NBC New York Segment on Combating Looted Antiquities

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Last week, Wale Aliyu of NBC News 4 of New York City  presented his investigation showing what Homeland Security and law enforcement and prosecutors in New York are doing to combat looted art and antiquities and return these objects to their rightful owners. You can view the 2:40-second video via this link.

With so many places around the world currently experiencing political and military unrest or attempting to rebuild from recent events, this is a significant problem that show no signs of slowing down in the near future.

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Document Thief Sentenced in Buffalo History Museum Case

Last week, Daniel J. Witek was sentenced for his role in the theft of several documents from the Buffalo History Museum, bringing the case to a close more than four years after the crime was carried out. In May 2013, Witek, of Buffalo, New York, was arrested and charged with mail fraud after he attempted to sell materials in his possession to autograph dealers in New York City and New Jersey. The documents were stolen from the Buffalo History Museum’s A. Conger Goodyear papers. Goodyear, a Buffalo native, was a member of the industrialist Goodyear family and was among the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In the 2013 complaint, the US Attorney for the Western District of New York stated that Witek had been accused of stealing at least five historic documents from the Buffalo History Museum. According to another source from the time, it was closer to 40 documents. Witek then passed the documents off as his personal property and attempted to sell them to two dealers. One dealer was suspicious of the offer and contacted the Museum to confirm that the sale was not illicit. This contact alerted the Museum to the theft, leading to Witek’s arrest.

After the arraignment in 2013, not much news was made about the case for two years. Then, in September 2015, Witek was brought up on new charges of mail fraud and interstate transportation of stolen goods. In an interview with the Buffalo News earlier in 2015, Witek defended himself by pointing to the Museum’s past lost and missing items (this article contains a photo of Witek for reference).

Fast forward two years to this past July, when Witek pleaded guilty to one charge of mail fraud for stealing the Goodyear letters and attempting to sell them to dealers in New York and New Jersey. Four month later, on November 8, Witek was sentenced. While the maximum sentence for the mail fraud plea was 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the recommended sentence was incarceration for up to 10 months, although prsecutors were hoping for something closer to a three-years prison term. The judge ultimately opted to hand down a sentence of six months time served, two years probation, and a fine of $2,100 in restitution.

Among the most important lessons from this case is that it was the autograph dealer who brought this crime to light. Had the dealer been less knowledgeable, less suspicious, or had less scrupulous, Witek’s theft may never have been brought to the attention of the Buffalo History Museum. The relationship between dealers and collectors, on the one hand, and archives, libraries, and museums, on the other, is extremely important if we are to combat crimes against objects of enduring cultural value.

A second lesson for cultural heritage institutions is to be vigilant with employees and volunteers. As was reported at the National Conference on Cultural Property Protection earlier this month, 80% of theft in museums is committed by staff or those with whom the staff has placed confidence, such as a volunteer like Witek. We can assume the the number is similarly high for archives and libraries.

Wall Street Journal: Looted Antiquities Sold via Online Marketplaces

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece by Georgi Kantchev yesterday about the illicit sale of antiquities via sites like eBay, Amazon, and  Facebook. Wall Street Journal subscribers can read the article here. If you have access to the WSJ via ProQuest’s ABI/INFORM Collection, you can use this link. Artnet News, Jezebel, and others have been relaying the information in this story and adding commentary from other experts.

Among the more astonishing facts is that possibly 80% of the 100,000 objects for sale on-line everyday carry no evidence of provenance, which means that they are potentially looted or forgeries. It is up to the buyers of antiquities and other cultural heritage objects (including libraries, archives, and museums) to be vigilant and demand information about provenance.

For those interested in security in archives and libraries, this news is not surprising, although it makes it no less disheartening.

500-Year-Old Letter Written by Christopher Columbus Recently Found

A fifteenth-century letter written by Christopher Columbus was recently discovered in a private collection in the U.S.  The letter was stolen from the Vatican Apostolic Library in the early 1930s; a forgery has been living in the place of the original for around 90 years.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Robert Parsons, a private collector, bought the letter for $875,000 in 2004.  The Assistant U.S. Attorney found that Parsons purchased the document in good faith from a rare book dealer in New York.   

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The letter, written to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1493, Columbus’ royal patrons, describes one of his early expedition to the Americas.  It details his encounters with people from the different Caribbean Islands, as well as, his account of the landscapes, geography, and waterways.  It was later printed and published.  According to the court record, there are about 80 copies, the one in Parson’s collection was among the oldest, according to the New York Times.   

Pope Benedict XV acquired the letter in the 1920s.  It once belonged to Roman bibliophile Gian Francesco De Rossi.  In 1934, it was cataloged, according to The Telegraph, and was replaced by a fake around that time.  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security became aware that there was something questionable about the letter after Mr. Parson had it authenticated.   The Vatican was unaware that the document in their holding was a forgery until this year, and Mr. Parson did not know that his letter was stolen property when he purchased it, according to the court record.   

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The history surrounding this particular theft remains an enigma, even now after the letter has been returned to the Library.  This is the second instance where a stolen letter has been returned to the Vatican.  In 2016, a letter written by Christopher Columbus was returned to Rome after being found in the collection at the Library of Congress, according to the New York Times.   

The resurfacing of this letter comes at an interesting time in American history as cities across the States debate statues and landmarks which commemorate controversial historical figures and events, such as with the removing of Confederate statues.  The legacy of Columbus and his brutal conduct toward the people he encountered on his explorations subsequently has led to many discussions surrounding the removal of his statue and his name from landmarks.

 

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The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Santa Maria, flagship of Christopher Columbus.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-e978-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Christopher Columbus” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1777 – 1890. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-3c90-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99