Stolen Art: The Illegal Antiquities Trade Is Still Going Strong In 2016

by Lindsay Shapka in ,

National Geographic Magazine recently ran an article highlighting current tomb raiding and trade in stolen antiquities. I know what you're thinking. Tomb raiding is nothing new — the looting of ancient art has been going on for hundreds of years. So, why is it being written about and highlighted now? What's changed? 

The answer: war and politics.

The political unrest in Egypt has meant that police, who were patrolling and protecting ancient historic sites, have been pulled away leaving the sites open to looters. And the looters have taken full advantage. New holes have been dug all over ancient tombs in the country — so many in fact that they are visible in satellite imagery! 

And, many believe that artifacts that have been salvaged by terrorist organizations are being used to fund their activities. 

Which leads to an even more complex issue: Who is buying these stolen antiquities? You may be surprised to learn that many of them are being bought up by reputable museums and art galleries both from black market and legitimate sales. Museum curators often make the argument that if they don't purchase the items, they will disappear into private collections or risk being mishandled and destroyed by looters. But, this also means that these museums could inadvertently be funding terrorist organizations — I told you it was complex. 

Creating false documents for stolen items is also becoming more common, meaning that looted items are appearing in legit auction houses without the buyers even knowing that the objects were stolen. 

It's the wild west out there for those seeking to stop the flow of stolen archeological items. 

If you want to learn more about this world, check out one of the books below. These are all fantastic reads and give you some insight into the history behind looting and what's being done about it now. 

  1. Loot: The Battle Over The Stolen Treasures Of The Ancient World
    For centuries, the Western world has plundered priceless treasures from the ancient world in order to fill their museums and galleries. Now, for the first time, the countries where many of these ancient civilizations originated are fighting back. Countries like Greece, Egypt, Turkey and Italy are taking on powerhouses like the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The British Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum causing everyone to ask the question; Who does history belong to?
  2. Hot Art: Secret World of Stolen Art
    Author Joshua Knelman is an award-winning journalist and editor who immerses himself in the shadowy world of art theft that takes him all over the world, through a web of corruption, secrecy and violence. He delves into the lives of both professional thieves and the people that chase them, revealing that (though it may not make it to the front page of the newspaper) art theft is no fringe activity.
  3. The Medici Conspiracy
    A real-life conspiracy, this book looks at the illicit, secret journey of looted antiquities that have been raided from tombs in Italy and made their way into some of the world's biggest and most prestigious museums. 
  4. Master Thieves: The Mystery of The Gardner Museum Art Heist
    Investigative journalist Stephen Kurkjian has written the definitive, revealing history of the famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist that took place 25 years ago. The book takes a look at the investigations, theories, blunders, and complex web of the Boston mafia that all contributed to the paintings being stolen and remaining hidden for all this time.

Contemporary Aboriginal Art

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

I recently wrote an article on contemporary Aboriginal art for Canadian Cowboy Country Magazine, and the depth and variety of work that is available in this genre of art surprised me. 

I have been aware of, and wildly impressed by, the incredible talent of both historic and contemporary Aboriginal artists (see my piece on Alex Janvier here) for as long as I can remember, but what surprised me was some of the traditional techniques that are still employed to create art that even I had never heard of. For example, did you know that incredibly intricate designs are made on birch bark by folding up this fragile material and then biting it? Or that traditional embroidery on clothing and moccasins was done with moose hair using a technique called tufting

The tradition, work, and talent that went into creating historic pieces and goes into new contemporary creations are coveted, both by private collectors and museums all over the world. 

Living in Canada, I have had the privilege of having access to this work all over the country. Work by the "Indian Group Of Seven" is showcased in art galleries regularly, there are totem poles in public spaces, and even fashion designers are using traditional colours and language in their clothing. 

My personal favourites are the stunning carvings, masks, and sculptures that are created by Haida artists from the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. According to the Canadian Museum of History, "The decorations on the objects they created were statements of social identity, or reminders of rights and prerogatives bestowed on their ancestors by supernatural beings, or of lessons taught to them through mythic encounters with the animals, birds, fish or other beings whose likenesses were embodied in the crests passed down through generations."

Whether you prefer paintings, sculpture, prints, masks, clothing, or something completely different, you are sure to find an Aboriginal artist somewhere in North America that is creating a masterpiece guaranteed to take your breath away. 

Images from the top, left to right: Detail of "Sun Shines, Grass Grows, River Flows" by Alex Janvier ; "Spirit Being" by Jackson Beardy, 1978; contemporary Haida sculpture and masks from a gallery in Vancouver, BC; a historic Haida costume in The MET, New York City

Master Thieves: The Mystery of The Gardner Museum Art Heist

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

Investigative journalist Stephen Kurkjian has written the definitive, revealing history of the famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist that took place 25 years ago. Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist takes a look at the investigations, theories, blunders, and complex web of the Boston mafia that all contributed to the paintings being stolen and remaining hidden for all this time.

