Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Norton Simon Museum to return Bhima to Cambodia

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stolen Rembrandt found after 15 years

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Looter caught with Roman gold, silver hoard

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

An unnamed and unauthorized metal detectorist found a late Roman gold and silver hoard in the forest near Ruelzheim in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state and dug it up so he could sell it on the black market. The authorities are not releasing specifics on how this scofflaw was discovered hoarding an ancient hoard except to note that “the looter rendered up [the pieces] himself – but only under pressure from investigators.” That means they caught him first and persuaded him to surrender the loot. The police have reason to believe he may have already succeeded in selling some of the pieces overseas. They will continue to investigate the case, looking for missing artifacts. No announcement was made regarding whether the looter would be charged with any crimes.

By German law, all excavations for archaeological material must be authorized in advance by the government heritage authority. Different states have differing laws on the particulars. Some allow finders to keep half the value of a find, if not the find itself. The Rhineland-Palatinate is not one of them. Searching for ancient artifacts with a metal detector is a misdemeanor offence. Removing any artifacts discovered without reporting them rises to the level of fraud, and selling them can result in a charge of receiving stolen property.

Certainly if monetary value plays a part in determining the severity of a property crime in Germany as it does in the US, this looter is going to be in big trouble. The hoard includes three dozen beautifully detailed solid gold brooches shaped like leaves, even more gold square pyramids that archaeologists believe all once ornamented a ceremonial tunic of an important Roman official. There’s also a silver dish with the remains of gilding still visible that was cut into pieces, possibly to be used as hacksilver, a solid silver bowl with gold accents inset with semi-precious stones, a crumpled and folded highly decorated silver plate that may have been a chest cover. A set of silver and gold statuettes and pieces of fittings are the remarkable survivors of what was once a curule seat, a commander’s portable folding chair.

The hoard dates to the early part of the fifth century A.D., a time when Germanic tribes banged away at each other and at the weakening Roman Empire. The Battle of Mainz took place in 406 A.D. not far from where this treasure was buried and it was a watershed event in the collapse of Roman control of Europe. Pressured by Huns in the east, migrating allied tribes including Alans, Suevi and Vandals assembled on the east bank of the Rhine. The Franks sent a raiding party across the river and succeeded in killing the Vandal king Godigisel, but the Alans turned the tide and defeated the Franks. The tribes then crossed the Rhine into Gaul on December 31st, 406, breaching what had been for centuries one of Rome’s strongest boundaries and pillaging Mainz, Rheims, Amiens and Strasbourg among many other Roman cities. It marked the end of Roman political and military control in northern Gaul and ushered in the Migration Period.

It’s no wonder why someone might have sought to bury his most precious treasures under these circumstances. The jewels from ceremonial clothing, the elaborate silver and gold folding chair and the exquisite silver tableware all point to them having been the belongings of an important magistrate or even royalty. These were the highly recognizable attributes of Roman political authority. They were buried near a former Roman road, whether by its original owner of by marauders who wanted to keep it safe from competing marauders, in a relatively shallow hole. It’s a testament to how dangerous the roads were that nobody made it back to reclaim so vast a treasure.

The age and nature of this hoard makes it a unique find in Germany, worth at least a million euro on the market and worth far more than that in historical value. It would be worth inestimably more if it had been excavated with respect for its context. Instead, the looter pulled whatever he could out of the ground, having no care whatsoever for archaeological integrity. According to state archaeologist Axel von Berg, the curule chair, for example, was “brutally torn out of the earth and destroyed.” The site itself was deliberately damaged. Boy would I love to see this thief prosecuted just for doing that.

Meanwhile, some people are getting excited over the prospect that this could be part of the legendary Nibelung hoard, the Rhine gold that features in Norse and German sagas and Richard Wagner’s opera cycle based upon them. The evidence for this is nonexistent, of course. The fifth century dating and the location somewhere in the vague area where the Rhine may have once flowed but doesn’t any longer is all it took for the legend buzz to start.

The treasure will soon go on display in Mainz and Speyer.


Freud’s cinerary urn smashed in attempted robbery

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Some despicable piece of human garbage broke into the Golders Green Columbarium in London and, in an apparent robbery attempt, smashed the antique Greek vase that held the ashes of Sigmund Freud and his wife Martha. This happened on New Year’s Eve. When the Golders Green staff arrived on New Year’s Day, they found pieces of the 4th century B.C. urn on the floor in front of the plinth. There are no further details on the damage done to vase or about the fate of the ashes it contained. I imagine cemetery officials are being circumspect out of consideration for the Freud family.

