Archive for the ‘art crime’ Category

Portrait of Augustus in Boston

The MFA Augustus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, inv. no. 99.344, H. L. Pierce Fund. Photograph © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I’ve been working on this project since I was a graduate student! Other research distractions (like finishing my dissertation in 2005), teaching work, and delays in laboratory tests on this piece slowed down the final publication of the article. Finding the right venue for publication was also difficult. I sent it to a major archaeology journal, who said the project was too art historical. When I sent it to a major art history journal, they said it was too archaeological! I’m so glad this project found a home at the Journal of the History of Collections. The editors were very helpful and patient with me; the work on their side went very quickly, yet meticulously. This is the second article I’ve published in an Oxford University Press journal and both experiences have been excellent.

I wish I could have found a way to quote the late, great Miranda Marvin in the article. When I was first working on this project, I made my way from Kenmore Square out to Wellesley, meeting her for the first time, to talk about this head, to see if she had that “blink” reaction to it, that it could be fake. I brought with me the slick MFA headshots of Augustus, which I laid out on her desk. She glanced at them, then slid them back across the table to me and said very seriously “Anything with a nose is suspect.”

Indeed the state of preservation was a major element in my making a case for this piece not being ancient. The article also tackles the provenance of the piece, its style, and technical aspects. And although laboratory tests were carried out on the head by the Museum of Fine Arts, they proved inconclusive.

Read the article here at the Journal of the History of Collections. It will be in the print version of the journal soon.

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I came across this editorial in The Art Newspaper by way of Derek Fincham’s blog.

In the editorial, Anna Somers Cocks argues 1) repatriated artifacts have a murky and uncomfortable place once they are ‘home,’ given they do not have explicit archaeological provenance and 2) that these artifacts could benefit their country’s (in this case Italy’s) art and museum economy by being sold off. Cocks’ suggestion solves a two-fold problem in archaeology-rich countries: little adequate space for safe, proper housing and displaying of returned artifacts, and little budget for interpreting them through effective museum exhibits and qualified personnel. Cuts to arts budgets in countries like Italy and Greece have had (predictably) pervasive detrimental results in the safety of objects in museum collections, not to mention the inaccessibility of such collections to the public when slim budgets force museums to restrict their hours. (Perhaps a good project for a graduate student studying art law or museum studies would be to measure correlation between, say, the implementation of Greece’s austerity budget and instances of theft or vandalism at museums and archaeological sites.)

Cocks argues proceeds from sale of ‘orphan antiquities’ (my term, not hers) could help provide for the construction of new museums and the shoring-up of existing ones. Most archaeologists or art historians working on the classical Mediterranean have seen the shocking state of many museums’ storerooms: objects stacked floor to ceiling in conditions not always healthy for conservation; beautiful and important objects off view because there is not enough personnel to move, conserve, and properly display them; collections inaccessible to scholars, much less tourists. (And in all fairness, there are museums in similar condition in the United States; I was told by the Registrar at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that only 2-3% of their collection is on display at any point in time.) So an injection of cash–from the proceeds of auctions of orphan antiquities–to museums in Italy an elsewhere could encourage the improvement of facilities, the accessibility of the objects to the public, and could be a job-creating mechanism (curators, conservators, on down to ticket-takers and janitors).

Cocks’ suggestion of selling off orphan antiquities is not really a new one. When I was in graduate school at the turn of the millennium, I took a course in archaeology and law. Our professor argued–in scholarly circles as well as before Congress–that one way to limit the illicit trade in antiquities was to create a massive licit trade in them. Flood the market with orphan antiquities (or even ones from legitimate excavations which for whatever reason were difficult to house or display) and the price of all antiquities goes down. With far less profit to be had from the sale of looted objects, the looting of archaeological sites would dwindle. The cachet of owning artifacts, moreover, would decline as such pieces would not be considered so much of a luxury if more people could own them. I’m not an economist by far, but the argument seems fairly sound. Just look at the frustration of Mexican drug cartels over the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Washington, and elsewhere.

