Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Ohio museum returns 16th c. astrolabe to Germany

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Germany giveth and Germany taketh away. Last month the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) announced it had acquired Napoleon’s brother’s exquisite spiral chandelier from a Hamburg art dealer. Two days ago the museum announced it would voluntarily return an exquisite 16th century astronomical instrument to the Gotha Museum in Germany after being presented with evidence that the object had been stolen from the museum after World War II.

The instrument is a multi-use device known as an astrological compendium made by Augsburg craftsman Christopher Schissler in 1567.
Schissler was considered the greatest of Augsburg’s instrument makers, crafting pieces of the highest quality from precious materials for the likes of August I, the Elector of Saxony, and Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor. Only around 100 instruments made by Christopher Schissler are known to have survived. This particular one was made for the Kunstkammer of Rudolf’s court in Prague. Rudolf was fascinated by mechanical devices and gave Schissler, along with other top instrument makers, access to court astronomers so they could be apprised of the latest research. He supported them financially and encouraged them to develop new designs and mechanisms.

This device is very much a show-off piece, a showcase for its owner’s wealth and scientific knowledge. Made from gilded bronze and enamel, it’s an astrolabe, but it also has a variety of other functions. The outside cover is a sun dial, the inside cover a map of the world from which a plumb-bob can be hung to calculate angle of inclination. Interior compartments include a wind rose, a compass, a lunary (a device to calculate the time based on the moon), a perpetual calendar and a zodiac showing which signs govern which days. It is inscribed along its octagonal edges “CHRISTOPHORUS SCHISSLER FACIEBAT AUGUSTAE VINDELICORUM – ANNO DOMINI 1567″ (Christopher Schissler made this, Augsburg ― Anno Domini 1567).

Image courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art.

The Schissler Compendium remained in Prague Castle until 1620 when it was taken as plunder by the forces of Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, after their victory against Frederick I, King of Bohemia, at the Battle of the White Mountain, one of the early clashes of the Thirty Years’ War. It was taken to Munich. Twelve years later, it was plundered again, this time by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden who invaded Bavaria and in May of 1632, took Munich. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle later that year and after his ally Bernhard of Saxon-Weimar died in 1639, the spoils from Bavaria were divided among the survivors. The Schissler Compendium went to Bernhard’s brother Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Gotha, who installed it in his collection at Gotha.

Inventory records from the 19th century indicate the instrument stayed put in the collection of the Dukes of Gotha at Friedenstein Castle for 300 years. When the palace was converted to a museum, the compendium went on display alongside a larger astrolabe by Schissler. Much of the collection was moved during World War II for safekeeping and returned after the war was over. Thuringia was occupied by American forces for a few months after the end of the war, and then the Soviets took over. They took many of the Gotha Museum treasures to the Soviet Union only to return them after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. We know that the Schissler Compendium was not among the art and artifacts returned to the museum by the Soviets.

So somewhere in the chaos of wars world and cold, the instrument made its way to New York art dealers and thence to Toledo, Ohio. The Toledo Museum of Art had no knowledge of its checkered past until May of 2013 when Dr. Martin Eberle, director of the Gotha Museum, wrote them a letter about the astrolabe. He included considerable documentary and photographic evidence that Toledo’s Schissler Compendium and the Gotha Museum’s Schissler Compendium were the same piece. After a couple of months spent reviewing the documentation, TMA Director Dr. Brian Kennedy wrote back to Dr. Eberle acknowledging that it seemed their astrolabe was the one stolen from the German museum.

The institutions negotiated for a year after that, planning the repatriation of the object and the loan of artifacts from the Gotha collection to the Toledo Museum of Art in exchange. They still haven’t decided which pieces will be loaned, but they’ll sort that out in due course. Meanwhile, repatriation is nigh, tentatively scheduled for March or April of this year.

Kudos to the TMA for returning the piece. There’s no legal requirement that they do so. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property does not apply, nor do the protocols regarding Nazi loot. This was entirely an ethical choice they made because they think it’s the right thing to do.

[U]nlike earlier cases, this is one that involves no government bureaucracy or complications raised by potential thieves or distributors awaiting trial. It is, as Mr. Kennedy noted, simply an agreement between two museums to get a historically valuable piece back to its rightful owner.

