Treasures, Antiquities and Art Historians

 

Treasures, treasures everywhere, nor any art to hang up on the walls. With my apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge on his epic 1797 poem The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. That is an epic poem due to its length; stolen art is epic in its quantity, quality and the length of time between theft and retrieval. If there is a retrieval. It keeps all those art historians on their toes. Whether it is stolen paintings, antiquities swiped from war torn countries, sculpture that sneaks out under cover of dark, the art history folks keep their eyes opened for all these items.

And, of course, the police. I subscribe to a few blogs that relate in some fashion to art, art history, stolen art, recovering said stolen art, and so on. The information available to read on these topics is a mountain that is hard to scale when you dawdle along as I seem to do. I literally cannot keep up with all the articles that land in my inbox. I can only imagine what art curators must deal with daily. In order to be on the lookout for stolen art, one must first know what is missing from homes, galleries, museums, transportation hubs and private viewings.

The latest blog that caught my eye was from the ARCA blog. ARCA stands for Art la di da and so on find out what this means. The blog highlights the Italian police, known as the Carabinieri, who diligently chase down all the lovely and irreplaceable artworks stolen from Italian soil. The Italians have a finely-honed police art squad, if you will, completely dedicated to the successful return of all stolen items. Italians take art as seriously as food, water and wine. Italians are rightfully proud of their heritage from music to paintings to sculpture to architecture. Their art curators authenticate so much work every day, curate it, and help sell it legally to buyers and collectors, you would think they don’t have time to deal with thefts of art. But all those art thefts are exactly what ruins their galleries, museums, all public buildings, and private collections.

Fabrizio Rossi Luogotenente presso Arma dei Carabineri Photo: UNESCO

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Italian Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale publishes bulletins to inform the public about stolen art because it has proven to help to curb art theft and trafficking. Brigadier General Fabrizio Parulli, the Carabinieri TPC Commander said in the 38th edition of the bulletin:

“We believe that what has been stolen must not be considered as lost forever. On the contrary, we regard it as held hostage by offenders who can and must be defeated by the Italian and the international police force, together with the Ministry of Cultural Heritage Activities and Tourism, the art dealers and all the citizens.”

Clearly you should never steal from the Italians because they will run you to ground in order to retrieve their artwork!

This year the group sponsored a conference entitled “Art Held Hostage” for people who work in law enforcement, academia, galleries, museums, auction houses and the art market. The conference included descriptions of all the artwork stolen this year that has yet to be recovered. There is no end to the work, apparently, for people trying to gain back the works that are a major component of cultural heritage.

Museum of the Missing bySimon Houpt. The book details stolen artwork that has not been recovered.

The problem is obviously not unique to Italy, or even Europe. Art thefts, artifacts and antiquities thefts, criminal networks and willing buyers operate on every continent. Whether it is a Chinese Ming vase, a pre-Columbian artifact from South America, a painting from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, thieves are working everywhere, under all conditions, to unlawfully earn a buck.

This brings me to what is going on with the characters in my own work. All this information is just so juicy. Unfortunately, I am not writing a definitive academic work on the nature of art and antiquities thefts. My work must curtail all that exploration into dark corners and pick something manageable. It’s been fun to read, ponder, and look out the window. But now it’s time to decide what must actually make its way into a story that is believable to you, dear readers, and entice you to continue reading. So, alas, you won’t be reading all the latest from the world of criminal art sales. There will be fun information, chases to catch the thieves, and many moments of love and longing. These books are, after all, about romance, not just skullduggery and shenanigans.

A little sneak peek might be in order here. One of my characters in one of the books is a woman who owns an art gallery. She tends to specialize in nineteenth century American painters, especially those who paint landscapes. That idea has led me to some very pleasure time spent on the website of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Their website could hold you captive for hours. There is so much to view from their collection. Naturally, I kept viewing and viewing. But viewing isn’t writing, said the inner voice. So, I reluctantly left the website to return to writing.

