In recent news, an original Willem de Kooning known as “Woman-Ochre” was found at an estate sale by owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques, a New Mexico furniture and antiques shop (the owners include Buck Burns, Rick Johnson and David Van Auker).

Unaware that the work was an original de Kooning that had been stolen thirty years before, the antique dealers brought the work to their shop and marketed it as a decorative piece.  However, after the painting received significant interest, the dealers researched the provenance and determined that the work was the stolen art.  As a result of their efforts, the painting has been returned to its original owner, the University of Arizona Museum of Art.  Reunited with the Museum, the work (which had been cut from its frame during the heist thirty years ago) “fits like a glove” in its original frame.

In November, the Museum will have a special presentation regarding the “Woman-Ochre” entitled Out of the Vault – Art Crime. Museum Curator Olivia Miller and Registrar Kristen Schmidt will present on the theft of the de Kooning and Meredith Savona, a Special Agent with the FBI’s Art Crime Unit, will discuss art theft.

This recent discovery demonstrates the need to conduct proper provenance research.

In the wake of more WWII/Nazi era stolen art legal battles, the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) has issued a new Provenance Guide, which highlights the importance of archival research, and states that provenance research is “a must” for all art purchasers.  The Provenance Guide includes links to numerous archival websites and databases (including the Getty Research Institute), which will aid in provenance due diligence.  IFAR states that provenance litigation demonstrate that “all available archival materials must be consulted . . . ” because among other things, “documentary evidence may be open to interpretation.”

 

 

 

In recent art world news, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has turned over another antiquity to prosecutors in Manhattan after one of its curators had raised concerns about the ancient object after researching it last year.  Prosecutors have taken custody of the ancient artifact, the head of an ancient marble sculpture of a bull, on loan to the Met Museum, due to concerns that it had been looted from a Lebanese storage area during the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s.

The prior owners of the 2,300 year old marble object claim they have clear title to the antiquity and have taken legal action against the prosecutors for its return.  The prior owners are also pursuing legal action against Lebanon’s antiquities directorate in connection with a federal lawsuit in which they argue that “neither the Lebanese government nor the Manhattan prosecutors have offered convincing proof that the [antiquity] was stolen.  The lawsuit also cites property rights, cultural patrimony laws, statutes of limitations and jurisdictional issues as grounds for the sculpture’s return to them.”

The prior owners purchased the artifact from an art dealer in London back in 1996 for over $1 million and then sold it to a collector in 2010 who is the current owner.  The current owner loaned the antiquity to the museum that year, but has since asked the prior owners to take the artwork back and compensate him after becoming aware that Lebanon was disputing its provenance.

The prior owners’ attorney said in a statement that he and his clients believe the “district attorney’s position is ill-founded” and added that the prior owners are “bona fide purchasers with clean hands.  By contrast, for more than 50 years, Lebanon has failed [to] take any action domestically or internationally to report any theft of the bull’s head.”

The Met Museum released the following statement:  “Upon a Met curator’s discovery that this item on loan may have been stolen from government storage during the Lebanese civil war, the museum took immediate action.  We contacted the Lebanese government and the lender, we took the item off display, and we have been working with federal and state authorities, which recently involved delivering the head of the bull to the Manhattan D.A. upon its request.”

The antiquity has a deeply rooted history.  According to museum and Lebanese authorities, the artifact was “first catalogued in 1967 by a Swiss archaeologist excavating the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon.  It is believed to be of Greek origin, was warehoused in the city of Byblos, the site of a looting spree in the 1980s.”

This is the second time in recent weeks that the museum has been asked to turn over an antiquity to prosecutors in Manhattan with different circumstances in each case.  As discussed in our recent blog post last week, the Met Museum returned an ancient vase that it bought at auction back in 1989 due to concerns that it may have been looted from Italy.

For more information on this latest antiquity provenance dispute, see “Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors,” published online by the New York Times on August 1, 2017.

In recent art world news, an ancient vase known as a krater, prominently displayed in the Greco-Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for decades, was quietly seized by U.S. prosecutors from the district attorney’s office in Manhattan after the issuance of a warrant last week.  The vibrantly painted krater dates back to 360 B.C. and depicts Dionysus, god of the grape harvest, sitting in a cart pulled by a satyr.  The antiquity is attributed to the Greek artist Python, who is considered one of the two greatest painters of that time.

A warrant was issued to the Met after investigators reviewed photos and other evidence sent to them back in May by a forensic archaeologist based in Europe who has been tracing looted artifacts for over a decade.  The museum had hand-delivered the vase to prosecutors the following day and expects that it will be eventually returned to Italy.  The vase was seized based on evidence that it had been looted by tomb raiders in Italy in the 1970s.

