Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Roman head stolen from church facade recovered

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

Police have recovered a Roman marble head that was stolen from the facade of the Church of San Pedro in the village of Quintana del Marco in the northwestern Spanish province of León. Attached to a bust via a noticeably fractured neck, the sculpture was embedded in a niche 45 feet up the church bell tower in the 18th century. In a daring nighttime caper this February, thieves scaled the church facade and broke the head off at the fracture point, leaving behind harnesses, climbing ropes and pulleys.

The origin of the bust is unclear; experts believe it was discovered at one of several barely-explored Roman archaeological sites in the area. The sculpture dates to the fourth century A.D., but its identity is not known. The bust is most commonly referred to as the emperor Marcus Aurelius because of the beard and hair, but that was a common style at the time and could just as easily be a local dignitary who wanted to depict himself in imperial fashion. Village folklore associated it with Saint Peter which is why it ended up decorating the bell tower. According to Luis Grau, director of the Museo de León, the sculpture is the best preserved Roman head in the region of Castile and León.

Hence its lure to the thieves. Quintana del Marco has a population of approximately 500 souls and a Roman head in excellent condition sitting out in the open air proved so tempting even a 45-foot night climb was no deterrent. Selling it, however, proved to be a more arduous that scaling a church facade.

The police found the thieves by tracing the climbing gear they left at the church to a shopping center in Seville. The suspects live in the Alcolea del Río neighborhood of Seville where police set up a surveillance team in an attempt to catch them in the act of attempting to sell their ill-gotten gain. The team noticed that whenever the suspects appeared to be meeting with potential buyers, they would take measures to evade surveillance and shake anybody who might be following them. This behavior only confirmed police suspicious that they were engaged in illegal activities.

It all came to a head (yuk yuk) in June when police not directly involved in the surveillance operation pulled over the suspects’ car in Córdoba. They found an ancient Roman head in the trunk, an ancient Roman head that the occupants had no documentation for to prove legitimate ownership. Since León police were looking for just such a head, the connection was promptly made.

With the evidence obtained in the car search and over the course of the wider investigation, in mid-July police raided seven homes in the Seville area, six in Alcolea del Río and one in the Brenes neighborhood. They found more archaeological material, computers, climbing equipment, various relevant documents and more than 6,000 euros in cash.

For your amusement, here is raw footage of the recovery of the head and the arrest of the looters. I really enjoyed it because they look like total losers. :love:


Thief steals 12th c. bishop’s ring; repents just in time

Friday, July 5th, 2013

On Monday, June 24th, staff at the museum of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bremen noticed there was a ring missing from a locked display case. It was a gold and amethyst bishop’s ring made in the 12th century which had been discovered in the cathedral crypt during archaeological excavations under the nave in the 1970s. Authorities were baffled by how the theft was accomplished. The display cases are custom-made, light-proof to preserve the artifacts and secured with an alarm system.

The ring’s monetary value is considerable but insignificant compared to its historical value. It was part of the episcopal regalia found in the graves of eight medieval bishops, a collection of rings, insignia of staff, silver chalices, mitres and vestments from the 11th to the 15th centuries discovered in remarkable condition. The vestments, among them a remarkable 13th century dalmatic (the richly decorated wide-sleeved tunic bishops wear over the robe) with an Arabic inscription on a trim above the seam which translates to “the mighty sultan,” were painstakingly conserved by historical textile specialists in Stockholm, and then the whole collection was put on display when the Cathedral Museum opened in 1987.

Concerned that the ring could be broken up and sold for the materials, the museum offered a 3,000 euro reward for its return, but it was absolution the thief sought. Just two days after the theft, a 47-year-old addict turned himself in for the theft. Remorse at having stolen from the finger of bishop who died almost 1,000 years ago drove him to contact a lawyer and confess to the authorities. He told them he had stolen the ring and sold it to a coin dealer in Bremen. If he told them how stole from a locked display case, that information has not been released.

Police served a search warrant on the coin dealer’s shop and found the ring. In two days it had gone from looking like this:

to looking like this:

Looks like that wave of remorse hit the thief just in time to stop this historical artifact from being sold as a scrap of gold and a light, cloudy amethyst. Obviously there was no plan to sell it intact on the antiquities market.

Police returned the ring to the Cathedral museum on Friday. Museum director Henrike Weyh says “The damage is great, but I think it can be repaired.” Experts will need to examine it further before determining how and when to attempt any restoration. The museum will spend the time wisely, by auditing its security systems.


Police recover huge trove of looted Etruscan artifacts

Friday, June 28th, 2013

The Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities) revealed on Thursday that they have recovered a massive trove of looted Etruscan artifacts. The stand-out pieces are 23 travertine funerary urns from the 3rd to 2nd century B.C., identified from their inscriptions as having all been stolen from a single Etruscan tomb in Perugia, in the central Italian region of Umbria, belonging to the patrician Cacni family. Most of the urns are decorated in high relief with battle scenes, tauromachia (bullfighting), friezes and representations of the myth of Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon so that his fleet could sail for Troy.

An astonishing 3,000 more artifacts were recovered in this sting, dubbed Operation Iphigenia. Other Etruscan pieces from the Cacni tomb include a sarcophagus lid from the 4th century B.C., a bronze helmet, greave, shield, strigil and an extremely rare bronze kottabos, a Greek drinking vessel used to play a game popular at feasts and symposia involving the throwing of the wine lees at a target. Not all the artifacts are Etruscan; police also recovered thousands of other antiquities and ceramic fragments from the Middle Ages.

