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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

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.


Cleveland Museum of Art Gives Hanuman Statue to Cambodia

May 20, 2015.  The Cleveland Museum of Art announced on May 11, 2015 that it had voluntarily returned a 10th century statue of the monkey god Hanuman to the government of Cambodia. A lengthy investigation by the museum determined the statue’s place of origin, but could not determine the date when it had been removed from the site. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the statue has been a popular favorite at the museum for thirty-three years, particularly among schoolchildren.

The museum acquired the statue from the late Robert H. Ellsworth of New York in 1982. The museum spent years of research on the provenance of the statue, which has been widely published as well as exhibited. Its research included sending a curator with a museum-made mold to try and match the base of the statue to plinths remaining at the site of the Prasat Chen temple at the Koh Ker site, about 100 km from Angkor Wat. Cleveland Museum Director William Griswold stated that archeological work just this year enabled the museum to locate the original placing in the site. The museum’s research could not determine when the statue had been removed from Cambodia, but showed that it had been sold in two pieces in Bangkok in 1968 and 1972. After identifying the original location, the museum initiated a discussion about the return with Cambodian cultural officials. The museum insisted that this was a special situation, and that returning the statue was the proper thing to do, despite not having evidence of when it was taken from Cambodia.

The museum has taken the position that it has an obligation to preserve and share globally significant objects with the American public that might otherwise slip into private hands forever. Griswold stated, as he departed for Phnom Penh to attend a welcoming ceremony, that the museum’s voluntary action was based upon its own assessment and that it did not establish a pattern for future returns. “Each situation is going to be completely different, and the analysis is going to be different for each one,” he said. During Griswold’s visit to Cambodia on May 12, he signed an agreement with the National Museum of Cambodia on future collaborative projects, the first agreement of its kind signed by Cambodia.

Image: Cleveland Museum of Art, sandstone, Overall – h:115.50 w:53.50 d:65.00 cm (h:45 7/16 w:21 1/16 d:25 9/16 inches). Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 1982.46,

Culture in Crisis Conference: Platform for Restrictive German Law

Updated May 27, 2015.  Despite its billing as a forum to explore solutions to the destruction and looting of artifacts and monuments in the civil strife in Syria and Iraq, the April 14, 2015 London Culture in Crisis Conference was short on facts about cultural losses and skirted key issues of how to preserve or rescue what remains in these devastated countries. Instead, speakers heaped vitriol on the art trade and used the conference as a platform to promote repatriation to countries still in crisis and passage of new national laws that could virtually end the circulation of antiquities in Germany and limit export to the EU.

Many speakers spoke enthusiastically about pending, still unpublished German legislation whose provisions would reportedly (1) restrict all art importation in Germany to objects with an export permit from the source country, and (2) require export licensing for all cultural goods from Germany even within the European Union. Since very few objects in circulation over the last century have export permits from source countries, such provisions appear primed to end the antiquities trade in Germany.

(At an April 22nd hearing at the Ministry of Culture in Berlin, Prof. Monika Grütters, Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, spoke at length comparing a “billion” dollar illicit art trade to illegal trade in drugs and weapons. The export licensing she proposed for cultural goods would include objects from paintings and porcelain to antiquities and would involve separate systems for each of the 16 German federal states. It was suggested that licensing process could take up to three months. Hardliners asked that the German law be made retroactive to 2008 or even to 1970. Critics of the proposed law sought to bring to lawmakers attention that data on global annual turnover of the open market shows that the market for classical and preclassical antiquities is less than 200 million euros per year, and that the percentage of that market coming from Syria is a small faction of that number. No text of the proposed law has been made publicly available.)

Although several conference speakers from Germany mentioned the desirability of a government-funded plan to research the extent of the market, it appears that the study of the market would happen only after passing laws to effectively end it. Consistently, panelists and speakers failed to credit art dealers, collectors or even collecting museums with any interest in protecting monuments and antiquities anywhere – still less in the Iraq and Syrian crises.