The urn was on public display in the columbarium along with the cinerary urns of many other luminaries, among them ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, author Enid Blyton, The Who drummer Keith Moon, actor Peter Sellers and Dracula author Bram Stoker. The room is open to visitors who wish to pay their respects. Or rather it was. Golders Green is understandably reviewing its security arrangements after this horror. The severely damaged vase has been removed to a safe place where experts can examine it and hopefully put it back together. These Greek vases are often found in pieces, either through natural processes or because looters deliberately smash them to make them easier to smuggle out of the country, so I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that conservators will be able to restore the urn.

The vase was very important to Sigmund Freud. He was an avid collector of antiquities, amassing by the time of his death a collection nearing 2,500 pieces of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Asian artifacts. He used them in his practice with patients and famously included the mythology in his psychiatric theories. The Freud Museum in Hampstead, London, his former home and study, has his antiques collection, and there are multiple Oedipus themed pieces — vases, sculptures, even a fresco fragment.

The urn which would hold his ashes was a gift from Princess Marie Bonaparte, the extremely wealthy great-grand niece of Napoleon and wife of Prince George of Greece and Denmark. She was a patient of Freud’s starting in the 20s and did her own research on female sexuality with a particular focus on clitoral orgasm. The princess gave her analyst many gifts over the years, including his famous rug-draped sofa, but the southern Italian krater decorated with images of Dionysus, Greek god of wine, ecstasy and madness, and a maenad, was one of his most prized possessions. For years it stood on the windowsill behind his desk in his study in Vienna.

It was in significant part thanks to the financing and influence of Marie Bonaparte that Freud was able to get himself, his wife, his daughter and his antiquities out of Vienna in 1938. The Nazis hated Freud (his books were some of their favorites to burn), but the Nazi Kommissar in charge of his application to leave, Anton Sauerwald, had respect for Freud as a scholar, so he helped the family escape. He hid evidence of their foreign bank accounts to give them a chance to raise the extortionate “flight tax” but with his money out of reach to Freud, it was Marie who stepped in to pay the ransom. The family made it out of Austria on June 4th, 1938, and arrived in London two days later.

Princess Marie Bonaparte also helped him buy the Hampstead home and set up his office. She visited him there at the end of June to plan the escape of his sisters. Unfortunately, she was unable to secure exit visas for the four older women. They would all be murdered in the concentration camps.

They still outlived their brother, however. Freud had been diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1923 and over the next 15 years had dozens of surgical procedures to remove the tumors. By 1939, there was nothing left to operate on and Freud was in constant agony. His personal physician from 1929 on, Dr. Max Schur, had followed him to London. When Freud decided the pain was too great to live with, he reminded Schur that when they first met Freud had made him promise that “when the time comes, you won’t let them torment me unnecessarily.” Schur acquiesced and on September 23rd, 1939, he gave Sigmund Freud a fatal overdose of morphine.

The family decided to place his cremated remains in the vase, a fitting choice given that it was probably used as a cinerary urn in antiquity as well. The black granite plinth the urn stood on was designed by architect Ernst Freud, Sigmund’s middle son and the father of artist Lucien Freud who was almost 17 at the time of his grandfather’s death. When Martha Freud died in 1951, her ashes were added to her husband’s.

The London police have asked that anyone who may have information relevant to the attempted theft call DC Candler at 020 8733 4525 or Crimestoppers at 0800 555 111.


Sotheby’s to return looted statue to Cambodia

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Seven months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a pair of 10th-century Khmer statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia, Sotheby’s has agreed to return a statue looted from the same temple that has been blocked from sale for two years. It’s been a long, arduous process of diplomacy, negotiation and legal wrangling, none of it pretty and some of it impressively nasty, even for a cultural property dispute.

Our story begins more than a 1,000 years ago when King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker, a remote site 75 miles northeast of Siem Reap and the previous capital of Angkor. It was 928 A.D. and up until this point, Khmer sculptural art was characterized by static figures, most of them carved bas reliefs of Hindu deities and mythology. Jayavarman IV commissioned a whole new style of carving for his new capital. In Koh Ker, statues of gods and warriors were made to be freestanding, their poses dynamic captures of figures in movement. One group in front of the western pavilion of Prasat Chen Temple featured 9 statues depicting the final battle between Duryodhana and his nemesis Bhima from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Massive 500-pound sandstone statues of the two enemies were posed facing each mid-fight, surrounded by their supporters.

Koh Ker only remained capital until 944, after which it decayed into ruin while the jungle reclaimed its former dominance. The site’s remoteness was both a blessing and a curse, contributing to its decay and keeping it safe from the kind of predation Angkor was victim to. It wasn’t until the 1950s that French archaeologists recognized Koh Ker’s historical significance and paid regular attention to it. In 1965, the site was explored and documented by Madeleine Giteau, curator of the National Museum, who found it exceptionally well-preserved with the statues and structures virtually untouched. When a French archaeologist returned two years later, he found looting had already begun, thanks in large part to the construction of a new road which made the removal of artifacts to Thailand for sale more practical. Political upheaval and spillover from the Vietnam War put a lot of local armed insurgent groups and foreign fighters in the area and made looting antiquities to sell for hard cash a particularly attractive prospect.

