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Theft! Forgery! Murder!: Art History’s Greatest Crimes

Bank Robber Aiming at Security Camera, Cleveland, Ohio, March 8, 1975, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition "Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play," on view until July 31.

Bank Robber Aiming at Security Camera, Cleveland, Ohio, March 8, 1975, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,” on view until July 31.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL (UPI)/THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK, TWENTIETH-CENTURY PHOTOGRAPHY FUND, 2015

From the earliest moments of recorded civilization there have been instances of art being the subject of violence, theft, and destruction. Art and crime will forever be linked, and this should come as no surprise—art is a powerful tool for ideologies, religions, and, to be sure, renegade merchants looking to make a quick buck.

We’ve devoted our summer issue this year to the theme of crime in the art world, and over the course of the next month we’ll be publishing its contents online. Last week we kicked things off with M. H. Miller’s report on the forgery trials of Knoedler & Co. This week we’re looking at the most notorious art crimes throughout history. The timeline below offers a brief, idiosyncratic view of some of these evil deeds and misguided swindles, encompassing not only the glamorous heists that are the subject of many Hollywood films (more on that in our film column in the current issue, which will appear online later in May), but also iconoclasm, plunder, and the wholesale annihilation of art for political gain. ARTnews, being over a century old, has covered its share of art crimes firsthand. Click here for a selection of crime-related stories from our archives.

1350 B.C.

PHARAOH AKHENATEN ORDERS THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL AMUN ARTIFACTS

A statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten from his Aten Temple at Karnak, now at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. GÉRARD DUCHER/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten from his Aten Temple at Karnak, now at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

GÉRARD DUCHER/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

There are two things for which Pharaoh Akhenaten, née Amenhotep IV, is best known almost 3,500 years after his short, tumultuous reign: being the husband of Nefertiti, whose famous bust has earned her the title of most beautiful woman who ever lived; and instituting a heretical monotheistic religion that brought about the first instance of iconoclasm in recorded history. Next to Osiris, the god of the underworld, Amun-Ra was the most invoked and recorded of the Ancient Egyptian gods, beginning with the dynasty of Ahmose I in the mid-16th century B.C. This is the religious climate that Amenhotep IV (whose name meant “Amun is content”) entered when he assumed the throne of Egypt, circa 1353 B.C. Along with members of the nobility, priests were second in command, and Amenhotep was wary of their power.

In the third year of his reign, he ordered the construction of a gigantic temple just east of the Great Temple of Amun in Karnak to honor the new god of his choice: Aten, god of the sun. In the fifth year, he settled on a representative image of a solar disk and changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning “agreeable to the sun disk.” To fortify his domain, he abandoned the traditional Egyptian capital at Thebes and established a new city 200 miles away, along the Nile River but still surrounded by desert. He called this city, which is located at the site of present-day Tell el-Amarna, Akhetaten (“horizon of the Aten”).

This was all highly unusual. Ancient Egyptians traditionally communed with the divine through individual worship, through priests, and through their pharaoh. And while pharaohs were considered to be representations of gods in human form, no pharaoh had ever declared himself to be the people’s sole channel of divine communication, as Akhenaten had. Additionally, Ancient Egyptians, used to an entire pantheon, found their lone new god to be wholly inscrutable. Aten was sorely lacking an origin story, and was depicted by an inanimate object—a sun disk—rather than the usual, more sympathetic amalgams of human and animal forms.

Not unlike the iconoclasms that occurred millennia later with the rise of Protestantism, Akhenaten’s efforts to convert Egypt inevitably led to the destruction of significant works of ancient art and architecture. He ordered that the word “gods” be made singular throughout the kingdom, eradicated the name Amun entirely, and commanded artists to replace depictions of Osiris with images of Aten. (Though Akhenaten is credited with instituting history’s first example of monotheism, it would be more accurate to call his worship of Aten a form of monolatry, which involves the worship of one god above all others.) The few temples of Amun that he did not destroy remained shuttered until after his death. Perhaps worst of all, Akhenaten decreed that correct worship of Aten involved long, uninterrupted periods of sunbathing. As such, Egyptians roasted inside the new, roofless structures he erected to replace the old.

From an art-historical standpoint, one positive outcome of Akhenaten’s reign was the emergence of the Amarna style, an artistic and architectural style popular during and just after his 16-year tenure as pharaoh. Supposedly championed by Akhenaten himself—he was known to have a keen interest in art, and he had an obvious need for some fresh propaganda—this new style flouted traditional constraints of portraiture. Instead of stolid, symmetrical, and front-facing forms, the royal family was depicted in surprisingly modern-looking, naturalistic profile, with spindly limbs, distended stomachs, large hips, extremely slender necks, slanted eyes, egg-shaped heads, and prognathous jaws, captured in medias res of everyday activities.

