U.S. Authorities Return Antiquities Worth $19 Million to Italy, Including 27 Objects Seized From the Met

Italy has welcomed home nearly 60 looted artifacts, receiving them from U.S. authorities, who recovered around half of the objects from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Collectively worth about $19 million, the relics were returned to the Italian authorities by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in July and September 2022, and earlier this week, were exhibited at a press conference in Rome. “For us Italians,” said Vincenzo Molinese, head of the Carabinieri art squad, “the value of these artworks, which is the value of our historic and cultural identity, is incalculable.”

Among the repatriated artifacts are a white marble bust of Roman emperor Septimius Severus, which was recovered in 2020, on the eve of it heading to auction at Christie’s New York; as well as the Marble Head of Athena, a 200 B.C.E. sculpture that was filched from a temple in central Italy, and a kylix or drinking cup, which dates back to 470 B.C.E., both among the 27 objects seized from the Met last year.

Also included is a fresco, dated to 50 C.E., depicting a young Hercules battling a snake. The work, which survived the 79 C.E. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was looted by tomb raiders from a villa in the ancient town of Herculaneum and illegally run into the U.S. Italy first asked for its return in 1997.

All 60 objects had been variously smuggled into the U.S. over the past five decades by traffickers Giacomo Medici, Giovanni Franco Becchina, Pasquale Camera, and Edoardo Almagiá, notorious for employing local looters to pillage archaeological sites across Italy.

While their criminal enterprises were frequently in competition with one another, all four sold artifacts to Michael Steinhardt, the billionaire who’d amassed a hoard of plundered relics, including the Herculaneum fresco for $650,000 in 1995. Following a multiyear investigation into his collection and illicit collecting practices, Steinhardt received a lifetime ban from acquiring antiquities in 2021.

“These 58 pieces represent thousands of years of rich history, yet traffickers throughout Italy utilized looters to steal these items and to line their own pockets,” Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., Manhattan District Attorney, said in a statement following the return of the artifacts. “For far too long, they have sat in museums, homes, and galleries that had no rightful claim to their ownership.”

At the event in Rome, officials on both sides stressed the ongoing need to crack down on the illicit trafficking of antiquities.

With this latest repatriation, Italy’s culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said that Italian cultural authorities are contemplating returning the artifacts to museums located close to where they were excavated. A special exhibition of the recovered objects (Italy inaugurated a Museum of Rescued Art last year to house recovered art), he added, is also being considered.

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The Heir of a German-Jewish Collector Is Suing the Guggenheim for the Return of a Prized Picasso Painting—Or $150 Million

The heir of a prominent German-Jewish family is suing New York’s Guggenheim Museum for the return of a prized Pablo Picasso painting, which he says was sold under the threat of Nazi persecution 85 years ago.  

A lawsuit filed January 20 in Manhattan Supreme Court alleges that the painting, Woman Ironing (1904), was sold under duress in 1938 as its owner, Karl Adler, rushed to flee Nazi-run Germany with his wife, Rosi Jacobi. The plaintiffs in the case, which include one of Adler and Jacobi’s direct descendants—Thomas Bennigson—and numerous Jewish charities, are seeking the return of the artwork or $100 to $200 million in damages.

The case, which was filed under the provisions of the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, may come down to whether or not the artwork was determined to have been sold illegally or through extortion.

“[Adler] would not have disposed of the painting at the time and price that he did, but for the Nazi persecution to which he and his family had been, and would continue to be, subjected,” the filing reads.

A general view of the exterior facade of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images.

A view of the exterior facade of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images.

The board chairman of a major leather manufacturer, Adler acquired the Blue Period painting in 1916, from the Munich-based gallery owner Heinrich Thannhauser. Twenty-two years later, the businessman and his wife fled Germany amid increasing threats of persecution from the Nazis.

The couple planned to immigrate to Argentina and needed money to cover the cost of short-term visas and the Nazi-instituted flight tax. As part of an effort to liquidate his assets, Adler sold Woman Ironing to Heinrich Thannhauser’s son, Justin Thannhauser, for $1,552—or roughly $32,000 today.  

The heir’s complaint characterizes the sale as “forced” and its price as “well below” market value.

“Thannhauser, as a leading art dealer of Picasso, must have known he acquired the painting for a fire sale price,” the suit says. “At the time of the sale, Thannhauser was buying comparable masterpieces from other German Jews who were fleeing from Germany and profiting from their misfortune.”

“Thannhauser was well-aware of the plight of Adler and his family,” the complaint goes on, “and that, absent Nazi persecution, Adler would never have sold the painting when he did at such a price.”

Citing its own provenance research, the Guggenheim said in a statement that the plaintiff’s case is “without merit.”