Stéphane Théfo of Interpol was one of the few speakers who stated that the art market and auction houses could be allies in the efforts to track illicit art as it surfaced and to promote art market good behavior. He noted that auction houses have signed agreements with UNESCO not to buy Syrian objects. Although Interpol representatives have recently shown themselves willing to use discredited sources on the volume of the trade– for example, relying on a National Geographic article rather than law enforcement data – M. Théfo acknowledged that documentation of source country and site inventories was an essential step in curbing theft. He also urged that there be government registration of goods held by art market participants, mentioning that only a few states have created an obligation to keep an accurate register. Source country registers were not discussed.

James Ede, of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), was the sole presenter in defense of the art trade (text). Ede said the picture of the art trade presented at the conference was false both in totality and in specifics. Addressing other speakers’ demands for documentation, he pointed out that in Britain, a detailed documentation system already exists in the VAT requirements for identifying the source of every purchase he makes. In addition, IADAA members are required under the organization’s rules to check any item sold for over 3000 euros against databases of lost and stolen art. He noted that collectors, dealers and museums have been denied access to inventories of stolen art like the Becchina archives, held by a Cambridge academic, making it more difficult to determine if items are stolen. Ede said that technology now exists to record objects cheaply and that UNESCO should focus on recording both museum and off-site inventories because once an object is recorded, the chance of recovery is far greater. He said that IADAA is involved with a project to build a database of objects now in the market for perpetuity, a huge demonstration of good faith, and a step that will make life much more difficult for those who deal illegally.

Ede said anyone with any knowledge of the legitimate market knows that it has no interest in buying looted goods from Syria and Iraq; the preservation of ancient cultural heritage is as important to the art trade as for any academics or archaeologists. He noted that it was the job of museums to collect and preserve for the benefit of the public and that this was impossible without the art trade.

Ede said that although there is certainly looting taking place in Syria and Iraq, the amount entering the market has been very small. He said, “The idea that ISIS has been paid for with Roman tear bottles worth $200 apiece is complete trash…The real question is what can be salvaged from these wars and by what means.”  He closed by asking the audience to spend just 15 seconds to think of Nimrud, a place he and many others had never seen, and now never would see.

A high proportion of speakers were from Germany, all extolling the benefits of the proposed German legislation. Professor Markus Hilgert is the director of the Ancient Near East Museum, Berlin State Museums- Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, a museum that holds 500,000 objects from Iraq, 95% of which were obtained many years ago through the practice of partage. Dr. Hilgert presented on a trans-disciplinary research project on the illicit trade, acronym ILLICID, with partners in customs and law enforcement, the German Federal Foreign Office, Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, German Commission for UNESCO and ICOM. The 2015-2018 ILLICID project is financed by the Federal Ministry for Education with 1.2 million euros – a primary goal is to understand the illicit market in detail.

Dr. Hilgert also announced a program for Iraqi-German Expert Dialog on Iraq’s Cultural Heritage at Archeological Sites and Museums (ICHASM), which he defined as an expert panel to define and set methodological and operational guidelines for the “infrastructure, political, legal, scientific and operational requirements for sustainable exchange and development of knowledge.” This program is also financed by the German Federal Foreign Office. Although neither of these research programs have yet any results, Dr. Hilgert advocated for a German system of stricter import controls and mechanisms to return objects to source countries. He proposed a requirement that all archeological objects to be imported into Germany have export documentation from the source countries of origin. (This, despite the fact that almost all the ancient art in circulation has no export documentation, and that for most countries even today, no system of export documentation exists.)

A panel comprising Andreas Goergen, director general of culture in the German Foreign Office, Stefano De Caro, director General ICROM, Jonathan Tubb, British Museum, and Cori Wegner, Smithsonian Institution, and chaired by Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Heritage Foundation, spoke on ‘International Perspectives and the Role of Museums’ at the Culture in Crisis conference.