After Akhenaten’s death, circa 1334 B.C., the kingdom reverted back to its polytheistic roots. Temples that narrowly avoided demolition once again hosted worshippers of Amun. As a final act of tragic irony, priests of Amun later convinced Akhenaten’s young son—the pharaoh popularly remembered as King Tut—to change his name from Tutankhaten, meaning “the living image of Aten,” to Tutankhamun, which translates to “the living image of Amun.”
Hannah Ghorashi

587 B.C.

NEBUCHADNEZZAR SACKS JERUSALEM, DESTROYING THE TEMPLE OF SOLOMON AND MANY ARTIFACTS

A.D. 324

USING MONUMENTS PLUNDERED FROM CONQUERED LOCALES TO FINANCE HIS CAMPAIGN, CONSTANTINE SEIZES BYZANTIUM AND CHRISTENS THE CITY IN HIS NAME

726

THE FIRST BYZANTINE ICONOCLASM, WHICH INVOLVED THE DESTRUCTION OF RELIGIOUS IMAGES, BEGINS

960

AS EARLY AS THE SONG DYNASTY (960–1280), STUDENTS IN CHINA BEGIN IMITATING THE MASTERS BY FORGING PAINTINGS

1473

PANELS FROM A HANS MEMLING ALTARPIECE ARE STOLEN BY POLISH PIRATES WHILE IN TRANSIT TO FLORENCE IN THE FIRST RECORDED ART HEIST IN WESTERN HISTORY

Hans Memling's Last Judgement, ca. late 1460s. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Hans Memling’s Last Judgement, ca. late 1460s.

VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

1476

LEONARDO DA VINCI IS CHARGED, ALONG WITH FOUR OTHERS, WITH SODOMIZING THE MODEL JACOPO SALTARELLI

1606

CARAVAGGIO MURDERS RANUCCIO TOMASSONI AND FLEES TO NAPLES

Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598–99. PUBLIC DOMAIN/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598–99.

PUBLIC DOMAIN/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A woman yanks a man’s head back by his hair and lets blood spurt out from a gash in his throat. This is not an image from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, but rather the subject matter for Caravaggio’s painting Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99), which, in more ways than one, typifies the Italian Baroque painter’s career. It highlights Caravaggio’s love of dramatic, sleazy subject matter; it also shows just how attached to violence he was. In 1606, nearly seven years after Caravaggio finished that painting, the Papal State put out a bando capitale, or a death warrant of sorts, for the artist after he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, a Roman pimp.

The way it went down sounds like something out of a Baroque painting: Caravaggio stabbed Tomassoni in the femoral artery after accidentally missing his testicles, causing Tomassoni to bleed out. This was hardly the first time an encounter with Caravaggio had ended in violence. A few years before, he had stalked a young painter who had insulted him, later stabbing the painter to make a point. (The wounds were not fatal.) In a separate incident, a waiter debated with Caravaggio, so he smashed a plate into the waiter’s mouth. There was no reason not to suspect that, in due time, Caravaggio would kill someone.

The circumstances surrounding Tomassoni’s death remain murky. Until recently, because Tomassoni was stabbed near a tennis court, urban legend had it that Caravaggio killed him during a fight over the results of a game. But, in a 2002 BBC documentary titled Who Killed Caravaggio? art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon used Vatican and Roman State documents to prove that the death had been brought on by a spat over something else entirely—a romantic interest.

Four years before finishing Judith Beheading Holfernes, Caravaggio was commissioned by a nobleman to paint Portrait of a Courtesan (1597), in which a woman dressed in 16th-century clothing holds an orange blossom to her breast. (The painting has since been destroyed.) The model for the portrait was Fillide Melandroni, a prostitute who reported to Tomassoni, and who is rumored to have been, at one point, in a relationship with him. Caravaggio was also reportedly enamored of her, which would explain why, in the portrait, she’s painted as the Roman goddess Flora. “Judging by the way he painted her, Caravaggio had clearly succumbed to her sexual charms,” Graham-Dixon told the Telegraph shortly before his documentary aired.

This may have been written out of history because it doesn’t fit with the narrative that Caravaggio was homosexual—his paintings often feature half-naked muscular men, and Derek Jarman’s 1986 film Caravaggio even uses the painter’s sexuality to explore identity politics. And yet, “he had an eye for male beauty, but he probably swung both ways,” Graham-Dixon said in the Telegraph interview. But why did Caravaggio kill Tomassoni and commit so many other acts of violence? In his 1998 book M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, which has since been re-published in several other editions, Peter Robb suggests that the painter wanted “to be his own man, create his own life and project his own vision of the world”—and this was exactly what Caravaggio did after fleeing the scene of the crime.