Woman Ironing entered the museum’s collection in 1978, following an extended loan and promised gift from Justin Thannhauser in 1965. But before the acquisition was final, Guggenheim administrators looked into the painting’s past and contacted Karl Adler’s son, Eric Adler, as part of the process. 

The younger Adler “did not raise any concerns about the painting or its sale,” according to the institution. The museum also pointed out that the Thannhausers, too, were Jewish and subject to Nazi persecution.  

“The extensive research conducted by the Guggenheim since first being contacted by an attorney representing these claimants demonstrates that the Guggenheim is the rightful owner of the painting,” the museum’s statement went on. “There is no evidence that Karl Adler or his three children, now deceased, ever viewed the sale as unfair or considered Thannhauser a bad‐faith actor, either at the time of the transaction or at any time since.”

A spokesperson for the Guggenheim further explained that the painting is currently on view at the museum, as it has been almost continuously since being acquired 45 years ago. The artwork is not accompanied by signage stating that it “changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale, or other involuntary means” during the Nazi era, as required by a recently passed New York law.

A lawyer representing Adler and Jacobi’s heir and the other plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The Performa Biennial Will Return This Fall in an All-Outdoors Lineup and an All-New York-Based Slate of Artists

For its next biennial, the first to be held post-pandemic, Performa will stage all of its signature cross-disciplinary projects outside—and it’s moving the event up in the calendar to catch the warmer weather.

The organization dedicated to live performance by visual artists announced the details of its 2021 flagship biennial today, the 9th since 2005. The event, which is set to run October 12-31, 2021 in streets and parks across the city, will feature a slate of artists that includes Kevin Beasley, Sara Cwynar, Madeline Hollander, and Tschabalala Self. 

All hail from the New York region—a decision made to reduce travel. But the New York focus serves a thematic purpose, too, as each artist will be tasked with contemplating the changes—physical and cultural—the city has undergone over the last years. In short, New York will serve as both the setting and the theme of the event. (Details about the commissioned projects, including additional pieces by Ericka Beckman, Danielle Dean, Andrés Jaque, and Shikeith, will be shared in the coming months.) 

Barbara Kruger, <i>Untitled (Skate)</i>, at Coleman Skatepark, NYC. A Performa Commission for Performa 17. Photo © Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Skate), at Coleman Skatepark, NYC. A
Performa Commission for Performa 17. Photo © Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

For an event like this, with so many moving parts, timing is everything. 

Luck has been on the organization’s side so far in that department. Landing on odd years, the non-profit wasn’t forced to do what so many other performance-oriented organizations had to and cancel or postpone its event last year. But for RoseLee Goldberg, Performa founding director and chief curator, that was never an option anyway. 

“We never considered cancelling or postponing, not once,” she said, somewhat surprisingly, in an email to Midnight Publishing Group News this week. “Rather, from the very start of the pandemic last March, we began imagining how best to use our knowledge and experience in producing performance to respond to completely unknown circumstances.”

Pandemic be damned, Performa didn’t skip a beat over the last year, the curator explains, pointing to a number of programs the organization mounted in the pivot to online-only events. Among these were a performance of Terry Adkins’s “recitals” co-produced with the Pulitzer Foundation, as well as its annual fall gala, which arrived in the unusual form of an eight-hour telethon fundraiser

Arto Lindsay, <i>Somewhere I Read</i> at Times Square, NYC. A Performa Commission for Performa 09. Photo © Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

Arto Lindsay, Somewhere I Read at Times Square, NYC. A Performa Commission for
Performa 09. Photo © Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

“All this proved incredibly instructive as to how we would approach the biennial,” Goldberg continues. “We immediately switched our focus to artists who lived in or nearby New York City, since any plans with international artists had to be put on hold; we looked at the history of actions by artists in the city that gave a sense of solidarity and inspiration to the art community after a particularly disastrous period; and we imagined every commission in two formats, live and on video, depending on uncertainties of the future, which we discussed in detail with commissioned artists.”

Goldberg says the decision to press on with this year’s biennial had less to do with Performa than with commitment to the artists involved. By the time the health crisis arrived last year, the slate had already been selected for the event.  

“We felt it was really important to continue supporting artists, meaning actually providing the means to help them get through this period, and to produce and present their work,” Goldberg said. “The fact of economic hardship does not need to be restated, but younger artists especially don’t have many places to turn to.”

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The Dutch Government Just Promised to Return Any Stolen Colonial-Era Objects in Its Collections Back to Their Countries of Origin

The government of the Netherlands has agreed to put in place guidelines that could make it a global leader in restituting colonial-era objects.

The guidelines follow recommendations in a report issued by an advisory commission led by experts from the nation’s leading museums.

