Robbed or Deprived of Fine Art and Historical Artifacts, We All Die a Little

October 22, 2010

Lioness Attacking a Nubian, Ivory, (8th c. BC). One of thousands of artifacts still missing since the looting of the National Museum of Iraq , a masterpieces from museum's collection.

An article in the New York Times came to my attention recently. It noted that the looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins is rampant again.  With the withdrawal of U.S. troops, many sites known to contain priceless artifacts are being looted by thieves and opportunists who see profit, rather than cultural treasure buried in the sands surrounding Bagdad.  Ironically, former officials and employees of the Iraqi, State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, may be the very ones taking advantage of the vacuum in enforcement left by the coalition withdrawal, since they are most familiar with where opportunity lies, so to speak. The newly-installed government was to have a staff of 5000 protecting the artifacts of their national heritage, but, unfortunately, there are currently only 106 on the job; barely enough to guard the Ottoman-era mansion in their capital city, let alone keeping a watchful eye over a country the size of California.

Most of you recall the looting of Iraqi National Museum in the days following the American invasion in 2003, when thousands of objects, including many recognized world-wide for their beauty and historical relevance, disappeared into the alleyways and backrooms of collectors and black market traders.  Closing the barn door after the horse had run out, American authorities explained this atrocity as an oversight, based on the other priorities that occupied their attention at the time.  That may be a rational assessment, but it nevertheless, reflected poor planning, operational control and a misread on the deeply enduring cultural significance of this country, in spite of the corruption that had persisted there for generations.

The destruction and desecration of treasured artifacts is not new.  In fact, it has a long and illustrious history. Invading countries destroy and pillage one another’s precious possessions for two reasons: subjugation and profit.  Biblical records report the destruction of the Solomon’s Temple in Judea in 422 B.C. , before the Babylonians marched the Jews off to several hundred years of bondage in a foreign land. The Second Temple was subsequently destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. to drive home the point that they were in control of the Holy Land (the remaining foundation of that structure is now the Wailing Wall, a centerpiece of the Jewish faith).  But, from those early incidents, including the burning of libraries by Alexander the Great, to the pillaging of treasures by the troops on behalf of the royal sponsors of crusading Soldiers of the Cross during the medieval Holy Wars, to the bombing of churches and museums by both sides in the 20th century’s two world wars, or the razing of historic properties to make way for condominiums, destruction of historically-relevant symbols of our past has been a form of mind control that rivals any action a terrorist might dare in the heart of a large city today.

Alfred Sisley, The lane of Poplars at Moret (1890). Recently stolen from a French muesum

Theft of fine art continues to make headlines, even today. The removal of art and artifacts from their indigenous surroundings, or from the museums and homes that display them, is more a matter of greed and ego, than of spite and revenge.  With international data banks and global alert systems now in place, it would seem impossible that any notable work of art or object could successfully find a market.  Many of these works, though, find their way into the very private collections of wealthy, but obsessive megalomaniacs, or lie rolled up in foreign vault for decades, until finally discovered and being returned to their rightful owners.  It is common knowledge that if certain desirable Chinese Eastern Zhou or Tang artifacts, removed and packed up from freshly raided tombs in the countryside, can make their way to Shanghai or Hong Kong, they are safe from the intervention of local and regional authorities and can be expediently dispatched by the container-load to Western markets.  While Chinese nationals on that side of the Pacific and Native American activists here have both effectively curtailed certain kinds of vandalism and abuse of grave sites and other symbolically-rich cultural materials, and ultimately repatriated these objects, it is only a fairly recent phenomenon.

Through Western eyes, the destruction of Afghanistan’s, 1500-year old, 30-story tall carving of two Buddhas in the region of Bamiyan, north of Kabul, by the Taliban in 2001 was considered a travesty.  The rationale of the ruling mulahs: that there were no Buddhists left in the country and, in the eyes of the Islamic faith, any representation of the human form was considered idolatrous.  The world stood by helpless as these cliff-side figures were first fired at with artillery shells and eventually dynamited into oblivion.  In this case, should we respect the cultural values of the Afghanis or consider it an abuse of cultural stewardship?

Destruction of the 6th c. Bhuddas by the Taliban at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2001

And this was only one example of the obliteration of treasures which, by virtue of their longevity and high public profile, truly belong to the world.  Such destruction (while more public than most) occurs somewhere in the world every day.  In the name of corporate development, urban expansion, demands for water and oil and a seemingly insatiable desire to acquire-for-acquisition’s-sake, the jewels of our historical and cultural crowns are being traded away to the highest bidder or are falling prey to political and theological ambitions.

We must find the means to value and protect the legacy of our past…those ‘things’ that have been handed down, entrusted to us for safe-keeping.  These are not primitive objects or crude renderings of faces long departed. Often elegantly and skillfully rendered, these pieces serve as a collective consciousness for civilization as a whole.  Whether we parse the globe ethnically, socially, by religious or political preference, by gender, geographical latitude, heritage or family history, careful examination of the relics and artifacts of our past reveals a common theme:  humanity is bound together by a slender thread of shared and remarkably similar emotions and memories.  We must never relinquish these bonds to our history, even under the greatest objections; and with the knowledge that, once we turn our attention away from our heritage, it will imperil us all in ways we cannot possibly foresee.