According to an amended complaint from the United States Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, the statue of Duryodhana was cut off its base in around 1972 by an organized network of looters and sold to a dealer in Bangkok. There it was purchased by Douglas Latchford, the same collector of Khmer art who donated the bodies of both Kneeling Attendants and one of their heads to the Met, who arranged for the illegal export of the statue to the London auction house of Spink & Son, the same auction house from which he either bought the Kneeling Attendants directly or acted as a front for the Met to buy them from, depending on whose story you believe. Spink & Son sold Duryodhana to a Belgian collector in 1975. The widow of said collector, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, consigned the statue to Sotheby’s for sale in 2010.

Duryodhana became the centerpiece of Sotheby’s Asian sale in March of 2011. He was on the cover of the catalog and was extolled as a unique and exceptional example of Khmer artistry. Just hours before it was to go on the block, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An sent a letter to the auction house officially requesting the return of the statue as an artifact illegally exported from Cambodia. Sotheby’s withdrew its flagship artifact, estimated to sell for $3 million – $4 million, from the sale. For a year after the first blocked sale attempt, Sotheby’s negotiated with the government of Cambodia to arrange a private sale. Hungarian art collector Istvan Zelnik volunteered to buy the statue for $1 million and donate it to Cambodia.

The talks fell through — Sotheby’s claimed it was the Department of Homeland Security’s fault because they pressured the Cambodian government not to agree to the sale so they could get all the kudos for a diplomatic arrangement; the US Attorney said it was Sotheby’s fault because they turned down the million dollar offer — and in April of 2012, the U.S. Attorney filed a civil suit in federal court seeking forfeiture of the statue on Cambodia’s behalf. Sotheby’s denied strenuously that there was sufficient evidence to prove the statue was looted (even though its matching feet are still in place in Koh Ker), denied knowing all along that it was stolen (even though there’s a long email discussion between the auction house and an expert they contracted to write up the statue before sale in which the expert underscores that it was recently removed from the temple but ultimately suggests they go ahead with the sale because her Cambodian sources say they have no interest in contesting it) and denied that there’s even an applicable law in Cambodian that makes the export of 1,000-year-old Khmer statues illegal.

On Thursday, December 12th, truce was called. Sotheby’s, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the federal government have come to an agreement and I’d say it’s a big win for Cambodia, although as so often happens everyone still gets to deny having willfully trafficked in stolen antiquities.

The Belgian woman who had consigned it for sale in 2011 will receive no compensation for the statue from Cambodia, and Sotheby’s has expressed a willingness to pick up the cost of shipping the 500-pound sandstone antiquity to that country within the next 90 days.

At the same time, lawyers from the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan who had been pursuing the statue on Cambodia’s behalf agreed to withdraw allegations that the auction house and the consignor knew of the statue’s disputed provenance before importing it for sale.

The accord said the consignor, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who had long owned the statue, and Sotheby’s had “voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage,” that it should be returned.

Andrew Gully, a spokesman for Sotheby’s, said the auction house was gladdened that “the agreement confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times.”

:lol: Oh yes, ever so properly. At all times. And ever so voluntary too. It just took them two years and a federal court case to volunteer.

Now we’ll see if the last domino falls: the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena which owns Duryodhana’s counterpart, Bhima.


Assyrian gold tablet going back to Germany

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

A New York Appellate Court has ruled that the small gold cuneiform tablet looted from Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum at the end of World War II and acquired by Reuven Flamenbaum after his liberation from Auschwitz must be returned to the museum. It took the court less than a month to announce its decision which sides firmly with the plaintiff rejecting all the defendants’ legal arguments.

Quick summary (read last month’s entry for the full background): The tablet was discovered in the foundations of the Ishtar temple by a German archaeological team in 1913. The 9.5-gram card is inscribed in cuneiform on both sides describing the construction of the temple and calling on all who visit the temple to honor its builder, King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 B.C.). After complications and delays caused by the First World War, the artifacts made it into the Vorderasiatisches Museum’s collection in 1926. With another war looming in 1939, the museum closed its doors and put everything in storage. Sometime between then and the end of the war when inventory was taken, the tablet went missing. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of artifacts looted from the museum and the conflicting authorities of post-war Berlin, the museum did not report the loss to the police or any art theft registries.

According to Flamenbaum family lore, Reuven got the tablet from a Soviet soldier around that time. He traded it for two cigarettes or a salami (the details are hazy, obviously) and took it with him when he immigrated to the United States in 1949. He settled in Long Island and got a job at a liquor store. Later he bought said liquor store using the tablet as collateral for a loan. In 1954 he had it appraised at Chritie’s and they told him it was a fake worth a hundred bucks at most. Still he kept it as a treasured memento of his survival.

