On being prepared…

Why does art suffer in wartime? Judge Tompkins[1] believes that several reasons for art suffering during wartime is due to: intentional destruction, collateral damage, plunder/booty, avarice, opportunism, religious fervour, cultural dominance, political advantage, dynastic possessiveness, megalomania, profit, bloody-mindedness, and ignorance.

Art is multifaceted: it performs, fulfils, and functions. Art might satisfy the function of private ownership, pleasure and prestige just as it illustrates the shared values that underpin a city-state, community, society or religion. Art can represent doctrinal teaching, glory and the reaffirmation of faith just as it can educate and speak to the greater populous. It can take on a propagandist role, representing the values that national rulers want to endorse and exercise. There are so many avenues for why art is destroyed, lost, damaged and stolen but what is being done to prevent these acts from taking place?

Figure 1: Risk management sign

Beneath the banner of disaster preparedness sit the following four categories: preventing, preparing, responding and recovering[2]. The concept of “risk” delineates that undesirable change may occur in context within museum collections or single collection, instigating the need to establish a risk management approach. In war being highly cautious of risks is essential to forming adequate means for minimizing potential for damage, but being ‘flexible’ in implementing change in procedure is also necessary[3]. So how do we record damage? How can we support the preservation and restoration of heritage under fire? What is being done to implement change and how can we help in the period of reconstruction? From these questions Waller[4] summarises the following four core considerations:

1. All potential risks to collections

2. The magnitude and scale has to be assessed

3. Mitigation strategies should then be identified

4. Concluding with evaluating strategy costs and benefits

A risk management approach should be common procedure in protecting cultural collections. A disaster plan not only acts as a procedural means for organising complexities, but also delineates where best to apply limited resources. Linking history, value with any current and/or outstanding social, environmental or political happenings in and around collections encourages a heightened sense of awareness. The result is proactive preparedness in the case of a disaster. By being aware of and prepared for any risk officials can respond quickly and succinctly to any sudden and potentially destructive scenario. The GICHD Bow Tie Analysis (see figure 2) is useful for analysing events that may have more than one possible cause that can lead to a range of consequences[5].

Figure 2: GICHD Bow Tie Analysis

Idlib museum in northwestern Syria presents a case study that stresses the need for having a plan in war. For many years Idlib was the stronghold of the Syrian resistance. However, in Spring 2015 museum workers were informed of an imminent onslaught of rebel fighters and immediately set to work safeguarding their collections. They moved the art and artefacts from highly visible exhibits into plastic crates, sealing the entire collection in several underground vaults. This mitigation strategy worked as a quick, failsafe option but the museum was unprepared for the scale of damage that was to about to occur. Within days the city of Idlib was overtaken by a coalition of dissident troops and during this time a barrel bomb struck the storeroom, exposing all the contents. Although anti-government forces refused museum staffers access to the bombsite, and despite the collections having been buried and sealed into walled rooms, it was later reported that the unprotected items were looted.

It is unknown the extent of the looting that took place in 2015, of which the greatest concern for Ayman Nabu[6] from the Syrian Idlib Antiquities Centre (IAC) were the missing 15, 000 cuneiform tablets. In 2016 Syria Direct published photographs taken at the rural headquarters of Jund al-Aqsa in the Idlib region, which clearly showed the museum’s plastic boxes filled with pottery shards in numbered bags[7]. Very few items plundered from Idlib museum resurfaced and, of those recovered, fewer still were returned to the IAC. With the fate of the remaining artefacts being largely unclear, alongside the evident lack of restitution taking place, Nabu[8] conveyed: ‘Unfortunately, under these circumstances the opposition areas have become a thriving black market for artefacts’.

Advisory panels have formulated in response to the illicitly trafficked art and artefacts flowing out of Syria. The bodies involved support proactive prevention, preparation, response and recovery. So what is being done to implement change and what shall be done to help in the period of reconstruction? In 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner Special Rapporteur placed cultural heritage destruction and cultural heritage protection firmly on the human right’s agenda[9]. Following this the 2017 Heritage for Peace report stressed that in times of armed conflict many people believe that it is not possible to prevent the destruction of sites on the ground[10]. However, the desire to protect what is there is motivated by a certain universal truth: that being proactive rather than reactive is more beneficial in the long-term.

Humanity as a whole has a stake in the cultural property of any given region. The Heritage for Peace report compiled by Leonardo Leckie, Emma Cunliffe, and Bastien Varoutsikos addresses the significant steps made with national and international support. When reviewing the Heritage for Peace report in 2017 the National and International Responses towards the Syrian crisis addressed seven core solutions to help assist in the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage.

  • Projects (such as restoration, looting prevention) and documentation initiatives
  • Awareness raising (conferences, exhibitions)
  • Laws, legislation and resolutions
  • Workshops, training and courses
  • Military operations
  • Publications (policies, reports, articles and maps)
  • General category

The seven solutions established by the 2017 Heritage for Peace report can be positively implemented towards safeguarding art in war. They address activities undertaken from the start of the crisis in March 2011 and suggest that ‘by continuing to look for ways to improve and increase international cooperation, it will make it easier to give practical help to Syrian individuals and groups’[11]. One such group that seeks to establish a core base of knowledge and systematic prioritisation of heritage protection is Shirin.

The Shirin International Protecting Syria Heritage initiative forms a global community of scholars who are active in the field of archaeology, art and history of the Ancient Near East. They are an example of an international enterprise that identifies cases in which emergency repairs and protective action may be required, based upon a comprehensive database of elements. By working with members who have experience and expertise of architectural and artefactual information Shirin aims actively support the establishment of inventories for relevant sites, buildings and museums in cooperation with Syrian authorities, international bodies and other NGOs[12]. They firmly stand to avoid situations like that at Idlib museum.

Figure 3: Bradshaw R 2018, Idlib museum throws open doors in defiance of threats, Al-Monitor, 31 August 2018, viewed 12 September 2019 from <https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/08/did-idlib-museum-open-too-early.html&gt;

Yet Shirin is not the only network set to mobilise locally, nationally and internationally in response to art crime in war. Other volunteer networks have helped recover looted items of cultural significance that were illicitly taken, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) being one[13]. Knowledge of the art market, how we archive information, and how we creatively and philosophically maintain the “human element” all contribute towards risk management. As indicated in Shirin’s approach, rigorous research around ethics, law and education can encourage practical and sustainable approaches to mitigating disaster preparedness and prevention if a catastrophe were to occur.