What I learned was so interesting I decided to share some of it with you in these blogs. The other aspect of all this viewing is to share actual photos of the artwork that has caught my attention. You will also get to see some magnificent examples of American painting. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. So, I will share pictures for your entertainment and edification. Mostly for the entertainment.

My hope is you find all these tidbits intriguing enough to stay around and read. You need something positive in your day, which viewing art can provide. You need a puzzle to solve, which reading about art thefts, antiquities stolen, and the hair pulling of art historians can provide. Sounds like a good mix we can enjoy together.

Have a wonderful week. I hope this inspires you to go online and find artwork you like and learn something about it. Happy viewing and reading!

Art, Thieves and Shady Characters

Art thefts don’t rank high as a daily concern for most people. After all, most people in the world don’t own expensive artwork, don’t necessarily understand the art market, and frankly don’t have time to care about the issue. What with caring for ourselves, our families, our friends, going to work and just trying to keep up with the laundry, cleaning and who knows what, who can blame them? In the cosmos, art theft ranks low on the priority list. But there are some of us who fret about it for personal or professional reasons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gentle readers: you know writers are just about a bubble off plumb compared to normal folks. I am no exception. And somehow this issue about art theft has taken up residence in my mind and I can’t evict it. I act like my Jack Russell terrier with her chew toys…she shakes and shakes her head from side to side but doesn’t let go. Nice mental image, right? Yep, that’s me about all this art stuff.
Naturally that means as a writer I must use all this information as fuel for a book. Or two, or ten or twenty.

If I am going to write books about boys and girls falling in love there must be some kind of fascinating background for their lives. People don’t live in a vacuum and you wouldn’t read a book that doesn’t give you any inkling about who these characters are as people and what they do with their time. It is hard to care about people or things you know nothing about. This sounds just like a circular argument. But I didn’t really mean it to be that way.
The salient point here is a writer must have many tools in her writing bag. Not just pens and paper, computers or typewriters. I mean a different set of tools. Tools like personality types, occupations, interests or hobbies. All the natural things that pertain to us real people are at work in a novel with believable characters.
You don’t want to read anything with cardboard characters. You have a crazy uncle, so do characters in a book. Your aunty is bonkers about making jam, some guy in a book collects baseball cards. You know what I mean? Ordinary ups and downs and activities of a normal life. Note that descriptor: normal. We don’t need to examine the lunatic fringe here!
This art theft business was always in the back of my mind but I didn’t actively research it until the past few years. Okay, a true confession here. I am plotting and scheming a book that is a thriller. It might end up as a romantic thriller, but I haven’t gotten that far. The underlying premise of the books is about how Nazi stolen art is used, along with other art thefts, to finance some nefarious dealings.

How so, you ask?
Believe it or not, art theft is the fourth most lucrative crime in the world. Yep. This is sort of a follow the money trail to show you, only it’s follow the art. First of all, artwork, particularly paintings, is fairly easy to steal and hide while traveling the globe to an eventual buyer. Since the works are hot properties, you won’t find them listed at an auction at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. Their catalog lists only works with proven provenance. Thieves are only interested in the money to be made.
Secondly, stolen goods can be held in escrow for a financial transaction or for outright payment. In plain language, some scumbag has the stolen art for sale to raise necessary cash. Yes, CASH. No bank drafts on these deals. The cash is then used to purchase other items such as drugs, weapons, humans, what have you. The underlying cash cow of stolen art is funding human sex trafficking and terrorism.
That might shock you. Most people don’t associate the two. You think ISIS or Al Qaeda buys it weapons from US military surplus sales? No, they deal with shady dealers. There are always people who want to make a buck providing weapons to clients. Their morals being what they are, it doesn’t matter who is going to get killed by these weapons as long as the arms dealer gets his cut.
This explains why ordinary people are starting to take some notice. The problem is not some hush, hush proposition. With irrefutable proof of these deals, we can track what happens to art or money. At least we can sometimes.

