ancient Monument Preservation Act 1956, communities can apply to have idols returned to them, but they have to prove they can secure them effectively. If they can convince the Department of Archaeology that the sculptures won’t be in danger of theft again, they will be returned. It’s a slim chance at best.

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These. Are. Looters!

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

Greek police have seized an ancient sculpture still in caked in the soil from which it was recently looted and arrested the looters. On March 23rd, officers from the Department of Cultural Heritage and Antiquities of the Attica Security Directorate arrested three individuals (aged 44, 48 and 57) in Sparta for illicit traffic in archaeological material. Inside a van owned by the 57-year-old police found a Hellenistic-era marble statue stuffed into a duffel bag. The figure is missing her head and one arm, but is believed to be a representation of the goddess Hygieia. It is 55cm (22 inches) high including the plinth.

According to the assessment of state archaeologists from the Ephorate of Antiquities of Lakonia, the statue is of significant value in terms of archaeological importance and unquestionably qualifies for protection of the statute establishing standards for the protection of Greek antiquities and cultural heritage. It is also of significant market value, and there is evidence the traffickers were already arranging its sale with an unnamed foreign buyer.

According to Greek law “all antiquities on land and sea are the property of the State, which has the right to investigate and preserve them”.

There are stringent fines and other punishments for people who intentionally or otherwise keep, sell or remove artifacts without telling the authorities.

Other objects were seized in the investigation at the homes of the suspects. Three of them were artifacts: an ancient loom weight, black-glazed grip from a Hellenistic vessel and a knob from a Roman-era lid, all of some archaeological value. The rest were tools of the trade — two metal detectors, two dowsing rods, two flare guns, eight mobile phones, pepper spray — and cash in the amount of 800 euros.

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Arrest made in Canterbury break-in!

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

The good news keeps coming regarding the break-in at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. Kent police have made an arrest and recovered more of the missing loot. On Monday, March 19th, the police received a report of a man “acting suspiciously” in front of a building on Sturry Road.

Officers attended and located a 36-year-old man of no fixed address who was arrested on suspicion of burglary.

A number of historical artefacts were recovered by attending officers, which are believed to been reported stolen in January from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust in Kingsmead Road.

So that confirms the ignorant clown theory. I seriously doubt this one drifter was able to cut through the walls of the Kingsmead stores and make off with thousands of artifacts on his own, however. That strikes me as a little above the acting-suspiciously-on-the-street pay grade. I’m thinking patsy.

The suspect is being held in custody as the investigation continues.

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Objects stolen from Canterbury Archaeological Trust recovered

Saturday, March 17th, 2018

Great news to report on this day of lucky shamrocks: most of the estimated 2,000 artifacts stolen during a destructive break-in at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust’s Kingsmead stores have been recovered. Kent Police received a tip that the loot had been dumped in a derelict house on Military Road. Officers from the Canterbury Community Policing Team and Canterbury Archaeological Trust staff went to the property and discovered boxes full of the stolen artifacts, including coins, axes, coins, metalwork, jewelry, carved bone artifacts and the full complement of more than 850 Anglo-Saxon glass beads.

Almost all of the archaeological material stolen in the raid is now back where it belongs. In other good news, because like so many thieves who steal cultural heritage these guys were a bunch of ignorant clowns who had no idea what to do with the material once it was in their grimy clutches, they didn’t even remove the objects from their labelled bags. That will make it a comparatively easy task for the museum staff to inventory and re-archive them.

Not found in the stash were the stolen educational materials, replica Bronze Axe axe-heads, replica Beaker pots and coins, that are actually expensive to produce although not worth much in terms of market value. See above re ignorant clowns.

Trust director Paul Bennett said: “We are hugely relieved to have got back such vital material which is of huge importance to the history of the city.

“We were overwhelmed by the support we got from around the world after we were raided. To get back such a significant proportion is fantastic and we would like to thank the police for their quick response.”

The raid on the store left property scattered about and a huge job for staff and volunteers to catalogue what was missing.

“The thieves probably didn’t know what to do with it because many of the items don’t have great monetary value. Some of the missing items may probably end up being sold at fairs.

“But we still hold out hope of getting some more of it back.”