Officials call it without exaggeration the greatest Etruscan find since the last hypogeum — the Cai-Cutu tomb also in Perugia — was discovered in 1982, and it came very close to disappearing forever into the black market before anyone knew the artifacts existed. In fact, seven of the 23 urns were already in private hands when the police tracked them down, sold by the looters through middlemen to collectors practiced in the asking of no questions.

Operation Iphigenia started two years ago in Rome with the confiscation of a small travertine head and a picture. A person known by the police to traffic in black market antiquities was attempting to sell an Etruscan urn. He was shopping around a picture of the urn and the little head, removed from the urn in a creepy kidnapper way to prove to potential buyers that he was in possession of the artifact. The head was examined by an expert at the University of Rome Tor Vergata who identified its likely origin as an Etruscan tomb in the Perugia area.

Perugia was one of the 12 major Etruscan cities and is rich in funerary remains, most famously the Palazzone necropolis, a vast network of subterranean tombs dating from the 6th-5th century B.C. onwards. The Hypogeum of the Volumnis is an elaborate family tomb containing a number of cinerary urns similar in style to the one in the photograph. With the collaboration of the Superintendence for Archaeological Goods of Umbria, police focused their efforts on finding the source of the pictured urn in Perugia.

Investigations kicked into high gear last February when Perugian court prosecutor Paolo Abbritti coordinated increased surveillance of several people in the construction industry thought to be connected to the traffic in antiquities. The construction guys turned out to be more than just involved in the sales; they made the initial finds during work on a villa 10 years ago.

Instead of reporting the discovery to the authorities so the site could be properly excavated and the artifacts claimed by the Perugia archaeological museum, at least one crew member and the boss conspired to keep the pieces for sale on the black market. (It’s a little looter karma that it took them 10 years to sell just seven of the 23 urns and got caught in the attempt to sell the eighth. Yet again, thieves find it’s a lot harder to make a killing from the illegal sale of antiquities than they imagined when they first looked at an ancient artifact and saw dollar signs.)

The 16 urns not in private hands and the other Etruscan artifacts were found by authorities still hidden in the tomb. The find site is now in the process of being excavated by archaeologists from the Superintendence of Perugia. They expect to find more subterranean tombs connected to the Cacni chamber so this one discovery, already so hugely significant, is likely to lead to even more.

Five men have been arrested and charged for the looting and trafficking. One is the construction firm owner, another a construction worker and three middlemen who arranged the sales. It sure would be nice if those seven jerks who bought the urns felt the sharp kiss of the legal lash, but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda right now.


1500-year-old Chinese tomb murals salvaged

Monday, June 17th, 2013

In the summer of 2008, experts from the Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Shanxi Museum found a tomb in the ancient Fanwangsi Cemetery of Shuozhou City, a town in Shanxi province 200 miles southwest of Beijing, China. Built 1,500 years ago in the Northern Qi Dynasty, the tomb had been repeatedly looted and the only grave goods left were fragments from lower quality pottery figurines and glazed vessels. Besides those pieces, some wooden structural elements and a few iron nails that were probably once part of a canopy over the coffin were the only contents of the tomb remaining. Even the fan-shaped architrave over the doorway had been pried off.

Archaeologists were just in time, however, to save the true crowning glory of this tomb: richly colored murals painted on plastered walls and ceilings. Looters had already marked them for removal. There were blue lines drawn dividing the murals into discrete sections to guide the cutting tools and gauze fabric stuck to the murals in order to keep them from falling apart during the theft. Between June and August, the archaeological team excavated the tomb. In order to keep the paintings safe, to repair environmental and human damage and to ensure their rare ancient color remained brilliant, archaeologists decided to remove the murals. By the end of the summer, 860 square feet of murals were being restored at the Center for the Preservation of Cultural Relics of the Shanxi Museum.

The murals begin on the walls of the passage tunnel leading into the main burial chamber. There are red ochre clouds on the vaulted ceiling and armed guards and cavalry troops on both sides of the tunnel. There’s a single door guard on the west wall leaning against his sword and a pair of honor guards inside the door frame. They too lean on their swords as they face each other. Approaching from a distance are three units of cavalry troops. The same types of figures are on the east wall, the only difference being the orientation of the cavalry.

Passing from the tunnel through the doorway into the tomb chamber, the murals cover the floor to the ceiling in three sections. The domed ceiling is painted with a sky map. A dark grey background symbolizes celestial infinity and the silver river winding through the grey is the Milky Way. White dots on both sides of the Milky Way are stars. On the east side of the heavens is a solar orb with a crow in the middle. Across from it on the west side of the ceiling is the moon with the Lunar Hare and toad inside.

Beneath the sky map are the Four Supernatural Beings — the Green Dragon, White Tiger, Scarlet Bird and Black Tortoise — each guarding one of the cardinal directions. Beneath the Supernatural Beings the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac frolic counter-clockwise in a band around the dome.

Human figures come back into prominence on the walls of the burial chamber. On the north wall a man and a woman sit underneath a canopy at a banquet. These are probably images of the occupants of the tomb. On one side of the canopy female attendants stand, on the other male and female musicians entertain. The women attendants and the hostess wear their hair in the distinctive flying bird style.

The banquet is guarded by more cavalrymen and honor guards on the east wall. Of particular note is a tall light red horse in the center of the image. A line of honor guards stand in front of the horse and attendants carry equipment while in the distance two lines of cavalry approach. It’s a proud display, a procession moving from south to north.

On the west wall is a procession going in the other direction, north to south. In the center of this panel is an ox cart with an arched canopy and awnings. The ox is being driven by two non-Chinese men, so identified by their curly beards. Female attendants with flying bird chignons follow the cart, and yet another honor guard of five men on horses holding pennants are painted above the ox.