The same year he killed Tomassoni, Caravaggio left for Naples, where he successfully found patrons and continued to paint. No more than nine months later, however, he relocated again, this time to Malta, where he still received commissions. In the last years of his life, Caravaggio moved back and forth between Naples and Sicily, where he died, through relatively less violent means than his victim. The cause of death was lead poisoning, from the artist’s own paints.
Alex Greenberger

1794

HENRI GRÉGOIRE COINS THE TERM “VANDALISM” IN RESPONSE TO THE DESTRUCTION OF CHRISTIAN MONUMENTS DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

1797

NAPOLEON TAKES OVER OWNERSHIP OF FOUR BRONZE HORSES FIRST STOLEN BY EMPEROR CONSTANTINE, AND MOUNTS THEM ATOP THE ARC DE TRIOMPHE IN PARIS

1843

ARTIST RICHARD DADD, HAVING DESCENDED INTO MADNESS, DECIDES THAT HIS FATHER IS THE DEVIL AND STABS HIM TO DEATH

Henry Hering's photograph of Richard Dadd, ca. 1856. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Henry Hering’s photograph of Richard Dadd, ca. 1856.

VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

1876

ADAM WORTH STEALS A THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH PORTRAIT OF GEORGIANA, THE DUCHESS OF DEVONSHIRE, EN ROUTE TO BECOMING THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS CRIMINAL

1911

AN UNEMPLOYED NAVY COOK TRIES, AND FAILS, TO CUT REMBRANDT VAN RIJN’S NIGHT WATCH (1642) WITH A KNIFE

1911

VINCENZO PERUGGIA STEALS THE MONA LISA

Vincenzo Peruggia’s mug shot from 1909. VIRGIL FILMS, LLC

Vincenzo Peruggia’s mug shot from 1909.

VIRGIL FILMS, LLC

The 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa seems to be a magnet for myths. The most popular range from claiming the heist as the source of the painting’s frame to saying the robbery was part of a larger ruse orchestrated by mastermind Eduardo de Valfierno, who intended to have the painting copied by French forger Yves Chaudron (a hypothesis that first appeared in a 1932 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, but is now largely rejected). The real story is far less cinematic, but perhaps more lyrical, than lore suggests. An Italian nationalist and former employee at the Louvre, Vincenzo Peruggia, lifted the painting for so-called patriotic reasons on a quiet Monday, when the museum was closed.

Peruggia (dressed in his old Louvre uniform) entered the museum through the backdoor, took the Mona Lisa off the wall, retreated to a nearby service stairwell, and stripped the painting of its frame and glass case (which he himself had installed). After an incident with the locked escape door, remedied by an in-house plumber dressed in the same museum-mandated smock, Peruggia made his way back to his Paris apartment via taxi—the painting under his arm, wrapped in an overcoat. No one registered the Mona Lisa’s absence until the following Tuesday, when Louis Béroud, a Sunday painter, visited the museum to sketch the work. Entering the Salon Carré and noticing the four, bare iron hooks on which the piece was previously hung, Béroud asked a guard when the painting would be returned. (During this period, the Louvre’s photographers took many works off the walls for archival purposes, without written documentation.) The guard went off to investigate, but came back stupefied. The Mona Lisa was missing.

The Louvre closed for a week. Newspapers were abuzz. Commenting to the New York Times, the assistant curator at the museum, Monsieur Bénédite, said: “Why the theft was committed is a mystery to me, as I consider the picture valueless in the hands of a private individual.” Peruggia, still in Paris, was keeping the painting on his kitchen table. A year later, the museum hung a Raphael in the Mona Lisa’s place. On November 29, 1912, Alfredo Geri, a Florentine art dealer, received a letter from a certain “Leonardo” in Paris, according to historian Patricia Daniels. The letter read: “The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy because its painter is Italian.” After a brief exchange, it was decided that Peruggia would bring the work in. Eleven days later, he walked into Geri’s shop, empty-handed but with a proposition: Italy could have the work back for 500,000 lire, to cover what “Leonardo” termed “expenses.”

Skeptical, Geri brought the director of the Uffizi Gallery, Giovanni Poggi, with him to Peruggia’s hotel room (just blocks away from the dealer’s shop) to authenticate the work. Seeing the signature on the back, the two took the piece to Poggi’s gallery. Within the hour, the police had arrived at Peruggia’s. Unfortunately for Peruggia, who had prior convictions for small crimes in Paris, he had left a fingerprint on the wall of the Louvre next to the piece. His criminal profile matched his print, and the thief was detained until his trial, scheduled for June 4, 1914, in Florence. During the trial, Peruggia claimed the work had been stolen by Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars. This was false. In fact, Leonardo had given the piece to King Francis I some 250 years prior. Because of the political ethos of the time (Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated during the legal proceedings), the court was relatively sympathetic to Peruggia, sentencing him to one year and 15 days in prison. Seven months into this term, he was released, lauded by Italy as a national hero.
Ella Coon

1912

EGON SCHIELE IS ARRESTED FOR ALLEGEDLY SEDUCING A MINOR WITH HIS DRAWINGS OF NUDE PROSTITUTES

1914

SUFFRAGETTE MARY RICHARDSON USES A MEAT CLEAVER TO SLASH DIEGO VELÁZQUEZ’S NUDE THE TOILET OF VENUS (“THE ROKEBY VENUS,” 1647–51)

Diego Velázquez’s The Toilet Of Venus (“The Rokeby Venus,” 1647–51). VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Diego Velázquez’s The Toilet Of Venus (“The Rokeby Venus,” 1647–51).

VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

1939

OTTO DIX IS ACCUSED OF PLOTTING TO KILL HITLER

Adolf Hitler in 1937. BUNDESARCHIV, BILD 183-S33882/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Adolf Hitler in 1937.

BUNDESARCHIV, BILD 183-S33882/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In 1939 Manfred von Killinger, the minister-president of Saxony, wrote, “Is the swine still alive, then?” The swine in question was the German painter Otto Dix, who had recently been arrested in connection with a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately for von Killinger, Dix, who was innocent of such conspiring, was very much alive. Although no other artists have ever been accused of trying to kill Hitler, many more were persecuted for what the Nazis believed were crimes against art. With the rise of the Nazis came a backlash against modernism, which, with its graphic sexual imagery and inspirations from African art, was believed to have gone against German values. A crisis ensued for artists like Dix. How could German modernists continue to create art when their country was censoring their work?

Even before the Nazis came to power, Dix was causing controversy. In 1924 he produced a series of antiwar etchings titled “Der Krieg” (The War), made in response to the artist’s experience fighting in World War I. The Neue Sachlichkeit painter had also been working on portraits critical of the bourgeoisie and its twisted behaviors, often distorting his subjects until they looked more like monsters than middle-class Germans. Unabashedly sexual and sometimes controversial, Dix’s paintings even landed him in court in 1923, when he was brought up on obscenity charges for an image of a half-nude woman looking into a mirror and seeing an older, wretched version of herself. But Dix achieved popularity, both in Germany and abroad, and by 1933 he was teaching at the Dresden Academy of Arts. But shortly thereafter, under a new provision that allowed the Nazis to intervene in arts institutions, Dix lost his job.

In 1937 the Nazis put on an exhibition called “Entartete Kunst,” or “Degenerate Art.” Held in Munich in July, the show highlighted art that, according to a guidebook, featured “barbarism of representation…the progressive collapse of sensitivity to form and color, the conscious regard for the basics of technique…and the total stupidity of the choice of subject matter.” Work by Dadaists, German Expressionists, Surrealists, and others was targeted—Dix’s art was seen as “painted sabotage of national defense.” An estimated 36,000 people saw the show by late August; it was later extended to meet popular demand.

By this time, Dix had ceased painting portraits in favor of landscapes and allegories, which he hoped would keep him out of trouble. But he was aware that these, too, would be scandalous. They were still politically inflamed. One even features Hitler as a personified form of Envy. It was probably paintings such as these that led to Dix’s arrest. The Nazis could find nothing incriminating, and when he was released, Dix went to the countryside and continued to paint landscapes. Even there, however, he couldn’t avoid what was happening in his country—in 1945 he was taken as a prisoner to Colmar, where he remained until the end of World War II. In 1991, three decades after Dix died, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art revisited the censorship of Dix and other German artists’ work with a show called “Degenerate Art.” The show’s curator, Stephanie Barron, highlighted how familiar this was at a time when the NEA was defunding controversial art. “Perhaps after a serious look at events that unfolded over half a century ago in Germany,” Barron wrote in the LACMA catalogue, “we may apply what we learn to our own predicament, in which for the first time in the postwar era the arts and freedom of artistic expression in America are facing a serious challenge.”
A.G.

1939

SERGE BOGOUSSLAVSKY STEALS JEAN-ANTOINE WATTEAU’S PAINTING L’INDIFFÉRENT (CA.1717) FROM THE LOUVRE IN BROAD DAYLIGHT

1939

HILDEBRAND GURLITT BURNS THOUSANDS OF ARTWORKS DEEMED “DEGENERATE” BY THE NAZIS

1951

WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS FATALLY SHOOTS HIS WIFE JANE VOLLMER IN THE HEAD DURING A GAME OF WILLIAM TELL IN MEXICO

Jane Vollmer. STEORRA/VIA FINDAGRAVE.COM

Jane Vollmer.

STEORRA/VIA FINDAGRAVE.COM

1952

RUBENS’S THE FLAYING OF SAINT BARTHOLOMEW, MURILLO’S THE CORONATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN, AND VAN EYCK’S THE DESCENT OF THE HOLY GHOST ARE STOLEN FROM A CATHEDRAL IN KENTUCKY

1961

EIGHT CÉZANNE PAINTINGS, INCLUDING THE CARD PLAYERS (1890–95), ARE STOLEN AT NIGHT FROM A MUSEUM IN THE FRENCH TOWN OF AIX-EN-PROVENCE

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, (1890–95). THE ATHENAEUM/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, (1890–95).

