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Ancient Tablets Seized from Hobby Lobby

October 28, 2015.  The Daily Beast has identified the Hobby Lobby corporation as the destination for a shipment of cuneiform tablets seized by US Customs in 2011. The Green family are owners of the corporation Hobby Lobby and known as some of the most prolific collectors of ancient artifacts in the US today. The Greens are presently constructing a private museum in Washington, D.C., the Museum of the Bible, to house their collection of approximately 40,000 artifacts. Hobby Lobby is also well-known as the prevailing party in the US Supreme Court decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which granted the company an exemption from the Affordable Healthcare Act mandate to provide certain forms of contraception to its employees.

According to reporters Candida Moss and Joel Baden of the Daily Beast, an investigation by US federal law enforcement has been ongoing since the 2011 attempted importation. Museum of the Bible CEO Cary Summers acknowledged that there was an ongoing investigation, but told the Daily Beast that the issue was simply one of incomplete paperwork. Some in the media have speculated that importation may have been faulted for improper paperwork (the shipment is said to have originated in Israel, and been identified as “handcrafted clay tiles,” but the tablets appear to be ancient Syrian or Iraqi), or for a possible undervaluation on the import or export papers. No information regarding the matter has so far been released by federal authorities.

Image: Cuneiform tablet, Museum of the Bible.


Botín Speaks Out Against Seizure of Picasso

October 12, 2015.  Spanish banker Jaime Botín spoke publicly for the first time since customs agents seized a 1906 painting by Pablo Picasso, Head of a Young Woman, from his yacht in July. Botín told Doreen Carvajal of the New York Times that,“I am defending the rights of property owners…This is my painting. This is not a painting of Spain. This is not a national treasure, and I can do what I want with this painting.” In Botín’s view, the painting is his private property, and its permanent home has been on his yacht, a British-registered vessel that his lawyer says is foreign territory, even when docked in Spain.

Botín purchased the painting at the Marlborough Fine Art Fair in London in 1977. Experts have estimated the value of the painting today in the open market at approximately as 26 million euros, or US $28 million.

In 2013, Botín attempted to consign the painting to Christies. The Committee for the Assessment, Valuation and Exportation of National Heritage Goods within the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport denied the painting an export license. The Ministry sought to classify the painting as a national treasure. In May 2015, a court in Spain upheld an injunction barring Botín from exporting the painting. The Spanish court’s action limited Botín to selling the work in Spain. Its classification as an object of Spanish cultural patrimony that could never be exported would significantly reduced the value of the painting.

For years, Botín kept the painting on his private yacht, which was docked in England, Spain, and various Mediterranean ports. The Picasso was seized by French Customs agents when the yacht was in Corsican waters; French police said they had received a tip that the painting was to be shipped to a Swiss freeport.

The Spanish government claims that Picasso painted the work during 1906 in Gósol, in Spain’s Pyranees. (There is no consensus regarding whether the painting was actually executed in Gósol, Spain. In the spring of 1906, the artist Pablo Picasso and his mistress Fernande Olivier are known to have spent some time in Gósol.) Botín’s lawyer stated in a letter that Head of a Young Woman (1906) “was painted abroad, was bought abroad, and its permanent resident has always been abroad. Therefore, the painting has not been exported, neither legally or illegally.”

Spanish officials said that he painting will be stored in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid until its legal status is clear.

Jaime Botín is the largest shareholder of Spanish bank Bankinter S.A. His great-grandfather founded Spain’s largest bank, Santander.

Image: Alex Guerrero, La_dona_dels_pans_de_Picasso.jpg, Photograph of Statue Homage to the Countryside Women in Gosol, Spain [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Agelou21Image: Jean Agélou [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Fernande, between 1910 and 1917

Exhibition: Spirit and Matter, Masterpieces from the Keir Collection at Dallas

September 18, 2015.  Earlier this year, the Dallas Museum of Art announced that it would receive a long-term loan of the Keir Collection, one of the world’s finest private collections of Islamic art. The collection was built by Edmund de Unger (1918–2011) and is named after the 18th century British mansion where it was once housed. With the exception of an exhibition of some 100 works shown at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin in 2007–08, this is the first time that examples from the collection have been displayed in a museum setting.