Centuries of war have stripped bare art, both instigator and victim in conflict. Art is a thing of beauty and prestige; an expression or realm according to aesthetic principles; the embodiment of an idea that has more than ordinary significance; a reinforcement or denigration of political or social independence; an employment or displacement of religious symbolism. It is a dangerous tool in war. To seize an artwork is to control, reinforce, and denigrate power. Therefore, museums should always be prepared. Cultural heritage is a unique type of public property and institutions housing significant items should thoroughly record their collections in order to support the preservation, restoration and repatriation of their heritage under fire.


[1] Tomkins A 2019, ‘Art in War’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 31 July 2019.

[2] Söderlund K 2000, Be Prepared Guidelines for Small Museums for Writing a Disaster Preparedness Plan, Commonwealth of Australia, Heritage Collections Council Project, p. 3.

[3] Ashley-Smith J 2002, 2003, ‘Sustainability and Precaution’ in Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation, Staniforth S (Eds.), The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, Paul Getty Trust, p. 360.

[4] Waller R R 1995, ‘Risk Management Applied to Preventive Conservation’ in Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation, Staniforth S (Eds.), The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, Paul Getty Trust, p. 327

[5] Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) 2015, Management of Residual Explosive Remnants of War (MORE), Geneva, Switzerland, p. 19

[6] Gibbon K F 2017, ‘Syrian Museum Wants Art Looted by Syrian Soldiers Back’ in Cultural Property News, 20 September 2017, viewed 4 August 2019 < https://culturalpropertynews.org/syrian-museum-wants-art-looted-by-syrian-soldiers-back/&gt;

[7] Hourani N, Nelson M 2016, ‘Some looted Idlib National Museum artifacts resurface, fate of others a mystery amidst ‘thriving black market trade’’ in Syria Direct, 18 October 2016, viewed 4 August 2019 < https://syriadirect.org/news/some-looted-idlib-national-museum-artifacts-resurface-fate-of-others-a-mystery-amidst-%E2%80%98thriving-black-market-trade%E2%80%99/&gt;

[8] Hourani N, Nelson M 2016, ‘Some looted Idlib National Museum artifacts resurface, fate of others a mystery amidst ‘thriving black market trade’’ in Syria Direct, 18 October 2016, viewed 4 August 2019 < https://syriadirect.org/news/some-looted-idlib-national-museum-artifacts-resurface-fate-of-others-a-mystery-amidst-%E2%80%98thriving-black-market-trade%E2%80%99/&gt;

[9] Heritage for Peace 2017, New Report: Cultural Heritage Groups Respond to the Syrian Crisis – Towards a Protection of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: A summary of the Natinoal and International Responses, Vol IV, 08 March 2017.

[10] Heritage for Peace 2017, New Report: Cultural Heritage Groups Respond to the Syrian Crisis – Towards a Protection of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: A summary of the Natinoal and International Responses, Vol IV, 08 March 2017.

[11] Heritage for Peace 2017, New Report: Cultural Heritage Groups Respond to the Syrian Crisis – Towards a Protection of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: A summary of the Natinoal and International Responses, Vol IV, 08 March 2017.

[12] Shirin 2019, Shirin, viewed 4 August <http://shirin-international.org/&gt;

[13] ARCA 2017, The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, viewed 4 August 2019 <http://www.artcrimeresearch.org/&gt;

Knowledge as a weapon

By Max van Steen

In December 1622 the Greek librarian Leo Allatius began organising his momentous journey from Heidelberg across the Alps into the heart of Catholic territory. He led almost 200 mules fully loaded with codices across the narrow mountain paths, transporting the greatest Humanist library ever assembled. It would take two years for the Bibliotheca Palatina to reach its final destination within the collosal Vatican library. Set in the context of the brutal Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the abduction of the Humanist Palatinate library from Protestant territory is widely interpreted as a symbolic slap in the face of the Protestant forces, taking away their most prized humanist texts and obliterating centuries of collecting a body of knowledge that explained and underpinned the rule of Protestant princes. Throughout history many examples of ‘knowledge thefts’ have been recorded. But if plotted on a grand arch of knowledge thievery beginning in the ancient world and running all the way up to the theft of intellectual property in contemporary society, what is the significance of this particular case of pillaging the Bibliotheca Palatina?

A Center of Humanism

Walking up the walled Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Way), the mighty Heidelberg castle across the Neckar river slowly emerges into view as a stark reminder of the town’s military prowess. Tracing its modern history to the 5th century AD, Heidelberg has been central to many conflicts and was conquered and destroyed multiple times. During the Middle Ages and Northern Renaissance, Heidelberg’s development has been tied up to its famous university and to the evolution of Humanist thought in Europe.

Figure 1: Historic views of Heidelberg, Germany, 1620

In 1386 Rupert I, elector Palatine, saw an opportunity to acquire a Papal bull in order to find Heidelberg university in the midst of the confusion resulting from The Great Schism of 1378, when two (and later three) popes simultaneously claimed to be the rightful heir to the holy Papal seat. At its creation the university included four faculties: philosophy, theology, jurisprudence and medicine. The university quickly grew into a renowned centre of learning in the area. Apart from this gradual  intellectual evolution, if you would put on your walking sandals and head north for about 80 kilometers you would reach Mainz, the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg and his movable type – invented around 1439 – which proved invaluable for the dissemination of scientific, philosophical and religious knowledge across Europe and for breaking the primacy of religious institutions in interpreting old wisdoms and holy texts.

Besides material conditions like the development of the printing press, philosophical development added to the challenge posed to the leading Catholic dogma at the time. Based on similar ideas developed earlier in Italy, Renaissance Humanism started flourishing north of the Alps from the second half of the 15th century onwards, later to be assimilated into the broader more powerful and religiously inspired school of thought championed by the Reformation. The main representatives of Humanism in the north were teachers like Rudolph Agricola, Johann Reuchlin and Desiderius Erasmus, who emphasized rationality and empiricism over the acceptance of pontifical scholasticism. A bit later on, Heidelberg university was central to the development of a full scale open rebellion against the church when Martin Luther was allowed to give the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. Here Luther began to have occasion to articulate his views for a wider audience. Intellectually speaking, Heidelberg was to grow into a hub for rebellious activity against Catholic faith.