After twenty-five years, the biggest art theft in world history is still an open case… no one has been arrested and nothing has been recovered. In fact, there hasn’t even been a single confirmed sighting of the thirteen stolen pieces.
— page 217 of "Master Thieves"

On the night of the theft, two men disguised as police officers gained entry to the museum through the back entrance. They tied up the two security guards, and, wearing masks, ran through the museum smashing glass and cutting priceless works of art from their frames. They then disappeared into the night without a trace and despite the local police, the FBI, investigative journalists, and even members of the mob making inquiries; there has been no trace of these paintings.

The heist is second on the FBI’s list of the longest unsolved art thefts in the world.

Amongst the stolen works was a priceless Rembrandt that is thought to be the most valuable work of art currently missing from any museum in the world.

Well almost all investigative techniques have been exhausted in the search for the missing paintings; the last one that both the FBI and the museum are relying on is the public. The hope is that by getting the word out in the press and social media, there will be a tip that will lead to the recovery of the paintings.

Oh, and did I mention that there is a $5 million reward for any tip that leads to the recovery of the works and a promise that the tipster will never be prosecuted!?

Here’s hoping that the reward money and Kurkjian’s book will help generate even more interest that will lead to the recovery of this missing piece of art history. 

The Three Graces: Nymphs, Goddesses & Symbols of Feminine Beauty

by Lindsay Shapka in ,

A familiar sight to students of art, and those who have visited any major museum, The Three Graces have been depicted in many different mediums since the ancient Greeks were carving them into stone.

Also known as Charities, they are shown as three eternally young, beautiful women gracefully dancing or gently frolicking while holding onto each other’s arms, hands, shoulders, necks or waists. They sometimes are seen to be holding vases, fruit, corn, roses or musical instruments as well. They are almost always nude, or draped in sheer fabrics, and the two outer figures face the viewer while the middle figure is facing away.

Meeting (The Three Graces), 1912, by Manierre Dawson at The MET in NYC

According to Greek mythology, they were supernatural nymphs and goddesses that were the daughters of Zeus and the sea nymph Eurynome. Their names were Aglaia, Thalia, and Euphrosyne, and they were the attendants of Aphrodite — the goddess of love and beauty.

They are considered to be the personifications of beauty, charm, and grace, inspiring others to seek wisdom, love, culture, creativity and generosity.

The image at the top of the post is an ancient Hellenistic sculpture that can be found in the sculpture gallery at the Louvre in Paris, and one of the most popular depictions can be seen in Botticelli’s famous painting Primavera

Dutch Paintings Held For Ransom In The Ukraine

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

The black market art world is a secretive and fascinating place.

Famous paintings, works that have been stolen, and pieces that the world has forgotten even existed change hands constantly in a series of underhanded deals and shady interactions. Interactions that usually go unnoticed by the public, unless the culprits are caught in the act, or a stolen item suddenly appears back in a museum or in an auction house. (Learn more about this world and the crazy characters that are a part of it in the books Loot and Hot Art). 

That's why I was surprised to see a major black market art transaction revealed in the news this week. A group of Dutch Golden Age paintings that were stolen from the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, Netherlands more than a decade ago are apparently being held for ransom by a far-right militia group in the Ukraine. According to sources, the museum revealed this information when the group (allegedly linked to the Ukrainian secret service and high-ranking political officials) approached them asking for 50 million euros in exchange for the 24 works that are worth about 10 million euros. 

When diplomatic negations and offers of a more reasonable ransom were rejected, the museum went public with the transaction, hoping that it would prevent other buyers from purchasing the paintings on the black market.

The paintings are an integral part of the Dutch artistic heritage and document an important part of the country's history. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Stay tuned for updates. 

What Is A Zine?

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

For the final project in my non-fiction writing class in university we had to create a zine. I found the process of taking a subject I was passionate about and pairing it down to meaningful, concise thoughts incredibly difficult, but also a really cool process. I also found it surprising how many people don't actually know what a zine is. 

A zine is a small, self-published work of text, images and/or art that is reproduced either by hand, by photocopier, or online (though print is still the most popular form). They usually make no profit and deal with topics that are too niche, personal or controversial for mainstream media. The design is usually rough, unique and unpolished, further supporting the unconventional topics they cover. Anyone can create a zine, and there are usually no more than 100 of them distributed. 

Ultimately, zines can be made of anything, be about anything, and be distributed just about anywhere. As long as the are communicating an idea, and someone out there is reading them, then they are doing what they were meant to. 

Mao, A Tea Cosy & Laughing Heads: Artist Chris Cran's Modern History

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

House Head, 2009; Red Man/Black Cartoon, 1990; Awake, 2009

Award-winning Canadian artist Chris Cran has his work displayed in private and public collections all over the world, and it's easy to see why. His painted work — which he has been creating prolifically for the last 40 years — takes traditional art genres and turns them on their head. Still-life, portraiture and landscape works suddenly become oversized, avant-garde works of brilliance.

Large Orange Laughing Woman, 1991; Large Green Laughing Man, 1990; Large Pink Laughing Man, 1991; Large Green Woman, 1991

Self-Portrait Just Two Maos Down from some Guy With a Goddamned Tea Cosy On His Head, 1985; Self-Portrait Watching a Man about to Shoot Himself In The Foot, 1985

The artist is clearly drawn to the Pop and Modernest movements which he uses to portray history in a pop-culture context that can be both hilarious and unsettling at the same time.