Thursday, October 4, 2007

The three-year cycle of stolen art: Leonardo painting recovered, weeks after owner's death

The Duke of Buccleuch died in early September aged 83, evidently still brokenhearted at the theft four years ago of Leonardo da Vinci's The Madonna of the Yarnwinder (left) from his ancestral seat in Dumfriesshire.

Now, just weeks after the duke's death, the painting has been recovered and four men arrested.

It is widely known among loss adjusters and specialist art detectives that important pictures taken in art heists tend to re-emerge around three years later. This 'three-year cycle' seems to have been the case with the Duke of Buccleuch's Madonna, which was stolen in broad daylight during a public tour of Drumlanrig Castle in August 2003. Two men dressed as tourists overpowered a guide, snatched the painting and drove off in a white Volkswagen Golf.

Apparently the thieves recently started to enter into some kind of negotiation to try and sell the painting. They were arrested after police intercepted a meeting between five people in the centre of Glasgow.

This is good news for art theft detectives as it demonstrates that not all stolen masterpieces disappear into oblivion. But it remains just the tip of an iceberg that has made stolen art the third most lucrative illicit trade after arms and drugs.

Stolen art is now used as collateral in an extensive subterranean criminal network that embraces people trafficking and prostitution. Human misery is the main product issuing from those global pipelines. Meanwhile prices rise inexorably in the art market.

Turkish Delights

Strange, these coincidences. I've recently been reading Snow, a recent novel by Nobel Prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.

Turkey's precarious place on the threshold of East and West is one of the most interesting current geopolitical issues. How will the country reconcile its identity as a 'secular' Islamic state with its prospective membership of the European Community? Will something have to give? Pamuk has been acclaimed for his imaginative meditations on this issue in his award-winning novels.

Then yesterday, Douglas McLennan's Arts Journal digest included a link to Peter Schjeldahl's recent New Yorker piece on the 2007 Istanbul Biennial.

Schjeldahl is very good on the "shallow, frantic" nature of contemporary art biennials and the "yuppie-ish, wine-swilling social milieu" around which they revolve. One doesn't get much sense from his piece of the quality of the art on show, but then these colossal, masturbatory, incontinent art jamborees resist cogent description and are unworthy of intelligent criticism in my opinion. Nor are they really about art, although quite what they're about nobody seems able to say.

But I guess if your publication is prepared to sponsor an expenses paid trip to Istanbul, you would, if you're wise, choose to spend a certain amount of your available time as Schjeldahl did, soaking up the numinous attractions of the Süleymaniye mosque rather than necking booze with odious corporate art sponsors at the 'main event'.

Such carnal pleasures were certainly denied to Michael Dickinson — "the Istanbul representative of the Stuckism International art movement" (whatever that means) — who is currently 'stuck' in an Instanbul jail awaiting trial. Which brings me to the third Turkey-related trimming to tumble into my inbox over the past 24 hours.

This morning I was copied on an email from Charles Thomson, a founder-member of the Stuckists. The members of this loose affiliation of superannuated chip-on-the-shoulder Sunday painters are still whingeing about the state of the Turner Prize and what they see as a Serotacratic conceptualist conspiracy at the heart of British visual culture. Excuse me while I take forty winks.

[40 minutes later...]
Where was I? Ah, yes. Thomson has taken up the cause of his fellow-Stuckist, who was locked up for making a collage depicting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as a dog on a stars-and-stripes lead, eating dollar bills. It seems that Mr Dickinson could be rewarded with a two- to three-year stretch in jail (cue Giorgio Moroder theme tune) for his ill-advised 'satirical' swipe at the Turkish PM.

The Stuckists have never been the most intelligent purveyors of social and political comment, as Dickinson's offending collage, entitled Good Boy, makes clear. I'm sorry, try as I might, I can't take this seriously. Why on earth do the Stuckists need an, er, "Istanbul representative" when their founding beef is with the British arts establishment?

Thomson has now written to Gordon Brown to ask for the PM's intervention. I can see Gordon wrestling with this in Cabinet. Call a General Election, lobby Turkey for the liberation of Michael Dickinson, or have another shortbread biscuit? Decisions, decisions...

Why are museum picture clearance fees so exorbitant?

I've been considering updating and republishing a paperback book I wrote some years ago about the body in western sculpture. The Body in Sculpture is long out of print but there are often a few copies still available on the invaluable secondhand book site ABE and it remains a core text on a number of arts courses and earns me a sprinkling of annual library photocopying royalties.

I've been advised by the packagers of the original edition (above right) that I should consider seeking an academic publisher for any future edition as this would keep the picture clearance fees to a minimum.

This brings me once again to the thorny question of museum publishing rights. Am I wrong to resent having to pay national museums for the right to publish images held in their collections? After all, in writing about their objects in a serious (albeit accessible) way, I am trying to foster a better understanding of the material culture they hold, which surely is an essential part of a museum's founding premise. I can understand museums levying a charge, but surely when those charges become prohibitive, they are shooting themselves in the foot and impairing the progress of visual education. And don't their objects belong to me anyway in some meaningful way?

Finally, were I to re-publish the book under an academic imprint, I would effectively be ring-fencing it into a realm that is largely inaccessible to the common reader at whom the book was originally aimed.

Am I missing something here?

Benin chief appeals for help in tracing missing artefacts

A Benin high chief has appealed to his Federal Government for assistance in tracking down a significant quantity of his country's missing cultural heritage.

But this is not the usual pleading to the British Museum and other Western museums whose Benin collections were formed largely as a result of the 1897 Punitive Expedition which stripped the country of the finest examples of its ancient sculpture (example show above left). This time, it seems, there is evidence that insiders might be responsible for the disappearance of the artefacts, valued at over $100 million. At any rate, that seems to be the subtext of high chief Chief Sunday Emokpae's recent appeal.

"The  government must come in and assist in unearthing those that stole our artefacts in the Benin museum," said Chief Emokpae. "It must not be swept under the carpet."

If true, this is very bad news, not only for Benin, but for many other developing nations across Africa and beyond. Many previous attempts to win repatration of objects plundered during the colonial era have brought a return volley from Western museums who claim that these source nations are not capable of looking after their own treasures. The losses from within Benin itself, if they are as serious as Chief Emokpae claims they are, will merely harden Western intransigence over restitution.

Full story at one of Nigeria's leading newspapers, The Vanguard, here.