So the sale of repatriated antiquities (or even of ‘duplicates’ like ancient coins or rather run-of-the-mill pottery) benefits museums in Italy and other archaeology-rich countries and it also may drastically curtail archaeological looting. Such sales could also bring antiquity to a broader audience. If prices are driven down by the flooding of the market, it won’t be only very wealthy museums or very wealthy individuals who can own such pieces. Even smaller, regional museums could have a visually impressive piece or a teaching collection. Or both!

Having worked as both a field archaeologist and a museum professional (as well as an academic specializing in classical art and archaeology), I do not usually take a rigid position on repatriation. Obviously I believe bringing an end to looting is an essential goal, toward which I wish more archaeologists would work. Returning pieces to countries of origin delivers some financial sting to the collectors and dealers who would trade in stolen objects. Yet repatriation is a means of dealing with the after-effects of such looting and the illicit market, and it is not a terribly creative idea. I do believe repatriation bolsters national pride and a sense of cultural identity, but only among a minority of (in this case) Italians, and is a temporary effect. In the case of the Lydian Hoard/Karun Treasure, repatriation might have been one of the worst things to befall this collection of artifacts, as they are displayed in a rather ratty provincial museum off the tourist track, almost completely uninterpreted by personnel or signage, and were the subject of a second theft.

If there is a ‘cure’ for looting, it is the elevation of cultural value over economic value. A looted object is a lovely page of prose; an object with archaeological context is an entire novel. When historical objects are displayed in collections which present historical and cultural context as well as the aesthetic or material value, the public can learn the importance of preserving archaeological sites and protecting them from looting. Certainly such lessons might be temporarily lost on a public suffering from political and economic crisis (hey, Egypt).

So, in my view, to summarize, selling orphan antiquities on a licit market:

  • Discourages the illicit trade in antiquities by depressing prices
  • Discourages archaeological looting as there is less profit to be had along the entire supply chain
  • Shores up museums in source countries, inspiring the public to place more value on archaeological context and to in turn discourage looting (OK, maybe this puts too much faith in the power of accessible and engaging collections to really change hearts and minds.)
  • Disseminates antiquities into more hands–not just the rich, but smaller collections which can further this message of protecting archaeological context in order to protect history

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Last Saturday I had the pleasure of going to a screening of Art and Craft at the Indie Memphis film festival. Art and Craft tells the story of art forger Mark Landis, who for at least two decades faked paintings and drawings and donated them to scores of museums and other collections. The film shows Landis at work: selecting frames, gathering pigments and brushes, aging canvases, and so forth. We also see Landis meeting with museum professionals, hear the yarns he spins about the origins of his fakes. His fraud having been slowly exposed over the course of the past seven years or so, Landis apparently no longer donates his works as originals, yet is still producing paintings and drawings. Although his dealings have been investigated by the FBI Art Crime unit, Landis has technically not broken any laws. (More on this below.)

I didn’t take any notes during the film and I have only seen it once. So while I have read a bit on Landis, what I write here is mostly an immediate impression of what I saw in Art and Craft. There are other threads in this story I will follow at a later date.

Art and CraftDirector Sam Cullman (center) and Mark Landis (right) at the November 1 2014 screening of Art and Craft in Memphis, TN

Landis’ story is particularly compelling for me because it differs from the familiar narrative of other art forgers: the disgruntled artist who can’t achieve success on the merits of his/her own original work turns to forgery to exact revenge on a corrupt and ignorant art market. The benefit of forgery is therefore at least twofold: there are the financial gains to be had, as well as a satisfaction in showing up the art professionals whose lack of connoisseurial eye and taste are demonstrated by the ease with which they are duped by the forger. There are many variations on this theme, but it is compelling how often the story of “failed artist turns to forgery” repeats itself.

Yet Landis apparently never attempted a career as an artist in his own right. He seems to have taken to copying early on, as a teenager, as just an exercise in hand-eye coordination, with no intent to deceive or to benefit financially through his skill in reproduction. Throughout the film, Landis refers to himself as a philanthropist; his gifts of paintings and drawings are his way of sharing beauty and art with a wider community and therefore any deception is for a greater good. While one could argue he could just as easily give away these works to friends and neighbors, it seems important to Landis that there be a public audience for his gestures of philanthropy and his skill as a painter and draftsman.