Andreas Goergen described plans in Germany to implement a strict law stopping imports, then asked how much would be left in the market if proof of provenience was required: very little, he said. Hermann Parzinger strongly supported all prosecutions of antiquities claims, adding that it would be good to have “one of these cultural destructors in front of the Hague tribunal.” He absolved public museums from playing an important role in purchases of looted antiquities – but claimed that buyers from all around the world were on the Turkish border placing orders for ancient statuary from Syria and Iraq. In response to an audience comment that there were “grey” areas in dealing with antiquities, he asserted that if there were “grey” areas between the “white” and “black” markets, the grey was very dark indeed. Parzinger said the international community should reaffirm the international framework of treaties on cultural property and work to strengthen them.

Cori Wegner, who chairs ICOM’s disaster relief task force, advocated for making cultural heritage an integral part of the humanitarian response to crisis, and urged having a plan in place for heritage protection long before a crisis occurs, since a purely reactive response after crisis does not work. Dr. Wegner urged international cooperation for teaching locals heritage preservation, especially among museums and other cultural organizations that could provide on the ground assistance. She pointed to how the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum, and the German Archaeological Institute were able to work together to assist at the Islamic Museum in Egypt after it was bombed. ICOM is giving basic emergency training, buying equipment for museum and heritage staff in Iraq. She said that cultural heritage experts have a responsibility to train military to help them to understand their countries’ obligations under the 1954 Hague Treaty to protect heritage.

Stefano De Caro, currently Director General of ICCROM, said that it is essential to educate the general population to see the local archaeological resources as a central part of their local heritage; the next step in museology was to build local museums and cultural centers in Italy. Interestingly, De Caro said that negotiation for long-term loans to US museums should be revived and expanded, since Italy had plenty of materials that could be used abroad and that Italy should expand loans for research and exhibition free of charge. (This would be a noteworthy departure from the current Italian policy which has limited loans to museums that have sent art from their collections back to Italy and there have been recent demands from Sicilian cultural authorities for exorbitant loan fees). De Caro also said that research by foreign museums should be on art from Italian storage rooms, not on items acquired from the market, as Italy had so much in storage that should be researched.

Jonathan Tubb was one of the few speakers to address plans for immediate needs to preserve artifacts and monuments. Tubb acknowledged that it is not possible to do anything now to protect the archeological sites now under ISIS control but said that it was essential that qualified specialists be ready to step in whenever it is possible to do so. The British Museum is creating an educational program in emergency heritage management, conservation, techniques of recording, and other skills where a group of Iraqi trainees can be instructed along with archeologists. Dr. Tubb also pointed out that people in many nations often have a very strong interest in their local heritage, but when faced with people who are holding guns and persecuting them, the population does not have the option of defending their heritage.

In a recorded statement, Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director General of Antiquities and Museums, Syria acknowledged that the absence of government institutions contributed to systematic clandestine excavations and extensive smuggling. He blamed Mafia from neighboring countries and claimed antiquities experts were advising on what to dig for. He said that fighting damaged 140 buildings in Aleppo and another 1000 damaged by fire. Displaced people are living inside sites and using stone blocks from sites to rebuild destroyed homes and buildings. He said that 99% of artifacts from museums are safely stored. Maamoun Abdulkarim listed a dozen meetings, conferences, and relationships established between Syrian cultural heritage officials and foreign organizations, but without explanation of specific results from these cultural connections.

Speaking from the audience at the close of the last panel, Sir Colin Renfrew congratulated the German government on putting forward new law, and he made the very unusual claim that there was an increase in auction prices for unprovenanced antiquities. However, recent sales such as that of the Northampton Museum’s Egyptian sculpture have shown the opposite – that the most valuable ancient art today is not the most beautiful nor the rarest pieces, but the ones with the longest and least questionable history of ownership.

The conference was jointly sponsored by Yale University and Victoria & Albert Museum. Videos of all the conference presentations are available on YouTube.

Image: Nimrud, By M.chohan (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Please note: This is an updated post with a correction regarding scope of German law.

From THE HINDU: A Stunning Opinion by Dr. Vishakha N. Desai

May 11, 2015.  Scholar and museum professional Dr. Vishakha N. Desai sharply criticized the Government of India’s cultural policy – or lack of it- in an Opinion piece in the Indian national newspaper The Hindu, entitled India’s Deafening Silence on Stolen Art. Dr. Desai criticized the Indian government for failing to police or preserve its artistic heritage – noting that for decades, no one in India spoke publicly about the activities of well-known art dealer and accused art smuggler Subhash Kapoor and that virtually the entire prosecutorial effort against him took place in the US, not India.