The recent seizure of the krater is similar to the removal of another terracotta vase, known as the Euphronios Krater, from the Met back in 2008 after evidence revealed that the object had been illegally excavated from an ancient burial ground in Italy.  Both law enforcement and museum authorities believe that the vases passed through Italian art dealer, Giacomo Medici, who was arrested in 1997 and convicted in a Rome court in 2004 for conspiracy to traffic in antiquities.

Medici, who has since been released from prison, has denied any role in connection with the recently seized vase.  The Met purchased the vase at a Sotheby’s auction in 1989 for $90,000.  Sotheby’s has said it did not have any knowledge of provenance issues with the object at the time it handled the sale.

While its significance does not rise to the level of the far larger Euphronios Krater, which the Met sent back to Italy after a 30-year dispute, the newly confiscated vessel is a remarkably intact survivor of an age when the Greeks colonized Paestum, a Mediterranean city in the Campania region south of Rome, and created temples and artworks of legendary beauty.”

The forensic archaeologist in Europe who traced the krater said that his evidence suggested that the object was disinterred by looters from a grave site in southern Italy and eventually ended up in Medici’s possession.  Many of the antiquities that went through Medici ultimately ended up in museums throughout the world.

This latest case appears as “more and more museums are being pressed to scour their collections for items trafficked by known antiquities smugglers whose goods originated in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Cambodia, India, and Egypt” and other countries long affected by looting.

For more information on this story and the forensic archaeologist’s evidence resulting in the seizure of the krater, see “Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum On Suspicion It Was Looted,” published online by the New York Times on July 31, 2017.

 

In recent art world news, artworks that had been seized by the Nazis from German museums and later discovered hidden away by Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive Munich art collector who had amassed a collection of 1,500 artworks acquired by his Nazi-era art dealer father, have arrived at the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland.

Select artworks from the Gurlitt collection are scheduled to go on view this fall on November 2, 2017.  The artworks included in the exhibition are only those whose provenances are known.  The origins of the remaining pieces from the collection are still under investigation in Germany.  Mr. Gurlitt, who had passed away in 2014, had bequeathed the entire collection, which includes art by Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Franz Marc, to the museum.

The highly anticipated exhibition is titled “Degenerated Art” and will be one of two simultaneous displays of select artworks from the Gurlitt collection.  The Kunstmuseum Bern will display about 200 of the 1,500 pieces from the collection.  The exhibition will focus on art that was seized by the German authorities and deemed “degenerate”.  “Degenerate” was a term adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany to describe virtually all modern art.

A separate set of artworks from the Gurlitt collection will be displayed at the Bundeskunsthalle museum in Bonn, Germany set to open on November 1, 2017.  That exhibition will include about 250 artworks that are believed to have been looted from private Jewish art dealers.

A related post on the Gurlitt collection entitled “Germany Extends Funding For Another Year To Establish Provenance Of Looted Art From Nazi Era” was previously published on the Art Law blog in March 2016.

 

 

In recent art world news, a prized painting, “La Punta Della Dogana e San Giorgio Maggiore” (1739-40) by the artist Michele Marieschi, has become the focus of a 70-year restitution effort by the Graf family and its heirs that is now being resolved on an ambivalent note.

Back in 1937, Vienna, a couple named Heinrich and Anna Maria Graf purchased a scenic 18th-century oil painting of the Grand Canal in Venice with the Punta Della Dogana in the background.  The Graf family considered the prized painting to be the highlight of their treasured art collection.  The next year, after Austria was annexed by Germany, the Grafs along with their young twin daughters, Erika and Eva, fled the country.  In 1942, by the time the family settled in New York, all the family’s possessions had been looted by the Nazis.

The prized painting will be part of an upcoming old masters auction in July at Sotheby’s in London as a restitution settlement reached between the heirs and a trust on behalf of the now deceased owner.  Sotheby’s has estimated the painting’s value in the range of $650,000 to $905,000.  Though treasured by the Graf family, the painting is not widely considered to be a significant work.

This painful and circuitous history reflects how looted artworks that have been in private hands for decades are coming to market after settlement agreements with the rightful owners, in a way that tries to address their tainted past.  These agreements may not result in the return of the paintings to the heirs, but the compromise does provide at least a form of resolution and some compensation to the heirs, and brings the artworks out of hiding.”

The heirs of the Graf family were not able to have the painting returned to them because the deceased owner and the trust declined to return the artwork.  Instead, an agreement was reached between the parties that includes sharing of the proceeds from the Sotheby’s sale.