By Richard Friswell, Publisher and Executive Editor

Strong Sales For Chinese Artists At Sotheby’s, Christie’s Auctions

October 20, 2010

Last weekend at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London, collectors indicated that the upward momentum we’ve seen in the prices of works by blue-chip Chinese artists at recent auctions continues to gain steam. At Christie’s Day Sale of Post-War and Contemporary Art, works by Zao Wou-Ki, Chen Zhen, and Wang Guangyi went well above high estimates. To put the Chinese sales into context, 100% of works by Chinese artists sold, compared to 66% of overall lots sold at the auction.

Chen Zhen’s work “Uninterrupted Voice” was particularly notable at this auction, selling for $386,483, more than double its high estimate of $160,100. Additionally, the performance of Wang Guangyi at Christie’s — as well as Sotheby’s — last week hints that Wang’s appeal among new collectors is growing…

To read the full article, please visit Jing Daily.

A World Without Borders: Cultural Diplomacy in a Global Environment

October 12, 2010

Our Best Hope

“Our best hope lies in our nascent arts. For if we are to be remembered merely as the people who lived, loved, made war and died; then it is for our arts that we must be remembered.  Captains and kings vanish. Great fortunes dissipate leaving hardly a trace.  Inherited morals, like inherited wealth disappear so rapidly, the multitudes flock away like locusts.  Walls and the records tumble and the leaders, too. The leaders too, are soon forgotten unless they have the wisdom and foresight to surround themselves with doers, poets—artifices of things of the mind and the heart.” -Maxwell Anderson (c. 1935)

Andy Warhol's, Marilyn, on display in Abu Dhabi

The words of this American dramatist and man-of-letters were penned more than a half-century ago and yet, they still resonate today.

Political divisions, economic challenges and regional conflicts are felt more acutely now than ever before, given our emerging presence as members of a global community.  In a recent symposium on cultural diplomacy, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, of Colorado, the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. and the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress, the theme of human values, finding common ground between and among cultures and cultivating a richer understanding of the human condition were explored.

Changing thought processes and attitudes is not an easy task.  The common language that binds all of humanity can be found in our modes of creative expression, however.  The task is to decide how best to deliver that message, as Americans, and how to shape the effort so it is not perceived as self-serving, but rather, invites an enthusiastic and equally well-intended reciprocal response from other countries.  The best and least politically-charged approach to this task, the conference presenters agreed, was through the private sector, where governmental influences are effectively removed, or at least distanced from the core message.

Author, Azar Nafisi. Photo by S.J. Staniski

American cultural diplomacy depends more on the arts than ever before. Consider the following facts: The U.S. military is the largest and most prominent instrument for outreach to the world; the Defense Department budget for U.S military bands is larger than the State Department budget for diplomatic initiatives, worldwide; the budget for the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and the humanities (NEH) is a mere 1% of the defense budget and shrinking in terms of real dollars every year; the book, Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson is required reading for all officers serving in Afghanistan, making the point that winning the hearts and minds of the people is the only real way to win a war with a thousand-year history of tribal rule and ethnic clashes.

Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), offers a refreshing perspective, as an Iranian-born woman who is now a U.S. citizen.   She suggests that memory is the basis for individual identity and collectively, for any culture or nation.  National memory spans generations and is not displaced by political or military repression.  The physical manifestation of those collective memories lies in its cultural artifacts: its art, architecture, literature and poetry.  Cultural memory is often ‘stored’ in repositories, called museums. But, in many countries, it can be a ubiquitous part of the national landscape.

Balanese Dancers

Nafisi suggests that a Culture of Imagination transcends borders; knows no gender, race, or religious bias.  Literature, for her, can serve as a universal language that offers a culture of recognition.  We discover ourselves in the reported lives of other people. Our struggles and dreams, desires and hopes are the same. Any government or established political institution cannot possibly reflect the complexity of its people and their beliefs. For example, she points out that the use of the phrase ‘the Muslim World’ is an empty term. The expression attempts to encapsulate geography of thousands of miles and dozens of countries, lumping countless sects and local religious communities into one meaningless, but emotionally-charged image for most Westerners.

So, for cultural diplomacy to serve as an effective alternative to bureaucratic interventions , non-governmental organizations must be prepared to reach out to other countries and cultures as equals, understanding that information flow is a two-way street; a sense of history (collective memory) and knowledge of the intellectual and artistic contributions of those nations is essential and that the world is increasingly ‘borderless’, with technology and economics becoming the great levelers of the playing field and equalizers when it comes to understanding the shift in U.S. supremacy on the world stage. Cultural outreach, including the arts, literature, music and theater becomes a key ingredient to assure ourselves as a nation that our lifestyle and values are represented in a way that neither threatens nor overwhelms, but that we meet our global neighbors and build bridges of understanding on equal and respectful terms. – Richard Friswell

Monthly Art Investment Ideas from Skate’s Art Market Research: October, 2010

October 4, 2010

Skate’s Art Investment Review

Welcome to the October issue of Skate’s Art Investment Review. In order to best use this publication, please note that our coverage is focused on the universe of 635 global artists whose artwork is represented in Skate’s Top-5000 list, which is comprised of the world’s most valuable art, based on auction prices. To learn more about Skate’s Top-5000 and the artworks and artists represented, go to

In this issue of Skate’s Art Investment Review we focus on the most important September results as well as on major upcoming Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions:

• 20th Century Chinese Art
• Contemporary Asian Art
• Fine Chinese Paintings
• Impressionist & Modern Art, Including Russian and Latin American Art
• Important Chinese Art: The Collection of a Parisian Connoisseur, Part II
• Contemporary Art Evening Auction
• Contemporary Art Day Auction
• Christie’s Postwar day and evening auctions

Click here to view the full article.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,612 other followers