Knowledge as a Weapon

The University Library kept growing in size throughout the 16th century. Eventually it was assembled into the Bibliotheca Palatina, and it became the grandest Humanist library of its time holding around 8500 books and manuscripts in 1622. The library itself became of symbolic value for the Calvinist princes ruling different areas within the Holy Roman Empire. The acquisition of knowledge was to become a demarcation between classes as a display of power and nobility.

Seen in this light, it comes as no surprise that the library was one of the primary booties taken from Heidelberg after the sack of the city in 1622 by Johan Tserclaes, the Count of Tilly. Tilly owed allegiance to the leader of the Catholic League, Maximilian I of Bavaria, who intended to bring the library to his home in Munich to extend his collection. Maximillian had to fend of emperor Ferdinand II’s claim to the spoils of the siege of Heidelberg. In his capacity as the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand attempted to wriggle the library from Maximilian’s possession to bring it to the centre of the empire in Vienna. Eventually Maximilian prevailed, only to be overruled by the newly elected Pope Gregory XV, who, in a seemingly offhand way, let Maximilian know that he would see the gift of the library as “an extraordinary proof of piety”[1], thereby laying claim to it in order to unite it with the books and manuscripts in the Vatican library. The threat and potency of dissenting knowledge is captured well by the Pope’s response to Maximilian’s gift, when Gregory XV stated that “the very fabric of heretical impiety could now be transformed into weapons of Catholic faith”[2].

Figure 2: Portrait of Pope Gregory XV (Alessandro Ludovisi, 1554-1623)

The transformation of knowledge into weapons, taken literally, had, of course, been practiced prodigiously before Gregory XV wrote his aggressive phrase. Take, for example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s pioneering work on the engineering of war machines and city defences. Perhaps Da Vinci himself was aware of the possibility that his ideas could be stolen as some of the weapons he designed in his notebooks had some obvious flaws that would prohibit their functioning[3]. Technological developments in weaponry had been a major concern for European warring parties in Medieval times, and advancements in this area were continuously tested on the battlefield. However, this purely practical and mechanical side of turning knowledge into weapons might not capture what Gregory XV was thinking about.

On a different reading, Gregory XV could be interpreted as alluding to the way in which knowledge of government, policy and warfare can be turned into military and cultural dominance. Most emblematic of this type of knowledge-weaponry is the work of Nicolò Macchiavelli, the Florentine diplomat and political theorist. In The Prince, and later more elaborately in The Discourses, Macchiavelli set out to analyse the politics and diplomacy of his day; he promoted republicanism, taught modern warfare techniques and gave advice to ambitious result-oriented rulers who wanted to make a mark during their lifetime[4]. Macchiavelli’s understanding of warfare, diplomacy and types of government could be used to gain importance as a ruler and decide on policy implementations. Perhaps Gregory XV wanted to use the knowledge of Palatinate library in this sense; theoretical knowledge about society can be turned  into a tool to take decisions in practical affairs.

Be this as it may, the most natural reading of Gregory’s wish to transform heretical impiety into weapons of Catholic faith may be found in the symbolic religious realm. Following this line of thought, one might argue that analysing the foundations of Protestant dissent may lead to a better understanding of it, thereby making it easier to attack Protestant teachings from a religious perspective. Perhaps in our current day and age it is difficult to imagine the ferocity of religious debate in Europe in the 17th century, as Christianity shaped the most fundamental ways in which reality and humanity were understood. The arguments in religious disputes matteredfor convincing the pious folk, and by gaining access to knowledge held by the enemy, one could devise a counterattack (or, as it turned out, a Counter-Reformation) which could tip the scales of power in one’s favour.

Apart from these three readings, the looting of the Biblioteca Palatina was clearly an attempt to destroy the intellectual heart of the Reformist movement. Not only were the codices and manuscripts taken;  documentation about the way in which these items were shelved was destroyed to make it much more difficult to recreate the library as it was before[5].  In this context, we should not forget to mention the symbolic importance of humiliating the enemy for the Catholic League. Furthermore, as Arthur Tompkins notes in his book Plundering Beauty, the Thirty Years’ War was a war of annihilation, intended to create a new world order and exterminate the enemy [6]. Thus, taking the library was not only about using its contents for the good of the Catholic cause. The pillaging of knowledge may simply have been inspired by the damage it would do to the other side[7].

Figure 3: Bookplate placed by the Vatican in books from the Palatine Library: the inscription reads ‘I am from the Library which, after the capture of
Heidelberg, Maximilian Duke of Bavaria . . . took as spoil and sent as a
trophy to Pope Gregory xv.’ (Tompkins 2018, p. 54)

The pillage of the Bibliotheca Palatina may have been a last chiming of the bells in the history of a particular kind of knowledge theft. With the advent of the printing press and the dispersion of knowledge attached to its development, the public role of religious, scientific and cultural knowledge changed rapidly. If carried out at a later time with the same intention, the theft of the library and the destruction of its shelving plans would have been seen as a completely futile attempt at putting a Reformist genie back in the Catholic bottle. However, within the context of the Thirty Years’ War, the looting of the Palatinate Library was extremely significant. The pillaging of knowledge was to be turned into a weapon of the Counter Reformation while at the same time it inspired later Protestant rulers to fight for their ideas. In this way, the looting of a library helped restructure the nature of European society.

Epilogue

In our current era the theft of knowledge has moved into the digital domain, with intellectual property rights violations and cyber attacks abound. The type of knowledge stolen is of immediate practical importance, be it to invent new weapons, gain a competitive market advantage or discredit another faction’s elections. The process of weaponizing knowledge has become much more efficient itself, and the prestige of a nation is not measured by the depth of its knowledge about phenomena, but rather by the way in which this knowledge can be turned into an achievement (take, for example, the space race). The theft of knowledge may have lost its symbolic dimension since the intellectual revolution that started with the discovery of the printing press and the advent of Humanism. Libraries containing mystical knowledge of times past have turned into data centers containing massive amounts of seemingly mundane information. However, as data gathering keeps growing as an integral part of a global capitalist enterprise, we find ourselves now facing the fact that stealing and manipulating data becomes one of the main ways in which rulers can influence the world.