“We’ve recognized there’s been a cultural shift in how museums conduct themselves,” Mr. Kennedy said. “There’s much more scrutiny in how museums obtain their objects and transparency now.”

He said the TMA had made it museum policy over the past 10 years to look harder into the ownership history of every piece.

“This was a one-of-a-kind scientific device,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It’s sad to see it go, but it’s not ours.”

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Codex Calixtinus thief sentenced to 10 years

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

On Wednesday the Provincial Court of La Coruña convicted former electrician José Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras of stealing the Codex Calixtinus, an invaluable 12th century manuscript that contains the first travel guide for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For the theft of the codex, ongoing burglaries of cash and other items and money laundering, Castiñeiras was sentenced to 10 years in prison (three for the codex, five for the burglaries, two for the laundering) and a 268,000 euro ($304,000) fine. His wife Remedios Nieto was sentenced to six months for money laundering and got her own 268,000 euro fine because she had to have known her husband’s wealth was ill-gotten. His son Jesus Fernández Nieto was acquitted as the court considered him a patsy used by his father who bought two apartments in his son’s name to launder some of the stolen money.

The court concluded that the electrician had taken keys to, among other locations, the office of the Dean and of the administrator, and used them to gain access to the Cathedral safe that regularly held large quantities of cash from sales of tickets to the Cathedral museum and roof, rent from Church properties and donations of the faithful. The total amount Castiñeiras stole in cash alone is 2.4 million euros ($2,735,000) in currency from 59 countries.

Defense counsel Carmen Ventoso tried the “this whole courtroom is out of order” defense, calling the trial a “procedural Guantanamo” in which the defendants’ rights had been trampled from before they were even on trial. She claimed police had broken into the house and installed monitoring devices a month before the arrest, that the official police search exceeded the parameters of the warrant, that the first interview in which Castiñeiras admitted he had stolen the Codex at 12:00 AM on July 4th, 2011, was full of errors and invalidated by the interrogator’s hardball tactics (“suggestive,” “argumentative” and “repetitive” questioning verging on duress), and that the Cathedral’s security camera footage showing the defendant shoving stacks o’ cash into his pockets was altered after the fact to incriminate her client. She wanted the search thrown out and all the evidence gathered as a result of it.

The court, unsurprisingly, was not persuaded by this argument or by Ventoso’s repeated imprecations against Judge José Antonio Vázquez Taín who, according to her, is a sterling example of “what shouldn’t be done.” The judge didn’t buy her next defense — that Castiñeiras had OCD and was a hoarder — either, on account of he somehow managed to overcome this compulsion just fine when he invested his filthy lucre in property.

On the stand last month, the first time he spoke publically about the theft, Castiñeiras admitted he had “probably” stolen all that cash (different news stories put the amount at anywhere from 1.7 to 2.4 million euros) from the Cathedral safe before he had a stroke in 2004, but he stopped keeping his accounts after the stroke and couldn’t remember if he kept stealing. When the magistrate asked him if he had stolen any other artworks or valuables from the church (a number of antiquities were also found in his home), the defendant replied that he woke up every day at 6:00 AM to work hard for the Cathedral. Because apparently early mornings and work entitle you to stuff millions in cash, art, church documents and whatever else into your pockets, seems to be the implication.

That fits with the disgruntled employee theory of the crime. He was let go in 2011, officially due to restructuring, but possibly because he was suspected of theft. That can’t have been the source of his cleptorage, however. He may have stolen the Codex Calixtinus in July of 2011 out of pique, but he’d been making off with huge fistfuls of cash regularly for something like a decade by then. In his confession he said he was acting against the institution that had failed to offer him permanent employment, but he also hinted darkly that the lack of poverty and chastity from certain Cathedral personnel his poor, traumatized eyes had witnessed during his many years on the job drove him to a decade of thievery. The lack of chastity was homosexual, gasp, and the lack of poverty consisted in staff taking money out of the offering bag and helping themselves to the best donations of silverware, hams and fine wines.

The Codex is now back at the Cathedral. It was returned on July 8th, 2012, four days after it was found in a garbage bag under some newspapers in Castiñeiras’ garage. It was on public display in the chapter house for the day, after which it was put in a safe location while the Cathedral looked into improving its obviously faulty security systems.