The last wall, the south wall, has the doorway in the middle. Around the entrance are two symmetrical sets of musicians. They stand side by side facing each other as they hold long horns so they cross each other at the top.

Such an elaborate set of murals suggest this was the tomb of a high-ranking official. Researchers believe he may have been the local militia leader under the Northern Qi Dynasty, a turbulent period of less than 30 years (550 to 577 A.D.) in which military leaders would have been very highly valued indeed. There are few records covering the history of Shuozhou City during the Northern Qi, and very few archaeological remains have been excavated. This was the first proper scientific excavation of a Northern Qi tomb in Shuozhou and is thus an invaluable source of information about an obscure period.

It took four years of work to restore the murals. They are now divided into 31 sections on aviation aluminum panels so they can be dismantled and transported for exhibition.


Documents stolen by collector returned to museums

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Some of the thousands of historical documents stolen by collector, historian and presidential inauguration expert Barry Landau and his accomplice Jason Savedoff are making their way home to the museums, libraries and historical societies from which they were pilfered. After Landau and Savedoff were caught in the act by a staffer at the Maryland Historical Society on July 9th, 2011, the FBI found 10,194 stolen documents and ephemera in Landau’s New York City apartment.

By the time the thieves pled guilty and went to prison in February of 2012, researchers from the National Archives and Records Administration had traced 4,000 of the artifacts to 24 institutions nationwide burgled by Landau and Savedoff. Since then, the rest of the documents have been identified, but because they were evidence in a trial, the documents couldn’t be returned right away even after they were matched with their home institutions.

The return process has begun in earnest now. The Maryland Historical Society received 21 of the 60 pieces stolen on Monday, May 13th.

Among the items recently returned to the Maryland Historical Society on Monument Street were a 1920 Democratic National Convention ticket stub and admission passes to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. Each document was encased by clear Mylar, carefully placed inside the envelopes and categorized by four-digit penciled numbers by investigators.

In a folder marked number 2977 from Box 22 and dated 8/12/11 was a small, index card-size ticket that read “Admit the bearer May 26th 1868,” to the gallery for Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. But on the back was a new mark, Savedoff’s small, penciled mark “W2,” which stood for “Weasel 2.” Landau referred to himself as “Weasel 1,” according to court documents.

Another folder held a narrow, white piece of paper with elegant cursive detailing Lincoln’s funeral procession in Vermont.

The oldest document stolen from the library by Landau and Savedoff was an invitation for the “Baltimore Assembly” dance, held on Nov. 5, 1793.

You can see video of the “W2″ Savedoff penciled on the back of the Johnson impeachment ticket in this news story. Weasel 1 and 2 also wrote “shoot” on the back of documents they intended to steal. The Maryland Historical Society has no intention of removing the thieves’ annotations. There are no conservation issues that would require the removal of a few pencil marks, and now they’ve become a part of the history of the documents. In the case of the MHS, where a staffer unimpressed by their gifts of cupcakes and smarmy bonhomie caught the Weasels in the act and finally stopped their reign of thievery, those pencil markings are a badge of honor.

Overall, authorities say about 20% of the stolen documents have been returned to their legitimate owners with the rest slated to be returned within the next few months. The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford has received almost all of the several hundred documents and memorabilia stolen by Landau and Savedoff over four visits. It’s hard to be certain, however, because the ephemera collections are not inventoried in as much detail as the more important document archives. Their unique, historically significant pieces like a letter from George Washington to Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, Jr. and a letter for Marie Antoinette were easier to trace and return than the tickets and programs and invitations.

It took a lot of research to identify the memorabilia. Some of the targeted museums were able to provide records and the Weasels both volunteered information as part of their plea bargains, but the National Archives and Records Administration had to dig deep to find the proper owners. Theme matching was helpful. Institutions known to have strong collections in certain areas were the likely sources for documents in that category. For instance, documents about former Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore were traced to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania which has a vast collection of Moore’s correspondence and papers.

Many of the institutions subjected to the Weasel depredations have revised their security policies in light of the thefts. Staffers at the Maryland Historical Society now check bags and notebooks for any pilfered documents before visitors are allowed to leave, and they’ve rearranged the chairs so visitors can’t hide away and steal their hearts out unseen by librarians. Even the National Archives has added layers of security, with searches of all people leaving the building and regular training for employees to introduce them to the ever-evolving ways thieves devise to steal stuff.

Landau is currently serving a seven year sentence for the thefts. Savedoff was sentenced to just one year.


Mayan temple in Belize bulldozed for road fill

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Last week, archaeologists from the National Institute of Culture and History’s Institute of Archaeology were called to the site of main temple at the Nohmul complex in northern Belize after learning that heavy equipment was damaging the 2,300-year-old structure. They arrived to find the onetime pyramid, turned by time into an overgrown mound about 100 feet tall, had been brutally whittled away by backhoes. Dump trucks were on site to carry out the limestone bricks, each one carved by hand with stone age tools by ancient Mayans, which apparently make good rubble for road fill.

Nohmul is one of only four important pre-classic Mayan sites in northern Belize and its central temple and namesake (Noh Mul means “big hill”) is one of the tallest in the country. The entire complex covers an area of about 12 square miles in the middle of sugar cane fields. There are 81 buildings, all of them mounds today, which were home to an estimated 40,000 people between 500 and 250 B.C. The main temple, in addition to having a public ceremonial and administrative function, may have also housed the High Priest or important nobles. You can see one of several chambers the Maya built into the structure torn open at the top edge of the destruction. Archaeologists found fragments of monochrome pottery typical of the pre-classic period all over the mangled site.