[1] Tompkins A 2018, Plundering Beauty, A History of Art Crime during War, Lund Humphries, London, p. 53

[2] Tompkins A 2018, Plundering Beauty, A History of Art Crime during War, Lund Humphries, London, p.53

[3] Isaacson, W., (2018), Leonardo Da Vinci, The Biography, Spectrum, Utrecht

[4] Nederman C 2019, Nicolo Machiavelli, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford, viewed 06 August 2019 <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/&gt;

[5] Tompkins A 2018, Plundering Beauty, A History of Art Crime during War, Lund Humphries, London

[6] Tompkins A 2018, Plundering Beauty, A History of Art Crime during War, Lund Humphries, London, p.47

[7] Seen from this perspective, Gregory’s quote may have been a propagandistic attempt at providing meaning to an event which was not originally there and we should keep this in mind while taking the intentions of the Pope at face value when he claimed the library as a spoil of war.

No strings attached

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn has encouraged a plethora of pastiches that establish him as one of the most imitated painters in history. Early patron Constantijn Huygens once advised Rembrandt and his contemporary Jan Lievens to draw up an inventory of their paintings ‘by what plan and what judgement they constructed, ordered and worked out each item’[1]. He suggested that such a modest record would demonstrate, for the wonder and edification of all ages, the reasoning and judgment behind the planning, composition and execution of each artist’s collection. Had Rembrandt taken Haygens advice and kept a register of his works perhaps the later “Rembrandt paradigm” may never have taken place. As Crenshaw notes ‘had such a record been kept it would have rendered the present inquiry [concerning art fraud] redundant’. So, what can we glean from this rather insightful consideration?

Check your records and make sure they’re detailed, accurate and up-to-date!

The material descriptors for collections, sales and art historical catalogues acknowledge two criteria by which provenance is developed within the limits of ekphrasis and language: objective description and subjective judgement[2]. These points seek to address the issues of commercial outcome, documenting history and emulation. Every formulaic detail is saturated in significance, revealing the marks, codes and records that set the reception and meaning of a work of art. Such means of substantiation leaves the object’s itinerary and record of provenance a cachet for commodification and proof of authorship. In Marc Masurovsky’s class on ‘Provenance Research, Theory and Practice’, which specialised in Nazi looted art and artefacts, provenance became the “be all and end all” of a work’s proof of title.

Nowadays complete ignorance is non-existent; if you don’t do your homework on the object you’re about to purchase for your public/private collection then on your own head be it! When protocols are accurately followed then logging in an object’s details at every step of its journey – from point of extraction to current placement – should be common practice. Interestingly though, it seems looted art follows a different and less transparent criteria for acquisition.

Provenance isn’t state regulated. It’s up to the individual or institution to keep a work’s history up to date. But what is the procedure with objects that are connected with the Second Wold War? ‘Europe was’, as Masurovsky pictured plainly ‘a massive crime scene’[3]. The works of art “collected” during the Nazi regime passed like wildfire from the ERR- Task force Rosenberg to the Jeu de Paume, through Herrenchiemsee and other depots including the Fuhrerbau in Munich where works were slated for Hitler’s collection at the future Linz museum. So what has become the imperative for institutions and their dealings with these recycled heirlooms? And how can transactions made under duress, coercion and undue influence sway a case of restitution?

Figure 1: General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, accompanied by Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., inspect art treasures stolen by Germans and hidden in salt mine in Germany.

Here we draw upon the trump card of due diligence. Due diligence is the process of gathering/disclosing relevant and reliable information about a prospective sale, purchase, contract, etc. But what does due diligence have to with buying and trading works? According to Marinello and Hasler[4] ‘The answer falls somewhere between maintaining the markets integrity and mitigating risk within it’. Yet how does integrity and mitigating risk fit with Christie’s choice to overlook glaringly invalid paperwork attached to an Egyptian relic that sold for £4mil at auction on the 4th of July 2019?[5] The provenance information in this case should have been corroborated with further research and fact checking.

This research can take you to established archives, filing systems, libraries, catalogues, indexes, and representative inventories – anything that informs a work’s genesis and history. But how reliable are provenance claims? Authentic works held within private collections often have no documentation to support claims of authenticity. In contrast, other collectors hold significant provenance trails with no further research being conducted to explicate the accompanying names, dates and places – such was the case with A Nude by Moise Kisling[6]. And then we have supposedly “authentic” works amongst great wads of bogus provenance documentation – fake on fake! A recent example of serial provenance and art fraud in the United Kingdom, concerning Myatt (the artist) and Drewe (the dealer), best highlights the magnitude of influence that fake documentation has on the art market.

Over several years art dealer John Drewe ingratiated himself with major institutions such as the Tate, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art. He infiltrated their official records to include both digital and hardcopy provenance documentation, proving to prospective buyers that Myatt’s fraudulent Giacometti’s, Braque’s and Klee’s etc. were ‘genuine’[7]. Drewe’s thorough understanding of the art market informed his exploitation of the system, the result being ‘unlimited access’ to the very archives where the official records of European commercial galleries are stored; a “secure” home for countless works’ proof of derivation, yet all it took was ‘the skill of a painter, the hubris of a con man and the organised, planned co-operation of a team of lesser accomplices’ to successfully gain the trust of several prestigious galleries[8].

The case of Myatt and Drewe highlights the overwhelming power that provenance documentation bestows: evidence of ownership is a smokescreen discouraging responsible research and fact checking, instilling in the art market a false sense of hope and complete disregard for due diligence. In Australia, both James[9] and Polk[10] determine that trends in art crime and criminal justice regard the fraud and forgery of documentation as ‘more serious…than theft for dealers and individual artists’. For a work to enter the art market at its maximum value it is expected that secure documentation accompany it, and in most cases this does happen! But please always be careful and vigilant, and double-check the information provided – there are plenty of people out there who will use your trust in the system to their advantage.


[1] Crenshaw P 2013, ‘The Catalysis for Rembrandt’s Satire on Art Criticism’ in Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, Vol. 5, Iss. 2, p. 5

[2] Raux S 2012, ‘From Mariette to Joullain: provenance and value in Eighteenth-Century French Auction Catalogues’ in Feigenbaum G, Reist I (ed.), Provenance: An Alternate History of Art, Getty Research Institute, California, p. 88

[3] Masurovsky M 2019, ‘Provenance Research, Theory and Practice’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 01 July 2019.

