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In Brief – 2021/2022

Fall 2022

A Gruesome Sight: Statue of American Ballerina Found Hacked to Pieces A statue of Marjorie Tallchief, famed Native American dancer and America’s first prima ballerina, was found cut from its base and hacked to pieces at a Tulsa, Oklahoma recycling center this May. The bronze statue was installed at the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum in 2007, and has been valued at $120,000. It is suspected that the perpetrators of this crime were unaware of the statue’s value or its cultural significance, as pieces of the statue were sold to the recycling center for $266, reports the New York Times. Tallchief, who passed away in 2021, was part of a group of Native American ballerinas called the Five Moons: statues of the other four members of the group remain standing at the Tulsa museum. The museum plans to rebuild the statue, and is in the process of raising funds for rebuilding and adding security to protect the series of statues. (Source: TNYT)


Odesa, Ukraine: An Appeal to Save A City’s Cultural Heritage, and Perhaps the City Too In a pre-recorded video presented to UNESCO’s executive board this October 11, 2022, President Volodynyr Zelensky of Ukraine made a formal application for the organization to recognize the Ukrainian port-city of Odesa as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Odesa, home to the historic Odesa Opera House, a stairway to the harbor featured in 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, and a controversial statue of Catherine the Great, has been bombed several times by Russia since its initial invasion of Ukraine this year, posing a threat not only to residents of Odesa, but to several cultural and historical landmarks in the city. In his message to UNESCO, Zelensky asked two things of the organization: to fast-track the process of granting Odesa World Heritage status, and to expel Russia from Unesco as a means of denouncing Russian actions towards Ukraine. 

UNESCO representatives have stated that Zelensky’s appeal “marks confidence in UNESCO’s protection mechanisms.” Indeed, once a site is declared part of the World Heritage Site list, the site becomes protected under Geneva convention against destruction during a war. There are currently 1154 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, seven of which are in Ukraine. If Odesa were added to the list, it would mark the eighth site of cultural history in Ukraine protected by UNESCO against Russian attacks. (Source: The Art Newspaper)


Is AI really art? Getty Images has banned the upload and sale of images generated by using AI art tools such as DALL-E, stating that there are pressing copyright concerns and unaddressed rights issues related to imagery, metadata and subjects contained within the illustrations. While the creators of AI image generators state that the technology is legal, there is no guarantee that this status won’t be contested. AI and machine learning applications sample other artists’ and therefore reference thousands of pieces of work from other artists to create AI-derivative images. Getty images will rely on users to identify and report such images generated by AI to remove them, though there it will be challenging to enforce the ban.  


UK clearing out money laundered property? Labour-run Westminster Council in London is exploring whether compulsory purchase powers can be used against the owners of luxury houses who fall behind on their council tax. Westminster’s suggestion is that these multi-million pound properties could be turned into affordable housing to reduce the 4,000 person waiting list. There is the suggestion that Westminster could expand this power if property was bought with so called ‘dirty money’ as part of a crackdown on money laundering. Since 2016, Russian oligarchs accused of corruption have purchased property in Westminster worth £430 million. The council is currently examining this avenue in relation to a property registered in Seychelles which is in council tax arrears. However, there are transparency issues with regard to property ownership as some such properties appear to be held by untraceable’ shell’ companies and whether they have authority to use compulsory purchase powers in this context at all. Thus, limiting this potential route’s practical impact and how close to realisation it is. 


Let’s get physical… or digital? Artist Damien Hirst in collaboration with HENI, an international art services business launched a project to understand the relationships between property and NFTs. Hirst offered 10,000 NFTs from his collection of famous dot paintings for sale. Buyers had the option to either retain the artwork in NFT form or swap it for the physical work. If the choice was to retain the NFT, then the physical work was burned, and if they chose to swap it for physical artwork then the NFT was destroyed. 5,149 buyers chose the physical work and 4,851 retained the NFT. Hirst stated that this might indicate the steady attachment for physical work over digital art, and that he himself found it tougher to burn the paper as opposed to the NFT.


(Not) Getting back the Guelph Treasure. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit filed by the heirs of Nazi-era Jewish art-dealers against a German museum foundation over valuable medieval relics known as Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure. The heirs state that the Guelph Treasure was sold under duress and at a drastic discount in Nazi-era Frankfurt. 42 of the pieces that were sold ended up in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin. In 2014, a German arbitration commission ruled that the museum had acquired the collection legitimately and did not need to return the artifacts. As a result, the heirs sued the foundation in the United States. The U.S. District Court stated it lacked jurisdiction to hear the lawsuit and granted the foundation’s motion to dismiss the case, barring an appeal by the plaintiffs. 

Summer 2022

Coming Home. The Natural History Museum of Vienna (NHM) is returning two skulls, which belonged to a Hawaiian man and woman from the colonial era to the United States. An English adventurer, William Green, had stolen them from a grave in the 19th century, after which the skulls were sold and were part of a collection in the U.K. They then made their way to Vienna and were donated to NHM at the time. With the returning of the skulls, NHM aims at recognizing the moral and ethical injustices in the colonial period caused by their ruthless collecting practices.


Museums to label Nazi looted art in New York. In summer of 2022, New York passed a legislation that requires museums in the state of New York to disclose whether objects in their collections were looted by Nazis in Europe during the Second World War. Any exhibited artwork that changed hands due to “theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale, or other involuntary means” during World War II and the run-up to that conflict must be accompanied by a wall label or placard detailing its history. Anna Kaplan, the state senator who sponsored the legislation stated that the law would “empower” the art community to be more accountable. The regulation, signed into law by Governor Hochul is a part of a trifecta of legislation to educate New York on the Holocaust and support survivors.


Spring 2022

Cancel Culture: Russian edition. Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams have cancelled sales of Russian art in London, in compliance with the art market’s response to the sanctions imposed on Russia. The auction houses typically hold sales of Russian art in June and November in what is known as “Russian art week,” where wealthy Russians are often buyers– the London Russian art auction is also one of the most popular among the Russian oligarchs. The last Russian art auction held by Sotheby’s in London in November 2021 made a total of £17.7m, which is described as the higher total than that of all other auction houses holding Russian sales combined. The uncertainty of the war and complex logistical and legal requirements related to sanctions were cited as a few reasons for the auction houses to cancel the sales of Russian art in June.