Crimes Against Cultural Heritage Objects in the News

Recently, there have been three stories in the news that are of interest to those in the world of archives, libraries, museums, and related cultural institutions. They all touch on different aspects of security related to objects of enduring cultural value. All of these stories have appeared on the artnet news website (www.news.artnet.com) in the past week.

The first topic is the loss of cultural heritage during times of war. Alyssa Buffenstein at artnet chronicles the multitude of losses throughout Iraq and Syria attributed to ISIS. She provides details and links about the crimes committed against the ten certified cultural heritage cites in these countries. She also provide links to more information about the Alliance for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Zones of Conflict (ALIPH). The group, led by France and the United Arab Emirates, was founded in March and has so far raised $75.5 million from seven countries and an American Philanthropist for the protection of cultural heritage throughout the world.

The second topic is the forgery of cultural heritage objects. Simon Parkin at the Guardian wrote about a very interesting interview with Shaun Greenhalgh, an art forger who was arrested in 2006 and served four year in prison for his crimes. During his time in prison, Greenhalgh decided to write about his life as a way to keep himself so busy that other prisoners would not be able to ask him to do drawings for them. His writings have since become a book, A Forger’s Tale. In his book, Greenhalgh explains how he got into the business and how, since his release from prison, he has found a niche for himself legitimately reproducing masterpieces for television and other displays.

The final topic is the teaming up of scholars, cultural heritage institutions, and the police to catch criminals. An academic at Lund University in Sweden purchased a sixteenth-century Italian prayer book online. When he received the book, he found an ink stamp of the Royal Library of Turin on one of the pages. He contacted the Italian embassy in Sweden about this anomaly and after an investigation, the Italian Carabinieri art crimes squad found a book dealer in Turin involved in a crime ring specializing in the trade of books and artworks stolen from institutions throughout Italy.

Beyond this investigation, the Italian Carabinieri announced this week that they have recovered millions of dollars worth of paintings found in one villa near Turin. It was also announced that $100,000 worth of illegitimately exported artifacts were returned from a Manhattan Gallery back to Italy this past week. Since 2016, authorities in Turin have cracked down on the illicit trade in cultural heritage objects leading to the sequestration of 3,470 items. You can find more about the work of the Italian Carabinieri to protect cultural heritage in the Telegraph or on the artnet news site.

One-of-a-Kind Harry Potter Manuscript Stolen

An 800-word prequel to the Harry Potter series written on the front and back of an A5-sized postcard by J.K. Rowling has been stolen from its owner. The owner purchased the unique piece of Potter literature in 2008 for £25,000 at a charity auction benefiting Enlgish PEN. The theft, which seems to be incidental to a burglary of other valuables kept in the victim’s safes, occurred in Birmingham, UK, between April 13 and 24.

Since the theft was announced by West Midlands Police earlier today, J.K. Rowling has asked that people do not purchase the manuscript. The owner of the manuscript said his biggest fear is that opportunistic thieves will be more interested in the jewelry and other valuables stolen and will not realize the value of the small postcard, possibly discarding it as trash.

You can find more about this story from the Telegraph or BBC News.

Missing in Action: Libraries, Archives, and Rare Book Dealers Working with Each Other to Combat Theft

It is becoming increasingly beneficial to rely on our professional networks than to exist in silos when it comes to theft. I recently read articles in the New York Times and The Guardian which speak to the interconnectedness of our world, ‘We Are a Big Family’: Dealers Unite Against Thefts of Rare Books and Rare book experts join forces to stop tomb raiders British Library conference highlights rise in thefts from heritage libraries around the world, with tens of thousands of manuscripts missing.

Archivists, librarians, rare book dealers, and specialists from around the world have always been rightly concerned about this issue. Everyone is affected by the loss of an item, from the patron to the librarian or archivist to the rare book dealer who may unknowingly end up with the book in her collection.

nypl.digitalcollections.892afe6c-a708-a150-e040-e00a1806202c.001.rBecoming more connected can also build trust and obligation.  In 1997, there was a discussion on this topic in The Christian Science Monitor, which notes in Lessons on Catching Bandits of Rare Books: OFF-THE-SHELF SECURITY, “Dealers and collectors, who say the public probably doesn’t realize just how small their community is, have developed a system for notifying one another about missing works.”   Cultivating our relationships and networks could increasingly mitigate theft, which will help to minimize or perhaps one day halt the buying and selling of stolen cultural heritage materials.

Everything comes back to the foundations we build, beyond the safety of brick and mortar. Clearly, electronic book tags, bag checks, surveillance cameras, security meetings, among other policies and procedures can be effective, but, can also miss the mark. We must think past the usual to imagine new possibilities of securing our collections.

 

 

*Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “The very curious and wonderful picture book of Pagan history” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1890. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/892afe6c-a708-a150-e040-e00a1806202c

Stolen Abraham Lincoln Sculpture Returned to Kankakee County Museum

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Barnard’s Sculpture, from Kankakee Daily Journal

Last year, news was made when a sculpture of President Lincoln’s hand by George Grey Barnard was stolen from the Kankakee County Museum in Kankakee, Illinois. The SAA Issues and Advocacy blog published a post about various thefts of Lincolniana, including the theft of this sculpture. This crime highlights the difficulties that all cultural heritage institutions, but particularly smaller museums, libraries, and archives, have in balancing providing access to materials and protecting them from criminals.

Sometimes, stories of crimes in archives and museums have a nice resolution, and the story of Barnard’s sculpture is one such story. Fourteen months after the crime, it has been reported by the Kankakee Daily Journal that, on the 208th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (February 12), the sculpture was anonymously left at the Saint Rose of Lima Parish Church in Kankakee. It was then returned to the Kankakee County Museum, which, since the theft, has stepped up their security.

Read more on the CBS Chicago website or the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art blog.