The first exhibition to be drawn from the Keir Collection is Spirit and Matter: Masterpieces from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art, which presents fifty exceptional work from the collection of almost 2000 objects. It will be on view at Dallas until July 31, 2016.

Spirit and Matter was organized and developed by Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir, the DMA’s Senior Advisor for Islamic Art, whose work was instrumental in bringing the Keir Collection to Dallas.

Highlights from the exhibition include superb examples of rock crystal vessels and objects and early luster-ware ceramics, silk textiles from the imperial workshops of 16th- and 17th-century Safavid Iran, and examples of illuminated figurative manuscripts from the 14th to 17th century.

French Government Reverses Donation to Guimet of Chinese Gold Ornaments

July 27, 2015.  A July 2015 exhibition at the Gansu Provincial Museum in Lanzhou, China showcased a repatriation from France to China that took place at the expense of a Paris museum. The French government, acting through cultural minister Fleur Pellerin, “facilitated” the repatriation of a collection of gold plaques and harness decorations to China. The collection was originally donated by two major collectors of Asian art to the Musee Guimet in Paris. Chinese cultural officials urged France to send the artworks to China; asserting that they had been pillaged from an archeological site.

The owners of the artworks were Paris art dealer Christian Deydier and billionaire François Pinault. Pinault’s Kering conglomerate owns Christie’s as well as high-end fashion houses. Deydier had purchased some of the collection from a Taiwanese art dealer, and then later, in the 1990s, from the dealer’s widow. Fifteen years ago, former President Jacques Chiraq had talked Pinault and Deydier into making the collection a gift to the Guimet.

Despite having agreed to return the pieces, an angry Deydier said that the French government had “dropped its trousers” to curry favor with the Chinese. “It’s France’s heritage which is suffering,” he told Agence France Presse, denouncing what he called an improper legal process and “an export on the sly.”

The Art Newspaper reported that, “Under French law, public collections are inalienable property; donations especially are “irrevocable” and the status of the work offered can only be changed by a parliamentary vote, as was the case when France gave back 20 Maori heads in 2012 to New Zealand. In the case of the Guimet works, the government was afraid that the process would take too long and irritate the Chinese.”

Nonetheless, the ministry made a reversal of the donation possible, allowing Pinault and Deydier to retroactively nullify their donation. The items were then returned by the museum to Pinault and Deydier, who had agreed to immediately offer the pieces to the government of China. A joint Franco-Chinese expert panel determined that there were physical similarities between the Guimet gold collection and items recovered during a massive looting of multiple sites in Gansu by farmers and others between 1993 and 1996. The same Art Newspaper article notes that the report carefully avoids any discussion of the Chinese army’s role in the 1993-1996 looting of more than 140 sites. China asserts that the items came from tombs in Dabuzishan in Gansu’s Lixian County and date to 770-476 BC.

Mr. Pinault previously gifted two zodiac heads that had been removed from the Yuanming Yuan Summer Palace to China, after they were bid up to twenty million dollars apiece at a Christie’s auction by a Chinese bidder who then refused to pay. The zodiac heads were from the Yves St. Laurent-Pierre Berge collection. Pinault’s companies have significant business interests in China.


Publication of Thaw Collection of Early Medieval Ornaments

January 2, 2015  Bright Lights in the Dark Ages: The Thaw Collection of Early Medieval Ornaments” by Noël Adams, is an important new book on Medieval art, illustrated with over one hundred objects, often crafted in gold and silver and inlaid with gems and stones. The volume discusses the interactions between Roman and Byzantine empires and the “barbarian” cultures and the artistic developments that shaped Early Medieval art in Europe, and includes artworks from German, Sarmatian and Alanic tribes, and from the  Black Sea and eastern edge of the Parthian Empire in Iran and Central Asia.