Reuven Flamenbaum died in 2003. Three years later, Hannah Flamenbaum, Reuven’s daughter and executor of his estate submitted a list of assets as part of a petition to settle the account. The tablet was not mentioned individually on this list, just a “coin collection.” Her brother Israel objected that the so-called coin collection was more valuable than Hannah had stated “and includes one item identified as a ‘gold wafer’ which is believed to be an ancient Assyrian amulet and the property of a museum in Germany.” He told the Vorderasiatisches Museum about it too, while he was at it.

The museum filed a claim to recover the tablet. At a Nassau County Surrogate’s Court hearing, Dr. Beate Salje, director of the Vorderasiatisches, testified that the piece was stolen at the end of the war by a person or persons unknown. The Red Army looted the museum — many of those artifacts were returned by the Soviets in 1957 — as did German troops and people taking refuge in the museum. The museum also submitted a report by Dr. Eckart Frahm, Assistant Professor of Assyriology at Yale University, covering a 1983 article by A.K. Grayson about the fate of the Ashur artifacts. This article stated that Professor H.G. Guterbock from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago told the author that he had seen a gold Assyrian tablet from a Berlin museum “in the hands of a dealer in New York in 1954.”

There is a reference to that allegation in the Vorderasiatisches’ record of the tablet, an annotation that it was “seen by Guterbach 1954 in New York” with “Grayson” written underneath. This entry is not dated and could have been written at any time after 1983, or before, I guess, if you suppose that Grayson heard the story from Guterbock whenever and told the museum. There’s zero evidence of that, however, so it’s meaningless speculation.

The Surrogate’s Court decided that the museum had met its burden of proving legal title, but that its claim was barred by the doctrine of laches, a legal principle that requires an owner “exercise reasonable diligence to locate” lost property. Apparently the court thought that note was evidence that the museum knew about the tablet’s being in New York decades ago but didn’t pursue it. It’s really not, though. They seriously misread the report.

The museum appealed and Hannah Flamenbaum cross-appealed, now claiming an affirmative defense that the tablet belonged to the estate based on the doctrine of laches. In May of 2012, the Appellate Division dismissed the cross-appeal and reversed the Surrogate’s Court decision on the grounds that the defense had not demonstrated that the museum failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet. The case went back to Surrogate’s Court and finally wound up before the New York Court of Appeals last month.

The New York Court of Appeals has decided for the museum, rejecting both the doctrine of laches argument and the ugly, in my opinion, spoils of war theory which the estate proffered holding that the Soviet Union gained legal title to the tablet when it was looted as a spoil of war and then transferred the title to Reuven Flamenbaum when he bartered two cigarettes or a salami for it. They shot down both arguments in terms that made my wizened little heart grow three sizes this day:

We agree with the Appellate Division that the Estate failed to establish the affirmative defense of laches, which requires a showing “that the museum failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet and that such failure prejudiced the [E]state” …. While the Museum could have taken steps to locate the tablet, such as reporting it to the authorities or listing it on a stolen art registry, the Museum explained that it did not do so for many other missing items, as it would have been difficult to report each individual object that was missing after the war. Furthermore, the Estate provided no proof to support its claim that, had the Museum taken such steps, the Museum would have discovered, prior to the decedent’s death, that he was in possession of the tablet …. As we observed in Lubell, in a related discussion of the defense of statute of limitations, “[t]o place a burden of locating stolen artwork on the true owner and to foreclose the rights of that owner to recover its property if the burden is not met would . . . encourage illicit trafficking in stolen art” (77 NY2d at 320). […]

The “spoils of war” theory proffered by the Estate — that the Russian government, when it invaded Germany, gained title to the Museum’s property as a spoil of war, and then transferred that title to the decedent — is rejected. The Estate’s theory rests entirely on conjecture, as the record is bereft of any proof that the Russian government ever had possession of the tablet. Even if there were such proof, we decline to adopt any doctrine that would establish good title based upon the looting and removal of cultural objects during wartime by a conquering military force …. Allowing the Estate to retain the tablet based on a spoils of war doctrine would be fundamentally unjust.

Then Hannah Flammenbaum’s attorney expressed his dismay at the ruling in terms that almost made my heart re-wizen.

Attorney Steven Schlesinger said the family was disappointed and questioned whether the court refused to uphold “title by right of conquest” because it would open the door for those who obtained art looted by Germans during the Holocaust.

“You can’t argue that the United States doesn’t recognize the right of conquest when this entire country is the result of the law of conquest,” he said, citing territorial expansion that includes Texas and California and at least 50 Indian land claims in New York.