Dr. Desai asked: “[W]hat will happen to these objects once they are returned to India?” She continued, “There is no doubt that when objects are proven to be stolen, they must be returned to the country of origin. But the issue becomes complicated when the “source country” neither shows much concern for the protection of its ancient heritage nor has the infrastructure to promote the deep values inherent in objects of its millennial past. This was evident in the destruction of ancient artefacts in Mosul museum by Islamic State militants in Iraq and when the Taliban hacked the ancient Buddhas in the hillside caves of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. The world watched these destructions in horror, but helplessly.”

“Among art museum professionals, it once again raised the question of safety of art objects: would it not be better to have these objects be taken care of as symbols of world heritage in the safety of established art museums in the West? What happens when the country of origin is incapable of preserving its heritage and does not care about it? An unspoken part of that rationale was that, in addition to the unstable conditions in war-torn countries, there was also a lack of concern for ancient culture that expressed an ethos and religious practice different from the present ones.”

Dr. Desai argued strongly that the Indian government has failed to value its cultural heritage or to educate Indian citizens in the country’s rich, vibrant and diverse cultural history. “[I]t must be remembered that India has seen its own destruction of monuments in the name of religion (the destruction of Babri Masjid and the vandalism of several Muslim monuments during the Gujarat riots)… In its preoccupation with science, technology and material well-being, the Indian education system has systematically de-privileged the study of ancient culture and history, resulting in the lack of any deep concern for the value of ancient objects as living testaments to a rich culture.”

Dr. Desai is an Asia scholar with a focus on art, culture, policy, and women’s rights. She is the Special Advisor for Global Affairs to the President and Professor of Practice, Columbia University and President Emerita, Asia Society (2004-2012). She well-known in the US for her work to shepherd the Asia Society Museum through years of sustained growth as a preeminent NY cultural institution.

Dutch Collector to Return Mummy to Monastery, Not State

May 7, 2015  A Buddhist statue containing the mummified body of a monk may be sent to its Chinese province of origin by its owner, a Dutch architect. The “mummy statue” received international press attention when it was lent to an exhibition, “Mummy World,” at the Hungarian Natural History Museum. The statue was earlier on loan to the Drents Museum in Assen in the Netherlands.

The mummified body inside the statue is the only Chinese Buddhist mummy that has been scientifically studied in the West. The statue was taken to the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort in the Netherlands, where a full CT scan was performed and samples taken through endoscopy. The investigative team found scraps of paper on which Chinese characters were written inside the body in the cavities normally containing organs.

The research team believes that the mummy may be a rare example of the “self-mummification” process, in which a monk sought to achieve a higher spiritual state or state of higher enlightenment by slowly starving the body while consuming a diet of roots and bark containing toxins that would kill maggots and other insects.

Villagers in Yangchun, Fujian Province saw a newspaper article on the unusual statue and claimed that it was the same statue stolen from their village temple in 1995. The village petitioned the Chinese government to act and Chinese authorities sought its return from the Netherlands.

The owner, private collector Oscar van Overeem, said he had purchased the statue for approximately $20,000 US in 1996 from another collector who had bought it in Hong Kong, and that he personally had possession of the statue in Holland for twenty years. He said he had easily proved to Chinese authorities that it could not be the same statue claimed by the village based upon the date it was allegedly stolen.

Nonetheless, van Overeem was willing to send the statue back to China so long as it would be placed in a temple or monastery setting where it could “be incorporated in truly Buddhist surroundings” and worshiped “by those who love and appreciate him.” He declared he would not give it back to the Chinese government for placement in a State museum. Via LinkedIn, Van Overeem said that a tentative agreement had been reached whereby the statue would go to a major Buddhist temple in Fujian province, near to the village claiming the statue.

26EA19C000000578-0-image-a-5_1427103991370Images: copyright Denks Museum, Assen, The Netherlands