So why has Landis aspired so emphatically toward philanthropy? This brings me to some discomfort I felt during the screening of Art and Craft. Mark Landis suffers from a number of mental illnesses. Several scenes show him visiting a mental health clinic where a staff member (somewhat dispassionately) asks him about feelings of self-harm, of harm toward others, about hearing voices, about taking his medications as directed. Another scene shows Landis paging through a clinical report from the Menninger Clinic, where he was admitted at age 17. The report notes he has schizophrenia and suffered from catatonia and other issues during his stay at the clinic. As Landis reads through the report, he mutters with bemused self-deprecation about the various diagnoses. The movie audience chuckled along with him as he marveled at how he manages to function day-to-day, in spite of these rather concerning issues. At this point, I felt the film was somewhat exploitative, showing the forger’s fragile and tormented side as an explanation for his grimy living conditions, his monotone and mumbling affect, his uncomfortable devotion to his deceased mother, and so forth, without telling the audience how to resolve our feelings of pity for the man with our fascination with his artistic skill and his amusement at his methods of ‘philanthropy.’ One scene shows Landis gulping wine, hidden in a bottle of milk of magnesia, as a bit of ‘liquid courage’ before negotiating a donation. Other scenes show him smoking awkwardly to calm his nerves. The drinking and smoking might be more amusing were we not concerned about how alcohol might interact with his prescription medication and how Landis has chosen cigarettes over Xanax for anxiety because he has seen people in old movies smoking to ease nervousness.

Landis’ ‘philanthropy’ is not entirely a factor of his mental illnesses, of course. He notes at several points in the film that he donates these forged works so his mother would be proud of him, that this career began during her lifetime, and it pleased her to see him be recognized for his skill while at the same time making a beneficent gesture to a museum or other collection. That no money exchanged hands for his work made the forgery and deception more palatable, even admirable. Landis points out that after the passing of some years, his mother seemed to be less and less comfortable with the chicanery necessary for these philanthropic gestures (this included false names and even assuming the identity of a priest). He notes that as a child it was often observed he was ‘inclined to mischief.’ With the death of his mother in 2010, Landis seems to have entered into a profound depression, with a concomitant increase in the production of forgeries and donations. Again, watching the ways in which Landis struggles with the memories of both his parents, but particularly his mother, made me feel uncomfortably voyeuristic and concerned for his psychological state. It was something of a freak show.

Another troubling aspect of Art and Craft is not a fault of the film, but a distressing truth of the art world. In addition to following Landis’ methods and life, the film informs us of the cracking of the forgery case by former museum registrar Matt Leininger. Leininger’s blog posts and other resources reveal how he uncovered Landis’ deceptions, so I won’t outline that story here. What is most compelling to me about Leninger’s part in Art and Craft is where his passionate pursuit of Landis has ended (for the moment): with the loss of his position at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and as a pariah in the art world. During a Q&A after the screening of the film here in Memphis, director Sam Cullman noted Leninger has been effectively blackballed by museums and now works for Amazon.com. Leninger’s intellectual integrity motivated him to follow the path of Landis and his Johnny-Appleseed-like trail of forgeries throughout 60-some museums in the United States. But as more collections learned they had been duped, the more vehemently they covered up their failings, swept their Landis paintings under the rug, and urged Leninger to keep quiet. The complex, ardent marriage of art and money means museums often lose sight of their educational charge to inform their audiences of all aspects of the economics and varied values of art, not just the ones that put them in the most favorable or ‘interesting’ light. Leninger is collateral damage in this tension of art, value, and expertise.

I saw the film with an attorney friend of mine and benefited from a short chat we had after the film, regarding the legal ramifications of Mark Landis’ forgeries and donations. Why Landis has not been charged with a crime is only briefly explored in the film, and I am sure others in the audience have been turning over this question in their minds since the screening. It is apparently simple how Landis has avoided legal action: no money is being exchanged for his artworks. Financial gain is at the heart of the definition of fraud, generally speaking, as there must be some ‘harm’ dealt to the victim. Since museums are not paying Landis for his pieces, they suffer no financial loss when the forgeries are revealed. Were Landis to take tax deductions for his charitable donations to museums and collections, there could be grounds for legal action. Yet as my attorney friend pointed out, it’s unlikely Landis even has enough income to have to pay taxes and to benefit from such deductions. I suppose that if Landis’ paintings ended up in commercial galleries there could be additional legal angles to pursue. When forgers like Landis flood the market with their work, it drives down the price of all related work. This could possibly be an avenue for prosecution, if the estate of one of the artists whose work is being faked wanted to press charges, or a gallery owner felt he/she had suffered financial loss because the value of his/her holdings had decreased as a result of ‘competition’ from Landis or other forgers.

