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March 2019

Old Gold. A new legal dispute over ancient gold artifacts has erupted between Ukraine and Russia. The works were on loan to the Netherlands by a handful of Crimean museums when Russian annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Some 572 disputed artifacts are still in Amsterdam where they were on display when the dispute began, in 2016. A Dutch court ruled the artifacts must be returned to Ukraine, but the Crimean museums are now appealing the decision.

Copy-Verda. Gallery Sakura in France canceled an upcoming exhibition citing “public safety” concerns after it received threats that works of Guillaume Verda too closely resembled the works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Users on Twitter were enraged claiming that the white artist appropriated the famous style of an African American artist and failed to acknowledge any influence Basquiat may have had on Verda’s work.

Holy Treasures. Papers have been found under the floorboards of the London home where Vincent Van Gogh lived as a young art dealer. One of the items found was a book of prayers and hymns. While in London, Van Gogh became a devout Christian – interestingly, Van Gogh turned to art after he failed his entrance exam to study theology.

It’s Mummifying. Customs officials at the Cairo International Airport found several mummified limbs hidden in a hollowed-out loudspeaker. The vestiges included feet, legs, hands, and arms. Officials were able to spot the limbs before they left Egypt by x-raying the package that was headed to Belgium.

Beat It. In response to the release of the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland (2019), which focuses on two adults who describe their alleged abuse by music-icon Michael Jackson, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has removed three items related to the artist: a poster “Power of Children,” Jackson’s iconic fedora hat, and a white sequined glove.

It’s Good to be Banksy. In 2018, ten years after its incorporation, Pest Control, the “handling service” for Banksy’s art, filed suit against an Italian company responsible for an exhibition titled “The Art of Banksy: A Visual Protest” at the Mudec Museum in Milan. According to its website, Pest Control “deals only with legitimate works of art and has no involvement with any kind of illegal activity.” In 2019, a Milan court ruled the museum should stop selling merchandise which copies Banky’s art. So much for Banksy not enforcing copyright.

The Italian Job. When thieves went to steal “The Crucifixion” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, valued at €3m, they unknowingly stole a copy. The church, Santa Maria Maddalena in Castelnuovo Magra secretly removed the real painting for safekeeping a month before the heist. In fact, the police and the town’s mayor carefully concocted the plan and set up surveillance cameras as they were aware of the thieves’ intentions and waited for them to strike.

Laborious Dispute. Per the employment tribunal’s ruling, guest lecturers at the London National Gallery are finally being acknowledged as employees, rather than freelance contractors. Previously, these freelancers were unable to receive employment benefits, such as paid vacation, sick pay, and maternity leave. The suit began when the employees were suddenly fired in October of 2017.

No April Fool. On March 29, 2018, Sotheby’s was still suing London-based art dealer, Mark Weiss, in London’s Commercial Court, over the authenticity of a small portrait purportedly by Frans Hals. Sotheby’s sold the work to an American dealer, Richard Hedreen for $11.2m. Subsequently, Sotheby’s director of scientific research determined that the painting was a modern forgery. In 2016, the auction house returned Hedreen’s payment and reimbursement from Weiss. On April 1, 2019, the dealer “agreed to pay $4.2m” to the auction house. The case seems to be proceeding against another defendant.

Truth in Oklahoma. The 1974 amended law, Oklahoma Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act, had been found to violate the U.S. Constitution due to its narrow definition of Native American. Unless reversed, the decision will stand for the proposition that an artist does not need to be a member of a federally recognized tribe in order for their work to be labeled as “Native American.”

Polonaise Proficiency. Poland is continuing its efforts to retrieve a Rococo painting entitled “Girl with a Dove” (1754), stolen from a Polish museum in 1943. The current owner, New York art dealer Alexander Khochinsky, has refused to return the work despite Poland’s attempts to extradite him from the US and subsequently from France. Khochinsky claims to have acquired the painting in good faith but extended an offer to the Polish government asking, in exchange for the painting, for the return of property belonging to his Polish-Jewish relatives (which was lost when they fled Poland during WWII). Poland refused and is now attempting to extradite the dealer again and is threatening to jail him for 10 years. On March 6, Khochinsky was allowed to leave France for a hearing in Poland, which was continued to June 5 to allow for the translation into French of the documents from the various court cases. In the meantime, Mr. Khochinsky may travel within the E.U., but not outside of it. Meanwhile, his attorney Nicholas O’Donnell successfully asked the D.C. District Court to have Poland defaulted in the lawsuit.

Yemen Cultural Heritage. Yemen’s ongoing civil war, which started in 2015, has resulted not only in the loss of human life but also destruction and looting of cultural and historical artifacts. In order to recover missing tangible property and to prevent continued smuggling, the Yemenite government has requested that the US and the United Nations issue an order which denies Yemenite artifacts from being transported into the US without special permission. US and Yemen do not have a bilateral agreement regarding cultural import restrictions at this time. A Red List for Yemen cultural property was launched by ICOM, in February of 2018.

Gurlitt Update. In December 2018, another painting which was bequeathed by Cornelius Gurlitt (German art collector and heir of controversial art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt) to the Swiss Museum of Fine Art in Bern had been identified as Nazi-looted artwork. “Quai de Clichy” (1887) by Paul Signac belonged to a French Jewish art collector, Gaston Prosper Lévy. In 1940, Gaston and his wife fled Paris for Tunis and their collection was looted.

That’s New. Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh is accusing the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) of buying his work and selling it at a premium at auction. Sami Azar, former director of TMoCA stated that the works were not actually accessioned into the museum’s collection but were bought by a separate government-funded institution.

Modiglia-no. Italian police are investigating six suspects connected to an exhibition of twenty fake Modigliani artworks at a museum in Genoa in 2017. The exhibition had been touring smaller venues when an art collector Carlo Pepi contacted police with concerns that the exhibited works were forgeries. Since a report prepared by Isabella Quatrocchi, a fine arts expert, showed that the pigments were inconsistent with authentic works, the paintings might be destroyed.

Joint Efforts. Germany’s Cultural Ministers are in the process of formulating procedures to repatriate artifacts taken from former German colonies and dedicated €1.9m to the provenance research of artifacts acquired by museums during its colonial era. The French government announced the launch of a task force, dedicated to researching and returning Nazi-Era looted art that is part of its national collections.