The police investigation continues in the hope of recovering all of the stolen objects and, of course, the culprits. They have yet to be identified and the authorities are keeping mum on whether they have any leads to specific individuals.

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust is moving from Kingsmead, now afflicted with exposed asbestos and stripped copper wires thanks to the savage break-in, to a new facility in Wincheap later this year. The trust hopes to create a resource center there that will make their collection both more secure and more widely available to researchers and the public.

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Ugly Sweater-wearing idiot steals thumb of terracotta warrior

Saturday, February 17th, 2018

An individual who can only be described as a complete dumbass has been busted by the FBI for breaking the thumb off a Terracotta Warrior on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and hiding it in his desk drawer. It’s incalculably sad that this 24-year-old loser who still lives at home with Mommy and Daddy was at the museum on the evening of December 21st just to attend an Ugly Sweater Party. He was able to access the room where 10 priceless terracotta warriors, among them the Cavalryman standing next to a horse, were on display simply by walking through a door carelessly left unlocked by (Keystone) rent-a-cops and stepping over the black rope capable of cordoning off nothing and nobody.

He got a couple of his friends to join him, but they quickly left because they’re not complete dumbasses. He lingered a bit, looking at the statues with light from his cell, putting his arm around the Cavalryman and taking a selfie like an idiot. Then he deliberately with malice aforethought snapped off one of the statue’s thumbs and slipped it in his pocket before decamping.

We know all this now because the FBI’s crack Art Crime squad reviewed security tape footage and saw it all go down. The museum staff only noticed the damage to the Cavalryman on January 8th, more than two weeks after it was looted. That’s when the FBI stepped in. FBI Special Agent Jacob Archer compared the surveillance footage to credit card receipts for the night and identified the thief as Michael Rohana of Bear, Delaware.

When the agent showed up at the Rohana household, Michael folded like an origami crane.

In front of his father, Rohana admitted it that he had stashed the thumb in his desk drawer.

A U.S. attorney has decided to charge him with theft of a major artwork from a museum, concealment of major artwork stolen from a museum, and interstate transportation of stolen property.

He was arrested and released on a 15,000-USD bail, on the condition that he hand over his passport, consent to drug testing, and refrain from leaving the country before trail.

Meanwhile, the museum has reviewed its security systems and procedures in the wake of this debacle.

The actions of one jackhole and the failure to follow any number of responsible security protocols shouldn’t irredeemably taint the exhibition. This particular group of warriors and artifacts have only been shown in two museums in the US. The first was the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, from which they all survived unscathed. The Franklin is the second and therefore the only one on the East Coast. It’s the first time in 30 years that the City of Brotherly Love has had any Terracotta Warriors come stay for a while and given the colossal miscarriage of stewardship, it may be more than 30 years before they come back. Plus, they’ve created a nifty Augmented Reality app that allows visitors the chance to see the warriors in virtual close-up and to view them with digital versions of the original weapons and accessories that have long since been destroyed or lost. The Cavalryman would likely have held his horse’s reins in one hand and a spear in the other. The digital view includes those long-gone accoutrements.

Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor runs through March 4th of this year.

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Thieves ransack stores of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

Thieves have broken into the Kingsmead stores of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust and made off with coins, metal artifacts, bone artifacts, tools and more than 850 Anglo-Saxon beads. They ransacked the storage warehouse, leaving it a shambles and making it hard for the Trust’s staff to sort out exactly what was stolen. A conservative estimate is at least 1,500 pieces. It was not a one-time deal. They broke in four times at the end of January, on January 18th, the night of the 22nd-23rd, then on the 23rd and 24th. They went so far as to cut a hole in the side of the building and yank out copper wiring from the walls.

It would serve them right if they were panting with exertion when they broke through that wall, because what they didn’t know is the exterior wall they broke through contained asbestos. I hope they inhaled deeply. Sorry not sorry. The disturbance of old asbestos only adds to the Trust’s burdens in recovering from the mess the thieves left behind, unfortunately, on top of all the other work that needs to be done. Only expensive hazmat abatement specialized are equipped to handle asbestos removal, and they don’t come cheap. Neither do plumbers and electrician, and that hole in the wall cut through electric and water pipes as well.

