ICE and DOJ return Christopher Columbus letter to Spain

https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/ice-and-doj-return-christopher-columbus-letter-spain

2018-06-07_15-23-27

ICE and DOJ return Christopher Columbus letter to Spain

WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) returned a more than 500-year-old copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his discoveries in the Americas to Spain during an evening repatriation ceremony at the Residence of the Spanish Ambassador to the United States. The letter, originally written in 1493, was stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona and sold for approximately $1 million.

“I am pleased to be able to return a priceless piece of cultural property to its rightful owners,” said HSI Acting Deputy Executive Associate Director Alysa D. Erichs. “I would like to thank Ambassador Morenés for his hospitality in hosting us tonight, HSI Wilmington, Madrid, Brasilia, and Paris for their excellent work on this investigation, as well as the tremendous assistance by our partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Delaware, without whom today’s repatriation would not be possible,” Erichs added.

The return of the letter was the culmination of a seven-year investigation jointly conducted by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware.  It began in 2011 when HSI Wilmington (Del.) and the Delaware U.S. Attorney’s Office received a tip that several 15th century original manually printed copies of the Columbus Letter were stolen from European libraries and replaced with forgeries without the knowledge of library officials or local law enforcement. The investigation determined that the stolen Columbus Letter from Spain was sold in November 2005 for 600,000 Euros by two Italian book dealers.

“This evening ceremony is a showcase of the ties that bind the United States and Spain together,” said Ambassador of Spain to the United States Pedro Morenés. “The cooperation between Homeland Security Investigations and special units of the Guardia Civil has born great fruit in ensuring the return of stolen cultural property to Spain,” Ambassador Morenes added.

In June 2012, a subject matter expert, accompanied by an HSI Wilmington Special Agent, visited the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona and reviewed the Columbus Letter in the possession of the library at which time it was determined, in coordination with Spanish authorities and with support from HSI Madrid that the letter at the library was a forgery.

In March 2013, it was discovered that the Columbus Letter believed to have been stolen from Barcelona was reportedly sold for 900,000 euros in June 2011. Following extensive negotiations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware, the individual in possession of the letter volunteered to transfer custody to HSI Special Agents, which was then brought to Wilmington, Delaware in February 2014 for further examination. In March 2014, a subject matter expert evaluated the letter and determined that the document was “beyond all doubt” the original stolen from the National Library of Catalonia. Additionally, other experts conducted a series of non-invasive digital imaging tests, which determined, among other things, the probable use of a chemical agent to bleach the ink of National Library of Catalonia’s stamp and that the paper fibers of the Catalonia Plannck II Columbus Letter had been disturbed from their original state where the stamps were previously located.

U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss stated, “The recovery of this Plannck II Columbus Letter on behalf of the Spanish government exemplifies not only the significance of federal agency partnerships in these complicated investigations but the close coordination that exists between American and foreign law enforcement agencies.  We are truly honored to return this historically important document back to Spain – its rightful owner.  I commend the dogged efforts of HSI special agents and Department of Justice attorneys who are dedicated to the recovery of stolen cultural artifacts from around the world.”

Today’s repatriation marks the second return of a Columbus letter by ICE, the most recent until now taking place in May 2016.

ICE has returned over 11,000 artifacts to over 30 countries since 2007, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, 15th-18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia, and two Baatar dinosaur fossils to Mongolia, ancient artifacts including a mummy’s hand to Egypt, royal seals valued at $1,500,000 to the Republic of Korea, and most recently, thousands of ancient artifacts to Iraq.

Learn more about ICE’s cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete the online tip form.

Court upholds Italian art dealer’s conviction over rare church murals

http://www.ekathimerini.com/229279/article/ekathimerini/news/court-upholds-italian-art-dealers-conviction-over-rare-church-murals

2018-06-07_13-08-01

Court upholds Italian art dealer’s conviction over rare church murals

YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS – Jun 7, 2018

An Athens appeals court has upheld an 11-year sentence against a Sicilian art and antiquities dealer convicted over the theft four decades ago of four rare murals from an Early Christian rural church in Steni on Evia.

Gianfranco Becchina, who is now 80 years old, was not present at Friday’s hearing in Athens, but his lawyer told the court that her client, being an expert in antiquities, was unaware of the murals’ importance and had no role in their theft. Judges rejected the appeal, upholding a conviction against Becchina on charges of receiving stolen goods.