Uh, are you seriously using the genocide of Native Americans as an argument in favor of a Holocaust survivor’s descendants getting to keep stolen property? Because that’s appalling. And yeah, actually, while we’re at it, upholding “title by right of conquest” would open the floodgates to collectors and museums keeping art looted during the Holocaust. These legal battles are ongoing. Why in the world would you want to be the case that establishes the right of Holocaust profiteers to keep the treasures they acquired with blood on their hands? All of this for a tablet that Hannah Flammenbaum claims she wants to donate to the Holocaust Museum anyway? It’s gross.


Unique Ganymede statue stolen from Tunis museum

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

An extremely rare late Roman statue of Ganymede with his arm draped across the shoulders of Zeus in eagle form was stolen from the Paleo-Christian Museum of Carthage in Tunis the night of Friday, November 8th. The statue is 49 centimeters (19 inches) high and is made out of white marble. The museum has been closed to the public for some time but three guards monitor the building in shifts. Not exactly a daunting security cordon for a thief to break through at best, and at worst a handy way in the door.

“Police are conducting an investigation and they arrested members of the museum’s security personnel,” Adnane Louhichi, general director of the National Heritage Institute, told Tunisia Live.

“All scenarios are considered, including the complicity of the museum’s security staff,” Louhichi said.

I hope it’s not too little too late, but the National Heritage Institute has alerted all law enforcement local and international, including border, customs and airport police and Interpol. The Ministry of Culture held an emergency meeting on Monday in the wake of the theft to determine what immediate steps they can take to protect Tunisian cultural patrimony. They will cooperate with the Ministry of the Interior to increase monitoring of museums and archaeological sites and give additional support to a joint national committee of the ministries of the interior, culture and tourism dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage.

Looting is a major problem in Tunisia, as thieves step into the void left by ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was adept at pillaging his own country of its fabulous history to decorate his family’s homes. Open-air archaeological sites are being illegally excavated at a precipitous rate, an estimated 5-10 new digs open every day. Museum burglaries have increased exponentially. Not even the National Heritage Institute itself is immune; a hoard of coins from Hannibal’s time and a number of Roman sculptures were stolen from its headquarters never to be seen again.

The statue is highly recognizable. It has been thoroughly published and there are no other copies known to exist. Its uniqueness makes it virtually impossible to sell, so keep your fingers crossed that someone is approach to buy it and turns in the thieves.

The Ganymede group was discovered in 1977 by University of Michigan archaeologists excavating a cistern under the sumptuous House of the Greek Charioteers in the ancient city of Carthage. The statue dates to the fifth century A.D. and is a remarkable example of pagan iconography adorning the homes of the wealthy in Roman Africa long after Christianity became the dominant religion. It was found broken in 17 pieces in a layer of 6th century debris. Archaeologists believe it once decorated the villa’s triclinium or formal dining room.

Once the pieces were put back together, an almost intact representation of Ganymede emerged, missing only his right ankle. In Greek mythology, Ganymede was tending a flock of sheep on Mount Ida when he was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle and made the immortal cup-bearer to the gods (also possibly Zeus’ lover). The sculpture depicts Ganymede wearing only his characteristic Phrygian cap and a cloak draped over his arm, standing with his right leg crossed over his left and his arm around his eagle friend/abductor/boss/lover. At his feet are an extremely adorable little goat and a protective little dog attacking the eagle.

Carthage was a Phoenician colony that became the dominant power in the Mediterranean until it was destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C. after the Third Punic War, then rebuilt as the capital of the Roman Africa province. Carthage was conquered by Vandals in 439 A.D., by the Byzantine Empire in 533 A.D. and by the fifth Umayyad Caliphate in 698 A.D. after which the city was destroyed again. The remains of the ancient city are now in a toney suburb of Tunis.

Ganymede’s casual, friendly stance suggests neither the fear in some representations of the kidnapping nor the sensuality of others. Except for the angry dog who clearly suspects the eagle is up to no good, the sculpture has more of an Orpheus vibe to it. This makes sense given that it was made hundreds of years after Carthage became one of the main center of early Christianity and Orpheus, who could charm all living things with his music, was one of the more popular pre-Christian mythological figures to be integrated into post-Christian art.

This sculpture is a fine example of the complexities of late Roman society. While Rome and Italy were in steep decline, the Western Empire was still functional in Africa. Carthage continued to produce wheat for export, continued to have a high standard of living with the quality consumer goods, minted coins and infrastructure like maintained city grids, aqueducts and public buildings that had collapsed or were on the verge of it in Italy. Christian Carthage, the home of Church fathers Tertullian and St. Cyprian, the city where the biblical canon was established at a council in 397 A.D., was pagan Roman too.