It surprises me how few art historians are interested in art forgery as an academic topic, generally speaking. When I saw Art and Craft last weekend, I didn’t recognize any other art faculty or local museum professionals in the audience. Sure, it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but I feel if one values art as a historical document, one should also be concerned with the economics of art, today and in the past. Forgery (as well as theft, of course) has a real effect on the art market and art history, even if we cannot calculate that effect until after the forgery has been detected.

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I had the pleasure last week of hearing Robert Edsel of the Monuments Men Foundation speak last week in Winston-Salem, NC. It was a packed house at the Stevens Center, despite the rather high ticket price. I was pleased to see so many people turn out for an event about art and history, even if the crowd was less than diverse (mostly 60+, almost entirely Caucasian). I was also pleased that Mr. Edsel asked all WWII vets stand and be recognized for their service; a heartwarming moment.

Having read The Rape of Europa, seen the documentary, seen the somewhat fictionalized and Hollywood-ized version of the Monuments Men, and read other sources on what I call broadly the Rape of Europa Phenomenon (the systematic looting of private and public collections of art by the Nazis during WWII and the subsequent attempts to return those pieces), I did not expect to learn many new facts and figures from Mr. Edsel’s presentation. But I looked forward to an engaging evening and was not disappointed. I did learn some new things–including that an acquaintance of my mother’s, Mr. Frank Albright, was a Monuments Man.

I came to the event armed with my own questions about the Rape of Europa Phenomenon and the contemporary problems in Iraq, Syria, and other sites of Arab Spring revolutions. How would Mr. Edsel explain our terribly short memory regarding the vulnerability of art and other genres of cultural heritage? Is that lesson just one of the many we as a species refuse to learn from each terrible war?

Indeed even before I had the chance to ask my question regarding connections between WWII and today’s destruction and looting of art, Mr. Edsel brought up Iraq and Syria in his presentation. As did George Clooney, star of the Monuments Men movie, in a video clip from an interview. Clooney denounces the fact that it only took us 60 years to forget that art as a valuable commodity–valuable with respect to ideology, economics, and emotions–is vulnerable in war and should be protected. So while the lessons of that past seem to have been somewhat lost in today’s armed conflicts, at least among looters and some fighters, the intellectual community is still engaged with this problem and outraged at the violence against art we continue to see in places like Syria.

But after Mr. Edsel’s presentation, I still had a question about preventing further violence against art and cultural heritage during wartime. We in the archaeological community, seeing sabers rattling in 2002 and 2003 over possible armed conflict in Iraq, sent emails to members of Congress, made phone calls, signed petitions. These pleas for protection of museums, monuments, and archaeological sites, largely fell on deaf ears. The rest is history. The museum was looted, archaeological sites were ignored or actively damaged by members of coalition forces, historical evidence was lost forever. I asked Mr. Edsel: What more could we have done? What can we do now to protect these monuments today? How can we get the general public involved in a fight that has been largely in the hands of academics? Mr. Edsel reminded me (and the rest of the audience) there are now members of the US armed forces trained to protect cultural heritage. He also urged academics to not simply talk to one another, using our highbrow jargon, but to reach out to the public in an accessible way. Our phone calls and petitions could then be signed by more than a handful of professors; we would be joined by average citizens who also think art and architecture and archaeology are worth saving.

As I continue to think on these issues, however, I wonder if it was a fair question to ask, or rather if it is fair to compare the Rape of Europa Phenomenon with Iraq and Syria. The former was a systematic, well-organized operation with military and political support. The orders to loot museums and private collections came from the very top of Nazi hierarchy. Current destruction of sites in Syria seems sometimes accidental as collateral damage, sometimes ideologically motivated. The looting of the Baghdad Museum, however, was at the hands of opportunistic individuals motivated by financial gain or perhaps anger at the falling Saddam regime, which had so frequently propagandized ties to the cultural heritage of Mesopotamia. The Coalition’s colossal failure to protect the museum notwithstanding, the vandalism and thefts there were not carried out under local military orders.