[T]he attacks in Canterbury appear to have purely financial motives. The two thieves also stole copper cables from the building during the burglaries and one of the men was caught on camera stealing beer from a local shop. […]

“The combs are so fragile that in their hands they will disintegrate,” added [Trust director Paul] Bennett.

“They may end up on eBay or car boot sales for pennies whereas their real place is in a museum. They are our legacy for future generations.

“These two people have been allowed to run rampant and steal our material. They are a couple of low lives who live locals. They must have a huge swag bag.

“It is the heritage of Canterbury trampled and trodden on by a pair of thieves. We have been caught up in a whirlwind of thievery.”

A supporter has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help defray the costs of dealing with the break-in. It has a £1,000 goal, which while modest will contribute meaningfully to the expense of added security, personnel time and repairs. It’s about a third of the way to goal after one day.

CAT is asking collectors and enthusiasts who know their coins and beads to keep a sharp eye open on eBay and other sites where the looted objects might be offered for sale, also to share the Facebook post to get the word out as far as possible about the theft. CAT staff are updating a photo album with pictures of the stolen objects as they figure out what’s gone. That will give you an idea of what to look for on sites like eBay that don’t ask too many inconvenient (or any) questions about the source of the antiquities up for bid.

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Penn Museum training loot-detecting dogs

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

The Penn Museum is deploying one of nature’s highest precision weapons, the canine olfactory sense, in the fight against artifact looting. The museum, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the nonprofit Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law and Policy Research are working together on a project that will train dogs to detect and protect smuggled artifacts.

No longer a matter of local desperadoes trying to make a quick buck, artifact smuggling is big business now, generating an estimated four to six billion a year in blood-drenched profits for the criminal and terrorist organizations.

“[K-9 Artifact Finders is] an innovative way to disrupt the market in illicit antiquities, and that’s really what needs to happen to slow down the pace of looting and theft in conflict zones,” consulting scholar for the Penn Museum and 2000 Penn doctoral graduate Michael Danti said. “Currently, art crime, that means fine arts, antiques, antiquities, is usually ranked as the fourth or fifth largest grossing dollar criminal activity in the world on an annual basis.”

Danti said terrorist organizations often use stolen cultural artifacts to fund their operations, deliberately destroying them and using them for propaganda and “click-bait.” He added that high-profile groups like the Islamic State have continuously done this, setting a precedent for other similar organizations to employ the same techniques.

The K-9 Artifact Finders program is still in the initial setup phase at this point. The plan is divided into three parts, much like Caesar did to Gaul. To narrow down the almost impossibly broad range of smells associated with cultural heritage objects, trainers will focus on the Fertile Crescent which has been devastated by war, instability and increasingly professional organized criminals that treat the area’s immense cultural patrimony like their personal piggy bank. Penn Museum’s world-class collection of Mesopotamian artifacts will be invaluable in this pursuit.

Four dogs from the Working Dog Center’s, carefully selected for their noses and temperament, will learn to distinguish between up to three types of newly excavated objects. Once the dogs have completed the scent imprinting and recognize what they’re supposed to look for, the trainers will teach them to distinguish between different subsets of odor.

[Penn Vet professor Cynthia] Otto said there is a special procedure to introduce the smell of artifacts to dogs without compromising the artifacts.

“Our main training approach will be to use cotton balls and let the artifacts and cotton sit together in a closed non-permeable bag. That way the odor from the artifacts is absorbed by the cotton and we don’t have to risk damage to the artifacts,” Otto said. “We will also train the dogs to ignore the odor of the plain cotton and other things that might be similar but not the actual artifact.”

The second phase will be on-the-ground testing and the third a demonstration program that would give customs officers the tools to train their own K-9 units to find smuggled artifacts. Phases II and III don’t have all the funding they need yet. To make a tax deductible donation to help get the program from theory to practice, click here.

There are a lot of unknowns about this ground-breaking idea, like whether it’s even possible for dogs to distinguish between artifacts and things that smell like them due to a shared environment or what have you. I bet it is. One should never underestimate the power of the canine nose, and the anti-looter squad wouldn’t be the first dogs used in aid of archaeologists. Migaloo, a very good girl from Brisbane, Australia, was trained to detect human remains of archaeological age. Cadaver dogs have been around a long time, but Migaloo was the first to have the nose and the training to detect ossified remains, not decaying flesh. She found 600-year-old skeletal remains buried eight feet underground during one her tests.