The case dates to 1978, when a known thief from Pyrgos in the northwestern Peloponnese broke into the Church of Palaiopanaghias and chiseled off four 16th century paintings of the saints Ermolaos, Nikitas, Makarios of Egypt and Nestor, causing extensive damage to the interior of the listed monument. The man was sentenced to life in prison in 1984 over a string of unrelated thefts, but the four murals remained missing for years until they were discovered in 2001 during an investigation into a gallery in Basel, Switzerland, run by Becchina and his wife, Ursula Juraschek.

There, Swiss authorities discovered a trove of stolen Italian antiquities, as well as the four Greek paintings that are believed to belong to the so-called School of Thebes movement.

The paintings were repatriated to Greece in 2010 and are now on display the Byzantine Museum in Athens. Their total value has been estimated in the range of 160,000 euros.

Stolen £1m Stanley Spencer painting returned to owners after being found under drug dealer’s bed

https://news.sky.com/story/stolen-1m-stanley-smith-painting-returned-to-owners-after-being-found-under-drug-dealers-bed-11393738

2018-06-05_8-33-01

Stolen £1m Stanley Spencer painting returned to owners after being found under drug dealer’s bed

The work by renowned British artist Stanley Spencer was discovered next to three kilograms of cocaine and 15,000 ecstasy tablets.

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Harry Fisher – The stolen £1m Cookham from Englefield painting was found in flat

A stolen Sir Stanley Spencer painting worth £1m has been returned to its owners after it was found under a drug dealer’s bed.

The valuable work, titled Cookham from Englefield, was stolen from the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Berkshire, in 2012.

It was missing for five years until detectives arrested Harry Fisher, 28, after they stopped a Mercedes in Strood, Kent, last June, and found one kilogram of cocaine and £30,000 in cash.

Officers later discovered the artwork next to three kilograms of cocaine and 15,000 ecstasy tablets under a bed during a raid of Fisher’s flat in Kingston-Upon-Thames, south west London.

A search of Fisher’s family home in nearby Fulham turned up more class A drugs, with the total haul worth up to £450,000.

The owners of the Stanley Spencer work, who were said to be “devastated” by the 2012 raid, have now finally been reunited with the painting.

Arts minister Michael Ellis said: “Spencer is one our most renowned painters and a true great of the 20th century.

“It is wonderful that this story has had a happy ending and the painting has been returned to its rightful owners.”

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Zak Lal was also jailed for more than five years

Detective constable Sophie Hayes said the Met’s art and antiques unit was “delighted to assist with the recovery and return of this important painting”.

She added: “The circumstances of its recovery underline the links between cultural heritage crime and wider criminality.”

Fisher was jailed for eight years after being sentenced at Kingston Crown Court.

He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply class A drugs, acquiring criminal property and handling stolen goods.

A passenger in his vehicle, Zak Lal, 32, of Strood, Rochester, was also jailed for five years and eight months after admitting conspiracy to supply class A drugs, acquiring criminal property and possession of an offensive weapon at the same hearing.

A search of Lal’s family address revealed £2,000 in cash and a number of disposable mobile phones.

Stolen Spencer masterpiece returned to owners

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/stolen-spencer-masterpiece-returned-to-owners

2018-06-04_16-20-30

PRESS RELEASE – Jun 3, 2018

Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and Arts Council England

Stolen Spencer masterpiece returned to owners

A valuable painting by one of England’s greatest 20th-century artists has been returned to its owners five years after it was stolen from a gallery.

Cookham from Englefield by Sir Stanley Spencer was on loan to the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham in 2012 when thieves broke in through a window and removed it.

The owners said they were devastated at the loss of the painting, which was of great sentimental value.

However, they were compensated for the loss of the painting by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport under the Government Indemnity Scheme. The scheme provides UK museums and galleries with an alternative to commercial insurance, which can be costly. It allows organizations to display art and objects that they might not have been able to borrow due to high insurance costs.

Five years after the theft of Cookham from Englefield, police discovered the painting hidden under a bed during a drugs raid on a property in West London.

A 28-year-old man was sentenced at Kingston Crown Court in October after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply class A drugs and acquiring criminal property. He also admitted a charge of handling stolen goods. Last month the owners were finally reunited with their painting

Arts Minister Michael Ellis said:

Spencer is one our most renowned painters and a true great of the 20th century. It is wonderful that this story has had a happy ending and the painting has been returned to its rightful owners.

