Archive for February, 2008

What was lost is found

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Today is a bad day for art thieves and looters. The Swiss police have found 2 of the 4 paintings stolen from a Zurich museum earlier this month, and the Italian police have recovered more than 400 looted artifacts including a Pompeiian fresco, Etruscan goblets and Greek vases.

From Swiss, Italian Police Recover Stolen Art, Artifacts:

The two paintings, by van Gogh and Monet, were found on Monday in a car parked outside a Zurich psychiatric hospital, police said and have an estimated value of 70 million Swiss francs ($64 million).

Police were notified about the paintings by an employee of the hospital on Monday afternoon who told them there was a suspicious white vehicle in the car park in front of the clinic and there were two pictures sitting on the back seat, the police said in a statement.

That’s right. They left the $64 million dollar paintings in the car. That gets the WTF prize of the year. Here’s hoping the thieves do something equally stupid with the remaining two paintings, Cezanne’s “The Boy in the Red Vest” and Degas’ “Viscount Lepic and His Daughters“.

The Italian artifacts were at least squirreled away in an anonymous Frenchman’s villa.

Investigators identified the colourful Pompeiian fresco as perhaps the most prized object. Probably a 1st century A.D. work, the fragments show gardens, fountains and parts of a villa that was once home to Poppea Sabina, the wife of Emperor Nero.

Other significant finds included a virtually intact mosaic showing a young boy with cropped black hair and large black eyes, and a rare Kalpis—a Greek vase used for holding oil or water—featuring delicate figures.

An assortment of jugs, saucers, chalices and vases bearing figures in red, beige and black completed the rich collection.


The Seattle Art Museum is the Place to Be Right Now

Monday, February 18th, 2008

They have some rare wonders on exhibit right now. Three panels from Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise”, the astonishingly gorgeous gilded cast bronze doors of the Florence baptistery, are on display until April.

These panels do not travel, folks, so this is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see them restored and up close. After the tour ends, they are going home to be kept in an oxygen-free space and will never leave the city again.

Opening Thursday, February 21, an extensive exhibition of Roman Art from the Louvre is a must-see. Not only are the individual pieces exquisite (of course), but it looks like the Seattle Art Museum has really gone all out to create a unique and illuminating design to showcase these wonders.

From the Seattle Post Intelligencer :

The objects in the Roman collection rarely move. Only 200 or so are on exhibit at any one time. Most remain in storage. With the American tour, the Louvre wants to conceive new installations beyond the usual classifications of materials (bronzes, marbles and glass, for instance) and chronology to those that reveal different aspects of Roman life, its private and public domains. It is a world known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar. All of it bears exploration and examination.

“We want to reimagine the collection,” Roger said. “We want to mix everything up to see what happens when, for example, a huge marble statue sits next to a small bronze, to see what kind of space is needed.” […]

The Louvre cannot paint its walls to accommodate different exhibits because it is a historic building, but the Seattle Art Museum can. So the exhibit of nearly 200 objects that takes up the entire fourth floor of the south wing is seen in rooms painted in dramatic colors — antique yellow, somber burgundy, serene gray-green, almost pumpkin. It’s a palette adapted from a typical Roman house, suggested by Giroire and Roger. The effect of the different colors and pinpoint lighting, said Roger, is startling. Everything, particularly the marble, pops almost theatrically.

This is the only place on the west coast you can see the exhibit. I think it’s worth a special trip if you’re anywhere remotely nearby, especially since you can enter the Gates of Paradise at the same time.


Looter/Heroin Dealer

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

A raid on a drug suspect in Greece turned up just a bit of heroin but a lot of antiquities.

The artifacts, believed to have been illegally obtained, include hundreds of bronze coins dating to the ancient Greek and Roman eras, a clay statuette of the goddess Aphrodite dating to the Hellenistic era, a bronze pipe and various broaches dating to the Iron Age.

Illegally obtained = looted.

One of the (many) disturbing aspects of the antiquities trade is how often the dealers turn out to be dealers, as in drug and arms. Established smuggling networks are versatile things, after all. Why not throw in a few hundred looted and intentionally broken for ease of transport antique vases along with the blow while you’re at it?

It’s a lot cheaper and easier to drop dynamite in a hole and bulldoze out all the ancient goodies you can than it is to make heroin out of poppies. It’s almost pure profit, and diversification is always good for business.

