Museums give criminals incentives to steal and steal again by paying ransoms for art works
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
July 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
On June 17, Interpol held a conference in Lyon, France, to increase co-operation among its 186 member nations in the fight to retrieve stolen cultural property. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the rise of the Internet and the globalization of the world economy, trade in stolen art and antiquities has been rising steeply.
Interpol is the international police agency through which countries share information on international crime. Of the missing art objects now on Interpol's list, 516 were taken from Canadian collections.
The number of art thefts in Canada has been growing, the most notable being the robbery in 2004 of five ivory statuettes from the Art Gallery of Ontario snatched in broad daylight. They are worth almost $1.5-million and were eventually returned to the owner. The gallery's insurer offered a reward of $150,000. After the police said that "persons of interest" had been spotted on a video, a criminal defence lawyer representing unidentified persons arranged for the return of the statuettes. These events have attracted speculation that the insurance company might have paid over the reward as a ransom, as this is one way in which thieves make their money.
Worldwide, the illegal art and antiquities trade ranks third in value, after illegal arms and drug smuggling, and in many ways they are connected. For example, Mohamed Atta, the terrorist hijacker, by his own account had sold stolen antiquities to finance the Sept. 11 attacks. The average gain by thieves on a piece of stolen art is 10 per cent of its value; in the advanced industrial democracies, art theft seems to have become a form of proxy kidnapping.
That explains why some paintings have been stolen and recovered more than once. Rembrandt's Jacob de Gheyn III has been stolen four times. It is the world's most stolen painting. Sometimes, one group of criminals gives stolen art as collateral to another group, to get credit for another illegal deal, a kind of crooked banking and credit system for robbers.
In the 1990s, a number of world-class paintings were stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston. The heist took place on St. Patrick's Day (Boston has one of the largest communities of Irish Americans), and a fair amount of research suggests that rogue members of the IRA did the job. It is thought the paintings are now overseas, perhaps in Ireland or Britain.
"Criminals go where the money is," says FBI Special Agent Robert Widman, senior investigator on the agency's rapid deployment Art Crime Team (ACT). Each year the trade in illegal antiquities is thought to be in the range of $8-billion. A growing percentage of this "business" is perpetrated by organized criminal gangs who also deal in drugs and arms. These gangs work most effectively in countries that are plagued by corruption and terrorism and whose border officials can be bribed. This includes most of the "archaeological countries" in the Near East, Asia and Latin America. At the same time, the trade has triggered a growing business in copies, fakes and forgeries. One curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York believes that his museum contains a number of smuggled fakes that the Met's authorities are ashamed to acknowledge.
It is not only low-lifers who despoil countries and institutions of their cultural heritage. More than a hundred years ago, Hiram Bingham, a member of Yale University's aptly named secret society, the Skull and Bones, went on a swashbuckling Indiana Jones-like adventure into the highlands of Peru. There he rediscovered the Incan site of Machu Picchu and brought back a hoard of 5,000 objects to the university museum.
After 18 months, the museum agreed to return the artifacts to Peru, but it has taken Peru more than a century to mount a legal case to persuade Yale to hand them back. That will happen some time next year. After Bingham left archaeology for a seat in the U.S. Senate, not surprisingly, he eventually joined the select group of American politicians whom Congress has censured for misconduct.
The Italian government is at the forefront in investigating the illegal antiquities trade, in the spirit of the new archaeological responsibility. They do not pay ransoms. They convincingly argue that they are dealing with well-organized international crime syndicates that drive the trade in illegal art and antiquities.
To show their good faith they have returned an obelisk looted from Ethiopia during the fascist period in the 1930s. Based on first-rate detective work and a more than 10-year, concerted legal inquiry with full government support, they sued employees and associates of the Getty Trust and the J. Paul Getty Museum for allegedly importing illegally excavated antiquities into the United States. They have also pressured the Met in New York to return antiquities that were clearly smuggled out of Italy. In some instances, the Met has complied.
Though the greatest art thieves of the 20th century were the Nazis, who despoiled thousands of European Jews, as well as the galleries and museums of numerous conquered countries, of their paintings and artifacts, the later surge in art theft and antiquities smuggling was triggered by a Sotheby's auction held in 1957 in London. To heighten the glamour and no doubt raise the bidding, the auction was held at night and guests were asked to wear evening dress. Prices hit the roof and they have been going up ever since. Art and art theft are now big business, and much of what is put up for auction has false provenance, or none.
