Recently an article in the New York Times reported of a police raid at the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in New York last week:
The European Fine Art Fair at the Park Avenue Armory is an elegant event during which wealthy collectors browse through booths of stunning art pieces, from ancient sculptures to works by early 20th-century masters.
So it raised a few eyebrows on Friday afternoon when two prosecutors and three police officers marched into the armory at 2 p.m. with stern expressions and a search warrant, witnesses said.
A few minutes later, cursing could be heard coming from a London dealer’s booth, breaking the quiet, reverential atmosphere.
On order of New York prosecuting attorney Cyrus Vance jr., the police seized the ancient Persian relief of a warrior, which has been illegaly exported from Persia todays Iran.
According to TEFAF New York Fall, the Rupert Wace Ancient Art in London is „one of the top dealers in the field“. Among their clients is the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Antiken Museum Basel and „the Staatliche Museum, Munich“.
The piece is well known to scientists, as it is part of the famous Apadana reliefs from Achaemenid site of Persepolis. In the past, the object was repeatedly discussed in the Art Crime Blog.
Excavation and restoration at Persepolis
The provenience of the relief is well known with only some gaps. 1935 it was still in the Apadana palace in Persepolis. It was excavated in 1930 and part of a restoration program in 1933.
Photographs freely available in the web, taken in the early 1930s show the now seized warrior as part of a balustrade close to the eastern stairs of Apadana palace in Persepolis. One of the pictures even shows its restauration in 1933.
|detail of previous picture
(Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)
|detail of previous picture
(Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)
More detailed photographs of the seized relief:
The first robbery
As provenience of the relief TEFAF refers to the Canadian millionaire and collector Frederick Cleveland Morgan (wikipedia
), who gifted the piece to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art in 1950. Cleveland Morgan was a volunteer curator at the museum and contributed more than 7000 objects to its collection. The first robbery has to be dated therefore between 1933 and 1950. Pictures from later restoration in the late 1960/early 1970s show a rectangular gap, where the relief has been sawn out probably by a machine. Currently the original location is not open to the public.
As the export of antiquities was forbidden in Persia since 1930 the export of the relief has to be illegal, if there are no officialpapers available.
It is interesting to see, that Frederick Cleveland Morgan maintained good contacts with Arthur Upham Pope (wikipedia
), who was a renowned expert of Persian Art and deeply involved in the trade with Persepolis reliefs in the early 1930s.
Paul Barford illustrates how the relief has probably been cut out of the wall.In fact, pictures of a restoration in the late 1960s/early 70s show rectangular cuts instead of the missing piece.
The second robbery
During the opening hours at 3rd of September 2011 the wall-mounted relief was stolen from the museum in Montreal. A few weeks later, a Roman-Egyptian marble statuette was stolen probably by the same thief. Museum, police and the assurance company made this public only some months later. They offered a sgnificant reward, and published a wanted poster as well as a sequence of their surveillance video.
Whereas the marble is still missing today, the warrior relief was discovered in a cheap shelf between stuffed animals and plastic star wars figurines in a private apartment in Edmonton. A 33-year old man According to Wikipedia (whose cited sources don’t have this information!), the relief was visible occasionaly in a video, shoot by TC-channel CBS, who interviewed the inhabitant, a 33 year old man, who worked as a yoga teacher. Considering it was a good replica, he bought the object fo 1400$ from a friend of a friend. In fact, the value of the relief was estimated at around 1,2 Mio $, probably around the sum, which the museum got from the assurance company.
Money, no ethics
When the relief was returned to the museum, its board decided to keep the assurance money. They transferred the warrior to the assurance company, which offered him on the art market. In 2016 the object was at the Frieze Fairs in London priced 2,2 Mio £, offered by an art dealer, who is normally specialized in medieval art and manuscripts. However Rupert Wace declared that he bought the warrior directly from the assurance company.
Persepolis is probably the most prominent archaeological site in modern Iran. It has a very high meaning for the national identity. The reliefs date to the late 6th and 5th. c. BC. They depict warrior and guards but as well as delegates of the conquered nations. Excavations and restoration have been conducted by German, American and Italian teams. Since 1979 Persepolis, former capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire is part of the UNESCO world heritage.
