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Label: art theft

Wednesday 14th December 2016The Hunt for Marcos' Missing Art

It's not unusual for art thefts to make front page news, no matter where they happen in the world. But there is one long-running hunt for missing art that you've probably never heard of, but perhaps you can be forgiven since it started way back in 1986.

Ferdinand E. Marcos, the dictator in power in the Philippines, had just been removed from power after two decades of brutal rule characterized by massive personal excesses and corruption. You've no doubt heard of his wife, Imelda Marcos, and her famously massive shoe collection. But you probably haven't heard that the pair were suspected of purchasing some fairly impressive paintings with embezzled government funds.

The paintings were by such famous masters as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and Edgar Degas, but they have yet to be found. Instead, when the volunteers investigated the Manhattan penthouse that the Marcoses' kept to throw lavish parties and entertain wealthy socialites, there were simply empty frames hanging on the walls with copper identification plates that described the pieces which used to hang there.

The decades-long search hasn't been without any success. In 1987, several important and valuable paintings were recovered by Raphael, Titian and El Greco, which sold for $15.4 million USD at a Christie's auction. In 1998, a missing Picasso was discovered after it was brought to Christie's for authentication, which eventually sold for just shy of $1 million USD.

The commission charged with finding these artworks has grown frustrated over the last few years, as so much time has passed that leads and trails have gone cold. However, they have not given up hope, and are turning to modern communication and crowdsourcing methods in an attempt to gain new leads on the still-missing pieces.

While they have achieved impressive results, the Filipino government has estimated that the full worth of the collection could be as much as $500 million US dollars, and the return of these pieces would not only be a fantastic public relations coup for the current administration but also a boon to the art world in general.

All too often the general public is neglected in consideration of stolen artworks, because once they have been stolen they obviously must be hidden away from the world. Hopefully, as the hunt for these missing treasures picks up steam again, the missing paintings will be restored to their rightful place where they can be appreciated again by the world at large.

Posted on December 14th 2016 on 03:20pm
Labels: art theft

Saturday 29th October 2016Real Life or Movie Plot?

The art world never ceases to amaze. This sheer amazement is one of the most appealing aspects of the entire business, one that more than makes up for all the pretentiousness and bad gallery openings.

The Italian mafia has apparently been selling artistic and cultural treasures that have been looted across the Middle East and Africa from Libya to Iraq. They have been purchasing them from Islamist militants including the Islamic State, and have been paying for the stolen treasures with arms.

What's even more incredible is the brazenness with which this process occurs. A journalist posing as an art buyer was able to enter a makeshift showroom (apparently located, surreally, inside a salami factory).

It's stories like this that make one wonder whether or not it's real life or a convoluted and possibly stereotypically-lazy movie plot. Unfortunately, the material damage caused by this kind of looting is not only devastating to the sum of human cultural achievement, but also to the people who are currently living under the rule of terror.

Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano is deeply concerned by the discoveries, which have been known to authorities for some time before they could be rooted out. “We have studied the ‘GDP of terror’ and we know that one of the components is the commercialization of stolen art. The stolen artifacts feed ISIS and contribute to the GDP of terror.”

This kind of looting isn't limited to trade with the Italian mafia, however, as we've discussed here on Gallereo in the past. Russian ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin recently spoke to the UN Security Council on the issue. “Around 100,000 cultural objects of global importance, including 4,500 archaeological sites are under the control of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at US$150-200 million per year.”

According to journalist and author Luca Nannipieri, much of the art that is acquired this way becomes effectively laundered through various intermediaries and then winds up in legitimate collections in universities and museums around the world.

As a result of his work chasing the threads of this convoluted world, he has an understandably rather grim take on things. "It is said that beauty will save the world. That is false. Beauty and art are often the reason for murders, destruction, oppression, and devastation.”

A depressing thought, and one that will hopefully be proven wrong as the next chapter of the world unfolds before us.

Posted on October 29th 2016 on 07:18pm

Wednesday 27th April 2016Nazi Art Stash Finally Going On Display

Hildebrand GurlittWhether or not you read about it here, you may remember the story from a year or so ago about a huge stash of paintings that were discovered in Germany. The owner of the property where they were found, Cornelius Gurlitt, was the son of now-deceased art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt who was active during the Second World War.

The collection contained a huge number of pieces which were looted by the Nazis during this horrific time, including works by the European master painters Renoir, Picasso and Monet, among many others.

Once the pieces were discovered, there was a huge conflict about their provenance and Gurlitt refused to cooperate with authorities, which lead to the seizure of the entire collection. Some may have been rightfully his, but many pieces were suspected of being looted from Jewish owners, either taken by force or "sold" for a fraction of their real value.

After Gurlitt eventually agreed to cooperate to discover the true provenance of the works in 2014, he died suddenly a month later and ostensibly left the entire collection of work to the Bern Fine Arts Museum. They eventually reached an agreement with German authorities to accept the works that were clearly the rightful property of Gurlitt, and they will be going on display shortly.