All of the buildings are on private property, but they are protected by law as ancient monuments. Unfortunately, the statutory protection does not stop unscrupulous fiends from using them as gravel quarries. As Dr. Allan Moore from the Institute of Archaeology put it in a local 7News story, “Belize is 8,867 square miles of jungle. We are only around 16 personnel in the department. We can’t be in the Chiquibul and at the same time being at La Milpa.” They have to rely on tip-offs, and by the time they respond, it’s often too late.

The construction companies are well aware of the advantage this paltry ratio of enforcers to surface area confers. There are tens of thousands Mayan mounds dotting the landscape; gutting them for use as rubble has become an endemic problem. This is a deliberate choice made by the builders. Although the mounds look like hills covered in plant growth rather than the clean pyramids we associate with Maya architecture, they are very well known as Maya structures. It’s not like the construction companies innocently think they’re clawing away at a hill only to find a wealth of limestone bricking. It’s the bricks they’re targeting.

The construction company in this case was identified. Archaeologists saw the name of D-Mar Construction on the equipment, a company owned by one Denny Grijalva, a United Democratic Party candidate for representative of his district, Orange Walk Central. Nohmul is in Orange Walk North. Interesting that the party platform includes rebuilding access roads to major tourist sites. It would seem counterproductive to build those roads using the major tourist sites. Then again, following election laws appears to be a sore point for Mr. Gijalva, so what’s a little cultural patrimony destruction?

When questioned by the 7News team, Grijalva denied knowing anything about his backhoes tearing down an ancient Mayan temple in the district next to the one he is running to represent.

Grijalva … referred us to his foreman who never answered at least a dozen calls we made to him. Then Grijalva said he would be there in twenty minutes, we waited fourty and left – we had been stood up.

Interestingly, Grijalva told us that when his foreman got there, he would apologize on behalf of the company, D-Mar’s and the Deputy Prime Minister, Gaspar Vega. Vega’s name comes in because Noh Mul is in Orange Walk North, and the roadfill is reportedly being used in nearby Douglas Village. Of course, we never met the foreman, but we have learned that after we left with the Archeologists, he did arrive and removed the heavy equipment.

How giving of them to remove their means of illegal demolition once the archaeological authorities and police were on site. Police are now investigating the temple destruction. Let’s hope there are real consequences — ie, prison — for Grijalva and anyone else who was in on this monstrosity.

As for the temple itself, there is no way to restore it. There’s just too little of it left. Archaeologists expect it to lose all structural integrity and collapse when the rains come.


Met to return looted Khmer statues to Cambodia

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Khmer Kneeling Attendant from Koh Ker, 10th c. (head acquired 1987)The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return two 10th-century Khmer statues looted from Cambodia during the chaos of the early 1970s. The matching sandstone statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, were donated to the museum in four pieces during the 80s and 90s. According to a statement released by the Met, museum officials were recently presented with new research proving that these statues were looted from the Koh Ker archaeological site 80 miles northeast of Angkor Wat some time after 1970.

Khmer Kneeling Attendant from Koh Ker, 10th c. (head acquired 1989)The Met has refused to specify what this new evidence is, but the bases of the statues with the feet still on them that looters left behind were discovered in 2007 and witness statements from surrounding villagers establish that the statues were virtually untouched as recently as 1970. As usual, both Cambodia and the Met are going through the motions of pretending the museum did nothing wrong when they accepted these artifacts without an ownership history even though anybody can tell just from the pictures that the statues were crowbarred or chiseled off their pedestals. The knees bear clear marks of their brutal removal.

The acquisition itself was in theory a donation. According to the Met’s website, the head of this figure was donated in 1987 and the body in 1992, both by collector Douglas Latchford. The head of the second figure was donated by Raymond G. and Milla Louise Handley in 1989, the body by Douglas Latchford in the same 1992 gift. Conservators reattached the heads to the bodies and in 1994 put the Attendants on either side of the doorway to the museum’s South and Southeast Asian Art gallery.

Martin Lerner, the Met’s Southeast Asian Art curator from 1972 to 2004 and the person in whose honor Latchford donated the pieces, noted in the 1994 recent acquisitions issue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin:

“The most significant gift to the South and Southeast Asia collections in 1992 was undoubtedly a rare pair of large Cambodian kneeling male figures dating to the first half of the tenth century … It is particularly gratifying that the monumental bodies join up with heads already in the collection.”

Pedestal of Kneeling Attendant still in Koh KerMy, what a gratifying coincidence. It’s almost as if somebody deliberately broke the statues to sell them piecemeal so they could be put back together a few years later while still granting the buyers plausible deniability. Spoiler: somebody deliberately broke the statues to sell them piecemeal so they could be put back together a few years later while still granting the buyers plausible deniability. This is a common practice in the penumbra where the antiquities underworld and reputable intstitutions/collectors meet. It could have been the looters who crowbarred the statues off their bases at the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, or it could have been the middlemen who sold all four of the pieces to Spink & Son, London dealers who specialize in Asian art.

Mr. Latchford has a different story about how these statues made their way to the Met. According to this New York Times article, he never actually owned the statues; he was just a conduit for the Met’s wishes.

“Spinks had had the pieces for some time,” Mr. Latchford said, “and they had not sold, so in honor of the curator, who was Martin Lerner, they requested that I would provide financial aid to donate them, and that’s what I did and why they are in my name.”

Mr. Latchford said that he did not know where Spink had gotten the items, that he never took possession of them, and that he does not have any documents from the transaction. He recalled spending about £10,000. A spokesman for Spink said it no longer has any of the paperwork from that era.