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Portrait attributed to Leonardo seized from Swiss bank vault

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Italian financial police and the Carabinieri art theft squad teamed up with Swiss federal authorities Monday to seize a painting some believe to be a lost portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci from a bank vault in Lugano, Switzerland. Clandestine sale negotiations were ongoing when the police nabbed the work. The top asking price was 120 million euros ($135.9 million). Prosecutor Manfredi Palumbo said at a press conference that there are 70 people of interest in this investigation, all potentially part of a large illegal art smuggling ring attempting to move multiple works out of Italy into the black market.

The painting was found as a result of a fortuitous encounter during an unrelated investigation last August. The finance police in Pesaro, a town on the northeast coast of Italy in the Marche region, were looking into an insurance fraud case when they discovered documents indicating the portrait was in Switzerland. The finance police teamed up with the Carabinieri and tracked down the painting in the private vault of a Lugano trust. There’s some raw footage of the bust here. All that teal makes for a pretty sad looking Swiss bank vault.

This isn’t the paintings first sojourn in a Swiss vault. When the news of it first emerged in October of 2013, the portrait was one of 400 artworks kept in a Swiss bank by an anonymous Italian family who claimed the collection had been in Switzerland since the early 20th century. Completely unpublished and undocumented, of course, because that’s how Swiss private collections like it. Family lore whispered of it being Leonardo’s portrait of Isabelle d’Este so finally around 2009 or so, likely in advance of sale, they began intensive research on the piece. Radiocarbon dating found that the work was painted between 1460 and 1650; X-ray fluorescence found that the primer and pigments are consistent with those used by the Renaissance master. UCLA emeritus art history professor and Leonardo expert Carlo Pedretti enthusiastically authenticated the portrait as Leonardo’s work.

The question of whether Leonardo ever painted a portrait of Isabella d’Este has been much debated by art historians over the centuries. In December of 1499, Leonardo da Vinci fled Milan after the city was conquered by the French and his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza was overthrown. On the way to Venice, he stopped in Mantua where he was welcomed by Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, who had met the artist at the double wedding where she married Francesco and her sister Beatrice d’Este married Ludovico Sforza. (Leonardo had actually designed some costumes for a joust held as part of the wedding celebrations.) He wasn’t in town for long, but Leonardo did make the time to draw a portrait of Isabella in black, red, white and ochre chalk on paper. He made at least two sketches of her portrait profile. One he took with him to Venice; the other he gave to Isabella’s husband Francesco Gonzaga. Multiple letters from Isabella to Leonardo asking him to make a painting from the sketch have survived, but there is no evidence that he ever did so. Isabella also asked him to make her another drawing after her husband gave hers away in 1501, but there’s no evidence he did that either. The sketch Leonardo gave to Gonzaga is now lost. The sketch he brought with him is now in the permanent collection of the Louvre.

The discovery of an oil painting undeniably modeled after the drawing sparked much discussion as other experts disagreed with Pedretti’s attribution. One glaring issue is that the portrait is on canvas while Leonardo and his school used wood panels. This would be the only known work he ever did on canvas. It’s also a remarkably accurate match to the sketch considering that it was ostensibly painted years after the drawing was done (Pedretti posits that it was painted in 1514 when Leonardo met Isabella again in Rome). Then there are the quality concerns. Parts of it — the crown and that atrocious palm frond she’s holding — are clearly not the work of the master.

Just to add another layer of labyrinthine complexity to this case, recall that the news of the Isabella portrait broke in the Corriere della Sera’s Sette magazine the first week of October, 2013. Less than two months earlier on August 27th, 2013, Pesaro police received a tip that a local lawyer, Sergio Shawo, was found in possession of a letter from one Emidia Cecchini, the 70-year-old putative owner of the portrait, in which she exhorts him to sell the painting for no less than 95 million euros ($107 million). By Italian law, all art works more than 50 years old cannot leave Italy without a special export license and there was no license pertaining to the portrait. Pesaro authorities asked their Swiss colleagues to execute a search warrant on the Swiss bank vault where the painting was believed to be kept, but they were unable to find it there.

So when all the big publicity about this incredible find in the Swiss vault was going down with the dueling experts and the lab testing and all that, as far as authorities were concerned at least, the painting was actively on the lam. Police suspected it had been smuggled back into Italy in a dastardly game of keep-away, and indeed it may have been before returning to Switzerland the next year where it cropped up in that insurance fraud case.

