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Christopher Hitchens on Lost and Stolen Art of Ancient Civilizations (2009)

  • Uploaded on 20 Jan 2014

    Art theft is usually for the purpose of resale or for ransom (sometimes called artnapping). Stolen art is sometimes used by criminals as collateral to secure loans. More Hitchens: https://www.amazon.com/gp/s...

    In the public sphere, Interpol, the FBI Art Crime Team led by special agent Robert King Wittman, London's Metropolitan Police, New York Police Department's special frauds squad and a number of other law enforcement agencies worldwide maintain "squads" dedicated to investigating thefts of this nature and recovering stolen works of art.

    According to Robert K. Wittman, a former FBI agent who led the Art Crime Team until his retirement in 2008, the unit is very small compared with similar law-enforcement units in Europe, and most art thefts investigated by the FBI involve agents at local offices who handle routine property theft. "Art and antiquity crime is tolerated, in part, because it is considered a victimless crime," Wittman said in 2010.

    Because antiquities are often regarded by the country of origin as national treasures, there are numerous cases where artworks (often displayed in the acquiring country for decades) have become the subject of highly charged and political controversy. One prominent example is the case of the Elgin Marbles, which were moved from Greece to the British Museum in 1816 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. Many different Greek governments have maintained that removal was tantamount to theft.

    Similar controversies have arisen over Etruscan, Aztec, and Italian artworks, with advocates of the originating countries generally alleging that the removal of artifacts is a pernicious form of cultural imperialism. Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History is engaged (as of November 2006) in talks with the government of Peru about possible repatriation of artifacts taken during the excavation of Machu Picchu by Yale's Hiram Bingham.

    In 2006, New York's Metropolitan Museum reached an agreement with Italy to return many disputed pieces. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles is also involved in a series of cases of this nature. The artwork in question is of Greek and ancient Italian origin. The museum agreed on November 20, 2006, to return 26 contested pieces to Italy. One of the Getty's signature pieces, a statue of the goddess Aphrodite, is the subject of particular scrutiny.

    From 1933 through the end of World War II, the Nazi regime maintained a policy of looting art for sale or for removal to museums in the Third Reich. Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, personally took charge of hundreds of valuable pieces, generally stolen from Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. Members of the families of the original owners of these artworks have, in many cases, persisted in claiming title to their pre-war property. In 2006, after a protracted court battle in the United States and Austria (see Republic of Austria v. Altmann), five paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt were returned to Maria Altmann, the niece of pre-war owner, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Two of the paintings were portraits of Altmann's aunt, Adele. The more famous of the two, the gold Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, was sold in 2006 by Altmann and her co-heirs to philanthropist Ronald Lauder for $135 million. At the time of the sale, it was the highest known price ever paid for a painting. The remaining four restituted paintings were later sold at Christie's New York for over $190 million. How to Steal a Million (1966), about the recovery from a Paris museum of a fake Cellini committed by the character's grandfather, before its discovery and exposure as such. Gambit (1966), starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine Once a Thief (1991), directed by John Woo, follows a trio of art-thieves in Hong Kong who stumble across a valuable cursed painting. Hudson Hawk (1991) centers on a cat burglar who is forced to steal Da Vinci works of art for a world domination plot. In the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, the title character is a stylish, debonair playboy who steals art for amusement rather than for the money (the earlier 1968 film arranges the theft of cash from banks, not art). In Entrapment (1999), an insurance agent is persuaded to join the world of art theft by an aging master thief. Ocean's Twelve (2004) involves the theft of four paintings (including Blue Dancers by Edgar Degas) and the main plot revolves around a competition to steal a Fabergé egg. The Maiden Heist (2009), three museum security guards who devise a plan to steal back the artworks to which they have become attached after they are transferred to another museum. Headhunters (2011), a corporate recruiter who doubles as an art thief sets out to steal a Rubens painting from one of his job prospects. Trance (2013)

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