Assyrian gold tablet taken by Holocaust survivor on trial

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

The fate of an ancient artifact looted from Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum at the end of World War II is now in the hands of the New York Court of Appeals. In a twist from the way these stories usually go, this piece was taken out of Germany by Holocaust survivor Reuven Flamenbaum who, according to family lore, traded a Soviet soldier two packs of cigarettes or a salami for it after his liberation from Auschwitz. The Soviets helped themselves to the contents of German museums during the final days and weeks of the war and they weren’t alone. German troops did the same, as did penniless and desperate civilians some of whom had taken shelter from the bombing, shelling and advancing armies in the museum itself. A tablet of Assyrian gold the size of a very large stamp or very small credit card is a highly appealing form of currency in a black market economy.

Flamenbaum, originally from Poland, took it with him when he moved to the US in 1949, even using it as collateral to buy the liquor store on Canal Street where he worked. He took it to Christie’s in 1954 to have it appraised and they declared it a forgery worth no more than $100. According to his daughter Hannah, her father never wanted to sell it anyway. He kept the gold card, at various times on display on a mantel or in a red wallet, as a memento of his survival. She fondly recalls playing with the delicate 9.5-gram piece.

Reuven Flamenbaum died in 2003 and Hannah was named executor of his estate. Three years later, Reuven’s son Israel Flamenbaum disputed Hannah’s accounting of the estate and notified the Vorderasiatisches Museum that its long-lost gold tablet was in a safety deposit box on Long Island. The museum immediately filed suit to reclaim the artifact, asserting they held legal title since it was legally acquired and illegally removed. The Flamenbaum estate countered citing the spoils of war doctrine which purportedly made anything looted by Soviet troops their legal property and thus legal to sell for two packs of smokes, and the doctrine of laches, a legal doctrine that requires an owner “exercise reasonable diligence to locate” lost property. Their contention was that since the museum hadn’t told the authorities the tablet was missing or listed it on a stolen art registry after the war and hadn’t actively searched for it in the six decades since, it had given up its ownership claim.

Assuming Christie’s was wrong and it’s the genuine article, the tablet was unearthed by an archaeological team from the German Oriental Society excavating the foundations of the Ishtar Temple, a ziggurat in the Assyrian city of Ashur in what is now northern Iraq but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The temple was built by King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 B.C.). The gold tablet was inscribed in cuneiform with a dedication calling on all who visit the temple to honor the king’s name.

After the end of excavations in 1914, the tablet was loaded on freighter in Basra headed for Germany. The untimely outbreak of World War I forced the ship to change course and head for Lisbon instead. The vast trove of artifacts — they found 16,000 cuneiform tablets alone — had to be stored in Portugal while war raged. Finally in 1926 the tablet arrived in Berlin. It was put on display in 1934 only to be forced into storage again by another world war. The museum put it in storage for its own protection in 1939. They don’t know when exactly it was removed, which is why they can’t say for certain who stole it, but it was discovered to be missing when inventory was taken after the war in 1945.

The museum didn’t report the loss at the time because it was a drop in a very large bucket of pillaged antiquities and the divided authorities of post-war Berlin made for a chaotic legal environment. As for attempting to locate the tablet on its own, that would have been a needle-in-a-haystack job and the museum had so many missing needles in a world of haystacks.

In 2010, a Nassau County Surrogate’s Court found for the Flamenbaum estate, agreeing that museum had failed to make sufficient efforts to find the property as per the doctrine of laches. The Surrogate’s Court judge mistakenly believed that the museum knew from a tip received in 1954 that the tablet was in New York, but the museum denied knowing anything until it received Israel Flamenbaum’s letter in 2006. In 2012 the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court overturned the 2010 decision, agreeing with the museum that it held clear title and that laches didn’t apply because the Flamenbaum estate hadn’t demonstrated that the museum “failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet and that such failure prejudiced the estate.” The court noted that even if the museum had reported the artifact stolen to the police and listed it a stolen art registry, there’s no reason to believe they would have found the piece as a result.

The seven judges of the New York Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case on Tuesday. Their decisions typically take four to six weeks, so within the next two months we should know whether the tablet will remain with the Flamenbaums or return to the Vorderasiatisches Museum. If the court finds in favor of the Flamenbaum estate, they want to donate the tablet to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.


US returns silver griffin rhyton to Iran

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

The United States has returned a silver rhyton in the shape of a griffin to Iran 10 years after it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is a shocking development, to say the least. When I first wrote about the rhyton languishing forlorn in an ICE warehouse in Queens in 2010, the notion of repatriation was so remote as to seem impossible. ICE special agent in charge of cultural property James McAndrew put it bluntly: “This piece can’t go back.” Arranging for the return of looted artifacts is the kind of thing diplomats do, and the US and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

They still don’t, but there were some baby steps taken this week, including the first phone call between the two heads of state since 1979. On Thursday, September 26th, the US State Department took another step in the thawing of relations and returned the silver griffin rhyton. From the State Department’s announcement:

It is considered the premier griffin of antiquity, a gift of the Iranian people to the world, and the United States is pleased to return it to the people of Iran.