The painting is still in Switzerland for now where it will stay until legal ownership can be determined. Cecchini, the nice old lady in reduced circumstances whose grandparents put together so fine an art collection, may be the legitimate owner trying to win the lottery by the illegal export and sale of her property, or that whole 400 paintings in a Swiss vault since the early 1900s story may be a complete and total fabrication to cover an art smuggling conspiracy. Two art dealers are under investigation for involvement in this case, and they were looking to sell other Old Master works at the same time.

Once ownership is established, the Italian authorities want the painting back in Italy. Until then, additional authentication research is on hold.

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Mark Twain plaque stolen from his grave

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

A bronze plaque bearing a profile of Mark Twain has been stolen from a monument on his grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, upstate New York. The missing plaque was reported to cemetery authorities by a visitor to the grave over the holidays. It’s not clear when exactly it was stolen, but it was sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The culprit had to use a ladder to reach the one foot square plaque, so it wasn’t a random vandal, and it’s unlikely to have been stolen just for its scrap value because the plaque right below it depicting Ossip Gabrilowitsch, husband of Twain’s daughter Clara, is still in place.

Mark Twain died in 1910 and was buried in his wife Olivia Langdon’s family plot in her hometown of Elmira. The 12-foot granite monument was commissioned in 1937 by Clara to honor her father and husband. Swedish immigrant and Elmira resident Ernfred Anderson designed the piece after Clara was impressed by a bust he had made of her father. The height of the marker is a deliberate reference to the great author. Twelve feet is two fathoms, the safe depth for a steamboat. Riverboat leadsmen on the Mississippi in the 1850s would call out “mark twain” to alert the crew they were in safe waters. The young Samuel Clemens trained as a pilot aboard a steamboat on the Mighty Mississip from 1857 to 1859 and continued to pilot a riverboat until the Civil War broke out in 1861. He first signed the pen name Mark Twain to an 1863 article for the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada.

Woodlawn workers did a thorough search of the cemetery grounds and adjoining woods looking for the plaque, but there was no sign of it. The Elmira community has rallied around the cause, offering reward money for any information leading to the recovery of the plaque. If worst comes to worst, the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes has pledged to donated up to $10,000 to replace the plaque. Rare bookseller and Mark Twain expert Kevin MacDonnell has offered the use of a plaster cast of Twain made by Ernfred Anderson to make a new mold for a replacement. It wouldn’t be the same as the missing piece, however, so local artist Denny Smith is working with Anderson’s family to locate the original plaster cast he used to make the bronze plaque.

Next, a foundry and a bronze artist will have to be selected. Also, the replacement plaque will need to be given a patina to match what is already on the Gabrilowitsch plaque so they look similar, she said. Finally, a decision will need to be made on who will install the plaque, she said.

“What’s been wonderful has been the community outpouring,” Hayden said. “Also, the Community Foundation is interested in the future in working with the Friends of Woodlawn to investigate the possibility of installing a security device to see that this doesn’t happen again.”

The cemetery hasn’t given up on getting the original plaque back. They’re asking for anyone who might have information on the theft to contact the Elmira Police Department at (607) 271-HALT or (607) 737-5626.

While we’re on the subject of Mark Twain-related monuments, I have to recommend the outstanding Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, where Mark, Olivia and their children lived from 1874 until money troubles forced them to move to Europe in 1891. Twain still loved the Gothic Revival masterpiece most of all, even though he never lived there again. It’s gorgeous inside and out.

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16th c. Faith stolen by priest found after 70 years

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

The Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit of the Carabinieri, a division of Italy’s national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities, has found a 16th century painting by Alessandro Bonvicino, better known as Moretto da Brescia, that disappeared from a church 60 years ago. It was discovered in Brescia, in the home of a businessman who had owned it for years without knowing its shady history.

Faith, one of six known paintings Moretto made depicting the allegorical figure of Faith holding the Holy Chalice, was removed from the small parish church of Santa Maria in Valverde in the community of Padernello near Brescia in 1944. It was an inside job: the thief was the parish priest, don Staurenghi. He had noble (by his standards) motives for running what proved to be a very effective, long-lasting scam. The church needed money to build an oratory, so he took it upon himself to secure funding by selling the church’s Renaissance gem to an old friend from his hometown of Verolanuova who happened to be the town magistrate.