For more on the link between organized crime and the antiquities trade, see this article on the Saving Antiquities For Everyone site.

From Law enforcement issues in art theft. (PDF), one of the sources for the SAFE article:

We know that overseas crime related to art and cultural property is significant, as is its inextricable relationship to major and organised crime. Groups as diverse as the American, Italian and Russian Mafia, the IRA and Columbian cocaine cartels have been identified as being involved. They can be conclusively linked to drugs and arms dealing’, those involved are dangerous and they are very capable of violence (Hill C. 1995). The Russians are known to traffic in art and cultural property through over 40 gangs of émigrés who are living in the west. The motivation to steal art and cultural property has resulted in other serious crime including murder, robbery and deprivation of liberty. With an ‘annual dollar value in art and cultural property theft being exceeded only by trafficking in illicit narcotics, money laundering and (illegal) arms trafficking’ (Interpol, 1998).

Then there are the terrorists. Mohammed Atta admitted to selling stolen antiquities to help finance 9/11. There’s a slogan all ready to go: buy antiquities and the terrorists win. Only this time it’s accurate.


What’s a curator to do 2?

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

On the question of museums’ complicity in the looting of antiquities, here’s a brief but punchy op-ed by Robert Bagley, a Princeton University specialist in Asian archaeology, and Patty Gerstenblith, director of DePaul University’s program in art and cultural heritage law.

In an ever-smaller world, and an increasingly multicultural society, our museums have an educational mission whose importance would be hard to overstate. For many people the art museum is the most immediate, effective and appealing way to encounter the past and to engage with other cultures. But amassing collections of looted antiquities is not the way for our museums to fulfill their mission, though many museum directors would have us believe otherwise. With the money required to buy one major object that will be seen by a trickle of visitors over the years, a museum could organize a loan exhibition that would bring it a hundred major objects and that would be seen by thousands or tens of thousands of visitors in a matter of months. Which way of spending the money does more for education? When some museum directors choose to purchase one object rather than borrow a hundred, they claim to be acting in the interests of their visitors, but surely they are deceived as to their own motives. They are motivated by a curatorial culture that puts acquisition above all else–acquisition before education, before knowledge, before the public interest. It is through intercultural exchanges, not through trafficking in illicit antiquities, that American museums should fulfill their educational mission and discharge their responsibility to the American public.

That’s an excellent point I hadn’t thought of. The Met broke the million dollar barrier when it bought the Euphronious krater in 1972. An anonymous collector bought the 3 inch high Guennol Lioness in November of last year for $57 million, setting a whole other stratospheric record.

This is the kind of money museums have to spend to wallow in the filth of plundered history. For the price of a single statue the size of a kid’s hand, museums could fund huge exhibitions of loaned wonders.

They wouldn’t even have to fund the entire thing. Most loaned exhibits have corporate sponsors footing a hefty portion of the bill. The First Emperor exhibit at the British Museum, for instance, is sponsored by Morgan Stanley. That support will be bolstered by Delta and UPS when it moves to the High Museum in Atlanta.

You can’t even buy an advance ticket for that exhibition, btw. They’ve sold out completely through the end of the run. The only way to get tickets now is to stand in line with literally a thousand other people before the museum opens for a shot at one of 500 tickets available for that day’s show.

So, for a fraction of the cost of a single statuette, the British Museum gets hundreds of thousands of paying visitors at 24 bucks a pop, huge publicity, a chance to educate a voracious public with a high quality, detailed curatorial framework plus all kinds of ancillary lectures, debates, workshops, etc.

It’s not even a contest, frankly. By any possible standard — financial, educational, ethical, legal, PR — the loan system completely blows the antiquities trade out of the water.


Lincoln’s Refuge

Friday, February 15th, 2008

On a hilltop outside of Washington D.C., stands a gothic revival “cottage” (34 rooms is a bit more than a cottage, but that’s what they called it at the time) in which Abraham and Mrs. Lincoln spent 13 months during the course of his presidency, including the night before his assassination.

The cottage was part of a soldier’s home complex which, sadly, shifted from retired soldiers to active ones by the time Lincoln got there. opened to the viewing public yesterday.

It’s little known despite the notable amount of time Lincoln spent there, and has only recently been restored by the private National Trust for Historic Preservation. They took an usual approach in that they kept it quite bare bones. They didn’t try to recreate it as it would have looked to the president, packed with furniture and whatnot. They’re going for atmosphere, for creating a feeling for Lincoln and the issues he was surrounded by in that house.