The objects were drawn from the Thaw Collection of Early Medieval Ornaments at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, where his medieval ornaments collection is on exhibit in the Morgan’s McKim building. Thaw is a Life Trustee and major benefactor of the Morgan, and an internationally renowned collector.

The Morgan Library & Museum is located at 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, (212) 685-0008.

Image: Detail, Cover, Bright Lights in the Dark Ages: The Thaw Collection of Early Medieval Ornaments” by Noël Adams, photography by John Bigelow Taylor, 2014, hardcover, 408 pages.


100 FBI Agents Raid Home of 91Year Old Indiana Collector

On April 3, 2014, close to 100 FBI agents entered the Rush County home of a 91 year old Indiana man, Donald Miller, and seized thousands of artifacts collected over eight decades. Mr. Miller had collected objects from some 200 countries including Native American, Peruvian, Haitian, New Guinea, Australian, Chinese and other materials. No warrant has been published and no charges have been filed against Mr. Miller, a former missionary who freely shared his collection over the years with neighbors and journalists and gave tours of his museum-like home to schoolchildren. Mr. Miller denies doing anything illegal.

Mr. Miller is said to have been involved in atomic bomb projects when in the armed services during WW2 and worked at the Naval Avionics Center in Indianapolis in the 1970s and 1980s. He was an amateur archeologist who made frequent trips overseas on digs, and he and his wife were missionaries and supported charitable activities and built churches in Colombia and Haiti.

FBI spokesmen have not yet alleged that any law has been violated, but state that they are carefully assessing the objects to determine if they are unlawfully possessed. Retired FBI agent Virginia Curry commented on the museum-like approach Mr. Miller endeavored to maintain and called the raid, “an embarrassing and unnecessary show of force by the FBI.

In statements to the press regarding the raid, FBI spokesmen have incorrectly implied that it is illegal for  U.S. citizens to own cultural artifacts from a country restricting export without a permit from that country. Agents have stated that the goal of the seizures is to repatriate objects to source countries or tribes but have not provided any legal justification for either seizure or repatriation at this time. Since the collection was amassed over many decades, without knowing the date of import, there is no indication that objects were imported in violation of any U.S. treaty or agreement under the Cultural Property Implementation Act.

News reports indicate that Mr. Miller possessed many hundreds of Native American artifacts. Native American objects could not be lawfully taken from federal or Indian lands after passage of the American Antiquities Act in 1906, but laws against such collecting were not enforced until passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act in 1979. In general, federal law does not prohibit ownership even of human remains so long as they are excavated with permission on private lands, though they may not be sold.

Artifacts containing feathers could potentially trigger a violation. Most collectors are aware that artifacts containing bald or golden eagle feathers may not be sold; fewer realize that it is a crime to sell, and sometimes even to possess an object decorated with feathers from the most common wild birds. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act has been strictly enforced, whereas prosecutions for trading in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a law intended to prevent baiting and over-hunting of migratory birds, are rare.

Meanwhile, neighbors and community residents say they are puzzled why the FBI would send a hundred agents to the home of an elderly resident who was proud of and never hid his collection. “He’s just an ordinary guy. He just loves collecting things. His house looks like something you’ve never been in. It’s just beautiful,” said local Pat Montgomery. Neighbor Andi Essex asked the press, “Why? Why? Leave him alone! He’s done so much for people.” However, in recent years, the FBI Art Crime section has engaged in similar high-profile, low-substance investigations in which seizures and vague accusations of unlawful activity made headlines but resulted in few or no convictions. Other federal agencies have also engaged in extra-legal seizures and highly publicized “repatriations” from collectors who were unaware of their rights under the law.

Image: “Indiana”. 1917 sheet music cover. The song & tune sometimes better known as “Home Again in Indiana” or “Back Home Again in Indiana”. Mechanical reproduction of copyright expired printed matter; public domain per US law.