To ensure their backdoor shenanigans weren’t found out, the magistrate hired painter and restorer Giambattista Bertelli (who not coincidentally was also from Verolanuova) to make a copy of the painting to hang in the church. He made no bones about the nature of the gig. Bertelli was explicitly told that he had to do a really good job because his work was going to be passed off as Moretto’s in the parish church and it was imperative that nobody notice the switcheroo. From October 19th until October 28th of 1944, Bertelli had the original in his studio (he would decades later note that it’s much easier to forge a painting when you have the original in your workspace) while he painted the copy on a 500-year-old canvas he’d sourced specifically for the job in Milan.

His copy of course included a later modification of Moretto’s design overpainting the Host with the three nails of the crucifixion. That iconographic alteration was the distinguishing feature of the Padernello version. While the apocryphal Faith deceived the faithful in church, in 1969 the original was restored to Moretto’s original image of the Eucharist. I’ll give you one guess who the restorer was. If you guessed Giambattista Bertelli, congratulations. Truly you have a dizzying intellect. Or you just figured out that to run a con without a false step for decades, you’ve got to dance with them that brung you. Over time the copy disappeared too and the fact that the church had ever had one of Moretto’s Faith paintings faded from memory.

The first clue to unlock the mystery was found in 1998, 54 years after the theft, in the Castle of Padernello. A group of volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the castle were cleaning up a pile of trash in an area that had been inhabited by the family of the Counts Salvadego until the 60s when they came across a “santino” (a card with holy imagery, often of a saint, that was traditionally printed to hand out on the more important days of the liturgical calendar) bearing a picture of Faith. It was labelled “Faith, parish of Padernello.” This was evidence that one of the six Moretto Faith paintings had once hung in the parish church.

Historian Gian Mario Andrico set to researching the whereabouts of the original. He found that the santino card had been printed by don Staurenghi for Easter of 1945, months after the copy was in place with no one the wiser (I’m rather in awe of his shamelessness). A few of the old timers remembered that the painting had once hung in the chapel with the baptismal font. Then Andrico tracked down Giambattista Bertelli. Proud of his meticulously maintained records documenting his involvement in this fraud (and since I’d wager his co-conspirators were dead and buried by then), Bertelli cheerfully spilled the beans.

In 2008, the Castle hosted an exhibition entitled Moretto, Faith, The Return that told the story of the purloined painting and displayed another version of it from a private collection. The Carabinieri used the catalogue from this exhibition as the starting point for an official investigation this year. It only took them a few months to locate the long-lost work along with a black-and-white photograph of it from the late 1960s. The magistrate had sold it to an antiques dealer who in turn sold it to the businessman in Brescia.

The art squad searched the church and found an altarpiece painting on the theme of the Sacred Heart that when viewed against the light showed anomalous elements. To ensure they had located the Padernello Faith instead of another version by the master or a copy, the police took the sequestered Faith, the black-and-white photograph and the altarpiece an to the laboratory of the Physics department of the State University of Milan for analysis. Infrared reflectography confirmed that the photograph was of the painting found in the apartment with it and that it was Moretto’s original. X-ray imaging found that the altarpiece had painted over a large cross that matched the one held by the allegorical Faith. Thus the fate of Bertelli’s copy was revealed.

The Carabinieri transferred legal custody of Faith to a representative of the parish but it’s not hanging in the church. Right now it’s in the Diocesan Museum of Brescia. I suspect this will be the long-term home for it, even though the church officially owns it again at long last.

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“Arbeit Macht Frei” gate stolen from Dachau

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

In what is becoming a sickening trend, the wrought iron gate bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will set you free”) at the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp was stolen in the early hours of Sunday. There are private security guards on the premises, but the camp has no surveillance system, a deliberate choice to eschew the ugly association of constant monitoring.

Gabriele Hammermann, [Director of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial], said Monday. “We have irregular guard patrols six to seven times per night at the camp, but all of the former concentration camps in Germany have so far not installed cameras, as we do not want to make these locations once again a high-security facility in respect for the deceased.”