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Looted mosaic from Caligula’s barge repatriated

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

I am devastated to report that my Roman idyll is at an end. I still have at least two more posts I want to write about the wonders I’ve seen, but not today because I’ve been up for what feels like a hundred hours straight and so am going with a new story. It is Rome-related, however.

On Thursday evening, a section of marble opus sectile flooring from a great barge built by the infamous Emperor Caligula was officially returned to Italy. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. confiscated the piece (which was being used as a coffee table in New York City) last month as part of an investigation into antiquities trafficking. The investigation revealed the true origin of the “coffee table” was one of the Ships of Nemi, built around 35 A.D., and that it had been stolen from Italy during World War II. It was made into a table top and acquired by a Park Avenue antiques dealer who kept it for almost five decades without realizing its unique history and inestimable archaeological value.

The Ships of Nemi were the only known examples of Roman ceremonial parade barges, not so much functional ships as massive floating palaces. Caligula’s were decorated with the same luxurious materials and architectural finishes found in an early imperial terrestrial palace: lavish marble inlay floors, statuary, fountains, gardens, heated baths and even a temple to Diana. They were so huge — the largest 73 meters long by 24 meters wide, the smaller 71 x 20 — that they would barely have had any room to maneuver on the surface of the small Lake Nemi. The emperor likely used them as extensions to his lakeside villa, follies harkening back to the pleasure barges of Greece and Egypt of the type enjoyed by his ancestor Marc Anthony during his years at the side of Queen Cleopatra. They may have been used to celebrate the festival of Isidis Navigium, a ritual dedicated to Isis in her role as protector of sailors that took place on March 15th to reopen the navigation season.

After Caligula was assassinated in 41 A.D., the barges were sunk in Lake Nemi and all knowledge of their connection to the emperor was lost. Fishermen pulled up ancient maritime artifacts from the wreck sites for centuries, and their tales of Roman treasure ships wrecked in antiquity lying on the lake bed were widely known in Italy. The first attempts to raise the barges took place in the 15th century when architect Leon Battista Alberti was commissioned by Cardinal Prospero Colonna to recover what was then believed to be a single wreck. Alberti built a floating platform from which he dropped ropes fixed to harpoons. It wasn’t just a failure, it was enormously destructive. The scale of the barges and their depth (about 60 feet below the surface) made getting purchase on the whole structure impossible. The hooks tore up hunks of wood which Alberti studied, learning for the first time that some were sheathed in lead. He also recovered some lead piping whose maker’s marks were erroneously associated with Tiberius and later Trajan, but the project never went any further.

Later attempts to explore the wrecks weren’t salvage operations so much as straight looting expeditions. Pieces of wood were pried off the ships and carved into curios for the tourist trade. Bronze oar locks sculpted into the shape of lions’ heads were sold to antiques collectors. Finally in 1928 a pioneering maritime excavation was initiated to save the Nemi ships from the depredations of time and covetous people. The water level of the lake was lowered to expose the remains of the barges. They looked great, but decay set in immediately as soon as they were exposed to the air. With no means to preserve the delicate wood, experts suspended the project in 1930, resuming only when the government agreed to build a museum on the spot, right over the wrecks. That would keep them safe from the elements.

The Museo delle Navi Romane opened on the shores of Lake Nemi in 1936, a proud Benito Mussolini presiding over the inauguration. Only eight years later, these one-of-a-kind survivals of Roman shipbuilding burned to the ground the night of May 31st, 1944. Allied bombs hit the museum in response to Nazi anti-aircraft artillery. Museum staff also report having seen German troops going through the museum that night with a torch, so it’s possible they burned it down themselves because they sucked so hard. By the time US troops arrived on June 4th, the only artifacts left in the museum were a few of the salvage items recovered from the wrecks before they were raised.

That’s why this coffee table section is so disproportionally important. This one piece of marble mosaic floor is one of only a handful of objects still known to exist from the Nemi Ships.

