Thursday, March 6, 2008


This painting was stolen in Iraq in 2004 (Oil on Canvas 1958)
Art theft seems to be a theme this week but it brings up an important point when buying, selling, and appraising items. Along the same lines, fakes and forgeries are a huge problem in the art world. Every work of art has a history and being able to prove that history makes a huge difference. Consider the activities that took place in Europe during World War II. According to the “Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal” a website launched by the American Association of Museums “from 1933 through the end of World War II in 1945, the Nazi regime orchestrated a program of theft, confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, pillage, and destruction of objects of art and other cultural property in Europe on a massive and unprecedented scale.” While some of the objects were eventually recovered others have never been found or returned. Following this time, museums around the world continued to collect art and artifacts without fully researching the history. As a result, the original owners of some of the pieces began making claims of ownership. Today, museums have begun the long and arduous task of researching pieces in their collections, and, in some cases returning them to their rightful owners. Currently there are fifteen thousand thirty three objects from one hundred and nineteen participating museums listed on the website. Among the museums are the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington and the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville. The University of Kentucky Art Museum lists thirty pieces acquired during this period while the Speed Museum lists four paintings. The paintings at the Speed include, A Bacchanal by Jan Brueghel, Breakfast Still Life by Pieter Claesz, Flowers in a Glass Vase by Jan van den Hecke, and A Gallant Musical Pause at Delft by Jan Verkolje. According to Peter Morrin, Director of the Speed Museum, the provenance for the works listed on the website is incomplete. As research continues on the project and more is learned about the provenance of works in the Speed’s collection more works will be added. This raises the question of what steps the Speed would take if someone claimed that a listed piece was stolen from their family during World War II. According to Mr. Morrin, “Museums participating in the project are making their best effort to be as open in their dealings as possible. If a rightful heir finds that an object on the site is a piece they believe was stolen during World War II, they can contact the appropriate agency and begin the claims process.”
World War II is not the only instance when art and artifacts have been stolen during a time of conflict and have reemerged in another country. For years the Koreans have accused the Japanese of plundering artwork during their thirty-six year occupation of the peninsula. Due to the 1965 Japan-Korea Treaty, fourteen hundred items were returned. However, this was probably not even half of what was taken. Today Japan maintains ownership of many valuable items. Kwon Cheeyun, an art historian in Seoul told Newsweek International that, “35,000 Korean art objects and 30,000 rare books have been confirmed to be there too.” Beyond those numbers, there are probably even more items in private collections. In light of this, it was no surprise when Kakurinji Temple in Kakogawa, Japan was robbed in 2002. Among the pieces that were stolen was the Amida Buddha from Korea’s Koryo period. This was another instance when the robbers claimed a “moral purpose,” as the two Koreans who were apprehended in the theft said they were on a mission to reclaim pieces of Korean history.
With the invasion of Iraq, Baghdad burned and the Museums were looted. While the U.S. was required to ensure order and protect museums and other cultural institutions under the laws of war, Donald Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news briefing that “stuff happens.” He continued to say that, “it is a fundamental misunderstanding to see those images over and over and over again of some boy walking out with a vase and say, 'Oh, my goodness, you didn't have a plan.' That's nonsense." But today, years after Rumsfeld spoke those words it is now evident that the U.S. did not have a plan. At the time, the Deputy Director of the National Museum of Iraq blamed the U.S. forces for refusing to prevent the plunder of items that date back thousands of years. In fact, it is widely reported that U.S. forces only intervened once for a half hour in the forty-eight hour looting spree. It has also been reported that some of the looting that occurred in Iraq was planned in advance. Upon inspection, investigators noticed that some of the glass cases had been opened with keys and suspicions were raised about the items being sold abroad. To make matters worse, a February 15, 2005 article by Humberto Marquez for the Inter Press Service said that U.S. and Polish soldiers are stealing antiquities and selling them over the border. This is “the biggest cultural disaster since the descendants of Genghis Khan destroyed Baghdad in 1258,” Venezuelan writer Fernando Báez told IPS. It is his belief that the United States has not signed The Hague Convention or the 1999 protocol because the government knows that by not protecting the art and artifacts of Iraq it has violated that convention. However, Mr. Báez states that coalition forces are also to blame. It is not known how many more items will be missing before the U.S. leaves Iraq or how many will be recovered. If history repeats itself, cultural institutions may have to start researching the provenance of the pieces they acquired beginning in 2003.
What does this mean for the average collector? It means don't buy unless the dealer provides a solid provenance and then make sure you check out the provence before money is exchanged . To bring home this point I am going to end by telling you a story about a piece that I was hired to appraise about six months ago. I received a frantic phone call from a woman that I knew but who had never been a client. She had been promising her insurance company an appraisal for several itemized pieces for a year but had procrastinated. By the time she contacted me, they had given her three days before they were going to drop the items from her policy. She paid about $15,000 for one piece which was confirmed by a receipt from an antique dealer who was known to have a good reputation. A small bit of information on the receipt said that the piece was attributed to a particular artist by a known historian in that genre. An appraiser has to conduct due diligence so I called the antique dealer to confirm this information and to ask him if he had any supporting evidence. He said he did but told me to call him back. When I called him back he got very angry with me, yelled, and hung up the phone. This was quite a shocking experience because I was just practicing due diligence. He only needed to tell me that this was what the auction house provided to him and he knew nothing more. However, his abrupt, unprofessional behavior made me suspicious. I called around Italy and checked with some of the best experts in the world in that genre of art. They looked at the images and told me that they did not believe any expert would attribute that particular piece without a good deal of documentation. Further, they had never heard of the supposed “authentication expert” and I could not find evidence of her existence. Therefore, I had to claim that the piece was “in the style of” as opposed to “attributed to” which made a difference in the value. I also had to explain what happened with the antique dealer in the appraisal. My client was unhappy and the antique dealer tried to back peddle. I don’t know what happened after that. What I do know is that I did my due diligence and if that client ever tries to sell her piece at a high end auction they will also do their due diligence and she may not be able to sell the piece due to poor provenance and the unsupported claims made by the dealer.

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