This has been made possible because of the Government Indemnity Scheme. It exists to protect owners when lending their works to public galleries. Without it there would be fewer world class pieces on display across the country for people to enjoy.

Detective Inspector Brian Hobbs, of the Met’s Organised Crime Command, said:

I am pleased to say that the painting has now been returned to its owners. The seizure of the painting was the result of proactive investigation by the Organised Crime Command, which resulted in a significant custodial sentence for the defendant found in possession of the painting.

Detective Constable Sophie Hayes, of the Met’s Art and Antiques Unit, said:

The Art and Antiques Unit was delighted to assist with the recovery and return of this important painting. The circumstances of its recovery underline the links between cultural heritage crime and wider criminality. The fact that the painting was stolen five years before it was recovered did not hinder a prosecution for handling stolen goods, demonstrating the Met will pursue these matters wherever possible, no matter how much time has elapsed.

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891 – 1959) was an English painter known for his works depicting Biblical scenes of his birth place Cookham. He is one of the most important artists of the 20th century and during the Second World War was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee.

It is estimated that the Government Indemnity Scheme saves UK museums and galleries £14 million a year. In the last ten years of the scheme, only 12 claims for damage and loss have been received. This incident is the first one where an item covered by the Scheme has been stolen and successfully returned to its original owners. In line with the rules of the Government Indemnity Scheme for return of the painting, the owners repaid the amount they had received in settlement of the claim minus the cost of repairs and depreciation.

Notes to editors:

  • The Government Indemnity Scheme is administered by Arts Council England on behalf of DCMS.
  • In the event of loss or damage to an object or work covered by the scheme, the government compensates the owners.

Fresh Hope That a Stolen Caravaggio ‘Nativity’ Could Be Found

Fresh Hope That a Stolen Caravaggio ‘Nativity’ Could Be Found

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A reproduction of Caravaggio’s “Nativity” in the Oratory of San Lorenzo, in Palermo, Italy, where the original was stolen in 1969.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

PALERMO, Sicily — On a stormy night in October 1969, thieves broke into the Oratory of San Lorenzo, a small chapel in what was then Palermo’s dilapidated Kalsa quarter, and made off with one of the city’s artistic masterpieces: Caravaggio’s “Nativity” altarpiece.

Investigators, both national and international, never gave up hunting for the lost painting, which is still No. 2 on the F.B.I.’s list of the top-10 art crimes. Leads pursued in the past all led to dead ends. But new evidence presented at the Oratory this week has revived hopes that the painting might still be found — or, at the very least, that its fate might be discovered.

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Two officers from the Caribinieri, Italy’s military police, secure the area around the Oratory.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times 
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An Italian parliamentary body commonly called the Antimafia Commission presented evidence at the Oratory on Wednesday, reviving hopes that the painting might still be found.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

In the ’60s, no major crime could occur in Palermo without the Mafia knowing about it. So it was natural that investigators looked to Mafia turncoats for clues. Many were interrogated over the years, and some had harrowing tales to tell. One said that the “Nativity” — whose dating flip-flops between 1600 and 1609, depending on which scholars you ask — had been burned in a fire. Another said it had been abandoned and subsequently eaten by mice, or by pigs. Yet another said it had been hidden and was only unveiled during Mafia boss summits. A mobster is said to have used it as a bedside rug.

It was enough to dishearten even the most dogged sleuth.

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Rosy Bindi, who leads the Antimafia Commission, in the Oratory of San Lorenzo. “If you find the right thread,” she said, “then everything follows.”CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

Then in May last year, yet another turncoat, Gaetano Grado, told his tale to an Italian parliamentary body commonly called the Antimafia Commission. Its president, Rosy Bindi, said in an interview that she had never been convinced by the rumors that swirled around the painting, and so the commission, which has an investigative mandate, decided to dig a little deeper.

Mr. Grado’s story has given investigators fresh hope.

According to this account, two days after the painting was taken, Gaetano Badalamenti, then one of the top Sicilian mobsters, asked Mr. Grado, who at the time was the Mafia member in charge of downtown Palermo, to look into the theft of the Caravaggio. The turncoat said that he tracked down the thieves, and that the painting, after passing through the hands of several mobsters, had eventually ended up with Mr. Badalamenti. (Mr. Badalamenti spent his last 17 years in a federal prison in the United States as one of the leaders of the so-called “pizza connection” drug trafficking ring. He died in 2004.)