So if he bought all three of them at the same time at the museum’s request, then the Met’s acquisition information is false. The article also placed the Handley donation in 1987, while the Met says it was in 1989, two years after the first Latchford donation. Meanwhile, Spink is selling heads alone over the course of years even though it has the bodies in stock. I’m calling it right now: shady. Shady Sadie serving lady.

The Met is wise to unload their questionably-acquired pieces now before the law gets involved. I can’t help but wonder if that consideration underpins the decision even more than this mysterious “new research.” Sotheby’s is in the cross-hairs of the US Attorney right now over a statue looted from the same temple in Koh Ker.

Statue of Bhima at the Norton Simon MuseumKoh Ker was briefly the capital of the Khmer empire (928–944 AD) and the explosion of building in the city produced a wealth of exceptional carving, including the two Kneeling Attendants, Duryodhana, a 500-pound sandstone sculpture of a warrior that once stood in front of the western pavilion of Prasat Chen, and a matching statue of his arch-enemy Bhima, who stood across from him posed in perpetual conflict. These four were part of a group of 12 statues that have all been looted from the temple since the late 60s/early 70s. Bhima is now in the permanent collection of the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena (listen to the child’s audio tour on the website to hear some serious irony), although perhaps not for long since the Cambodian government has asked the US to help them recover Bihma, just as they have asked the US to help them recover Duryodhana from Sotheby’s.

Statue of Duryodhana in Sotheby's catalogSotheby’s has been trying to sell Duryodhana, which appropriately means “difficult to fight with,” for its Belgian owner since 2011, but two auction attempts have been blocked. The first was in March 2011 when Cambodia sent a letter claiming the statue had been illegally removed and requesting it be withdrawn from sale. The second was in April 2012 when U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara filed a civil suit in federal court seeking forfeiture of the statue on Cambodia’s behalf on the grounds that it was looted and exported in contravention of cultural patrimony laws from 1953 and that Sotheby’s knew all along it was stolen.

Bihma digitally superimposed over feet remaining in situSotheby’s denies everything, of course. They say they have no evidence the statue was stolen and that anyway the 1953 French colonial laws are ambiguous, and there’s no clearly stated cultural patrimony law that gives the current nation of Cambodia “ownership of everything a long-defunct regime made and then abandoned 50 generations ago.” So apparently anyone can just walk in and out of Cambodia with armfuls of Khmer artifacts because they were “abandoned.” Another shamelessly disingenuous argument Sotheby’s had made in retort is that they “have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left Cambodia over the last 1,000 years,” like the world has been swimming in 500-pound Cambodian statues since the turn of the first millennium but for some inexplicable reason this one just hasn’t appeared anywhere on the market, in museums or in collections until 975 years later. Absurd and offensive, not to mention that it contradicts their ludicrous abandonment argument since if they were looted and shipped out of country up to a thousand years ago, obviously they were not abandoned for 50 generations.

The government has archaeological research pointing to the statue’s being in country until the early 1970s, and even juicier, they have an email trail showing Sotheby’s conspiring to obscure the truth of its provenance. In emails between Emma C. Bunker, a scholar of Khmer art hired by the auction house to write the catalog entry, and a Sotheby’s official, Bunker straight up tells them it was stolen.

Feet of Bhima and Duryodhana in situ at Koh KerThe complaint [starting on page 11] quoted a e-mail from the scholar warning an unnamed Sotheby’s official about attempting to sell the statue at auction: “The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ.”

Ms. Bunker said in an interview that she had urged Sotheby’s not to sell the statue at public auction but rather privately, to attract less attention. But, she said, she did so only after Sotheby’s officials assured her they had clear provenance on the statue. “They swore — swore — to me they had proper information,” she said. “They didn’t have the all-clear.”

They did have a sworn statement submitted to United States Customs and Border Protection by the owner stating that “to the best of my knowledge” the statue “is not cultural property documented as appertaining to the inventory of a museum or religious or secular monument or similar institution in Cambodia,” but given that Bunker told Sotheby’s exactly where it came from, that “to the best of my knowledge” is just a pathetic cover to keep the owner out of legal trouble.

A recent ruling allowed the auction house to keep the statue while the case is winding its way through the system, but all attempts to dismiss the lawsuit have thus far failed. Sotheby’s says the Met’s decision to return their looted Koh Ker statues has no bearing on their case, and maybe it doesn’t from a legal standpoint. It may be an indicator of the way the wind is blowing, though.


Seoul’s 14th c. South Gate restored after 2008 arson

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

The Namdaemun, or Great South Gate, a wooden pagoda-style gate built in 1398 to serve as the main southern entrance to the walled city of Seoul, will officially reopen on Saturday, May 4th, after five years of painstaking restoration following a devastating fire.

On 8:40 PM on Sunday, February 11th, 2008, a man climbed a ladder to the second floor of the gate, poured paint thinner on the floor and set it on fire with a disposable lighter. He quickly climbed back down and fled, leaving behind unused bottles of paint thinner, a backpack, disposable lighters and the ladder. Firefighters were on the scene promptly, but there was some confusion about whether the fire was still burning and the Cultural Heritage Administration had warned the crews to proceed with caution so as not to damage the ancient structure. When the conflagration blew up again, it was too large to put out immediately. By the end of the five hour battle to put out the blaze, the gate had collapsed and was a smoldering pile of wreckage.

A suspect was apprehended the next day. A search of his home found a can of paint thinner and leather gloves used in the arson and he confessed immediately, pleading the public’s forgiveness. Apparently he destroyed this ancient and beautiful monument because he was mad at the government for ignoring a petition he filed complaining that property developers had not paid him proper compensation for land that had been expropriated to build an apartment complex. A four page screed on the topic was also found at his home by police.

