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#TrophySkulls and genuine fakes

9 December 2019
A 2019 guide to art crime
From paintings looted by Nazis to human remains traded on Instagram, the Palgrave Handbook on Art Crime provides a peek into a mysterious world.

When it comes to art crime, fact regularly outshines fiction. As recently as 2012, for example, police seized 1280 artworks from the home of a man called Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich. At least 590 of them were suspected to have been looted by the Nazis. This is just one notable art crime explored in the new book, The Palgrave Handbook on Art Crime.

Co-edited by Duncan Chappell, Honorary Professor at Sydney Law School, and Saskia Hufnagel, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law at Queen Mary University of London, the book contains studies on art theft, fraud and forgeries, cultural heritage offences, and the related legal and ethical challenges.

The impetus for the book was the lack of research on the subject. “Though the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs were often plundered almost as soon as they had been sealed, art crime has only been given some global political and academic attention relatively recently,” Professor Chappell said.

Theft in the dark

In terms of art theft, for instance, there is still no official data, and laws remain indecisive. In the abovementioned Gurlitt case, for example, lawyers and the media debated “whether the state had a right to retain all 1280 paintings and whether the original owners could demand all or some of them to be returned,” Professor Chappell said.

In his chapter on art theft co-authored with Professor Kenneth Polk from the University of Melbourne, he had to rely on media and scholarly reports. These concluded that residential burglary is probably the most common mode of art theft, and, when thieves aren’t stealing for money, they’re doing so for pleasure.

Professor Chappell terms these individuals ‘gloaters’ and believes Nazi-stolen art keeper Cornelius Gurlitt could have been one. According to an author of a book about Gurlitt’s case, the artworks were “more than just possessions. He talked to them. They were a substitute for family, friends, lovers.”

The Palgrave Handbook on Art Crime

The book cover features an 'original' work by John Myatt. 

Don’t call them ‘fakes’

Professors Chappell and Polk don’t like to refer to ‘non-authentic art’ as ‘forgeries’ or ‘fakes’ because these terms suggest intent, and most instances of art copying are not deliberate. Despite this, “there are a few examples of true fraudulent intent among the instances of non-authentic art,” Professor Chappell said.

John Myatt’s case is one such example. Myatt became infamous in the 1990s for partnering with a conman to “exploit the archives of the upper echelons of the British art world to irrevocably legitimise the hundreds of pieces they forged, many of which are still considered genuine and hang in prominent museums and private collections today.” [1]

Professor Chappell and Dr Hufnagel, intrigued by Myatt, organised for him to speak at an academic workshop in London in 2017. From Monet and Modigliani to pop artist Lichtenstein, Myatt explained how he began copying artistic greats: an aristocratic couple commissioned him to replicate Raoul Dufy’s depictions of the South of France. They were then framed by the Queen’s framer, and Myatt received £250 for his efforts. Now, Myatt’s works, termed ‘genuine fakes’, are commissioned on that basis. Other such works are similarly lauded: the UK National Gallery has even held a ‘genuine fakes’ exhibition.

An Instagram post of a '#trophyskull'

Cultural heritage offences

Professor Chappell’s work on exploring the trade in human remains, which qualifies as a cultural heritage offence, involved an Instagram investigation. Together with international colleagues [2], he tracked relevant hashtags like #trophyskulls, #realbone and #humanbone over three two-month periods from late 2015 to early 2016.

They came across a significant number of ‘leftovers’ from around 1940-80, when human remains could be sourced legally and were widely available for sale to educational institutions. Nearly half of these listings comprised human skulls.

“A surprising number of uncleaned or unprepared specimens, including allegedly authentic “shrunken heads” and mummified remains, were also encountered. The total number of whole skeletons was also more than expected,” Professor Chappell said.

“We found that the most prominent demand countries are located in North America and Europe, while the specimens and artefacts themselves can be sourced from a wide range of countries in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and Oceania.

“People collected items for various reasons, including collection itself; educational purposes; as ‘macabre’ novelty items; and for ritualistic and religious purposes, like the Chöd healing rituals of Vajrayana Buddhism or the Afro-Cuban syncretic religion Palo Mayombe.”

Chappell added that the findings, which, to his knowledge, are the first of their kind, represent the tip of the cultural heritage offences iceberg.

[1] Salisbury and Sujo (2009).

[2] Damien Huffer and Nathan Charlton (Stockholm University); Brian F. Spatola (National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, USA).

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