THE ATHENAEUM/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

1968

VALERIE SOLANAS SHOOTS ANDY WARHOL AT THE FACTORY

1969

CARAVAGGIO’S NATIVITY WITH SAINT FRANCIS AND SAINT LAWRENCE (1609) IS STOLEN FROM THE ORATORY OF SAN LORENZO IN PALERMO, LEADING TO THE CREATION OF THE WORLD’S FIRST ART POLICE FORCE

1970

CAMBODIAN CITIZENS UNDER THREAT OF DEATH BY THE KHMER ROUGE ARE PAID $12 A DAY TO LOOT THE COUNTRY’S TEMPLES OF RELICS IN ORDER TO TRAFFIC THEM OVERSEAS

1985–86

NEW YORK GALLERIST ANDREW CRISPO IS ARRESTED IN CONNECTION WITH THE DEATH OF A COLLEGE STUDENT

Courtroom illustration from the Andrew Crispo trial in 1985–86. COURTESY THE COURTROOM SKETCHES OF IDA LIBBY DENGROVE, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA LAW LIBRARY/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Courtroom illustration from the Andrew Crispo trial in 1985–86.

COURTESY THE COURTROOM SKETCHES OF IDA LIBBY DENGROVE, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA LAW LIBRARY/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

On Saint Patrick’s Day in 1985, a party of young boys hiking in upstate New York encountered the partially burned body of Eigil Dag Vesti, a Fashion Institute of Technology student from Norway. The boys had wandered onto the property of Bernard LeGeros, an employee of New York art dealer Andrew Crispo and Crispo’s unofficial henchman of sorts. Vesti’s head, the only part of his body still intact, was encased in a black leather bondage hood.

Thus began the strange, high-profile case of Andrew Crispo, the sadomasochistic art dealer who allegedly ordered Vesti’s execution inside the basement “dungeon” of LeGeros’s summer home. In a 1988 Vanity Fair article, David France, who would go on to author an entire book about the case entitled Bag of Toys: Sex, Scandal, and the Death Mask Murder, wrote:

The din of their sadomasochistic encounter grew so loud, LeGeros would later say, that he went to the second floor and turned up a radio to escape the noise. As the sun came up, Crispo emerged from the basement, dragging a handcuffed Vesti—naked except for a black leather hood, a jockstrap, and a dog collar on the end of a leash…. “He’s ready, he wants to die. Shoot him,” Crispo said, and LeGeros did, pumping two bullets into the back of Vesti’s head.

Much has been speculated regarding Crispo’s Svengali-like power over LeGeros, who had a troubled childhood and was reportedly obsessed with death and dying. He was hired to act as a liaison between Crispo and his lawyers but “soon became [Crispo’s] eyes and ears in the gallery,” France wrote, and rarely spoke in the dealer’s presence. Meanwhile, Crispo was spending more and more money on more and more cocaine, sometimes going through seven grams a day. Handsome young gay men often spent time in Crispo’s gallery on 57th Street after hours; they stopped by to sell drugs, but ended up staying to partake in kinky sexual encounters that surpassed the goings-on at popular gay leather bars of the day, like Hellfire or Mineshaft. In describing one such event, one of Crispo’s circle told France, “It was weird, because in my mind it was a rape scene, not an actual rape, you know. It was supposed to be kinky, not a crime…until the guy got real tense and said, ‘Stop, you’re hurting me.’ And I didn’t stop, and I didn’t say anything.”

During the trial LeGeros’s lawyer reminded press that Vesti was found wearing a bondage mask and handcuffs owned by Crispo, and had marks from whips that also belonged to Crispo. But the defense’s argument suffered a blow when one of LeGeros’s old friends testified that LeGeros had told him “if he was caught he would say Crispo was keeping him filled up with drugs and he was controlling him and he didn’t know what he was doing.” LeGeros, who is currently serving a 25-year-to-life sentence at Rikers, told France that all loyalty he felt for Crispo disappeared when the dealer refused to provide an alibi for him.

Crispo walked away from the murder without a single charge, though he did end up serving jail time. In November 1985 Crispo pled guilty to evading taxes on $4 million of income and was later sentenced to five years in prison. (He served three.) In 1999 he was convicted of plotting to abduct the young daughter of a lawyer who didn’t release money to him fast enough, and was sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison.

At the time of Vesti’s murder, however, the popular legal opinion was that a conviction for Crispo would be difficult to stick. Stanley Arkin, one of Crispo’s attorneys, asked the court, “What if, when the gun went off and the body fell, my client had no idea it was a real gun, or that LeGeros would really pull the trigger? What if it came as a complete, horrifying shock to him?”
H.G.

1985

CARL ANDRE IS CHARGED WITH SECOND-DEGREE MURDER AFTER HIS WIFE, THE ARTIST ANA MENDIETA, FALLS TO HER DEATH FROM THEIR NEW YORK CITY APARTMENT; HE IS LATER ACQUITTED

1986

IRISH GANGSTER MARTIN CAHILL STEALS GABRIEL METSU’S WOMAN READING A LETTER (CA. 1664–66); HE LATER TRIES TO TRADE IT FOR HEROIN

1989

DREAD SCOTT’S FLAG BURNING LEADS TO A SUPREME COURT CASE OVER FREEDOM OF SPEECH

Dread Scott burning a flag on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1989. DREADSCOTT.NET/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Dread Scott burning a flag on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1989.