The return of the artifact reflects the strong respect the United States has for cultural heritage property — in this case cultural heritage property that was likely looted from Iran and is important to the patrimony of the Iranian people. It also reflects the strong respect the United States has for the Iranian people.

This was a relatively simple gesture to execute with a major payoff in goodwill. As soon as he landed in Tehran President Hassan Rouhani described the return of the rhyton to assembled reporters.

“The Americans contacted us on Thursday [and said that] we have a gift [for you]. They brought this chalice to the [Iranian] mission with due ceremony and said this is our gift to the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said.

He said that the historical artifact was very precious to the Iranian nation and added it should be safeguarded as it is “the symbol of the ancient civilization” of the country.

Iran is justifiably proud of its magnificent history, and this rhyton is an exceptional piece of it that was illegally exported from the country in a particularly painful episode of looting. The ceremonial libation vessel was made around 700 B.C. during the pre-Achaemenid period before the founding of the first Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. It was stolen by looters from the Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, halfway up a cliff in the western highlands of Iran sometime between 1989 and 1992.

The details are nebulous because looters aren’t really into site documentation, and archaeologists weren’t able to explore the find before the vultures descended. Hundreds of artifacts, anywhere from 230 to 500 objects from the 3rd millennium to the 7th century B.C., were found in the cave, a vast compendium of Iranian material history of the highest quality. Silver bowls, vases, dishes, silver human masks from the Akkadian Empire, furniture fittings, some gold ears (probably originally attached to wooden statues of deities) and at least 20 silver zoomorphic figurines and libation vessels in the shapes of ibexes, lions attacking bulls, sheep, goats and one very special imaginary animal: the griffin.

Looters devastated the site, destroying the archaeological context in their thirst for salable treasure and leaving many unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions about the hoard and how it got there. One working theory is that this was part of the royal treasury of the last kings of Elam hidden from the Assyrians who sacked Susa, the capital of the independent Elamite kingdom, in 647 B.C. Another possibility is that these precious objects belonged to an important temple and were stashed in the cave by devotees to keep them out of Assyrian hands during the same period.

Iranian authorities have worked since 1989 on finding and seizing the stolen artifacts, and it has not been easy. Pieces of the Western Cave Treasure have been found in museums, collections, retail galleries and auction houses in the United States, France, England, Switzerland, Turkey and Japan. The recovered artifacts are now on display in several Iranian museums.

We don’t know what happened to the griffin rhyton for a decade after the discovery of the treasure. It surfaced for the first time in Geneva in March, 1999. It was shown to a private US collector there by antiquities dealer and accomplished loot pimp Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art. This prominent New York collector, who would later spill the whole story to the US Attorney, was very interested in the griffin, but refused to buy it without confirmation that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece.

In February of 2000, Hicham Aboutaam packed the rhyton into his suitcase and carried it to Newark International Airport by hand. He submitted a commercial invoice declaring it to be of Syrian origin to Customs, and then spent two years securing expert opinions to reassure the buyer that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece, specifically one of the artifacts from the great Western Cave Treasure. Three experts weighed in on the artifact, a metallurgist in Los Angeles, a German expert and one in Maryland. The metallurgist confirmed the composition of the silver was in keeping with objects made in 7th century northwest Iran; the German expert straight-up called it as one of the silver pieces from the Cave; the Maryland expert noted the many features it has in common with artifacts in Japan’s Miho Museum reputed to be part of the Cave Treasure.

The last expert (Maryland) signed off on his appraisal in May of 2002. In June, the New York collector wired Hicham Aboutaam the last payment and bought the rhyton for a grand total of $950,000. The Feds got wind of this dirty sale and issued a seizure and arrest warrant for the griffin and Aboutaam in December of 2003. The collector threw Aboutaam under the bus and was not prosecuted. On June 14th, 2004, Aboutaam pleaded guilty to a pathetic single misdemeanor count of presenting a false import claim. The maximum sentence was a year in prison and a fine of $100,000. He was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine. That’s it. This is why dealers keep selling goods they know to be looted. They literally have nothing to lose. Five grand is tip money to this … person who, let’s recall, made almost a million dollars from the sale.

Okay. Calming down. In with anger out with love. This is a happy day because the rhyton has been liberated from its sad warehouse limbo and been welcomed home where it will join its brethren from the Western Cave Treasure on public display in a museum.


Currency plate looted during Korean War returned

Friday, September 6th, 2013

A rare 1893 currency plate used to make some of the first modern Korean paper money was returned to South Korea 60 years after it was looted during the Korean War. U.S. Ambassador Sung Y. Kim presented it to Prosecutor General Dong-wook Chae in a repatriation ceremony at the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office in Seoul on Tuesday, September 3rd. This is the first time U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has returned an artifact to South Korea, and it took three years of cooperation between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), South Korea’s Supreme Prosecutor, the South Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, the South Korean Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. State Department to get here.