Mr. Badalamenti invited a “very old” Swiss art dealer to see the Caravaggio, according to Mr. Grado. When the dealer laid eyes on it, he “sat and cried, and cried,” to the point that Mr. Badalamenti “thought he was stupid,” Mr. Grado recalled. Then the Swiss man announced that he would cut it into pieces because it would not sell otherwise. The dealer, who is not named in the evidence that has been made public, has since died, commission officials said.

Mr. Grado’s account checked out on various fronts. “He’s the first turncoat with a direct connection to the theft,” Francesco Comparone, the commission’s top councilor, said.

On Wednesday, Ms. Bindi said: “If you find the right thread, then everything follows. It’s clear that Grado was that thread.”

Not everyone, however, was convinced.

For the last 10 years, the Oratory where the theft took place has been managed by the Amici dei Musei Siciliani, a cultural association that promotes art in Palermo. On Wednesday, its president, Bernardo Tortorici di Raffadali, told the dignitaries attending the presentation of the Antimafia Commission’s findings, that he thought Mr. Grado’s story didn’t hold up.

He said that over the years, he had moved two altarpieces — including a high-tech digital copy — that had substituted for the missing Caravaggio “a dozen times.” It was “extremely complicated,” he said, because of the size, weight and position of the canvas above the altar.

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The original wooden frame of Caraveggio’s stolen “Nativity” hangs in a chapel adjacent the oratory where it was stolen.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

An operation like this was not something that could be done on the spur of the moment and without a sizable crew, he added. He also pointed out that the thieves had cut the Caravaggio from its wooden frame “without leaving a milligram of paint behind.” It was done with “surgical precision,” Mr. Tortorici said.

“This theft was commissioned,” he said, adding that he didn’t think that line of investigation had been adequately pursued.

Ms. Bindi responded that the commission’s investigation found that the thieves that night “had been under the guidance of two experts in art thefts.” And while the commission found no indication that the Mafia had commissioned the theft, she added, “that doesn’t mean that it didn’t involve people who knew what they were doing.”

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Ludovico Gippetto, the president of a Palermo cultural association called Exoart, in the organization’s offices. Mr. Gippetto said he has doubts about the Mafia’s involvement with the Caravaggio.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

Ludovico Gippetto, the president of a Palermo cultural association called Extroart, has also adopted Caravaggio’s “Nativity” for his project “Wanted,” a publicity campaign that involves periodically peppering Palermo with posters of looted artworks on the premise that the better known a work of art is, the harder it is to sell on the black market. In some cases, the strategy has worked, and the works have been anonymously returned. But not in the case of the “Nativity.”

Mr. Gippetto also has doubts about the Mafia’s involvement with the Caravaggio. He said that the daughter of one of the two sisters who were the custodians of the Oratory in 1969 told him that a second object — an item that has not been named in depositions — had also been stolen on the night of the theft, he said. “Why have the police never interrogated her?” he asked.

He’s also been told, “by a source,” that the theft was on commission for “a family so powerful that the police couldn’t even knock on their door,” he said during an interview. He declined to expand further, except to say that the family was not in Italy. “Of course,” he added, “it’s just a hypothesis.”

At least Mr. Grado’s revelations keep the search for the painting alive: The Antimafia Commission’s findings have convinced Palermo prosecutors to open a new investigation into the theft.

Lt. Col. Nicola Candido, the operations commander of the art theft squad in the Caribinieri, Italy’s military police, said that Mr. Grado’s revelations had offered new lines of investigation “involving international police forces,” but none from the United States. He declined to elaborate because investigations were ongoing.

One Caravaggio scholar said she was naturally thrilled that the “Nativity” could still come to light, but was dubious about turncoat accounts. “They haven’t been extraordinarily trustworthy,” Francesca Cappelletti, who teaches at the University of Ferrara, said.

But Ms. Bindi said that the turncoat’s new revelations offered the hope that at least a part of the painting could be recovered. “It would be a way of giving back to the city something that belonged to it,” she said.

Even with a high-quality copy in place, the lost painting leaves a void. In an interview on Wednesday, Leoluca Orlando, Palermo’s mayor, said, “To think that in this moment, this work, or part of this work, could be in someone’s home or a museum — that should upset everyone.”

