Monday, March 2, 2009

Ransoms revisited

Mark Durney over at Art Theft Central has just posted a helpful piece about art theft ransoms here.

It reminded me of a news item I logged a few years ago from the New Zealand website, (link sadly no longer operative), which reported police concern that, "people are dealing with criminals themselves in order to recover stolen property," after a Christchurch car-yard operator paid a NZ$5000 'ransom' to secure the return of a stolen rally car. Evidently the following year (2006, I think) a stolen sculpture was also the subject of a NZ$10,000 ransom payment, although police didn't hear about it until the operation had been completed.

Interestingly, this latter case was allegedly "facilitated" by the editor of a New Zealand newspaper — the Kapiti Coast Observer.

These reports happened to come hot on the heels of the allegations that the Tate had paid a ransom to "buy back" the two J.M.W. Turner paintings — Shade and Darkness: The Evening of the Deluge and Light and Colour: The Morning after the Deluge — stolen while on loan to Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle in 1994, about which Mark writes.

At the time, Tate director Sir Nick Serota and former head of operations Sandy Nairne (now director of the National Portrait Gallery), both denied that the £3.1 million was paid as a ransom. But the allegation made in the BBC2 documentary 'Undercover Art Theft' — that the money was paid to intermediaries acting on behalf of the Balkan mafioso who was holding the pictures — proved difficult to refute (although equally difficult to prove).

At the end of the documentary German reporters declared their determination to continue digging. But if you were Nick Serota or Lord Myners (then chairman of the Tate), wouldn't you have stipulated that the one sacred condition of any payment be that the paper trail be untraceable afterwards? 

As Mark points out in his blog item, the payment of ransoms to secure stolen art is not new, and neither is the involvement of the media in that process. One occasion occurred in the 1960s when the German illustrated news magazine Stern acted as go-between in negotiations over the recovery of a Tilman Rimenschneider sculpture of the Madonna which had been stolen from a mountain village church in Southern Germany. 

Stern's editor, the respected journalist Henri Nannen, engineered a ransom payment to the thieves, using his journal as the intermediary. It worked and the sculpture was recovered (Nannen is shown above left with the sculpture), although the police and local magistrates were hopping mad about it. (See Hugh McLeave, Rogues in the Gallery, Boston, 1981, pp96-108). Indeed history seems to have indicated that Nannen's intervention led to a spate of further church thefts in the region, seemingly undertaken by opportunist thieves encouraged by the possibility of a ransom (supporting the 'boost' theory to which Mark refers).

Then a few years ago, we heard that art crime experts were expecting the perpetrators of the Henry Moore sculpture theft to stick their heads above the parapet by demanding the reward of £100,000 reportedly offered by the Henry Moore Foundation. It now seems more likely that the Moore (and indeed a Lynn Chadwick work stolen around the same time) may have been melted down.

The Tate commented that the most important objective in the Turner negotiations was the recovery of the works of art. What about ethics? The fact that by paying a recovery fee the Tate might have sent out the wrong message to other criminals seems to have been ignored, along with the fact that art theft often involves violence.

"The investigation [into the Tate's Turners] was never completed," a spokesperson for Frankfurt magistrates told the American art magazine Art News around the time the BBC2 documentary was broadcast.

They might not have delivered on that, but renewed scrutiny from Michael Daley of pressure group Art Watch suggests this one hasn't yet run its course. Daley believes Lord Myners was being "either incredulous or disingenuous" when he said in a letter in 2005 that no ransom had been paid. (Telegraph link here).

Are we entering the era of guerilla activism in cultural heritage?

So, Cai Mingchao (left), who claims to be the winning bidder on the Qing Dynasty rat and rabbit heads from the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé collection at Christie's in Paris last week, turns out to be an adviser to the foundation in China that seeks to retrieve looted cultural heritage. Cai is refusing to pay for the bronzes, according to the Reuters news agency (reporting here).

Are we entering an era of guerilla activism, where sabotage of art auctions becomes another weapon in cultural heritage repatriation disputes?

Last October, Cai Mingchao — the general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Co. — was among the buyers at Sotheby's sale of Chinese art in Hong Kong, according to William Verdult. After the sale Cai told reporters, "The purchases are as much about patriotism as a love of art ... Many of us just want these Chinese treasures to come home,'' thereby demonstrating the nationalist fervour driving Chinese cultural heritage claims.

There has been much talk this week, following the Bergé auction, of the possibility of China looking to the law as a means of pressing for return of its treasures. This would be a mistake, successful Italian cultural lawsuits notwithstanding.

But what chance cultural diplomacy, particularly where a still bloated art market is involved?

Evidently the Zodiac rat and rabbit heads in dispute are still in Paris. It is highly unlikely that Christie's would have released them without payment — or at least some form of down payment. The auction house made a number of significant loans to buyers at last week's sale, but it would be surprising if they did so in this case.

It could, of course, turn out to be another grand publicity stunt by the Chinese. Either way it's going to be fascinating to see how this one plays out.

Picture of Cai Mingchao above: REUTERS/Christina Hu