The antiques dealer, Helen Fioratti, said she and her husband, Nereo Fioratti, a journalist, had bought the mosaic in good faith in the late 1960s from a member of an aristocratic family. The sale was brokered, she said, by an Italian police official famed for his success in recovering artwork looted by the Nazis.

“It was an innocent purchase,” Ms. Fioratti said in an interview. “It was our favorite thing and we had it for 45 years.”

Ms. Fioratti, who owns L’Antiquaire and the Connoisseur, a noted gallery for antiques from Europe on East 73rd Street, said she did not intend to fight the seizure because of the expense and time it would take. Still, she said she believes she has a legitimate claim to ownership. “They ought to give me the legion of honor for not fighting it,” she said.

For her part, Ms. Fioratti said she had no papers proving ownership and she could not remember what her husband had paid for the mosaic. She said he had learned about the piece from a friend, who told him the aristocratic family was looking for a buyer.

When the piece arrived at their Park Avenue home, they paid to have a marble frame attached to the square of flooring and then put it on a pedestal in their living room. Over the years, Ms. Fioratti said, curators who visited had told her they were interested in procuring it for their collections. “I could have made a fortune,” she said.

Pardon me while I roll my eyes as far back as humanly possible. Yes, truly, what a martyr you are for buying an ancient artifact with zero history of ownership and a trumped-up fictional background and then liking it so much you didn’t profiteer off your war loot.

It doesn’t look like she’ll be charged for possession of stolen property at this point, even though that is what the search warrant said the authorities were looking for when they seized the piece.

 

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After many arduous labors, Hercules back in Turkey

Sunday, September 24th, 2017

A Roman-era marble sarcophagus decorated with a bas relief of the Twelve Labors of Hercules on its sides has returned to Turkey after a long sojourn in the at haven of looted antiquities smuggling that is the Geneva Free Port. The saga begins on December 3rd, 2010, when the 2nd century A.D. sarcophagus was discovered in one of the Free Port warehouses by customs officials during an inventory check. Measuring 7.7 x 3.7 feet and weighing three tons, the sarcophagus is actually on the smaller side for its type, but it’s still hard to miss as a suspect antiquity, even hidden under piles of blankets and boxes.

This type of sarcophagus was a popular consumer good, produced on a large scale in workshops in Dokimenion (modern-day Iscehisar, western Turkey) from locally quarried marble in the second half of the second century. They weren’t all cookie-cutter pieces, however. Some are distinctly better than others, commissioned by people who could afford the highest reliefs, the most prized marble and the greatest sculptors. This sarcophagus is the best of all the surviving examples, with top-notch carving depth and anatomical detail. A very wealthy person must have commissioned it.

After years of being used as a pivot for the illicit trade in antiquities thanks to its no questions asked approached and tax-free Geneva warehouse complex, Switzerland was now taking a different approach. In 2003, it finally ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In 2005 it passed a law requiring that all objects of cultural patrimony had to have verified ownership records. In 2009, a new law forced international traders in cultural goods to file complete and accurate inventories. This law had teeth too, with funding for a customs notification system and thorough inspection of the goods stashed in Free Port warehouses.

So when the sarcophagus’ so-called owner, Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealership co-owned by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam who have been involved in many, many highly questionable transactions of looted artifacts, was unable to provide proper documentation in compliance with Switzerland’s more stringent regulation, the object was sequestered. Ali protested vociferously. He insisted it had belonged, like all of his loot, to his father who had bought it legally in the 1990s. He fought all attempts at restitution, and the case dragged through the courts for six years.

A joint investigation by Swiss and Turkish authorities found that the sarcophagus had likely been looted from the ancient site of Perge in Antalya during an illegal excavation in the 1970s. This was confirmed by soil and marble analyses. How it wound its way from Turkey to Switzerland remains unclear and the Aboutaam’s father Sleiman died in 1998 so he can’t answer any questions. He also can’t be prosecuted. On September 21st, 2015, a Swiss prosecutor issued an order that the sarcophagus be restituted to Turkey. The Aboutaam’s appealed twice before withdrawing the last appeal in March 2016. That left the restitution order as the final legal say in the matter, and all that was left was for the slow grind of the legal grist mill to finish its work before the piece was returned. Culture and Tourism Ministry officials in Geneva received the sarcophagus on September 13th. It was in Turkey on September 14th.