The most colourful art and archaeology thief of the past 20 years has been Jonathan Tokeley-Parry. He is a Cambridge-educated (moral sciences!) scholar and expert restorer, who spent much time in Egypt. He became friendly with Egyptian antiquities dealers and smugglers and perfected the art of disguising real ancient Egyptian antiquities by painting them, to make them look like cheap imitation tourist artifacts for export, and then sent them to Europe for sale. Investigated by the British authorities, he eventually spent three years in jail for his activities, though before he was sentenced he dramatically drank hemlock in an apparent suicide attempt.
IRAQ AND IRAN
Most of Iraq is unexcavated, but with the breakdown of national authority and the continuing insurgency, archaeological sites are being looted every day, if not every hour. Three years ago the former director of the Iraqi National Museum warned that the sale of looted artifacts was funding the purchase of arms and ammunition for use against the newly constituted Iraqi armed forces and police and their Western allies.
This has been confirmed by Marine Reserve Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who argues that, much as the trade in opium funds the Taliban in Afghanistan, the illegal excavation, smuggling and sale of looted Iraqi antiquities is contributing to the funding of both Sunni and Shia militias in Iraq. An entire nation's archaeological heritage is being destroyed by the civil war, while financing it at the same time. The case of Iran is more complicated, as a state sponsor of terror that also wants the West to repatriate its antiquities.
In 2006, victims of a terrorist bombing attack carried out by Hamas in 1997 in Israel and sponsored by the Iranian government, were awarded damages against that government by a U.S. court. This means that the court can seize any assets belonging to Iran held by American institutions, including those holding archaeological objects that Iran wants to repatriate. During the 1990s, a significant hoard of Iranian antiquities was illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country and into the U.S. According to American law, the institutions holding them are now acting as temporary owners, or guardians of Iranian national property in the United States.
Under the U.S. Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, the victims of this especially vicious act of state terrorism may rightfully win legal ownership of these artifacts, with the right to resell. So the court has frozen their return to Iran, a precedent that suggests that some justice may be extracted from a largely dirty and unjust trade.
Art owners and museums still pay huge ransoms for stolen art. Our publicly funded museums and private auction houses have encouraged illegal trade by buying imported antiquities and muddling their provenance. Anyone who buys antiquities smuggled out of Iraq is indirectly paying for the civil war there.
In the 1930s, the British had a word for such behaviour, "appeasement." It would be wise for museums and the public to reject and actively oppose this underground trade and its addiction to paid ransoms.
Canada is not immune. Although local thieves seem to have carried the heist in May of art works by Bill Reid and other artifacts worth $2-million, at a museum in British Columbia, it is only a matter of time before the larger syndicates see Canada and Canadian museums as easy targets.
In the B.C. theft, a reward was offered, a tip was received and most of the works were recovered. Suspects were questioned, but no one was charged. According to the CBC, there was a deal of some sort.
If we continue to appease thieves, smugglers and terrorists, we can be sure that more of our museums and galleries will be plundered and held for ransom. By doing nothing we will be giving a free hand to organized crime in our own and other countries.
Geoffrey Clarfield is the former curator of ethnography at the National Museums of Kenya. He is a Toronto-based anthropologist, musician and writer
Art Hostage comments:
As you can imagine Art Hostage has much to say so I will try and add comments over a period of time.
First and foremost I want to draw attention to this paragraph below:
"In the 1990s, a number of world-class paintings were stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston. The heist took place on St. Patrick's Day (Boston has one of the largest communities of Irish Americans), and a fair amount of research suggests that rogue members of the IRA did the job. It is thought the paintings are now overseas, perhaps in Ireland or Britain."
Geoffrey Clarfield calls it appeasement of art and antiquities thieves, Art Hostage calls it Dane geld and uses Rudyard Kipling to explain why, see below:
IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation,
To call upon a neighbour and to say:
"We invaded you last night - we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away."
And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!
It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
"Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away."
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray,
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:
"We never pay any one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost,
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!"