The document, published in October, called for a “recognition that an injustice was done to the local populations of former colonial territories when cultural objects were taken against their will,” and recommended those artifacts be returned to the former colonies.

“It’s groundbreaking, it’s progressive, it’s a radical break with the past,” Jos van Beurden, an expert on colonial restitution, told the Art Newspaper. “It’s crucial that the discussion is no longer restricted to war trophies.”

Colonial artifacts from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures.

Colonial artifacts from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures.

The government will now establish an independent committee to assess restitution requests and to advise museums as to whether an object was acquired involuntarily.

“Because of the imbalance of power during the colonial era, cultural objects were—effectively—often stolen,” according to a recent statement by the Dutch government.

“If it can be established that an object was indeed stolen from a former Dutch colony, it will be returned unconditionally. Cultural heritage objects that were stolen from a former colony of another country, or which are of particular cultural, historic, or religious significance to a country, may also be eligible for return.”

“The colonial past is a subject that still personally affects many people every day,” Ingrid van Engelshoven, the nation’s minister of education, culture, and science, said in a statement. “This is why we must treat colonial collections with great sensitivity. There is no place in the Dutch state collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft. If a country wants them back, we will give them back.”

A colonial artifact from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures.

A colonial artifact from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures.

The Dutch ministry intends to work with officials in Indonesia, Suriname, and Dutch territories in the Caribbean to research colonial collections and identify looted artifacts.

The Dutch had colonial missions in Asia, Africa, and North and South America, sometimes for hundreds of years, dating back to the beginning of the 17th century.

This history has also led the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures (which oversees the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal) to take independent steps toward restitution.

The museum, which estimates 40 percent of the 450,000 pieces in its collection originated in Dutch colonies, established its own guidelines for colonial restitution in March 2019. In December, it announced a four-year €4.5 million ($5.38 million) research project into museum collections amassed during the colonial era.

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The Museum of the Bible Must Once Again Return Artifacts, This Time an Entire Warehouse of 5,000 Egyptian Objects

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC has returned some 5,000 artifacts to the Egyptian government, after years of talks between agencies including the Department of Homeland Security and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The objects have been held at the Museum since its opening in 2016. Egypt has been seeking repatriation of the objects, which it says were smuggled illegally out of the country, for just as long.

The objects include funerary masks; fragments of coffins; a set of portraits of the dead; heads of stone statues; manuscripts of Christian prayers written in both Arabic and Coptic, and just Arabic; and pieces of papyrus with text in Coptic and Greek, as well as hieratic and demotic script. The pieces will be displayed in Cairo’s Coptic Museum.

According to Hisham Al Laithi, who heads the country’s antiquities registration center, the objects were not taken from Egyptian warehouses or museums. Instead they were smuggled after being illegally excavated.

Artifacts returned to Egypt from the Museum of the Bible. Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Artifacts returned to Egypt from the Museum of the Bible. Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The Museum has been plagued by issues of suspicious and incomplete provenance and has returned thousands of artifacts to Iraq and Egypt since opening in 2017. Founder and board chairman Steve Green is also the president of Hobby Lobby craft stores, and has a personal collection valued at $30 million, which he began amassing in 2009.

In 2015, the Green family was investigated for importing looted clay tablets from Israel, which were shipped in 2011 to Oklahoma City, where Hobby Lobby is headquartered, with plans to be displayed at the museum when it opened. The shipment was labeled as “tile samples.” Despite the fact that the museum maintained that clerical and paperwork errors were to blame, Hobby Lobby returned more than 5,000 artifacts smuggled from Iraq and paid a $3 million fine.

In 2018, the Museum acknowledged that fragments in its Dead Sea Scrolls collection showed “characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin” after undergoing x-ray and other testing. The museum removed five of the objects, and noted that it would continue to engage researchers to verify contested artifacts. In March 2020, it was announced that all 16 fragments in the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls were fake. The museum has also returned 13 ancient bible fragments accused of being stolen from the Egypt Exploration Society at Oxford University by a professor in the department.

Steve Green in 2017. Photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Steve Green in 2017. Photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The onslaught of bad publicity stemming from Green’s dubious collecting practices has prompted him to issue statements both about his naiveté in the early years of his acquisitions, and in the museum’s efforts to return property to their countries of origin. “The criticism of the museum resulting from my mistakes was justified,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

In a statement on the museum’s website posted this week, Green detailed the process of returning the 5,500 papyri fragments and other Egyptian artifacts, writing that on January 7, “we transferred control of the fine art storage facility that housed the 5,000 Egyptian items to the U.S. government as part of a voluntary administrative process. We understand the U.S. government has now delivered the papyri to Egyptian officials.”

The statement also announced that on January 27, the museum initiated a shipment of more than 8,000 clay objects to Baghdad’s Iraq Museum.

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