Saturday, June 23, 2012

Defenders of the British Museum demolished in public debate over the Parthenon Marbles

Further compelling evidence of the British public's unerring instinct for reasonableness and sound ethical judgement was provided by a recent debate at Cadogan Hall (left) over whether the Parthenon Marbles — looted by Lord Elgin and still retained by the British Museum — should be returned to Athens. I've posted the YouTube edited highlights of the debate, organised by Intelligence Squared, below.

Speaking in favour of the motion for returning the Marbles to Athens were the Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George and the actor Stephen Fry; while opposing the motion were the Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt and the USA-based British historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto. 

The debate was chaired by BBC World News presenter Zeinab Badawi in front of an invited audience of around 550 people.

THE MOTION:
Send Them Back: The Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens

Before the debate, the audience voted like this:
FOR: 196
AGAINST: 202
UNDECIDED: 158

After the debate, the audience voted like this:
FOR: 384 (+188)
AGAINST: 125 (-77)
UNDECIDED: 24 (-134)


Thus the motion to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens was carried


Yet again, the public has made its opinion resoundingly clear on this issue. When will the British Museum acknowledge that its retention of the Marbles is no longer acceptable? 


The text of my paper on this subject, delivered at last week's Colloquy on the Parthenon Marbles at the London Hellenic Centre, is now online here, courtesy of Moving Universe.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Crowd-sourcing the looting of cultural heritage

Dr. Shawn Graham, a 'digital archaeologist' and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada, is monitoring the looting of cultural heritage as a crowd-sourcing project.

Dr Graham's web project is clearly benefiting from the work of award-winning UK archaeologist and cultural heritage-looting sleuth Professor David Gill at University Campus, Suffolk, England, and the regular blog posts of Dr Derek Fincham, Academic Director of ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes Against Art), which holds its annual conference in Amelia, Umbria, this coming weekend.

I will be heading out to Amelia in a few weeks to undertake my annual ARCA lecturing stint, always a rewarding experience.

Note to self: don't forget to pack the diamond tiara.

Crowd-Sourcing the Looting of Cultural Heritage

Dr. Shawn Graham, a 'digital archaeologist' and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada, is monitoring the looting of cultural heritage as a crowd-sourcing project (screen grab, left).

Dr Graham's project is clearly benefiting from the excellent work of award-winning UK archaeologist and cultural heritage sleuth Professor David Gill at University Campus, Suffolk, England, and the regular blog posts of Dr Derek Fincham, Academic Director of ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes Against Art), which holds its annual conference in Amelia, Umbria, this coming weekend.

I will be heading out to Amelia in a few weeks to undertake my annual ARCA lecturing stint, always a rewarding experience.

Note to self: don't forget to pack the diamond tiara.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tartan toff's tiara turns up at Turnbull's

If your valuable jewellery got lost at Glasgow Airport, what would you do? You'd register it as stolen with the airport authorities, wouldn't you? You'd probably even leave your name and address which, if you were a member of an aristocratic Scottish clan with a noble pile in the Highlands, would doubtless be pretty memorable to whoever was taking down your details. "Inverarary Castle? How are you spelling that, Ma'am?"

What would you do then? Well, you could go home and weep into the ancestral quaich. Or you might do the sensible thing and register the lost jewels with a company that keeps a database of stolen objects in the hope that if the jewels are ever consigned to an auction, the auction house will be one of those that submits its catalogues to the same company that keeps a database of stolen objects, one of whose duties is to cross-check auction catalogues against the database of stolen objects in order to recover any items that have been registered as stolen that subsequently find their way into an auction. That process is called doing Due Diligence.

Simple, yes? Well, apparently not, Jimmy.

The Duchess of Argyll (above) lost £100,000 worth of jewellery at Glasgow airport in 2006, including a diamond tiara and a Cartier brooch. Incredibly, on finding the jewels some time later, Glasgow Airport Authority did what you'd expect an irresponsible agency to do — they sold them. No, apparently they didn't check with the databases of stolen objects to check whether the jewels had been registered as missing. They just flogged them. That is called failing to do Due Diligence.

Six years later, the eagle-eyed Duchess spotted one of her family baubles — a Cartier brooch — in the catalogue of a jewellery sale taking place at Edinburgh auction house Lyon & Turnbull. That is what's known as A Stroke of Luck.

Lyon & Turnbull are a responsible and widely respected firm of auctioneers. It is unclear why they accepted the stolen objects for sale, but it seems likely that whoever consigned them was what is often called "a good faith purchaser" — that is someone who at some point had bought them from someone else assuming that the "someone else" had good title to them (i.e. was legally entitled to sell).

What seems unclear is whether Lyon & Turnbull submit their catalogues to a company that conducts Due Diligence by cross-checking the catalogues against a database of stolen objects (a phone call to Lyon & Turnbull today asking if the firm submitted its catalogues for Due Diligence checking elicited a baffled response. "I don't even know what that is," said the spokesperson. "It means absolutely nothing to me.")

If Lyon & Turnbull do submit their catalogues for provenance checking (I want to assume they do), it seems it may not have been the same database with which the Duchess registered her stolen jewellery in 2006. Had it been, a match would have emerged and the auctioneers would have been alerted earlier in the process.

Still, at least the Duchess got her jewels back and didn't have to pay any associated fees to do so. After all, it was she who spotted them in the auction catalogue, rather than the database company with which she originally registered them as missing.

A happy ending, then. That calls for a large glass of the finest Argyll single malt. A Lagavulin will do nicely.





Running for cover — connoisseurs run shy of legal backlash

As most recent art authentication cases have conclusively demonstrated, it is lawyers who stand to win the most when people litigate over attributions of works of art.

Connoisseurs and artists' foundations used to be the high priests of expertise on whether a work was authentic or not. However, as a New York Times article has just reported, many experts are now too scared to express an opinion for fear of being slammed with a lawsuit. (See my earlier blog post on the disputed Degas bronzes here.) Some foundations are now even choosing not to publish catalogues raisonnés.

All of these trends are further illustrations of an art market out of control as more and more speculators, investors, fund managers, advisors and 'agents' (many with no art historical knowledge or aesthetic sensibility) pile in and pump up prices.  The more prices rise, the more there is to win...or lose...thereby feeding the gaping maw of the legal profession. America has long been one of the most litigious societies in the world, but there is plenty of evidence that the UK is now at risk of being sucked into that same grim culture.

If connoisseurs and foundations withdraw their opinions, this could have the positive effect of deterring profit-seeking speculators from playing in this market. Without the reassurance of connoisseurial expertise to guide them they are less likely to engage with a market in which they lack the knowledge and information that is critical to good decision making. That can only be a positive development, for it  marginally increases the possibility of us returning to the important values  — critical, aesthetic, and art historical considerations as opposed to predominantly economic preoccupations.