DREADSCOTT.NET/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In 1989 Scott Tyler, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, invited viewers to step on an American flag as part of his multimedia installation What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? (1988). His audience was asked to write down their reactions to this flag, as well as images of other American flags. A sample comment: “As a veteran defending the flag I personally would never defend your stupid ass! You should be shot!”

Tyler’s project went on to inspire national outrage. President George H. W. Bush even chimed in at one point, saying, “I don’t approve of it at all.” By 1990 the work had even indirectly led to a Supreme Court case: United States v. Eichman et al., which focused on whether Americans had the right to desecrate their nation’s flag. Tyler, who now goes by the name Dread Scott, probably never expected his installation to cause such furor. After all, the flag’s physical specs belied its grand significance: According to a New York Times article from 1989, the 3-by-5-foot flag used for the installation was bought for $3.95. It was manufactured not in the United States, nor even in North America, but in Taiwan. On his website, Scott has written of his work:

America was forged by genocide and slavery and carries out profound exploitation and oppressions of whole peoples and vast regions of the planet to maintain this lopsided relationship. It doesn’t have to be this way and I personally look forward to the day when America and its flag are in the dustbin of history and people are striving to build a world of freely associating human beings, free of exploitation. In this spirit I created a conceptual artwork where people could engage the question of what U.S. patriotism and the U.S. flag represents.

A discussion about images of America was hardly what the people wanted, however. In the final weeks of the work’s exhibition, veterans rolled up the flag any time someone went to stand on it. When that failed to make a point, veterans’ groups tried to sue the Art Institute of Chicago. (A county circuit court judge refused to see the lawsuit in court.)

On March 16, however, the veterans got their wish when the Chicago City Council closed the Art Institute of Chicago show, citing an ordinance that made flag desecration illegal. Within days, the U.S. Senate had unanimously passed a law with a similar purpose. “Now, I don’t know much about art, but I know desecration when I see it,” said Bob Dole, the Republican Senate majority leader at the time. In the months that followed, the Senate virtually defunded the Art Institute of Chicago, cutting its financial support from $13,000 to $1.
In reaction to this, Tyler, along with fellow artist Shawn Eichman and Vietnam War veteran David Blalock, burned flags on the steps of the Capitol. This raised more questions about how far U.S. citizens would go in the name of art. Was flag desecration a form of free speech protected under U.S. law?

In 1990 United States v. Eichman et al., which combined the Capitol Hill flag burnings with another case of desecration, headed to the Supreme Court. Within a month, the case reached a five-to-four ruling in Tyler, Eichman, and Blalock’s favor. Flag desecration was now a legalized form of free speech.

This past year, at the Brooklyn Museum, Dread Scott reflected on the Supreme Court case. Citing Bush’s negative comments about his scandalous work, Scott said, “And so I’m like, ‘Wait, this is great. This is a job I want to do for the rest of my life!’ I knew it wouldn’t happen to me or other artists again, but it showed the power of art.”
A.G.

1990

AN ESTIMATED $500 MILLION IN ART IS STOLEN FROM BOSTON’S ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM IN ONE OF THE LARGEST HEISTS OF ALL TIME

An empty frame remains where The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was once displayed at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION

An empty frame remains where The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was once displayed at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION

1990

THE DIRECTOR OF THE CONTEMPORARY ARTS CENTER IN CINCINNATI, OHIO, IS CHARGED WITH OBSCENITY OVER THE RECENTLY OPENED RETROSPECTIVE OF ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE’S PHOTOGRAPHS

1990

THE BANGWA QUEEN, ONE OF MANY AFRICAN ARTWORKS STOLEN BY COLONIALISTS, SELLS AT AUCTION

The Bangwa Queen now resides at the Musée Dapper in Paris. HUGHES DUBOIS/©MUSEUM DAPPER ARCHIVES

The Bangwa Queen now resides at the Musée Dapper in Paris.

HUGHES DUBOIS/©MUSEUM DAPPER ARCHIVES

During the European colonization of Africa in the 19th century, many artworks were taken from the continent and dispersed around the world. The legacy of this practice, which many now consider a crime on a massive scale, continues to define the struggle of postcolonial societies today. In recent years there have been numerous calls for the repatriation of these objects.

The Bangwa Queen

In 1990 a wooden sculpture of a voluptuous female sold at a Sotheby’s auction from the African art collection of Henry A. Franklin for a record-breaking $3.4 million. The piece, known colloquially as the Bangwa Queen, today occupies a plinth in the Musée Dapper in Paris.

The queen had resided in a royal shrine in the Bangwa grass fields of what is now Cameroon until Gustav Conrau, a German merchant and colonialist, arrived in the late 1890s. Under the pretense of exploration, Conrau entered the village seeking trade contacts and supplies. It remains unclear under exactly what circumstances Conrau acquired the sculpture, but in 1898 the Bangwa Queen arrived in Berlin.