Even in more recent times, the Persepolis reliefs suffered from damage. There are many parts of the Persepolis reliefs in western museums in Europe and Northern America. A small number has been brought out of the country already in the 19th century before systematic excavations started. In the 1920s, the looting of the site increased. Therefore an antiquities law was enacted in 1930 prohibiting the export of archaeological finds.
However, the looting continued and there are good reasons to suppose, that prominent archaeologists were involved. Arthur Uphan Pope, author of several volumes on Persian Art had good contacts with art dealers and there is also evidence for relations to Frederick Cleveland Morgan, who has donated the warrior relief in question to the Montreal museum. In 1934 Ernst Herzfeld, who assisted the Persian government with the creation of the Antiquities Act and was responsible for the excavations based in Chicago university, was banished from Persia. This was probably the result of intrigues, which intended to replace him by someone, who was more open for exporting artefacts. Rich financial supporters of excavations often got precious finds as presents.
Another relief from Persepolis was offered in 1971 by Sothebys and 2005 by Christies. It has been smuggeled from Iran before the 1970 UN-convention on cultural heritage. This convention invented some rules for international trade but neglected earlier restrictions of the exporting countries. Repeated invention of even later due dates as in the German Kulturgüterschutzgesetz are an attempt to legalize even more recently looted material Therefore Iran was not successful in claiming the repatriation of the relief offered in 2005.
In the face of the weak law enforcement, lootng is still profitable.When in 2006 a film team damaged two warrior reliefs at the site of Perspeolis by iron tools, there was soon the suspicion, that they attempted to steal the reliefs.
Lessons by the decapitated warrior
The recent case is meaningful by various reasons:
- As it is documented, that the relief was still at the site in the early 1930s, it is clear, that it has been brought out of the country illegally.
- Investigation and securing concern a case going back for several decades, signalizing that export restrictions by exporting countries have to be respected by traders. The common practice of referring to the last owners is insufficient. The case has some chances to become a test case. James Ratcliffe, director of the art loss register questions whether a repatriation claim by Iran can be successful, whereas the object was publicaly displayed since the 1950s.
- The fact, that a simple internet research allows us to verify the original situation of the relief, demonstrates that the commitment of the art trade to carefully investigate proveniences is by far not sufficient. Especially TEFAF claims to value the legal provenience of its antiquities. Obviously their understanding of legal trade neglects the restrictions of the exporting countries, which in general go far back before the UN convention.
- The idea, that archaeological artefacts were better preserved in Western museums than in their countries of origin is not only colonialist, but also wrong, because their removal represents in most cases an irreparable damage to the historical contexts, which are crucial for their nature as historical data. The present case clearly demonstrates, that the art work was destroyed by the demand of western collectors for nice portable pieces. The head was cut out of the architecture by force. Furthermore the western museum was neither able to protect the relief from being stolen, nor was it interested in taking over his responsibility.
- The case highlights, that repatriation of finds is not the solution for the problem. The problem is the looting of the sites, which is triggered by the market demand. The problem is not the legal question of ownership, but the destruction of scientific and historical data by the removal of objects. In the present case, where a very prominent site has been looted (possibly under the cloak of restoration works), there is the extraordinary situation, that the finds have been documented, before they have been brought out of the country. Therefore in this specific case a restoration would be possible. However, it is also obvious, that the looting substantially damaged previous restoration work.
- Finally the case clearly contains the political message, that the USA is commited to the protection of cultural heritage – even after leaving the UNESCO. In the Trump era this is not a matter of course any more (comp. Archaeologik v. 12.10.2017). It’s probably remarkable, that it is the justice making that case, which is not only in contrast to Trumpian cultural policies. Investigating in the interest of the state of Iran is also opponent to the current foreign affairs of the Trump administration, which currently puts all recent progress in good bilateral relations between US and Iran at risk.
- M. G. Majd, The great American plunder of Persia’s antiquities, 1925-1941 (Lanham, Md. 2003).
- L. Allen, ‚The Greatest Enterprise‘: Arthur Urphan Pope, Persepolis and Achaemenid Antiquities. In: Y. Kadoi (ed.), Artur Upham Pope and A New Survey of Persian Art (Leiden, Boston: Brill 2016) 127-167
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