[4] Marinello C A, Hasler J 2016, ‘What is Due Diligence? Making the Case for a More Responsible Art Market’ in Charney N (ed.) Art Crime: Terrorists, Tomb Raiders, Forgers and Thieves, Palgrave Macmillan, Macmillan Publishers Limited, Hampshire, England.

[5] Albertson L 2019, ‘Questions for Christie’s with Regards to its Upcoming Sale of the Quartzite Head of the Young Pharaoh Portrayed as the Ancient God Amun’ in ARCA blog, 3 July 2019, viewed 20 July 2019 <http://art-crime.blogspot.com/2019/07/questions-for-christies-with-regards-to.html&gt;

[6] Masurovsky M 2019, ‘A Nude by Moise Kisling’ in Plundered Art, 3 April 2019, viewed 20 July 2019 <https://plundered-art.blogspot.com/&gt;

[7] Chappell D, Polk K (unknown) ‘Fakers and Forgers, Deception and Dishonesty: An Exploration of the Murky World of Art Fraud’ in Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol. 10, No. 2, p. 400

[8] Nall S 2014, ‘An Australian Art Dealer’s Perspective on Art Crime’ in Chappell D, Hufnagel S (ed.) Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Company, Surrey, England, p. 102

[9] James M 2000, ‘Art Crime’ in Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, Ausrtalia

[10] Polk K, Aarons L, Alder C, Chappell D 2000, An Exploration of the Illegal Art Market o Australia, Criminology Research Council, Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne, p. i

Fingers: limp and sticky

In 212BC the Roman Republic sacked Syracuse. They plundered the city and returned to the capitol with a great big stash of Hellenistic art. According to Plutarch the reason why proconsul Marcellus brought these Greek statues and paintings back to Rome in the first place was to make ‘a visual impression of his triumph and also be an ornament for the city’ (Marcellus 21.1). Yet the sack of Syracuse did more than promote warfare and prettify Rome; it launched the Western world’s craze for collecting.

Proactive Romans gradually realised that they no longer needed to accumulate functional art in order to show off their wealth and erudition. What better way to boast about your sticky-fingered stake on art history than to lead your friends through a room bursting with the spoils of war? Marcus Agrippa even instigated what some would call a “promo museum” at the front of his house, inviting members of the elite to view his impressive Hellenistic horde[1]. As the rich collection of Greek masterpieces morphed into the urban scene of Rome so too developed a desire for a certain “cognitive” awareness in art analysis.

Therefore what happened at Syracuse in 212BC drove pleasure in conspicuous consumption to the fore, instigating the psychological impudence that has continued through to today. A “specialised” competent training, which has become fundamental to the attitude of connoisseurship, blossomed here. As Pollitt surmises in his research on the impact of Greek art on Rome: there is probably no aspect in this period that has a more modern ring, ‘All the familiar features of today’s market were there: passionate collectors, dealers (some unscrupulous, some reliable), smugglers, forgers, restorers, appraisers, fads and fashions, and inflated prices. All this emanated from the fact that upper class Romans who had once been free to seize Greek art were now content to buy it in order to adorn their townhouses and villas.’[2]

The level of proficiency required of an expert, whereby cognitive ability gives way to natural and automatic reflexes, takes several years of competent training[3]. Intuition is, as Ginzburg and Davin attest, ‘the elastic rigour…of the conjectural paradigm… It’s a matter of kinds of knowledge which tend to be unspoken, whose rules, as we have said, do not easily lend themselves to being formally articulated or even spoken aloud’[4]. Yet connoisseurship can also be seen to conserve the providence of the trained imagination and/or memory to better explain the means employed in a work of art. Art crime is scattered with stories of experts who “got it wrong’, and not just wrong, but terribly wrong’ but common law recognizes the need for experts to make judgment calls on matters of dispute – so where can we find a happy median? [5]

An interesting argument developed from this point in class a couple of weeks ago. By employing the criminologist’s “eye” to understand a crime scene we scoured the compositions of three works by Caravaggio. I’ll briefly describe our process, using the most ambiguous example to point out the flaws in art historical analysis.

Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew depicts Chapter 9, Verse 9, in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him ‘Follow me’, and Matthew rose and followed Him.’ Several art historians have further construed that the bearded man, third from the left, is Matthew – his limp finger pointed gently towards his chest, startled face illuminated by the radiant light pouring in from the right. This popular interpretation has been accepted, published and repeated time and time again but, as our lecturer Dr. Noah Charney purposed with raised brow, art historians often fall for Caravaggio’s so-called “red herrings”. By putting on our criminological specs and viewing the work with a critical eye our class arrived at an entirely different conclusion. I’ll talk you through it.

Figure 1: Caravaggio, 1599-1600, The Calling of St. Matthew

Take a look at the painting pictured above and visualise the dark interior of its surrounding context, the Contarelli Chapel. Imagine viewing the work from below, the nearest point of the work being the bottom left corner. This angle was specifically chosen to enhance the real and painted light that would amalgamate quite harmoniously, owing to the window’s architectural location within the Chapel (beyond the painting to the top right). Following the orthogonal line from a two-dimensional and three-dimensional plane the beam should direct you to the figure furthest from Christ: a hunched adolescent completely immersed in the glittering silver coins in front of him. Aha! Could it be…?

The next question we asked ourselves is: if Caravaggio’s language is visual, what elements align to symbolically identify this individual as the St. Matthew? Before his appointment into the apostolic club Matthew was a tax collector working in Capernaum. His sin, therefore, was greed. In fact all the apostles had sinful backgrounds prior to meeting the Son of God. Caravaggio would represent them with varying physiological differences before and after becoming the 12 Disciples – the most common attribute being the growth of a beard to indicate seasoned virtue. To summarise: limp fingers + orthogonal line + sun beams + hairless chin + obsession with money = are we looking at Mr. St. Matthew? If you need more proof then please take a good long look at our culprit’s hands: one appears to be sneaking a coin up his sleeve, whilst the other slips a coin into his vest pocket. Are you convinced? I’m sure equally conceivable arguments exist for the other bearded/non-bearded chaps, but I suppose that’s the point: it’s all up to interpretation.