The other works that have dubious or contested ownership will be investigated by German authorities as they try to determine the rightful owners of the works. In the meantime, they will be available on display as part of an exhibit in Bonn.

The two museums issued a joint statement about the exhibit:
“The exhibitions at the Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn and at the Fine Arts Musuem in Bern are planned for winter 2016/17 and their content will be coordinated.

“The exhibition at the Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn will deal more specifically with the history of the collection, and it is hoped it will contribute to further investigation of the provenance of the works.

“It will also focus on the fates of persecuted art collectors and their collections.”

That last part seems a bit dubious, although it turns out that only 5 of the works in Gurlitt's collection have proven to be looted - so far. Two of those have since been returned to their rightful owners.

Posted on April 27th 2016 on 04:23pm

Wednesday 18th February 2015Picasso Again - But Now Theft?

Picasso and his works seem to be all over the art world news, lately. Marina Picasso, the late artist's granddaughter, made waves several weeks ago when she announced that she plans to sell off portions of her collection of works by the famous Cubist master, bypassing the auction world and selling them privately. A Picasso piece was also stolen from the Miami Beach version of the Art Basel art fair around the new year, although that small theft pales in comparison to the one that has been alleged now.

The case in question involves a handyman who worked on the Picasso estates in the 1970s, who is alleged to have stolen a huge number of works worth an estimated £50 million on the auction block. The handyman, Pierre Le Guennec, claims that the pieces were given to him by Picasso's second wife in 1970, with the nothing more than the words, "Here, it's for you. Take it home." The Picasso estate, and his surviving son Claude, contend that this is completely ridiculous given the value of the pieces in question. Claude Picasso told the French newspaper Liberation, "That doesn't stand up. These works were part of his life."

The pieces in question amount to some 180 lithographs, collages and paintings, as well as 91 drawings all by Pablo Picasso. They have remained virtually untouched, sitting in the handyman's garage since the day he brought them home.

Originally, there were no formal charges laid against Le Guennec, while an investigation began to determine how he came to be in possession of them. After eight months of searching, formal charges were finally laid by the police. The pieces were seized, and the couple could face up to five years in prison and a 375,000 euro fine.

Probably the most important pieces that were seized was a watercolour that was painted during the artist's famous Blue Period, as well as 9 Cubist paintings that make up a massive portion of the value of the art hoard. These pieces alone are estimated at a value of £24,500,000, making them as valuable as all the rest of the pieces put together.

It remains to be seen whether or not the couple will be found guilty, as the case is still winding its way through the various legal niceties, but regardless, it is good to see these masterworks back in the light of day where they can be appreciated by everyone.

Posted on February 18th 2015 on 02:34pm

Monday 28th July 2014Public Art Thefts

Public art is often something a gamble. When bureaucracy and art intertwine, it's not always with pleasing results. A perfect example occurred in Ottawa, Canada, recently this year when a public art installation was erected whose entire design and premise was based on an incorrect encyclopedia entry, leading to snickers and jeers and red-faced officials. Almost the opposite occurred recently in New York City, when the Department of Transportation put up a sign-based art project throughout the city.

Actually the work of Ryan McGinness, the signs were part of the Summer Streets project, where large sections of roadway are closed to motor vehicles and opened for public recreation. The signs, which were designed to look relatively official, following the general white, black and red pattern found commonly throughout New York City streets, instead sported much more appealing notices than the usual parking signage.

However, a curious thing began happening - the signs began disappearing. Eventually, the Department of Transportation caught on, and began to replace the signs, but not before 40 of the 50 signs had been stolen by presumably artistically-inclined thieves. The really strange thing, however, is that it seems like the average passerby couldn't care less about the signs, which may blend too closely with the cacophonic visual language that is part of the New York City parking system.

The Department of Transportation is working with the New York Police Department to track down the stolen signage, despite their rather modest production value (roughly $800 USD). What about these art pieces spoke so deeply to some passersby that they felt inclined to steal them, whereas others simply failed to notice them at all? Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Ryan McGinness said, "There's a lot of expense involved, and a lot of labor. To have an individual steal them or to have them stolen by the public really flips that mind-set."

It raises a question about street art that has also been raised thanks to the incredible values placed on works by popular street artist Banksy about who actually owns the pieces that are created on walls and other "canvases" that aren't actually owned by the artist. In this particular case, of course, it's likely that the Department of Transportation could be considered the actual owners of the pieces, but street signage is stolen fairly frequently, and any attempts to sell the pieces would doubtless swiftly bring down the wrath of the NYPD, something that the casual public art thief is likely unprepared to deal with. Here's hoping that the signs are restored, and will continue to bring wonder and joy to those lucky few who take the time to truly appreciate and enjoy their surroundings.

Posted on July 28th 2014 on 06:25pm
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