The Graf family had been actively searching for the painting since 1946 around the time Heinrich Graf submitted a claim for the work in Austria.  Decades later, in 1998, the two daughters with the assistance of the Art Loss Register, a database of lost and stolen art that also offers search services, posted an ad in The Art Newspaper seeking information on the painting.

In 2013, after the death of the owner of the painting, the artwork fell into a trust.  In 2015, the trust reached out to Art Recovery International, which specializes in the mediation of restitution claims.  It was around this time that negotiations with the Graf heirs began.  The estate of the deceased owner and the Graf family reached the restitution agreement in December.

For further information on this intriguing story, see “After Decades, A ‘Bittersweet’ Resolution Over Lost Art[,]” published online by The New York Times on May 28, 2017.

In recent art world news, recent restitution efforts of the Netherlands for returning looted art have come under scrutiny.  Some international critics assert that Dutch policies for restitution of looted art have become stricter once again.

Following World War II marked a “period in Dutch history when a cold cynicism toward Holocaust survivors meant that thousands of masterly works were rescued from the Nazis only to end up as Dutch national property” in which many of the works were displayed in Dutch museums.  The Allies returned about 8,000 to 9,000 works of art that had been found in Germany to the Netherlands.  This represented less than half of the works reported missing by the Holocaust survivor claimants.  By the early 1950s, the Dutch government announced that the restitution process had been completed and had stopped accepting claims – only about 500 to 1,000 works had been returned to their rightful owners at the time.

The Netherlands was once ridiculed for its obtuse efforts at recovery of looted works, but in the late 1990s the country embraced “progressive and pioneering efforts that have led it to be considered a model for enlightened restitution.”  While there were efforts in some European countries after the war to compensate victims of Nazi looting, new scholarship and media coverage in the 1990s persuaded other countries to review their own restitution policies in an effort to improve the restitution process.

In recent years, the country’s restitution policy requires the government panel that determines restitution cases to balance the interests of national museums against the claims by Holocaust survivors or their heirs.  In particular, the policy requires the panel to weigh “the significance of the work to public art collections” against the emotional attachment of the claimant.

As a recent example of the effect of the policy, in 2013, a claim for the Bernardo Strozzi painting entitled “Christ and the Samaritan Woman,” filed by the heirs of a German-Jewish refugee, was rejected because the work was important to the Dutch museum that displayed it.

According to Anne Webber, chairwoman of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, “[t]he balance-of-interests test means that even if a claimant submits a claim to the restitution committee for a work of art, and even if the panel finds that the claim is good, is right, the claimants don’t automatically get their painting back, nor do they get any remedy.”

Last fall the Dutch culture minister had outlined some planned changes to the country’s current restitution policy, including term limits for members of the restitution panel and the establishment of a “World War II Expertise Center, a centralized contact point for information and research that will open this autumn, as part of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam.”

The lapses of the Dutch restitution process after World War II and the Dutch efforts to address them are the subjects of a new exhibition entitled “Looted Art—Before, During and After WWII,” which recently opened on May 12, 2017 at the medieval Bergkerk cathedral in Deventer, The Netherlands.

ArtNet news recently reported that the painting of a slumbering child painted by American illustrator Norman Rockwell (pictured below) has been returned to its rightful owners by the FBI.  The recently recovered work has been known by various titles over the years including Taking a Break, Lazybones, and Boy Asleep with Hoe.

The painting was owned by the Grant family for nearly 20 years before it was stolen in 1976.  Last year, the FBI issued a press release marking the 40th anniversary of the theft of the painting.  In response to the press release, an antiques dealer contacted the Bureau’s art crimes division to say he thought he might be in possession of the work in question. The anonymous dealer handed over the Rockwell and is not believed to have been involved in the theft or subject to any charges.

The painting sold in the 1950s for $100, but the current fair market value of the work could be as much as $1 million.

Read more here.

In recent art news, longtime collaborators and respected art scholars, Emma C. Bunker and Douglas A. J. Latchford, who had become authorities on Southeast Asian antiquities in which their approval could virtually guarantee an ancient object’s value and legitimacy, have become entangled in a criminal lawsuit filed by the Manhattan district attorney last December in New York as “Co-Conspirator No. 1” and “Co-Conspirator No. 2.”  Although neither expert has been charged and neither is named in the complaint, it was reported that people familiar with the case have confirmed their identities.

The collaborators and longtime friends authored three seminal volumes, namely, “Adoration and Glory:  The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” “Khmer Gold” and “Khmer Bronzes,” which are regarded as core reference works for other experts.