In art crime the argument over what the connoisseur sees and how they make an attribution is also followed up with how they know they’re right. Quality and qualities lie at the core of subjective response – indeed, connoisseurship is a form of etiology: ‘the inference of an artefact’s spatial and temporal point of origin on the basis of morphological (“stylistic”) criteria’[6]. A recent debate between two prestigious representatives at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen presents this point perfectly. Ernst van de Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project and Museum curator Jeroen Giltaij expressed contradictory opinions when asked whether or not the painting Tobit and Anna should be attributed to artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Two short films verging on the comical capture the debate. The clips titled ‘Rembrandt? No, I don’t recognise him!’[7] and ‘Rembrandt? Yes, it has to be him!’[8], are accessible on Youtube.

Figure 4: Rembrandt, 1659, Tobit and Anna

Giltaij’s proclamation that Anna’s spinning wheel is ‘nothing more than a flat pancake’ contrasts Wetering’s report, which has him revering the wheel as ‘one big, beautiful, nicely painted blur’. Speaking on behalf of the Rembrandt Research Project he claims that this indication of movement typifies Rembrandt’s obsession with light and form within a space. ‘Forget the apparent crudeness of execution…the underlying vision of Rembrandt manipulating light and shade and form will always shine through if we are perceptive enough to recognise it’. So, who’s right? Both experts deploy their arguments in ways that can be seen to establish the very essence of what makes connoisseurship controversial: they are only looking for information that will positively feed a hypothesis. In this vein incorrect over-valuations of works occur because, hey, lots of people will benefit at the reach of a conclusion – just look at Salvator Mundi…is it a Da Vinci or isn’t it?

Therefore, what is the standard by which connoisseurship can overturn doubt and uncertainty in place of verifiable fact? This very question has been on the tips of tongues since the Romans pilfered Syracuse – but are we any closer to answering it?


[1] Charney N 2019, ‘Provenance Trap: Understanding the Modus Operandi of Art Forgers’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 25 June 2019.

[2] Pollitt J J 1978, ‘The Impact of Greek Art on Rome’ in Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014), Vol. 108, The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 162

[3] Ashley-Smith J 2016, ‘Losing the Edge: the Risk of a Decline in Practical Conservation Skills’ in Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 39, No. 2, p. 121.

[4] Ginzburg C, Davin A 1980, ‘Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method’ in History Workshop, Oxford University Press, No. 9, p. 28.

[5] Nall S 2014, ‘An Australian Art Dealer’s Perspective on Art Crime’ in (Eds.) Chappell D, Hufnagel S, Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Company, Surrey, England, p. 107.

[6] Neer R 2005, ‘Connoisseurship and the Stakes of Style’ in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 32, No. 1, Autumn 2005, p. 3.

[7] Museum Boijmans van Beuningen 2012, Rembrandt? No, I don’t recognise him! 20 March 2012, viewed 25 June 2019 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfE73puKbSU&gt;

[8] Museum Boijmans van Beuningen 2012, Rembrandt? Yes, it has to be him! 27 March 2012, viewed 25 June 2019 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJ6oX8XWDPk&gt;

The “violent crime” of a misconstrued Art Loss database

‘There’s something really beautiful about the word ‘lost’,’ Dr. Noah Charney mused in class today, ‘because it implies that an object can be found again.’[1] “Lost” is a blanket term covering artworks that have been destroyed to those that have not yet been found. (Clever forgers like Eric Hebborn actually try to produce lost artworks – the most consistent and functioning modus operandi of art criminals…but that’s a story for another day.) “Lost”s antonym, “extant”, denotes the existence of a work of art. This means that an artwork can be accounted for – even if it does not have public access. And from here we’ll Segway into the theme of today’s blog-post: the knotty world of art loss databases.

How the media shapes, or helps to reinforce, public perspective on art crime is influenced by the concept that art loss databases prompt public help in the recovery process of certain missing, looted or stolen items. Who wouldn’t want to get involved with bringing thieves to justice? But let’s first take a second to think about the clarity, obtainability and reliability of the information that is provided.  

Several national, international and transnational agencies like the London Stolen Arts Database (LSAD), INTERPOL and Lootedart.com provide online platforms that contain explicit information on current cases of missing, stolen and looted objects. Yet accessibility to this information is, in some cases, not immediately granted or attainable. For example, upon conducting a search via the Art Loss Register you will need to 1.) disclose your personal details (name, address, contact & etc.) and 2.) pay an access fee of £70.00. This takes place before you can even begin to search the database. Limited access can encourage disinterest, disinterest instils ignorance, and a combination of disinterest + ignorance = movement of Lilliputian significance in an art crime recovery process.

‘The spark of hope that one is on the trail of a lost artwork produces such a momentum that contradictory clues may be ignored and incongruous details overlooked.’[3] Here Charney explores connoisseurship as a form of art analysis, but in a similar sense art loss databases can also sometimes be [incredulously] inaccurate. Take the 2002 Van Gogh Museum theft for example – both artworks have since been recovered and yet, as ARCA CEO Lynda Albertson pointed out in her lecture on tracking stolen art, the FBI’s ‘Top Ten’ list currently advertises that one of the artworks is still “lost”.

(Please also note that crimes against art falls within the category of “Violent Crimes” on the FBI’s online archive. How is an art market professional supposed to begin a search for the Nativity with St. Lorenzo and St. Francisco by Caravaggio if the USA’s Federal Bureau of Investigation can’t differentiate between a lost painting and a machete stabbing?)

If the overall aim is to motivate due diligence and/or instigate an open line of inquiry then the limited information made available via these platforms needs to be correct. I understand that specific information, which can be used to single out an object under investigation, is removed/not included as a safety precaution but the remaining material – or ‘data designations’[4] – can’t be classified “verifiable” if there is no factual information to prove what is being published. Take the aforementioned painting the Nativity with St. Lorenzo and St. Francisco for example. This work was painted by a man born of the name Michelangelo Merisi in the town of Caravaggio [5]. Why then does the FBI’s database list the lost work as being that by the hand of Polidoro da Caravaggio, a by no means unskilled artist…but an artist who nonetheless died in 1543, 28 years prior to the correct Caravaggio being born?