He was 69 when he committed this crime, hardly an impetuous youth, and it wasn’t the first he set fire to a historical monument. He was convicted in April of 2006 for setting a fire that burned down part of UNESCO World Heritage site Changgyeong Palace in Seoul. In an example of justice gone very wrong indeed, he was given a suspended 18-month jail sentence and a fine of a few thousand dollars. He was convicted of the arson of Namdaemun in October of 2008. The law learned too late from its mistake, but at least this time he got 10 years in jail, none of them suspended. Let’s hope he’s too old to climb ladders when he gets out.

The destruction of the Namdaemun, officially named Sungnyemun, or The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies, was a devastating blow to the country. Seoul has lost a great many of its historic monuments to modernization, occupation and war. This ancient gate, one of four built along the walls protecting Seoul just six years after the city became the capital of the then-new Joseon Dynasty (1392 -1910), was the oldest wooden structure in the city. It was given the formal designation of National Treasure Number One in 1962 during a previous restoration to repair damage from the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945). It was only opened to the public for the first time since the occupation in 2006.

As horrific as the devastation was, there was still a fair amount of recoverable material from the site, enough to support a restoration. Authorities thankfully had made detailed architectural plans 182 pages long of the gate before opening it to the public in 2006, so restorers had accurate measurements and construction details to go on. However, given the opportunity to start from scratch, the government decided to restore the gate to its original form, rebuilding walls destroyed by the Japanese during the occupation and using only traditional construction methods. Instead of the modern paint and tiles employed during the restoration of the 1960s, this restoration would use only hand-made roof tiles fired in traditional kilns and natural paints, which had to be imported from Japan because there are no traditional paint manufacturers left in Korea, for the dancheong, the gloriously colorful decorative painting. Carpenters and stonemasons would use no power tools. It was hammers and chisels all the way.

Before the first hammer could strike, historians spent two years researching how the gate had looked originally. Surviving workers from the 1961 restoration were consulted for their memories of what had been changed. Craftsmen worked painstakingly to salvage every last part of the burned structure. Bent nails were heated and straightened one at a time at a rate of 50 to 70 a day. One team identified and tagged each piece of burned wood using radio frequency identification to find whatever could be reused and to collect more information about how they had once been put together. They recovered an incredible total of more than 60,000 original wooden pieces to reuse during the restoration. The 68 stone animals on the roof were pieced back together from fragments.

What could not be reused was recreated using materials as close to the original as possible. Pine wood from old growth trees, very rare in Korea today, was located so there would be time to fell the trees and cure them properly before using them. People flocked to donate pines from their property, so many that experts had their pick of the most noble pines left in the country. They ultimately chose 167 trees from 12 locations, including 20 trees from the Jungyeong Tomb in the city of Samcheok, the source of the pines used by the royal family during the Joseon Period. The total weight tally for the project was 26 tons of pinewood.

The roof tiles were almost obliterated by the fire, but 95% of them were factory-made versions installed during the 1961 restoration. All 23,369 of the new clay roof tiles were produced using traditional methods which result in a lighter weight, unique tile. This was no mean feat. According to traditional tile maker Han Hyung-joon of Jaewajang, who bears the outstanding title of Intangible Cultural Asset No. 91, there are only three kilns left in South Korea that produce traditional tiles. Making thousands and then shipping them to Seoul was tricky because the tiles can easily be cracked by temperature changes and damaged during transportation.

Master carpenter Shin Eung-soo (71) led the project, overseeing a team of 1,000 top woodworkers, stonemasons, blacksmiths and others craftsmen who had to work as their ancestors had. Even the tools themselves required research to find.

Lee Eui-sang, a 72-year-old mason who participated in the project, said the government’s plan to restore Sungnyemun in a traditional way perplexed him at first.

“I didn’t know what to do because all the tools used by the nation’s traditional masons disappeared in the middle of 1970s,” he said. So, he had to travel around the country in search of old tools.

“The past three years that I participated in the Sungnyemun restoration project were the most unforgettable experiences in my 55 years as a mason,” he said.

The project was initially estimated to take three years to complete at a cost of $21 million. It took five years and $24.4 million, which really is impressively close to the estimate considering the kind of detailed handcrafting that went into recreating the gate in all its glory.

On Saturday the gate will be reopened with a traditional cheondo ceremony to eliminate all bad luck and with a performance of traditional folk Korean folk song Arirang. The signboard on the front of the gate, repaired from surviving pieces of the old tablet with some new patching and now covered by a tarp, will be unveiled. Given the revival of traditional customs that this restoration has engendered, it’s eminently fitting that the reopening should feature the same ceremonies traditionally used to inaugurate new homes.


Pinault to return bronze rat, rabbit heads to China

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Summer Palace bronze ratThe vicissitudes of the bronze rat and rabbit heads looted from the Summer Palace by Anglo-French troops in 1860 and offered for sale at the epic Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé auction in February 2009 will come to an unexpected end later this year with their repatriation to China. François-Henri Pinault, husband of Salma Hayek and billionaire CEO of Kering, the holding company that owns such luxury brands as Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris and, not coincidentally, Christie’s, agreed to return the bronze sculptures during a diplomatic visit to China where he was one of a phalanx of businessmen accompanying French President François Hollande.

Summer Palace bronze rabbitThere’s no precise date for the handover, but Pinault said it would be done in the second half of the year. The rat and rabbit will be given as a gift to China from the Pinault family, he took pains to stress, so as to avoid any appearance that this was an official decision by Christie’s corporate overlords.