It all began in April of 2010 when Midwest Auction Galleries in Oxford, Michigan, listed an “exceptional inscribed Korean bronze plaque” for sale. Auction house owner James Amato was selling it on behalf of the family of deceased U.S. Marine Lionel Hayes who had fought in the Korean War and brought back a large collection of artifacts. Along with the plaque, more than 130 pieces Hayes had taken from the grounds of Seoul’s Deoksu Palace in 1951 after the ouster of North Korean and Chinese troops were on sale at the auction. Most of the pieces were relatively low value decorative objects, ceramics, furniture, etc., from the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. The plaque, on the other hand, was Korean and it stood out in quality and historical importance.

The South Korean Embassy alerted the U.S. State Department that this object could have been removed from the Republic of Korea illegally. HSI identified the bidder as a woman from Flushing, New York. Officials from the embassy and State Department contacted the bidder and Amato warning them the sale might be illegal under the National Stolen Property Act. Amato chose to continue the sale, something even bigger auction houses do all the time because, conveniently for them, they have a far more rigorous standard of proof when it comes to suspending sales of questionable artifacts than they do when researching their ownership history.

The bidder turned out to be a proxy. She was a front for South Korean national Wong Young Youn. When she got the call from the consulate, she alerted Youn who told her he would deal with the consulate and that she should go ahead and bid as planned. She purchased the plate at the auction for $35,000.

Youn was pleased. He told the bidder that this purchase was the equivalent of winning the lottery. Since the Korean government had made it clear they valued the piece highly as an object of cultural heritage, Youn figured he could negotiate with South Korea to return it for a tidy profit. The fact that this was basically blackmail and that he would have the law of two countries all up in his business was no deterrent, apparently, and it really should have been because Youn was in the United States illegally. Hiding his identity behind a proxy bidder was hardly an impenetrable ruse, especially since he actually went on Korean television in May of 2010 to talk about the plate.

In December of 2010, Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration provided evidence that the so-called plaque was actually a Hojo currency plate made in the late Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1897), a very rare and historically significant artifact from the dawn of paper money in Korea that is one of only three known to survive. Emperor Gojong, 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, released the first paper bills in 1893. They were called Hojo Taehwangwon. “Hojo” was the royal treasury and “taehwangwon” means convertible note, indicating they were to be used to convert coins into bills. The notes were printed in denominations of five, 10, 20 and 50 yang. The plate sold at auction printed 10-yang notes.

The money these plates were used to print never made it into the hands of the public. Japanese firms were given printing rights to all Korean currency. They confiscated all the initial runs of banknotes and burned them before the bills went into general circulation. They then introduced new banknotes that bore the Japanese imperial insignia.

While the Korean agencies were investigating the history of the plate, the HSI was investigating the seller and buyer. In June of 2012, HSI issued a customs summons to the auction house. In response, Amato submitted an invoice claiming the artifact had been bought by a certain Weng Liang from Hunan, China, for $9,990. In August of that year, an independent expert submitted an affidavit that the currency plate was “historically and culturally significant.” The expert also found a YouTube video of the plaque. There was a man in that video which HSI agents identified as Youn.

Later that year, HSI contacted the proxy bidder again and she admitted to having been a middleman for Youn’s purchases, setting up accounts on auction house websites to buy Korean artifacts in her name only to be reimbursed by Youn. On January 9th, 2013, HSI charged Wong Young Youn with violating the National Stolen Property Act. Youn collaborated with the authorities and threw Amato under the bus, assuring HSI officials that he bought the currency plates himself for $35,000 and that he has no knowledge of this Weng Liang Amato had claimed to be the buyer. On February 12th, Amato was arrested by HSI agents for making false statements, transporting stolen goods and for the sale or receipt of stolen goods.

Both men entered into plea agreements with HSI renouncing their ownership claims. Youn’s deal required him to voluntarily leave the U.S. and return to South Korea which he did on July 31st. Amato deal was for him to serve 90 days of supervised release, pay a $35,000 fine and do 40 hours of community service. I’m sure the bottom line works out just fine for him over time. Why be scrupulously honest when they only get busted one in thousands of times and then get a slap on the wrist? A couple of weekends collecting median litter and a fine that’s the equivalent of the price paid for the stolen artifact is not exactly a powerful deterrent. At the very least they should get the IRS to take a look at his books since we know for a fact that he invoiced a $35,000 sale at $9,990. There’s a lot of daylight between those two figures.

Anyway, the good news is this was an unprecedented collaboration that worked out in the end. Now South Korea gets its currency plate back so it can go on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul.





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