After almost seven years of legal wrangling, detective work and waiting, the Hercules sarcophagus was welcomed to its new home, the Antalya Museum, on Sunday in an unveiling ceremony presided over by Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmuş. It is now on display next to the Weary Herakles, a Roman copy in marble of a 4th century B.C. original bronze by the Greek sculptor Lysippos of Sikyon, which was also looted from Perge and whose torso was pried out of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after a lengthy battle so it could be reunited with the legs already on display the museum.

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Stolen de Kooning found 32 years after theft

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

In a happy counterpoint to yesterday’s sad news, a painting by Willem de Kooning stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson 32 years ago has been found and returned to the museum. Woman-Ochre was snatched November 29th, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, in a classic two-person misdirection ploy. A woman and a man waltzed into the museum bright and early at 9:00AM. The woman ran interference with the security guard, capturing his attention while her partner cut the painting out of the frame. They quickly left together and that was the last anyone saw of them. The whole operation from entry to exit had taken less than 15 minutes.

The subsequent police investigation failed to find the culprits or the painting and for three decades the case was cold as ice. It turned burning hot earlier this month when David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, bought the painting at an estate sale. Van Auker saw it hanging behind the bedroom door at the home of Jerry and Rita Alter in Cliff, New Mexico, and decided to buy it along with a pile of other assorted gewgaws from the sale. He had no idea it was an original de Kooning; he just thought it was cool.

He propped the painting up against the wall of his shop and a customer told him it looked like a de Kooning. Then another customer noticed it and mentioned it could be a de Kooning oil painting. A third soon joined the chorus. Van Auker started getting antsy. Much Googling ensued, and when he read about the theft from the museum, he realized he very likely had a gazillion dollar stolen painting in his shop. He nervously moved it into the bathroom to keep it out of view of any more customers.

Van Auker called the UAMA and told them he thought he had their long-lost de Kooning. The next day the head of the museum, a curator and a restorer from the Arizona State Museum scrutinized the painting. The restorer examined it for two hours at the end of which she confirmed that it was authentic. After spending a night under lock and key at the local police station, Woman-Ochre was transported back to the museum in Tucson.

“This is a monumental moment for the museum,” said Meg Hagyard, director of UAMA. “We are thrilled at the possibility that this work could once again be on exhibit in our galleries. This is an especially poignant moment, as ‘Woman-Ochre’ was donated by Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. as part of one of the largest gifts in the museum’s history. Having both the collection and that gift complete once again is something that we’ve always hoped for.

Woman-Ochre is one of a series of paintings de Kooning did exploring the female form, a subject that many critics and artists asserted had been superseded by abstract, non-representational art. While eschewing the traditional depictions of what he called “the idol, the Venus, the nude,” Kooning drew from a wide range of iconographic references — prehistoric mother goddess figurines, advertising models, pinup girls — to create abstract expressionist versions of figures out of thick lines and dynamic slashes of color.

Paintings in de Kooning’s Woman series today grace the walls of the world’s top museums, and on the rare occasions when they become available on the market, they sell for astronomical prices. Ten years ago one sold for $137.5 million. Bound by the terms of the Gallagher donation, the UAMA cannot sell the painting even if it wanted to, which it most emphatically does not, but based on the comparables, it could be worth something in the neighborhood of $160 million.

At the time of the theft, the painting was insured for $400,000, a risibly small sum compared to its market value today. The museum very wisely put the money in an endowment fund and used the interest to upgrade its security systems. Upon the painting’s return, the museum paid back the original $400,000 to the insurers so they again have clean title to the artwork.

The de Kooning is in need of some tender loving care. The edges are ripped from being hacked out of the original frame and whatever jackass reframed it stapled it to a board. The thieves also rolled it up for ease of transport, making the paint brittle in parts. Thankfully it has not begun to flake yet. Before the painting goes back on display, it will undergo thorough restoration and study. Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating how the stolen work wound up in the nice but humble three-bedroom home of a retired music teacher and a retired speech pathologist.

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