The complaint alleges that “over a period of years the co-conspirators and others helped a prominent New York gallery owner, Nancy Wiener, falsify the documentary history of looted Cambodian relics, making them easier to market.”  A federal agent said in the complaint that “[m]isrepresenting the true provenance of an antiquity is essential for selling stolen items in the market.”

In the criminal suit, Wiener, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused of using her business “to buy, smuggle, launder and sell millions of dollars worth of antiquities stolen from Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, India, Pakistan and Thailand.”

While the accusations in this case are hardly new in the history of art fraud, experts comment that this case

highlights the vulnerabilities of the art world, where authenticity and ownership disputes are common and where scholarship, and the people who can wield it, often provide the imprimatur that dealers need to close sales.”

Neither Bunker nor Latchford have responded to news media requests for an interview.  However, Latchford has denied any wrongdoing in previous interviews and defended his collecting practices as the “norm for an era when far less rigor was attached to provenance and sales documents.”

For additional information regarding this intriguing case, see “Expert Opinion or Elaborate Ruse?  Scrutiny for Scholars’ Role in Art Sales,” published online by the New York Times on March 30, 2017.

 

The New York Times recently reported on a lawsuit filed in New York State Court in which the heirs of Fritz Grunbaum are citing the recently enacted Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (known as the HEAR Act) in an effort to claim two valuable drawings by the late Austrian artist Egon Schiele.  The HEAR Act, adopted last December, has been widely praised as a necessary tool to provide the victims of Holocaust-era persecution and their heirs a fair opportunity to recover works of art confiscated or misappropriated by the Nazis during World War II.

Grunbaum’s nearly 450 piece exquisite art collection has been the center of controversy almost since the collection was confiscated from his Vienna apartment in 1938.  Over the years, Grunbaum’s heirs have argued that the collection was stolen by the Nazis.

Others, such as collectors, dealers and some museums have countered that the artwork was inventoried by the Nazis and not stolen, and that 53 of the some 81 Schiele works were legitimately sold by Grunbaum’s sister-in-law to a Swiss art dealer in 1956.  These parties are of the view that previous courts have found that the Schiele works were not stolen and that no further claims should be considered on such works.

However, the Grunbaum heirs assert that the previous claims, in the present case and others, were determined on legal technicalities, not the merit of the argument that the works were looted by the Nazis and that this is the type of case that the new law was enacted to address.

The HEAR Act creates a federal statute of limitations for such claims that is six years from the time of “actual discovery” of the whereabouts of the work.  The new law is consistent with the “spirit of two international proclamations stating that technicalities should not be employed to prevent stolen property from being returned to rightful owners.”

The two Schiele works being sought by Grunbaum’s heirs, namely, “Woman in a Black Pinafore” (1911) and “Woman Hiding Her Face” (1912), were part of the 1956 sale to the Swiss dealer.  The attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs, however, argues that the circumstances of the 1956 sales transaction were never fully investigated and that the lost works were not discovered by the heirs until they were noticed for sale at a 2015 art fair.  The two Schiele drawings are said to be valued together at about $5 million.

The Grunbaum heirs’ suit was filed in November 2015 after learning that Richard Nagy, a London art dealer and Schiele specialist, was trying to sell the two Schiele drawings at an art fair at the Park Avenue Armory earlier that same year.  Nagy has fought the claim in court by arguing that he acquired both works “in good faith and in a commercially reasonable manner” after the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs appeal of an earlier case.  Nagy’s attorneys argue that prior court rulings on the Schiele works from the Grunbaum collection were based on a finding that such works had been properly conveyed in 1956.  Specifically, Nagy’s attorneys assert that the attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs was wrong to invoke the new HEAR Act because the law does not apply to cases where a final judgment has been reached.

Agnes Peresztegi, president and legal counsel of the Commission on Art Recovery, an organization founded by billionaire art collector Ronald S. Lauder, however, sides with the position of the attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs.  She indicated that the prior case was not decided on the merits, but rather on a technical issue that too much time had passed to pursue a claim.  Peresztegi “welcomes the use of the new law in deciding whether many of the Grunbaum collection’s Schieles, including the two owned by Mr. Nagy, were stolen.”

The attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs maintains a positive attitude regarding the case in which he recently indicated that “[w]e believe that the expert report and scholarship of Dr. Jonathan Petropoulos, the world’s leading expert in this field, will persuade the court that the evidence shows that Fritz Grunbaum was a victim of Nazi art looting.”

We will continue to monitor this case and will report updates on same on the Art Law blog.