The bad news is this : we’ve long lived in a world where art market specialists have been willing to turn a blind eye to looted, stolen, and downright fake art objects and no amount of reporting has so far sufficed to squelch or even discourage this.
No one needs to know that you didn’t care to find out for instance, that your Syrian artifacts came from jihadi terrorist looted Palmyra to your inventory via murder. At least that’s what ISIS Daesh seems to be counting on.
The Guardian’s recent story, about the heroic 82 year old scholar and conservator, Khaled al-Asaad, who was murdered for guarding Palmyra’s secreted treasures from Daesh points toward the art market’s indirect collusion in these crimes. Syrian officials, anticipating that the city would be captured, hid “hundreds of ancient statues” because they knew that “Isis was likely to be looking for portable, easily saleable items that are not registered.”
“Unesco warned last month that looting had been taking place on an “industrial scale”. Isis advertises its destruction of sites such as Nimrud in Iraq but says little about the way plundered antiquities help finance its activities. Stolen artifacts make up a significant stream of the group’s estimated multi-million dollar revenues, along with oil sales and straightforward taxation and extortion.”
In other words: those who will sack, pillage, and murder in order to capture items of cultural heritage are rewarded by an art market which stands to gain more by shrugging off questionable provenance than by carrying out simple due diligence.
Doubt it? Take a look at a less dire, but still disturbing tale told by Hyperallergic:
Artist Cal Lane shipped three boxes containing nine works to her gallery in Montreal, Art Mûr. When the UPS truck was stopped at the border, one box went missing and one of the works showed up as a lot in an online auction on MaxSold.
Informed that the goods on sale were the property of Cal Lane (an artist btw, with enough of a resume of shows and sales that she should have been researchable, the provenance of the loot, traceable), MaxSold did the decent thing, conducting a “buy back” and then reporting the stolen artwork. A trail from the (anonymous) seller sent authorities to AuctionMaxxx, which, according to Hyperallergic, “specializes in selling off wayward freight and items lost in shipping and transit.”
“However, AuctionMaxxx does not keep public records of past auctions available online, and has not responded to inquiries from Art Mûr and Hyperallergic regarding its procedures for verifying the provenance of items listed for sale on its site or the identity of the seller of Lane’s three prints in March.”
It should strike one that UPS did not do their duty, that MaxSold did not do their homework, and that AuctionMaxxx is a veritable black market.
And now the good news: global networks and digital connections don’t necessarily mean creating new roads for marauding terrorists or selling red hot items in a lawless and downright renegade online network. Nope: sometimes it means building awareness and harnessing the power of community to save cultural heritage.
So you had to know it was going to happen: crowdsourcing the conservation of cultural artifacts. But you didn’t guess the Vatican would be the very first to crowd-source giant projects like “the restoration and partial restitching of a French-style, 18th-century tapestry (costing $129,900) and the conservation of five painted 13th- and 14th-century scrolls by the Chinese calligrapher Zhao Yong ($140,975).”
“The app, called Patrum, is free to download and is “the first cultural institution app bringing together instant chat technology, crowdsource fundraising, and online community building”, says Juliana Biondo, the digital initiatives manager in the museums’ patrons office.”
What will your donations get you? Well, a $10 requested minimum donation will make you a “silver patron” while “gold patrons” i.e., those who individually cover the costs of entire restoration projects will “receive access to a direct messaging service to the patrons office curators,” Also, the app includes a tri-weekly news brief that will keep users abreast of the Vatican’s progress.