The 2009 auction of the heads was highly controversial. The rat and rabbit were once part of a clepsydra (a water clock) in the garden of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. Heads of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac mounted on human bodies served as water spouts, each head spouting water for a designated two-hour period. Designed by an Italian Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Castiglione, who took the name Lang Shining Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress by Giuseppe Castiglione, 1736and became an important painter and artist at the court of Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), this section of the palace and gardens blended Western and Chinese styles. The fountain clock adorned the entrance to the Hall of Calm Seas (Haiyantang) palace, built in 1759, which was a masonry palace inspired by the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

By the time of Qianlong Emperor’s death, the European art and architecture trend in China was passé. In 1795, the pipeworks were melted down so it no longer functioned as clock or fountain, but the external design was untouched; the heads and every other visible part of it remained in place. That would end in 1860 courtesy of the Second Opium War.

Print of Hall of Calm Seas (Haiyantang) palace with water clock in frontOn September 29, 1860, two envoys from the French and British expeditionary forces and their escort, who were in the town of Tung-Chow outside Beijing to negotiate a truce, were imprisoned and tortured. Apparently there had been some sort of scuffle between a French officer and some Chinese soldiers, and General Sang-ko-lin-sin ordered the whole Anglo-French party arrested. Although the two envoys and 14 of their escort survived, 20 died in a most brutal fashion.

The British and French were furious. The envoys had been under a flag of truce, so arresting and savaging them was a violation of custom and law. They saw it as a form of extortion, an attempt by the Chinese to strengthen their negotiating position by kidnapping. If it was, it backfired dramatically.

In retaliation, and to deter any future notions of kidnap and torture as negotiating tools, the British High Commissioner to China, also eighth Lord Elgin and the son of the despoiler of the Parthenon marbles, ordered that the Summer Palace be destroyed. The complex was by then populated only by a handful of eunuchs and servants and although there were Imperial troops in the environs, they weren’t about to rush in to protect the old pile. Foreign troops had already begun to loot it before the envoys were released; Elgin took it to a whole new level, saying, “What remains of the Palace, which appears to be the place at which several of the British captives were subjected to the grossest indignities, will be immediately levelled to the ground.”

Charles George Gordon, who would later become a famous martyr of British imperialism after his beheading in the Siege of Khartoum, was there as a 27-year-old volunteer with the Royal Engineers. He had just arrived in China in September and was among the troops dispatched by Elgin to do the deed. In a letter home, he described the destruction of the palace:

“We accordingly went out, and after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying, in a vandal-like manner, most valuable property, which could not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You would scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these palaces were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burned, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army. Everybody was wild for plunder.”

Ruins of the Hall of Calm Seas and the fountain todayThe grandees definitely hated them, and the people weren’t exactly fans either. They still harbor massive resentment over these events, and the destruction of the Summer Palace has become a symbol of how European powers despoiled and humiliated China. Today what’s left of the palace is a heritage park, and Chinese buyers public and private have spent tens of millions of dollars at auctions attempting to reclaim the bronze zodiac heads and the national pride they represent. The state-owned Poly Group purchased the ox (Christie’s, 2000, $78.98 million), tiger (Sotheby’s, 2000, $35.98 million) and monkey (Christie’s, 2000, $1.03 million) and put them on display in the Poly Art Museum. Macau and Hong Kong casino billionaire Stanley Ho bought the boar (Sotheby’s, 1987, $770,000) and donated it to the Poly Art Museum. In 2007, he bought the horse for $8.9 million from a Taiwanese collector who had bought it from Sotheby’s London in 1989 for $400,000. He donated that one to the Capital Museum in Beijing.

There are only two other heads known to have survived: the rat and rabbit. The remaining five — dragon, dog, snake, sheep and rooster — have never surfaced on the market or been published or publicly acknowledged in any way. That’s not to say they aren’t out there somewhere, but if they did make it, they’re deep undercover.

This is why when the last two bronze heads were put up for auction, there was an immediate hue and cry. The Chinese government lodged a protest. A group of Chinese lawyers attempted to halt the sale but had no legal grounds since the pieces have been circulating on the market since they were pillaged. Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s longtime companion and owner of the incredible collection that ultimately sold for almost half a billion dollars, offered to give them to China free of charge if China agreed to “give in return human rights, the liberation of Tibet, and a welcome for the Dalai Lama.” China, needless to say, was not amused and chose to decline the offer.

The auction went ahead and the rat and rabbit ostensibly sold for $20 million apiece to a phone buyer. That buyer soon revealed himself to be Cai Mingchao, a Chinese collector and auctioneer who had no intention of paying for the pieces. It was a protest purchase and he insisted the bronzes should be given to China on moral principle.

I thought at the time that Christie’s would contact the runner-up and sell it for the next highest bid, but apparently Bergé just decided to keep them. At some point between the auction’s end and today, Pinault apparently bought the rat and rabbit heads. There are no specifics on when he purchased them or how this was transacted.

We do know that China immediately hit Christie’s with sanctions, drowning them in complex paperwork requirements that in addition to choking sales also made it clear to Chinese buyers that the government was not pleased with Christie’s, so it would probably be best to avoid them if you wanted to stay in its good graces.

Today, however, relations are much thawed. Downright toasty, in fact, seeing as Christie’s was granted a license earlier this month allowing it to operate independently on the Chinese mainland, the first international auction house so honored. Pinault himself is also deeply involved in doing business in China, which is flush with new money and a taste for the luxury and retail brands Kering owns. I wonder if he called up Bergé a month ago and threw him a few tens of millions of dollars to secure the sweetest of hostess gifts in time for his trip to China.