This is a question that has troubled me for now over a decade: Why would the Iraqis themselves destroy their own history? It’s a question even good scholars like Lawrence Rothfield, with all due respect, have failed to sufficiently address. Again, Coalition forces ignored or were ignorant of the lessons of the Rape of Europa Phenomenon. Yet the Iraqi looters themselves seemed to not understand the consequences of their violence against their own history, early human history. Some of my favorite images of the happier phases of the Arab Spring revolutions are that of Egyptians forming a human chain around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (even if questions about it have been raised) and the modern Library of Alexandria, testament to the understanding of the vulnerability of art and culture during conflict. The civilian safeguarding of Egyptian monuments (even if other Egyptians have been engaged in illegal excavation and theft) is also symbolic of an indigenous sense of protection and ownership of their history, especially poignant as that history had been in the hands of others for so many years. If the Egyptians had learned the lessons of the Baghdad Museum, why had the Iraqis not learned from the depredations of WWII? If these concepts were not appreciated through direct study of the Rape of Europa Phenomenon (which would be understandable), then why not through a broader understanding of the vulnerability of cultural heritage during wartime, because of art and artifacts’ combined ideological and commercial values?

I am without the resources to answer these last questions. I hope some commenters can offer their suggestions.

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With apologies to Linda Nochlin.

Since taking a seminar in graduate school on forgeries, reproductions, and copy/model issues, I’ve been fascinated with forgery (and other forms of art crime). I have even presented my own research on what I believe to be an 18th-century forgery of an ancient Roman portrait. (While I’ve been invited a number of times to present this project as a lecture, journals thus far have been resistant to publish such an article that does not have a black-and-white, slam-dunk answer to the ‘Is it fake?’ question.)

And since teaching a course on art crime for the adult education program at Rhodes College, I’ve been reading more about forgery, both fiction and nonfiction. Watching movies too. (I admire the idea around F for Fake, but don’t enjoy it as a film, sadly. How to Steal a Million is corny and sweet.) My Amazon wish list is full of art crime books (among the dog treats and bike accessories).

The stories of many (discovered) forgers are strikingly similar: a frustrated artist, his work not appreciated in terms of critical or financial success, starts fudging paintings (more rarely sculpture) in order to exact revenge on what he perceives of as a corrupt and clueless industry. Details vary: some artists recreate existing works, some create pastiches; some forgers turn themselves in, some are discovered by professionals in art or conservation.

See the fairly recent case of Wolfgang Beltracchi:

During the trial, Beltracchi described his early beginnings when he forged a Picasso in two hours as a 14-year-old boy, his faltering career as an artist and the “fun” he experienced in deceiving the art world, finally delivering a scathing attack on the art market: “You have to know where the greed is greatest.”

(When it comes to alternative career paths for frustrated artists, I guess forgery is better than world domination and genocide. Ahem.)

I don’t choose the masculine pronoun carelessly, as the best-known art forgers have all been men.

The female forger seems to be possible, however, in the world of fiction: Paula in Gaslight fakes jewelry; B. A. Shapiro‘s Claire both legally reproduces paintings and fakes one. (Aviva Briefel carefully notes the difference between female copyists and female forgers.)

Yet I guess to ask why there have been no famous female forgers can be answered in part by looking at the artists whose works are most frequently forged: Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Gaugin, Van Gogh… The gender imbalance in forgery is perhaps mirrored in the gender imbalance in art history, explored by Nochlin so famously first in 1971. Can we chalk up the lack of famous female forgers to women’s historical lack of access to the institutional and educational systems of the art world?

When considering the trope of ‘frustrated artist turns to forgery to exact revenge on the art world,’ one would imagine that the gender bias in art institutions would create a perfect laboratory for cultivating female forgers. Yet this seems not to be the case. (The fictional example of Shapiro’s Forger is an outlier.)

It seems more fun, however, to propose that there are no great women art forgers because none of their fakes have been detected. Women are simply better at forgery than men. This explanation underscores Nochlin’s point regarding the fallacy that women are incapable at genius.

What are your thoughts? Am I missing some great famous case of a female forger?

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