Then, because this is not a home filled with objects but a home with conceptual and biographical significance, it is treated as a kind of empty frame. The only way to see the cottage is as part of an hourlong 15-member group tour, with a guide explaining the issues that faced Lincoln during the crucial three summers that he lived here, from 1862 to 1864, while also sketching something about his character. Integrated into the tour are videos and re-creations of dialogue from documentary accounts.

In one room, for example, a single rocking chair is next to a small table. The guide sets up a scene based on an 1862 eyewitness report. Lincoln sits here, we are told, exhausted — overwhelmed by slavery debates, the war’s casualties and incessant demands — at the end of a day that offered little hope. An injured Union officer suddenly arrives, beseeching the president to help him recover his wife’s body — she died in a steamer collision — from a region closed off by the army. We hear Lincoln’s frustrated, angry voice: “Am I to have no rest? Is there no harbor or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this? Why do you not go to the War Office?”

It is a bit shocking. The sounds of impatience and frustration are unexpected, even if not unjustified; they undercut the reverent aura. Then we learn that the next morning Lincoln sought the man in his hotel, apologized, set the bureaucratic wheels in motion and asked him not to ever tell his children about the president’s shameful behavior.

I’ll be honest, it brings a lump to my throat just reading it, much more than bunches of furniture and paintings and documents under plexi would. This is definitely on my must-see list.


Happy Valentine’s Day!

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Love from me and Heritage Malta.


No one knows who they were or what they were doing

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

But British archaeologists may have found one of their graves. Druid Grave Unearthed in UK?

Within the wooden, chambered burial site, researchers have excavated a wine warmer, cremated human remains, a cloak pinned with brooches, a jet bead, divining rods (for fortune-telling), a series of surgical instruments, a strainer bowl last used to brew Artemisia-containing tea, a board game carefully laid out with pieces in play, as well as other objects.

“This person was clearly a specialist and also clearly wealthy and powerful, as indicated by the special grave and its apparent location within the compound of a ‘chief.’ That would all fit Caesar’s Druid,” he said, adding that Caesar likely also visited Stanway during his lifetime.

He might have just been a Romanized doctor-divinator, though. The location of the grave supports the Druid idea, but it’s still conjecture at this point.

The board game may have had some divination usage as well. It’s a completely unique find. Nothing else like it has even been uncovered in Roman Britain.



Earliest farm in Egypt discovered in the desert

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Carbon dating puts the settlement at 5200 BC, a good 2 thousand years before the first pharaohs.

Evidence of early farming has been found before on the site — Gertrude Caton-Thompson, one of the first women archaeologists, found wheat in granaries back in the 20’s — but this is the first evidence of long-term habitation instead of just storage of foodstuffs.

American and Dutch archaeologists reported last week the discovery at a desert oasis of what they say is the earliest known farming settlement in ancient Egypt. They said the animal bones, carbonized grains, hearths and pottery were roughly dated at 5200 B.C.

Now, for the first time, the archaeologists said, early agriculture in Egypt can be studied in a village context, promising insights about the farmers and some answers to the questions of how, why and when Egyptians adopted farming.


The Domesday Book online

Monday, February 11th, 2008

This most amazingly extensive snapshot of post-Norman conquest England is now finally fully digitized, searchable and freely available for long hours and lost weekends of perusal: the Domesday Book online.

The Domesday Book provides extensive records of landholders, their tenants, the amount of land they owned, how many people occupied the land (villagers, smallholders, free men, slaves, etc.), the amounts of woodland, meadow, animals, fish and ploughs on the land (if there were any) and other resources, any buildings present (churches, castles, mills, salthouses, etc.), and the whole purpose of the survey – the value of the land and its assets, before the Norman Conquest, after it, and at the time of Domesday. Some entries also chronicle disputes over who held land, some mention customary dues that had to be paid to the king, and entries for major towns include records of traders and number of houses.

You can see why this is an invaluable resource for historians or even just curious people. Besides the motherlode, the site has all kinds of hidden goodies like this handy list of the Latin, Celtic, Saxon and Viking origins of English town names, and this hot glossary of terms.


A wee w00t

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Today it’s been 2 months since I revived my blog and I’ve posted at least an entry day. Thanks for reading and commenting. It makes me happeh. :love:





February 2008


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