The Benin Bronzes

Of all the colonial powers, Britain was the most industrious in their occupying mission. The British military routinely led “punitive expeditions” into occupied territories. These missions—which involved their fair share of pillaging—were purportedly a response to disobedience and morally indecent behavior. More accurately they were coups intended to facilitate local regime change and consolidate colonial power. In the process thousands of cultural artifacts were claimed as collateral.

In 1897 the British invaded the southern Nigerian territory known then as the Kingdom of Benin. Entering the royal palace, the troops came upon a collection of hundreds of brass sculptures and plaques. The British shipped some 800 of these objects to the British Museum, where they are still on display, and sold the rest to other collections across Europe.

The Benin Bronzes, as they are known, are prized for their naturalistic beauty, which demonstrates an advanced level of metalworking skill. In 2014 the grandson of one of the British looters returned two stolen pieces he had inherited to Nigeria, reviving the call for the repatriation of the others.

The Royal Gold of the Ashanti Kingdom

Africa’s west coast was rich in gold. On February 4, 1874, a British expedition entered the Kumasi territory of modern-day Ghana and walked away with a number of gold objects belonging to Kofi Karikari, King of the Ashanti (Asante) people. Included in the loot were numerous ceremonial swords, a royal throne, and a trophy head that was the largest piece of goldwork from anywhere in Africa outside of Egypt.

Many of the objects, including the trophy head, were later sold at a charitable auction in London, the proceeds of which went to the families of Ashanti War victims.

The Magdala Collection and Ge’ez Manuscripts

In 1868 British forces raided the Palace of Magdala in Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) following the capture of a diplomat by the Emperor Tewodros II. After rescuing their comrade the troops picked up objects from Ethiopia’s national archives.

Arguably the most significant theft that day was that of Ethiopian intellectual and religious heritage—in particular a series of manuscripts tracing Ethiopia’s history from the time of Solomon and Sheba to the early 19th century, as well as hundreds of illustrated Ge’ez manuscripts of the Gospels, including chapters that were rejected or lost by the church, such as the book of Jubilees, the third book of Ezra, and the Apocalypse of Saint Peter. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has called for the return of all looted sacred artifacts.
Robin Scher

1994

EDVARD MUNCH’S THE SCREAM (1893) IS STOLEN FROM THE NATIONAL ART MUSEUM IN OSLO ON THE OPENING DAY OF THE LILLEHAMMER, NORWAY, WINTER OLYMPICS

1995

SCOTLAND YARD FINALLY ARRESTS JOHN MYATT, THE MASTER FORGER BEHIND WHAT’S CALLED “THE BIGGEST ART FRAUD OF THE 20TH CENTURY”

1997

THE ARCHBISHOP OF MELBOURNE TRIES TO GET THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA TO REMOVE ANDRES SERRANO’S PISS CHRIST (1987), PROMPTING TWO TEENAGERS TO VANDALIZE IT WITH HAMMERS

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987. COURTESY THE ARTIST/VIA CREATIVE TIME REPORTS

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987.

COURTESY THE ARTIST/VIA CREATIVE TIME REPORTS

1998

THE FBI BEGINS INVESTIGATING KEN PERENYI, WHOM THEY SUSPECT OF SELLING FORGED PAINTINGS TO CHRISTIE’S AND SOTHEBY’S

2001

TALIBAN DESTROY 1,700-YEAR-OLD BUDDHA SCULPTURES IN BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN

2002

SOTHEBY’S CHAIRMAN A. ALFRED TAUBMAN IS SENTENCED TO A YEAR AND A DAY IN PRISON FOR ORCHESTRATING A PRICE-FIXING SCHEME WITH RIVAL AUCTION HOUSE CHRISTIE’S

A. Alfred Taubman. COURTESY SOTHEBY'S

A. Alfred Taubman.

COURTESY SOTHEBY’S

2003

TWO PAINTINGS ARE STOLEN FROM THE VAN GOGH MUSEUM IN AMSTERDAM; THEY HAVE YET TO BE RECOVERED

2003

SOME 15,000 ANTIQUE OBJECTS, RANGING FROM SCULPTURES TO SEALS, ARE TAKEN FROM BAGHDAD’S IRAQ MUSEUM BY AN ESTIMATED 300 TO 400 LOOTERS OVER THE COURSE OF 36 HOURS

Iraq Museum, Baghdad, in 2008. ZZZTRIPLE2000/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Iraq Museum, Baghdad, in 2008.

ZZZTRIPLE2000/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

2009

THE FBI RECOVERS OVER 100 PRE-COLUMBIAN ARTIFACTS THAT HAD BEEN STOLEN FROM PANAMA IN THE 1980S AND MOVED TO A HOME IN OREGON

2010

ART DEALER LAWRENCE SALANDER PLEADS GUILTY TO 29 COUNTS OF GRAND LARCENY AND ONE COUNT OF SCHEMING TO DEFRAUD, AND IS SENTENCED TO 6 TO 18 YEARS IN PRISON

2011

WOLFGANG BELTRACCHI IS FOUND GUILTY OF FORGING 14 ARTWORKS BY MAX ERNST, FERNAND LÉGER, AND KEES VAN DONGEN, AMONG OTHERS, VALUED AT A TOTAL OF $45 MILLION

2012

THREE MEMBERS OF PUSSY RIOT ARE ARRESTED FOR PROTESTING THE RUSSIAN CHURCH’S SUPPORT OF VLADIMIR PUTIN

Pussy Riot in 2012. DENIS BOCHKAREV/VIA WIKIMEDIA CC BY-SA 3.0

Pussy Riot in 2012.