Thanks to help from the public, police recover 14 pieces of art stolen from St. John’s home

https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2018/05/26/thanks-to-help-from-the-public-police-recover-14-pieces-of-art-stolen-from-st-johns-home.html

2018-06-04_14-55-50

Thanks to help from the public, police recover 14 pieces of art stolen from St. John’s home

stolenart
Clifford George’s piece “Caplin Run” is seen in this undated handout photo. At least a dozen pricey pieces of art have been stolen from a home in St. John’s, N.L. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says the heist happened sometime between April 18 and May 17, when the break-and-enter was reported to investigators.  (ROYAL NEWFOUNDLAND CONSTABULARY- HO / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Officers with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary have recovered a sizable number of paintings stolen from a home in the west end of St. John’s, thanks in part to help from the public.

Police announced that 14 pieces of pricey artwork were found Saturday, and said in a release that the discovery was “a direct result of the media release made on Thursday afternoon.”

Pieces by artists Clifford George, Peter Lewis, David Blackwood and Christopher Pratt are among those that were recovered.

Officers continue to search for at least 12 more paintings that remain missing.

The theft happened sometime between April 18 and May 17, when the break-and-enter was reported to investigators.

Police are asking members of the public to come forward if they know the whereabouts of the stolen artwork or the identity of the thieves.

Idols stolen from Tamil Nadu temples traced to museums in US

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/idols-stolen-from-tn-temples-traced-to-museums-in-us/articleshow/64242451.cms

2018-05-21_9-49-59

Idols stolen from Tamil Nadu temples traced to museums in US

Jaya Menon – May 20, 2018, 10:24 IST

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Bronze idols of Shiva and Parvati
Six exquisite Chola-era bronzes that went missing from the Veeracholapuram Shiva temple in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu probably more than five decades ago have found their way to museums abroad. While heritage enthusiasts helped trace idols of Shiva and Parvati to the Cleveland Museum of Art, those of Saint Sundarar with wife Paravai have been showcased in the Freer Gallery of Art, both in the US. A beautifully crafted Nataraja idol and a bronze figure of Shiva Vinadhara Dakshinamurti were auctioned by Christie’s, probably in the 2000s. The bronzes are believed to have left the Indian shores in the 1960s.

Tamil Nadu idol wing CID registered a case of idols missing from the Villupuram temple on May 10 based on a complaint by a Chennai-based advocate Elephant G Rajendran. Shortly thereafter, heritage enthusiasts dipped into the archives of the French Institute of Pondicherry (FIP) and hit a jackpot. The institute had documented in 1956 nine bronzes of the ancient temple, dating to the 11th century of King Rajendra Chola’s reign.

It was believed that seven of the nine bronzes were stolen in the 1960s. Only two remain in the temple now.
“Within a few hours of getting the images from the FIP, we managed to track down the bronzes to the Cleveland and Freer Sackler Museums,” said heritage enthusiast S Vijaykumar. He also found that Christie’s had auctioned the Nataraja for $3,00,000 in 2003 in New York and another Shiva idol as late as 2013 for $1.3million.

“There seems to have been an attempt to recover a few lesser bronzes and few petty thieves were booked. The mystery, however, is why the case was not extended to cover the more important larger bronzes. This indicates some sort of complicity,” said Vijaykumar. The priests or staff, who were managing the temple then, are not alive anymore, idol wing CID, Pon Manickavel told TOI. “The museums have indicated they will return the idols,” he told TOI. “The Indian government should formally write to them,” said Vijaykumar. The FIP has 1.67 lakh photographs of temple architecture, of which more than 50% pertain to TN. But, the TN government failed to take up systematic documentation of its temples, said French Institute of Pondicherry photographer K Ramesh Kumar.

Art Underworld: South Florida Becomes Hot Spot for Stolen, Fake Art

https://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Art-Underworld-South-Florida-Becomes-Hot-Spot-for-Stolen-Fake-Art-482411881.html

2018-05-14_12-32-08

Art Underworld: South Florida Becomes Hot Spot for Stolen, Fake Art

May 12, 2018

Art

The underground art world is thriving with pieces from all different countries getting smuggled into the United States. South Florida has become a hot spot for stolen art, according to federal agents.

Hialeah artist Abel Quintero is aware of this growing black market of art, that’s why he takes an extra step to protect his works of art.