The track record on returning the stolen art is pretty sketchy. The record is even worse when it comes to the artwork originally stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis. Then the Communists rolled into Europe from Russia and yanked some of that artwork right out German hands. These boys don’t play well with others, you see. Hundreds of millions of dollars disappeared into the great maw of the underworld.

 


 

 

 

 

 

So where was I? Oh, right. This is really tasty stuff for the books, don’t you see? Why I can just invent all kinds of people and art and bad guys and the hero coming in to rescue the damsel in distress and reward money and…well, you get the picture. It will be fun. And I need some ongoing theme and structure for all my lovely ladies. Don’t be surprised if I turn up with a musician, a dancer, a painter and so on along with all these characters involved in artwork. But I have a soft spot for art historians, or curators, as they are now called. There is nothing boring about what they do all day. And my goal is to entertain, not bore, you, the reader.
As a matter of fact, in the quirky way life works, I started with three ideas, plotted them in my writer’s notebook, and when I sat down to write things took a turn here and a twist there. Such is life. The path is nearly always serpentine, not straight. I’ll let you know what’s happening. Right now, I have a music teacher, a handsome devil of a man, and their fiery dance to write about.
Have a great week and enjoy the books you are reading. I have to dive back into my imaginary world and get my work completed while the cat and dog snooze nearby.
Be happy in this first week of May!

A Funny Thing Happened…

History can repeat itself endlessly to our amusement or dismay. Years ago, the movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was nearly a cult classic and people would start stories by saying, “You know, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum…” to indicate how life has a way of sidetracking you from your best laid plans. Yes, well, as a famous Scots writer once declared, “the best laid plans of mice and men.” Life has a way of turning your plans to mush because God has a sense of humor. Or I think He does.

 

 

 

 

 

This is a pretty long-winded way to say after several detours, roundabouts, U-turns and just plain dead ends, I have arrived at the place where I began. Absolutely battered, bruised, and well-worn, but nonetheless still able to laugh that I wanted to write about history, I wanted to write stories that gripped people’s hearts, maybe change their lives, but at least make them feel better. Back in the day, people would claim in horror about the starving artist, writer, dancer, actor, what have you. Few people would encourage a woman, in particular, to write her way through life. So I went to college to become a history teacher.

Mind you, women writers who published potboiler romance novels made actual money. Women who wrote historical fiction made money. Women who wrote inspirational or devotional books made some money. None of that mattered. Women went to college to get a teaching or nursing degree so they could support themselves if necessary. Our mothers and grandmothers had firsthand knowledge of being war widows, or women left in the lurch by philandering husbands. They wanted their daughters to be more independent, which meant occupations that were deemed appropriate for women. Teaching. Nursing. Maybe math or science, if you must. But stable, honest work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writers weren’t really considered to the epitome of stability. Never mind about Flannery O’Connor or Harper Lee. So, I trotted off to get that teaching degree. But life is funny. And a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. I took classes and studied and then fell in love. I got married, not hitched to a classroom. And with children and one thing after another put the whole idea about writing books on the back burner. Note, it was an idea that was still on the stove, simmering away.

History teachers, people with PhDs in history, were tending bar. That option slid down the drain. Journalism used to be the first draft of history, so I could combine two loves: history and writing. It was a happy relationship as long as I was in school. In real life, jobs were scarce and disappearing like a puff of smoke in the wind. Life was changing rapidly. And so was I.

Now we are in a new time and the itch to write a book about love, or books about love in another time and place, beckon me to the computer every day. Years of reading interesting facts and emotional tomes have left me with a full attack in my mind. I am eager to put all that knowledge or fun to work on behalf of keeping you, dear reader, entertained.

That is the real reason to do all this writing. You readers are what make writers sit in the chair and by hand or by typing toil away over words, paragraphs and plot lines. Without your devotion, there might not be much point to all of this. Some people write to amuse themselves and that’s fine for them. But you want more tales of the heart. Tales of how boy met girl and it changed the course of a nation. You want a happily ever after and to feel good when the book ends. You want to think about the course of true love instead of the traffic jams. I don’t blame you…I want the same thing.