What is needed is a standardised means of circulating data – and this brings us to Object ID (an international standard used for describing artistic objects in case of loss or theft). Can you imagine the same “copy-paste” version of verifiable fact being generated and disseminated across all platforms? Wouldn’t that be preferable to the vague, incorrect and misconstrued information currently on offer in some art loss databases? Object ID offers a way in which we can universally promote a positive exchange of intelligence. This can, in turn, lead to a more informed inquiry and push individual cases of art crime towards much-anticipated conclusions.

ICOM’s Object ID, conceived of the Getty Information Institute, successfully draws together the world museum community, the art and antiques trade, police and custom agencies, appraisers and the insurance industry. It defines nine categories for describing cultural and artistic artefacts in four easy steps[7].

The categories are…

  • Type of object
  • Materials and techniques
  • Measurement
  • Inscriptions and markings
  • Title
  • Subject
  • Date or period
  • Maker

And the steps…

  • Taking photographs of the object
  • Informing the above mentioned categories
  • Writing a short description including additional information
  • Keeping the constituted documentation in a secure place

It’s uncomplicated, practical…a failsafe means for connecting everyone across all platforms. Right! Now that we know how to gather information… who’s interested in clearing up the FBI’s art loss register?


[1] Charney N 2019, ‘Provenance Trap: Understanding the Modus Operandi of Art Forgers’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 25 June 2019.

[2] O’Keefe P J 2016, ‘Difficulties in Investigating Art Crime and Recovering Its Proceeds: An International Perspective’ in Chappell D, Hufnagel S (ed.), Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., England, pp. 151-167.

[3] Charney N 2015 Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers, Phaidon Press.

[4] Albertson L 2019, ‘Tracking Stolen Art: Progress, Prospects and Limitations of Databases for Stolen Art’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 03 June 2019.

[5] Harris J 2009, ‘Breaking News on the Stolen Caravaggio Nativity’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, viewed 03 June 2019, <http://art-crime.blogspot.com/2009/12/breaking-news-on-stolen-caravaggio.html>&nbsp;

[7] ICOM (unknown), Object ID, International Council of Museums, viewed 25 June 2019 from <https://icom.museum/en/activities/standards-guidelines/objectid/&gt;

The road to salvation

The XVI canto of Homer’s Iliad describes a touching episode of the Trojan War: the death of Sarpedon, son of Zeus and the king of the Lycians. This epic scene majestically drapes the surface of the infamous Euphronios krater, stolen in the 70’s from one of Cerveteri’s necropolis’ and reappearing years later on the squeaky-clean shelf of a New York museum. Here marks the moment when the vase first set foot on the road to salvation.

The story began with the illegal excavation of an Etruscan tomb in the area of ​​Greppe Sant’Angelo in the municipality of Cerveteri. When the tombaroli (tomb robbers) pulled the vase out of the ground they must have known they’d struck gold. The krater, large enough to hold seven galleons of liquid, was “thrown” by the potter Euxitheos and then decorated exquisitely by the painter Euphronios. Let me digress: Euphronios is one of two or three of the greatest masters in Greek vase painting. ‘His works are so rare that the last important piece before this one had been unearthed as long ago as 1840’[1]. Todeschini and Watson quote art historian Hovers in the following grandiloquent statement, ‘To call [the vase] an artifact is like referring to the Sistine Ceiling as a painting.’ A significant find? Uh, yes.

Having done the deed the tombaroili then got in touch with an important American merchant, the result of their exchange being 125 million lire – no questions asked[2]. The monstrous trail of ficticious provenance documentation grew tenfold as the Euphronios krater journeyed from Cerveteri to America via an extensive array of dealers and restorers to mega-rich collectors and red-handed museum officials. Here it underwent a number of unsuccessful sales before a scholar, who proposed himself as an intermediary for selling to the New York museum, generously took care of “the problem”. The vase sold for an extravagant US$1 million, the first time such a price was paid for an antiquity.[3] It was only when one of the tombaroli caught wind of the sale, realised he’d been slighted, and turned whistle-blower by allerting the appropriate authorities that the subsequent Carabinieri investigation unfolded.

If anyone is interested in this story and has not yet read the Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums, I suggest you get online and purchase a copy now. Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini have compiled a narrative that analyses the art market and its main players in all their multi-faceted, devastating glory. Each chapter reads like a journalistic article, thoroughly well researched and compelling, and together they interlock to present a tightly composed chain of events that unravel the workings of a well-oiled art crime machine. It is deliciously composed – I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in the underground antiquities market.

At this point you may be wondering how the “underground antiquities market” functions within Australia, or indeed how Australian legislation handles offences relating to art crime when compared to the Italians and their Carabinieri. Art crime covers ‘forgery and fraud, theft and extortion, money laundering, and document and identity fraud’ and yet Australia has no specialist art and cultural property investigation unit that deals with this rather expansive and complex “grey-area” in law[4]. Imagine coming across an otherwise reputable art dealer who is in the process of selling an ancient rock art tool that you know has come out of the Kimberley’s illegally. You can’t get in touch with an Australian “art fraud squad” because there isn’t one. So whom do you turn to?

To handle cases of art looting, loss and theft, Australians have to operate through one of nine different authorities, for example the Federal and State Police Services, the Interpol National Bureau, Austac & etc. These authorities are responsible for the investigation of crime, in its entirety, and thus operate with a combination of statute and common law. Traditional modes for investigation, such as interviewing the witnesses or obtaining statements, become ‘ineffective’ in cases of art crime because the investigatory trail ‘tends to lack documentary evidence, which conventional fraud inquiries rely upon’[5]. Hopefully I haven’t bored you with the details, but I believe it’s important that you know where we stand.

Figure 1: Me, photographed alongside the statue of two griffins gripping a fawn at L’Arte Di Slavare L’Arte in Rome

Let’s conclude today’s post with a round-trip back to the Euphronios krater. On Wednesday the 5th of June we took a class excursion into Rome for the L’Arte Di Salvare L’Arte exhibition at the Quirinal Palace. We were told the krater was on display here, amongst a number of other salvaged Italian heirlooms. Not quite comprehending the wonders promised, my jaw dropped rather comically upon entering the first room. We’d just walked into a trove of repatriated treasures. Stumbling past the only complete Triad Capitolina, stolen from the Tenuta dell’Inviolata in 1992; and the Il giardiniere by Vincent Van Gogh, stolen in 1998 from the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome; I came face to face with the pair of fourth century marble griffins, stolen from the tomb of Ascoli Satriano in 1976. The last time I saw this artefact was in a Polaroid photograph taken by the tombaroli, a shot that evidently showed the griffins stuffed haphazardly into the boot of a car – still encrusted with the residue of their recent earthy bed.