And thus a hope expressed by Victor Hugo in November of 1861 (pdf) has come to pass.

One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. [...] All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.[...]

Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. [...]

The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-à-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.


Tapestry stolen by Belgian Lupin returned to Spain

Friday, April 19th, 2013

The Virgin and Saint Vincent, 16th century tapestry stolen from a church in Roda de Isábena, a tiny town in the high Pyrenees, in 1979 was officially returned to Spain on Wednesday, April 17th, in a ceremony at the Spanish’s ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton and Spanish Ambassador Ramón Gil-Casares spoke at the ceremony, describing the recovery operation as a fine example of what can be accomplished when law enforcement collaborates even across national boundaries.

This was certainly a joint effort, starting with the Spanish Civil Guard and coming to fruition in the United States. The stolen tapestry was first identified by a curator at a museum in Lérida when he saw it in an auction catalogue from the Brussels Antiques and Fine Art Fair of January 2010. The Spanish authorities contacted the Belgian police who investigated the tapestry and found that it was co-owned by a Belgian gallery owner and two partners in Milan and Paris. They found the owners had shopped the piece around to various galleries since 2008.

For reasons that are not clear to me but probably have something to do with auction houses being, on the whole, fairly amoral organizations, the discovery of the tapestry did not stop the sale. It went ahead in April of 2010. The tapestry sold for $369,000 to a dealer in Houston. That’s when Spain turned to the United States for help in stopping this sick cycle of fencing stolen goods. They invoked the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty and after an investigation, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents in Houston seized the tapestry in November of 2012.

There was never any doubt that this was the tapestry stolen in December of 1979 from the Cathedral of St. Vincent Martyr of Roda de Isábena. It’s a wool-silk weave depicting three saints – Saint Ramón, Saint Vincent and Saint Valerius — paying homage to the Virgin Mary and Christ child. Saint Valerius was bishop of Zaragoza in the late 3rd, early 4th century. Saint Vincent was his deacon. They were both tortured under Diocletian (a gridiron was reputedly involved) and died at Roman hands. Relics of Saints Vincent and Valerius are still kept at the cathedral in Roda.

Saint Ramón was bishop of Roda-Barbastre from 1104 until his death in 1126. He’s the one who commissioned the building of the Romanesque Cathedral we see today (with many later additions). His remains were buried in a beautiful sarcophagus in the cathedral. All three of these saints, therefore, have strong connections to Roda and the Huesca region in general. The tapestry was commissioned to honor the town’s main religious figures and it hung above the church’s altar for nearly 500 years.

The sleepy town of Roda d’Isàvena was a county capital and seat of the diocese in Saint Ramón’s days. The episcopal see was moved to Lleida in 1149 and Roda slowly contracted from a bustling regional center to a one-horse hamlet. Today it is the smallest village in Spain to have a cathedral. This sadly made it a prime target for the depredations of Erik the Belgian, real name René Alphonse van den Berghe, an art thief who for 30 years looted museums, churches and monasteries mainly in Spain but also elsewhere in Europe.

He was arrested in Spain in 1981 and jailed for the next four years (with a few hours’ break in 1983 when he faked a heart attack and then escaped from the hospital by literally tying his sheets together and climbing out the window; he was immediately recaptured). He was never convicted of anything, probably because during those years stolen and missing artwork just kept turning up mysteriously. In other words, he cut a deal, and now the statute of limitations has run out so he feels free to confess/brag about his exploits which, according to him, include 600 thefts of more than 6,000 artifacts — statues, paintings, tapestries, jewels, manuscripts, altarpieces, you name it.

Spain was one of his favorites targets because it was packed with cultural patrimony kept in unsecured venues in small, off-the-beaten-path towns. It was easy for him to just walk in and help himself to whatever he liked. It’s hard to know what’s true or not because he’s a scumbag and proven liar, but according to interviews he’s given, much of his thieving was not just enabled but actively commissioned by church authorities. He claims whenever the Vatican wanted to convert some of their clutter into cash, they’d sell it to him and call it stolen in public.

Apparently he prided himself on selecting artifacts based on their beauty rather than their monetary value. Not that that inspired him to treat them with due reverence. One of the objects he stole from Roda’s Cathedral of St. Vincent Martyr is the chair of Saint Ramón, a 9th century cross-frame wooden stool carved with Nordic motifs that is the oldest piece of furniture known to survive in Spain. Erik the Belgian cut it to pieces to make it easier to smuggle out of the country. Decades later, after the statute of limitations had run out, he arranged for the return of some fragments. Those are now arranged on an acrylic cross-frame structure to give visitors and pilgrims some sense of how it once looked.

As he tells the story, the chair was burned by his men when he was being tortured by the cops in 1982 and they mailed the fragments to the Ministry of Culture, but from what I can tell from news articles, as late as the mid-1990s the chair was in parts unknown. The remains don’t look scorched at all either. It’s probably just another one of his tall tales, like when he says he broke into Yuste Monastery, where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V moved to after his abdication in 1556 until his death in 1558, stripped it completely bare of all its valuables and then had sex with his girlfriend on Charles’s bed.

I suppose we should be happy The Virgin and Saint Vincent tapestry is still in one piece and, uhh, unstained. Conservators will double-check on that score. The tapestry will be kept at the Institute of Cultural Heritage of Spain (IPCE), a center for restoration with the latest technology and experts in the field. It will be examined and analyzed in great detail to see if it requires any interventions to keep it from deteriorating any further and to determine the optimal conditions for its long-term preservation.

Since that picture’s a little blurry, here’s some B-roll from the ceremony that shows the tapestry being carried into the room in a crate, then unrolled and displayed.