“I sign and use my own thumbprint,” Quintero explained. He marks his contemporary art pieces with his own thumbprint to avoid the spread of fakes. The rising number of fakes and forgeries has worsened with technology. This has prompted the Department of Homeland Security to train its agents to detect bogus artworks that try to pass as the real thing.

“Frankly, I think Miami is a big risk. There is a serious, strong art community here. Any place where you have galleries, museums…I think you’ll probably see a larger amount of the underground art market,” explained Special Agent in Charge Mark Selby, Homeland Security Investigations.

Russ Kodner, the owner of Kodner Galleries in Dania Beach, is always on the lookout for fakes.

“There are people that walk through our doors every day, bringing items to get appraised, bringing in items to get converted into cash and a lot of times we turn them away,” Kodner explained.

Art and cultural property crime — which includes theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking — have estimated losses in the billions of dollars annually. At one point, the federal government said it’s the third highest-grossing criminal trade behind drugs and guns. Into Custody at Florida Airport

Thieves also smuggle in historical artifacts stolen from other countries.

Homeland Security officials said they have been able to find and return more than 8,000 stolen items in the last 10 years. Thieves are taking precious items, Agent Selby said. Earlier this year, someone at Miami International Airport tried to smuggle a Corinthian helmet which dates back to 500 B.C.

“There’s a lot of history that’s being stolen from countries all over the world. A lot of it ends up here in the United States,” said Agent Selby. “Once they remove those items, they haven’t had a chance to be studied where they were found. It’s lost forever. There’s no way you can get it back.”

Italy recovers 3 paintings stolen from Bologna-area museums

https://www.news-journal.com/italy-recovers-paintings-stolen-from-bologna-area-museums/article_8de8b51e-4fdb-11e8-bdf1-7312963b7c14.html

Italy recovers 3 paintings stolen from Bologna-area museums

cops

ROME — Italy’s art police say they’ve recovered three paintings stolen in recent months from three Bologna-area museums after identifying the thief from surveillance videos.
In a statement Friday, the Carabinieri art squad said investigators were able to zero in on the thief using surveillance videos from the museums and tracked him down when he acted “suspiciously” near another Bologna museum.

They then searched his apartment and found the looted works. Police have filed a formal criminal complaint against him for aggravated theft. The most well-known piece was a 1363 portrait of St. Ambrose attributed to Giusto de’ Menabuoi that was stolen in March from a Bologna museum.

Lost Art: Homer’s Troy and Priam’s Treasure

https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/lost-art-homer-s-troy-and-priam-s-treasure

The Art Newspaper

Lost Art: Homer’s Troy and Priam’s Treasure

NOAH CHARNEY – May 6, 2018

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The great city of Troy, made famous by the ancient Greek poet Homer, was assumed to have been a real place much as Biblical stories have long been taken to be true. That the Bible was written in a poetic prose and that The Iliad and The Odyssey were both epic poems—all forms of literature, distinct in style from historical writing—did not dampen the belief that these were grand retellings of real events.

Questioning such “historical facts” due to a lack of empirical evidence began during the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, but truly gained momentum with the rise of “critical history” in the early 19th century, when ancient texts were studied and compared to highlight contradictions and inconsistencies. The likes of Pliny and Strabo recorded stories that they had heard, or about which they had read, not all of which they had personally experienced—and many of which we now know to have been inaccurate or wholly invented. The Hanging Gardens, for example, appear likely to have existed, but not in Babylon, as Josephus and others wrote, but in Nineveh.

The same thing seems to have happened with the city of Troy and the Trojan War. What ancient thinkers assumed to have been a real place, Enlightenment thinkers assumed to be legendary, like the Greek myths. Some early modern writers attempted to assign a known ruin to Troy, with candidates including Alexandria Troas and Pinarbaşi, both in modern-day Turkey—which turned out to be fairly good guesses, as the former is 20 km and the latter only 5m from what would turn out to be the real location. In 1822, the Scottish journalist and geologist Charles Maclaren identified the correct site, called Hisarlik, on the country’s northwest coast in today’s Biga peninsula, which was published in academic journals after surveys were made in 1866 by the English consul and amateur archaeologist Frank Calvert.