That means we are embarking on this journey together and I hope you enjoy it. I have left some recent posts on this site because all that material about art thefts, Nazi looted art, restitution of artwork to Jewish families, and the underground world of using stolen art as currency is part of a work in progress. I promise you’ll read about it someday.

In the meantime, I intend to share all manner of interesting tidbits with you about art, art history, music, and dance. These topics interest me and I think you’ll like characters who work and play and live in these areas. I know little about engineering, except that engineers are creative problem solvers, so I won’t be writing books about engineering. My heart lies in the arts and we can enjoy ourselves with that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My wish is for you to have fun, enjoy the books, and feel that it was worth your while to read. I look forward to meeting you and knowing if I helped you have some fun.

Have a happy week!

Art Thefts, Pork Bellies and Big Money Deals

 

While you take the time to read this article, someone somewhere in the world is buying or selling stolen art. Every day is another opportunity for the thieves to increase their wealth while unscrupulous collectors add another work to their possessions. While these sales are illegitimate, unscrupulous and harmful to the art world, there are people behind the scenes trying to stop the transactions.

Van Gogh Vase

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The arts as represented especially by paintings and sculpture top the list of things most easily stolen and sold underground to collectors. I wish we didn’t have to refer to them as collectors because I would prefer to call them criminal collectors. Or maybe just criminals. It seems that they shouldn’t be respected by calling them collectors. They live by their own rules with little concern for the long-term consequences of their criminal activities. What matters to them is an addition to their hoard of artworks that won’t be seen by the public.

Simon Houpt wrote The Museum of the Missing in 2006. The book is about stolen artwork and begins begins with a foreword by Julian Radcliffe, the chairman of the Art Loss Register, a world-wide organization based in London. The Register maintains a database of stolen artwork that is continually updated. Radcliffe notes, “Art theft has become a global problem.” He says, “It is a crime that affects all of us. Nearly half of all items recovered by the Art Loss Register are found outside the country where they were stolen. Great amounts of money are involved, there are links to organized crime, and the lost pieces of our cultural heritage are irreplaceable.”

Museum Room
Depicting Missing Artwork

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Houpt posits the theory that politicians are reluctant to spend money on retrieving the stolen items because most people don’t place a high priority on recovery. If people are ignorant of their heritage and history, they are not likely to think about the ramifications of the theft of art. It’s not that people actually dislike their heritage, but they might be among those who have never had the opportunity to learn about art and music.

As fewer schools teach classes in art and music, as the study of history is watered down or distorted out of recognition of the truth, people are not exposed to the importance of cultural items and historical significance. People who have never really listened to classical music might not appreciate Bach or Mozart, just as they missed the beauty of Renaissance Italian paintings or the French Impressionists.

My point here is not to belittle people who have little or no exposure to the arts. And this is not the article for a diatribe on the curriculum of public schools, although what is taught does affect the attitudes that people develop at an early age.

When I grew up we studied art and music from elementary school through college. I graduated with my undergraduate degree from a teacher’s college where our core curriculum included studying art, music and humanities. It was a shared belief in our nation at that time that well educated people meant people who were exposed to various expressions of our creative nature. Since that flew out the window some time ago, sadly we see the result is a lack of concern for our heritage in western society.

The Concert by Vermeer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The question for us to examine is why is there so much art theft? Art has become the currency du jour of the criminal underworld and terrorist groups. Art is easier to obtain (by stealing, naturally) than diamonds. Most of it can be made portable by cutting the paintings out of their frames and rolling them up or packing them into shipping cartons with other items. Art work can be held in escrow while transactions are being completed or stored safely in numerous places in the interim. Naturally the stolen work escapes the roving eyes of tax collectors so there will never be a public record of art for cash or weapons.

The fact that art prices have risen astronomically, to say the very least, makes all thefts that much more tempting. When the Masterpieces of art fetch millions of dollars each, people are much more willing to take extraordinary risks to obtain that work. Ergo, art has become a commodity not unlike pork belly futures. (I couldn’t resist a silly comparison to lighten up!) Art for dollars, or something more dangerous like weapons. A new methodology has entered the criminal world.