The theft happened while the guards were patrolling sometime between 11:45 PM Saturday and 5:30 AM Sunday. The thieves, and there had to have been at least two of them, scaled the outer gate to reach the wrought iron one, then removed the entire door that carries the slogan off its hinges. They then had the heft it back over the outer gate. Because it’s six-and-a-half-feet high, three feet wide and weighs an estimated 225 pounds, the thieves must have had a getaway vehicle.

Police and state security are investigating the theft. They have appealed to anyone who might have seen a vehicle or suspicious people in the area Sunday morning to come forward with any information. Authorities suspect it may be a politically motivated act by right-wing extremists, although a commissioned theft is certainly possible. It has happened before.

The large “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign above the entrance to Auschwitz was stolen in December of 2009 only to be recovered less than 72 hours later. The thieves were Polish men hired by Swedish neo-Nazi Anders Högström who claimed to have acted solely as a middle man but ultimately pleaded guilty to masterminding the theft and was sentenced to serve two years and eight months in a Swedish prison.

I think this theft is slightly less likely to have been a deranged collector because the sign is not actually original. Dachau was the first concentration camp opened by the Nazi government on March 22nd, 1933, less than two months after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30th. It was built on the site of an abandoned munitions factory on the outskirts of the Bavarian town of Dachau, 10 miles northwest of Munich, as a forced labour camp for political prisoners. One of those political prisoners, Communist Karl Röder, was ordered to craft the iron lettering by the SS in 1936. Röder’s sign was removed after the war. A replica was installed in its place when the memorial was created in 1965.

That does not diminish the symbolic significance of the theft. Dr. Gabriele Hammermann considers it a:

“deliberate, reprehensible attempt to deny and obliterate the memory of the crimes committed in this place. The assault on this relict of highly symbolic importance demonstrates a new dimension, since it is an attempt to demolish the memorial at its very core.”

More than 200,000 people — political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, gyspies, clergy, reistance fighters, POWs (mainly Poles) — from all over Europe were imprisoned at Dachau in its 12 years of operation. More than 40,000 died from starvation, disease, torture, executions and death marches before US Army forces liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Today Dachau has the most visitors of any concentration camp memorial in Germany, approximately 800,000 a year.

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Pharaonic temple found under house in Egypt

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

The remains of a 3,400-year-old temple from the reign of Tuthmose III (1479-1425 B.C.) have been found underneath a house in the Egyptian town of Badrashin 25 miles south of Cairo. It was discovered two weeks ago under shady circumstances. A group of seven men dug nearly 30 feet (nine meters) under their home, even going so far as to secure wet suits, oxygen tanks and diving masks so they could keep digging after they hit the water table. The Tourism and Antiquities Police heard about the clandestine dig and arrested the men for illegal excavation. They were detained briefly but had to be released because the area where they were digging was not a designated archaeological site.

It is now. The entire Hod Zeleikha neighborhood has been declared an archeological site and is now under the control of the Antiquities Ministry. The unauthorized amateur excavation has been replaced with an official dig by archaeologists from Egypt’s antiquities ministry and workers from the state-owned Arab Contractors Company. After pumping out the groundwater, the team discovered seven large limestone blocks engraved with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the bases of several columns and a piece of a colossal statue. The colossus fragment is 6.2 feet high and carved out of pink granite. It depicts a seated person.

The hieroglyphics date the structure to the New Kingdom period (1539-1075 B.C.) and at least some of the inscriptions date to the reign of the pharaoh Tuthmose III (1490-1436 B.C.). The reign of Tuthmose III is considered a golden age in Egyptian history. The stepson and nephew of pharaoh Hatshepsut, Tuthmose III was technically pharaoh from the age of two, co-ruler with his stepmother. In practise he didn’t rule until Hatshepsut died 22 years after they ascended to the throne. He ruled another 32 years after Hatshepsut’s death. Under his reign, the Egypt empire reached its greatest extent, from northern Syria to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in Nubia.

The recovered artifacts have been transported to Saqqara for conservation and study. Archaeologists hope the inscriptions and future discoveries will reveal more about the history of Egypt under Tuthmose III. The ministry plans to continue the archaeological survey of the site and excavate more of the temple.

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691 artifacts seized in Spain returned to Colombia

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guercino masterpiece stolen from Modena church

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hiker falls onto monolith, saves it from looters

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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