And, wide-eyed, we rounded the corner and arrived at the Euphronios krater standing stoically to the left in a room full of salvaged Etruscan relics.

The moment has been rather difficult to translate into words, so instead I’ll post a couple of pictures that best represent my impression of the matter. Image 1 depicts the “big fish”; the man who orchestrated the whole dirty, shameful transaction – from tombaroli to middlemen to the museum in New York – whilst all the while lounging comfortably in Corridor 17 at the Geneva Freeport. He stands triumphantly in front of an airtight American enclosure that houses the Euphronios krater in a land far, far away. The second has me standing with an even bigger grin on my face… a grin that comes from knowing full well that whatever this “big fish” instigated back in the 70s the krater eventually made its way back home, leaving behind a shattered reputation and an open, gaping hole in the criminal art market.


This article has been reposted on ARCA’s official blog. Please take a look: http://art-crime.blogspot.com/2019/06/a-look-at-art-crime-through-eyes-of.html

[1] Watson P, Todeschini C 2006, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums, Public Affairs, United States, p. ix.

[2] Ministry per i Beni e le Attività Culturali 2019, L’Arte di Salvare L’Arte. Frammenti di Storia d’Italia, museum pamphlet, Palazzo del Quirinale, Roma.

[3] Watson P, Todeschini C 2006, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums, Public Affairs, United States, p. ix.

[4] James M 2000, ‘Art Crime’ in Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, Ausrtalia, p. 1.

[5] James M 2000, ‘Art Crime’ in Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, Ausrtalia, p. 4.

But what is it?

What is value?

Let me make the distinction: I’m not asking “what things are valuable”, but instead “what is value”. How do we come by it; how do we measure it; and why do we seek it?

My name is Alexandra Taylor, George Alexander Foundation Fellow and budding conservator of paintings. This blog, ‘The Art of Value’, seeks to track my personal trajectory through the arena of art crime and cultural heritage protection. Disclaimer: by no means should everything I write be taken as the gospel truth! I will do my best to thoroughly research the topics I write about but if there are any gaps or errors in my research please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the ‘contact’ link above. Just keep in mind that I am no expert.

The level of proficiency required of an expert, whereby unconscious competence or higher performance in practice is natural/automatic, takes several years of competent training. If anyone requires further reading on the role of the conservator in professional practice I suggest you take a look at the ‘Novice to Expert’ scale set out by the Institute of Conservation (ICON)[1]. Clarification: I’m the “novice” in this scenario. This blog’s purpose is to enlighten/inspire others about the issues relating to art crime and cultural heritage protection… and also presents the perfect opportunity to reflect on my experiences with a likewise passionate and gloriously nerdy collection of cultural-heritage-enthusiasts.

So, without further ado, let’s return to the original query: what is value? Why is it so important for us to categorise things by degrees of importance, worth or usefulness? In doing so we’ve created a system of nature and terms to which we so desperately cleave. This idea is captured (far more intellectually) in an article written by J. Prescott Johnson who claims that in order to add value to something we must first recognise and judge against one of two factors: attribution or awareness[2]. Only by first understanding the relativism or absolutism of the thing itself can we then designate the appropriate response. In simpler terms, when something is desired – whether real or imaginary – we institute the state of value; value is the interest attitude. George Santayana likewise adopts the view, ‘Impulse makes value possible; and the value becomes actual when the impulse issues in processes that give it satisfaction and have conscious worth.’[3]

The context of my investigation is cultural heritage – specifically art. Art inspires vigorous response, particularly because assessing its value is an incredibly tricky business. As Amore jokingly contends, ‘It’s enough to give a tax accountant reason to choose another profession.’[4] The attribution of an artwork can metamorphose at the drop of a hat, simply by the discovery of an uncharacteristic brushstroke or incorrect pigment – and with it millions of dollars can disappear into the void. Take the painting ‘Salvador Mundi’ for example. How much of this work was actually created by the hand of Leonardo DaVinci? That very question has been in constant debate since the work’s discovery in 1958. ‘Salvador Mundi’ presents the ultimate conundrum; it was purchased for £45 and sold almost 60 years later for $450 million. Yet the true value of the work does not rest in its recently allotted monetary value – for no one is sure which figure is closer to the truth.

This is also a field where intrinsic value can be more important than dollar value. The crazy thing about art is that people care – oh so much – about it. To steal Santayana’s phrase art invites all manner of ‘conscious worth’, of human response, and for many it adds to the experience of being alive. This thirst for inspiration through artistic expression took me traipsing through the Sculptureum’s gardens and galleries in Matakana last week. There I came across a quote by the American sculptor Jeff Koons who beautifully surmised that art ‘…enriches the parameters of your life, the possibilities of being… That’s why people are involved with art’. (I found this sentimentality interesting, considering Koons’ ‘Balloon Dog’ sold for $58.4 million in 2013 – the highest price that had ever been paid for a work by a living artist.)

On a more somber note I suppose value is why the art trade ranks right up there with the distribution of illicit substances as being one of the world’s most unregulated trades. Our debt to Art, one of the ancient instigators of language, of culture, of consciousness, is oft times sadly misplaced – even tarnished. Throughout our shared history art has been looted, destroyed, interfered with and imitated over and over again for trifling and far less valuable things: money and status. In a plea for better awareness of the damage that art crime incurs and the importance of protecting our heritage from those whose greed overrides integrity, let’s focus on further comprehending this thing that drives us all – this thing we must henceforth dub the art of value.


Figure 1: Travelling companions

[1] Ashley-Smith J (2016), ‘Losing the Edge: the Risk of a Decline in Practical Conservation Skills’ in Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 119-132.

[2] Johnson J P (unknown) What is Value? Sourced 09-05-19 from <https://department.monm.edu/history/faculty_forum/johnson_what_is_value.htm&gt;

[3] Santayana G (1906), The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, p. 223.

[4] Amore A (2019), How much is a Rembrandt Worth? And Why It Matters in the Presidential Campaign, Authentication in Art, 15-05-19, AiA News-Service.