Art thefts and sales weren’t invented in the 20th century, of course. But the idea of trading a stolen Picasso or Caravaggio for a shipment of weapons brought a new seriousness and sinister atmosphere to the trades. It also brought in a higher level of policing. Stolen goods were one thing; swapping stolen art for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles or fissionable material was a completely different situation. Now the intelligence services and security services have joined the local law enforcement constabulary in trying to find, track and capture the thieves, dealers, buyers and anyone else involved in the supply chain.

As Sherlock Holmes would say, the game is afoot. And it has become quite the game of risk worldwide. So far there is nothing to dissuade the thieves, so the loss prevention must happen at the site of the artwork exhibits. Sadly, that has been ineffectual many times. The thefts continue, the sales continue, and the weapons change hands so the worst among us can kill and destroy the best among us.

This is a moral problem on a huge scale. This criminal activity is the fourth highest ranking crime worldwide. Yes, fourth. I will continue to talk about this aspect of art theft in future blogs. Enjoy the paintings in your local museum and think what you would be missing if they were stolen.

 

 

New Ruling Favors Jewish Families and Art Restitution

A landmark ruling on March 30, 2017 favored Jewish families against German holders of stolen art. The families claimed their artwork was stolen by the Nazis as part of the action taken against all Jewish people in Germany and other countries. As the Nazis investigated the financial and art holdings of Jewish families, they confiscated everything of value from silverware, china, artwork, priceless musical instruments, jewelry, money and furniture. Eventually the Nazis took the homes, offices and other real estate owned by Jewish families.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, Portrait of A Young Man, by Raphael,  is still listed as missing.

A United States District Court in Washington, DC, found for the descendants of Jewish families who were robbed of their possessions by Nazis. The Germans claim that the artworks and other items were not sold under duress by the owners; their contention is that the owners wanted to sell.

The reason the decision is so critical is that it is the first decision by a court to allow descendants to sue the Germans and others under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The collection names in the lawsuit is currently held in the Bode Museum in Berlin, Germany. Germany claims the Guelph Treasure collection, valued at about $227 million dollars, was purchased legally. The claimants dispute that, saying the portion of the collection that went to Hermann Goering was obtained illegally.

The Germans contend that the Limbach Commission decided in 2014 that no lawsuits could be litigated later. They contended that the sale was proper. The US court disagreed, agreeing with the claimants that the Nazi actions of taking property without compensation is in violation of international law. Since the end of World War II, German officials have insisted that the owners of the artwork and other items willing sold their treasures to individuals. Historic documents, survivors and their descendants dispute this claim, resulting in descendants filing lawsuits in Europe and the United States to return the items stolen by the Nazis to their families.

Jeweled Crucifix from the

Guelph Treasure Collection.

The collection is currently housed in the Bode Museum in Berlin.

Below,

Woman in Gold by Gustav Klimpt, a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

The film Woman in Gold told the story of Maria Altmann’s lawsuit to have her aunt’s portrait, painted by Gustav Klimpt, returned to her family. The Altmann family, who lived in Vienna, had all of their property stolen by Nazis prior to Maria’s parents being shipped to a concentration camp and killed. Klimpt painted several portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Maria’s aunt. The portrait in Austria that was the center of Maria’s lawsuit hung in the family’s living room. After winning her suit, the painting was eventually returned to her. She in turn sold it to Ronald S. Lauder, son of Estee Lauder the founder of the cosmetics company. Ronald Lauder opened the Neue Galerie, a nonprofit art gallery in New York city, and hung the painting in his gallery.

The lawsuit filed by attorneys in February, 2015, against the Federal Republic of Germany and the Prussian Cultural Heritage, stated that international law was broken and the Europeans had no claim to stolen property. The court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs will no doubt bring more publicity to the question of stolen artwork. Millions of dollars in artwork, stolen from Jewish families and others, remains in hiding or is being sold on the black market today. As more judgments are called in favor of plaintiffs it will be interesting to see if the art really is restored to its rightful owners or if it will disappear into the great maw of underworld criminal syndicates.