Ruins in the Unesco recognised archaeological site of Troy in Turkey

Ruins in the Unesco recognized archaeological site of Troy in Turkey Photo: Umut Özdemir/Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Turkey

The German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was convinced by Calvert that this was the right spot, and he received permission to excavate the site from the Turkish government and started in 1878. The find was extraordinary but complicated. There was not one lost city there but several, successive cities, dating from the Bronze age through the Roman period. One of the layers of the ancient city was dubbed by Schliemann as Troy, and the rich findings, many in gold, were dubbed “Priam’s Treasure”, after the king of Troy at the time of the Homeric Greek siege. It seemed like a major coup, and it raised Troy from the realm of mythical history into the empirical zone of history proper. What was once believed to be true, then dismissed as legend, had now yo-yoed back to truth, this time backed by hard evidence.

But that is not the end of the story.

Schliemann’s methods in excavating the various strata of cities have been condemned by modern scholars as having caused irreparable damage to the site, destroying as much or more than it unburied. The Classical scholar Kenneth Harl has even joked that Schliemann did to Troy what the Greeks had failed to do during their siege: level the city walls. It also became unclear which of the many ancient cities found on the site was the Troy. Later archaeologists, with a subtler hand than Schliemann’s, announced that at least nine cities were evident on the site, in a complex layer cake of excavations, which included some 46 sublevels.

Which layer, if any, was Homer’s Troy (if that Troy ever existed?) Archaeological evidence of a battle dating to around 1250BC was found, as well as a defensive ditch that may have surrounded the external walls of the city. This dating could fit with the general consensus on when the siege took place, though this is merely a guess. Scholars don’t even know when Homer lived and wrote his epic works, with theories ranging from the 12th through the 8th centuries BC.

Moreover, the layer of the city referred to as Troy VI (the one destroyed around 1250BC), was most likely destroyed by an earthquake, not a Greek army. Throughout all the excavations, only a single arrowhead was found, and no skeletal remains, making it highly unlikely that a high-body-count war took place there. The likelier candidate is called Troy VIIa, which was the site of a battle, with evidence of extensive fire, on both the stones and skeletons found there, dated to around 1184BC. Made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998, this is as close as one can get to seeing the Troy of legend.

The yo-yo continues, however, with the gold horde known as “Priam’s Treasure”. This included a pair of gold diadems (referred to as the “Jewels of Helen”), 8,750 gold rings and scores of objects in gold, silver, copper, and electrum (a gold, silver and copper mixture). Schliemann smuggled these out of Turkey in his personal effects and—in a move that was considered less-than-professional even then—had his wife photographed wearing much of the jewelry, which is how Ottoman officials learned that the treasures had been carried off. Most of this collection eventually went to the Royal Museums of Berlin, but Schliemann returned some of the items to the Ottomans in exchange for permission to return to Troy to dig further (he had been banned from the site for running off with his findings).

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Schliemann identified a hoard of gold objects he found at the site as “Priam’s Treasure”, including a pair of gold diadems, referred to as the “Jewels of Helen”. He smuggled them out of Turkey and, in an ill-judged publicity stunt, had his wife photographed wearing much of the jewelry. The works were looted again by the Red Army during the Second World War, and are now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow

Later archaeologists believe that this haul dates to Troy II, and therefore predates by a millennium the layer of the city that was most likely ruled by Priam. Thus the treasure remains great, but it can no longer be assigned to the era of Homeric Troy.

In 1945, during the Second World War, Priam’s Treasure was hidden by German officials underneath the Berlin Zoo, but that did not stop the Red Army from finding it. While the Soviet Union denied having the horde for decades, they were finally identified as part of the collection of Moscow’s Pushkin Museum in September 1993. A protracted plan to return the treasure to Germany—which, it could be argued, should not have had it in the first place, since Schliemann smuggled the objects away from the Ottomans—has been blocked by Russian officials, who consider the looted art as compensation for the vast damage, in goods and lives, wrought by the Nazis.

So, while the hoard can no longer be considered technically lost, Priam’s Treasure remains so, for while this is an impressive find, it was made a good thousand years before Priam walked Troy’s walls. If Priam ever existed. And if Homer’s poem was ever meant to be considered a historical record.

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The Greek hero Odysseus slits the throat of a Thracian warrior outside the walls of Troy in this Chalcidian Black-Figure Neck Amphora J. Paul Getty Museum
• Noah Charney is an author and art history professor at the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. His new book is Museum of Lost Art, published by Phaidon