The problem of stolen artwork continues every day. In this blog I will share new information as it becomes available. The blogs will cover different aspects of the loot stolen by Nazis and still circulating the globe illegally and under the radar. All the artwork stolen by Nazis is still capturing the imaginations of people everywhere. It is a giant business that keeps law enforcement officers, gallery and museum owners, and affects art sales to both reputable buyers and scoundrels.

Art Thefts and Museums

Over twenty-five years ago, two men dressed as Boston police out smarted the security guard on duty at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston. They convinced him to let them inside the building (the first no-no) then leave his post (second no-no) where he had access to the only alarm (museum’s no-no and incredible dereliction) then call the only other guard on duty (third no-no for guard, second for museum) and then they got tied up with things. Literally. In the basement.

The thieves made off with 13 nearly priceless works of art. With no backup security (museum’s third no-no) the crooks had ample time to get away. The guards weren’t discovered until museum employees reported for work the next day. Hindsight tells us what’s wrong with this picture, and what a picture it is.

As I write this it is March 2017 and we have none of the art returned to the museum. It is now sadder and wiser, as are other museums. But the truth is that the art thefts continue, as do the threats of theft. The thefts aren’t transpiring solely at the museums. Thieves make off with work from galleries, exhibitions and private collections. The works include paintings, sculpture, porcelain objets d’art, jewelry, items of historical value and so forth.

All this combined effort at elaborate thefts and concealment help point out why tracking down Nazi looted art is still so difficult. Clever thieves are interested in payment not producing goods to return to rightful owners. As I have written before, art theft is the fourth most lucrative money making scheme worldwide. Unfortunately, we frequently make it easy for criminals to gain access to artworks and then fail to catch them later.

Here are photos of the items stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum. All these are in a document on their website. The photos are property of the museum.

Enjoy looking at the photos. And if you should run across one of these precious items…call the FBI Art Squad. They will be delighted to hear from you.

Art Theft Recovery Gets a Boost

 

Restoring Nazi stolen art to the rightful owners might be more successful thanks to a new law. The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 will allow one standard to be applied to the statutes of limitations used in recovery. Recovering the stolen art was more strenuous because of the myriad laws and limitations imposed upon claims.

The laws favored the defendants in lawsuits, allowing them to keep artwork that had been stolen in World War II. The rightful owners were forbidden from making a claim, even though they had the provenance to prove the art belonged to them. Families who were victimized by the Nazis had little or no recourse to possess what was once a family treasure.

Woman in Gold by Gustav Klimpt

Part of the difficulty arose from the claims of the survivors of the Holocaust who were stripped of their documentation, or the family members of those who had died in the Holocaust. Without the correct paperwork, countries were loath to begin the arduous process of legal battles that often reverted to he said, she said style arguments. How does a child describe the now dead Nazi officer who stole the artwork from his parents? You can see the difficulty in positively identifying the stolen treasures. This argument ensued even when there was clear documentation to buttress the claim. Many Europeans, in particular, appeared to want the past to stay dead and buried rather than admit culpability in the wholesale looting of billions of dollars in art theft.

Recent estimates claim that upwards of 20 percent of European art was whisked away by the greed of the Nazis. The new law will allow people more time in which to file a claim for ownership after they have located their stolen art. This law under-girds a formerly weak agreement, the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi Confiscated Art, that is a treaty signed in 1998 by 44 countries. The reality is that most governments did little or nothing to ensure the art would really be restored to its rightful owners.

The new law gives teeth to the treaty and pushes reluctant countries in the right direction of restitution. There is some irony in the fact that the Europeans are being forced to recognize the claims to stolen artwork from Jewish people while they simultaneously refuse to help Israel exist as a nation.

It seems that some things never change. Antisemitism has raged across Europe for hundreds of years. And on the foundations of the old death camps the old hatred arises.