DENIS BOCHKAREV/VIA WIKIMEDIA CC BY-SA 3.0

2012

A DISTRICT PROSECUTOR SEIZES THOUSANDS OF WORKS STOLEN BY THE NAZIS AT THE MUNICH HOME OF CORNELIUS GURLITT

2012

A DENVER WOMAN HIGH ON BATH SALTS URINATES AND RUBS HER NAKED POSTERIOR ON A $30 MILLION CLYFFORD STILL WORK

2013

A FORMER ASSISTANT TO JASPER JOHNS IS CHARGED WITH TRYING TO SELL WORKS HE STOLE FROM HIS FORMER BOSS

2014

ART DEALER AND COLLECTOR HELLY NAHMAD IS SENTENCED TO A YEAR AND A DAY IN PRISON FOR RUNNING AN ILLEGAL HIGH-STAKES GAMBLING RING THAT SMUGGLED FUNDS THROUGH SHELL COMPANIES IN CYPRUS

2015

JOHN D. RE IS SENTENCED TO FIVE YEARS IN PRISON FOR FORGING AND SELLING MORE THAN 60 FAKE JACKSON POLLOCK PAINTINGS ON EBAY

2015

ISIS BLOWS UP A PORTION OF THE ANCIENT RUINS OF PALMYRA

The monumental arch of Palmyra, Syria. BERNARD GAGNON/VIA WIKIMEDIA CC BY-SA 3.0

The monumental arch of Palmyra, Syria.

BERNARD GAGNON/VIA WIKIMEDIA CC BY-SA 3.0

2015

SHEPARD FAIREY IS ARRESTED FOR PROPERTY DAMAGE IN DETROIT

Shepard Fairey flanked by police at the 2009 hanging of Fairey’s portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. CLIFF1066™/VIA FLICKR

Shepard Fairey flanked by police at the 2009 hanging of Fairey’s portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery.

CLIFF1066™/VIA FLICKR

On July 6, just two months after street artist Shepard Fairey erected a legal 184-foot-tall mural in downtown Detroit (commissioned by the real-estate billionaire Dan Gilbert), Fairey was arrested and hit with a felony charge stemming from the alleged vandalism of 14 different buildings and walls throughout that very same city.

Fairey was passing through customs at Los Angeles International Airport when he was detained by police after TSA officers detected an outstanding warrant. Prosecutors from Michigan’s Wayne County accused Fairey of malicious destruction of property over $1,000 and less than $20,000, a possible ten-year jail sentence, as well as two counts of malicious destruction of a railroad bridge, both potential four-year sentences. Fairey posted a $75,000, 10 percent bond, and was released later the same day.

As is Fairey’s style, many of the street-art pieces in question were posters applied with a particularly hard-to-remove wheat-paste glue. According to one city official, even the heavy-duty graffiti removal product known as “Elephant Snot” was not enough to get one of Fairey’s works from the wall. During a testimony, city worker Jessica Parker estimated that the cleanup and restoration costs amounted to over $24,000.

Fairey has been arrested on similar charges as many as 18 times in the United States. The felony charges in Detroit, however, are more serious than most of his previous offenses. Critics have called the arrest a waste of resources and an attempt to squash street art in the city—Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has a history of fighting against graffiti. Whatever the case, the stakes have been raised.

“Sir, you may have a lot of talent, but you can’t go around doing things without permission,” 36th District Judge Kenneth King told Fairey at his arraignment. “You can’t put things on people’s property without their permission.” King ruled that the case should proceed to trial. Originally slated for January 2016, the trial was—as of this writing—set for mid-April at the Wayne County Circuit Court, barring unforeseen complications or changes. The artist has pleaded not guilty.

Fairey, who is probably best known for his creation of the Obama “HOPE” poster in 2008, first gained notice for his infamous “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” guerrilla sticker campaign, which he created when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. The stickers took on a meme-like life of their own, eventually morphing into the global brand Obey Giant.

Although Fairey has staged massive institutional shows and collaborated on projects with corporate heavy hitters, he has made an effort to continue some of the street-level practices for which he made his name. It’s simply part of his brand. “I still do stuff on the street without permission,” Fairey told the Detroit Free Press in May last year, in a portentous statement. “I’ll be doing stuff on the street when I’m in Detroit.”
John Chiaverina

2016

PERFORMANCE ARTIST DEBORAH DE ROBERTIS IS ARRESTED FOR GETTING BUCK-NAKED AT THE MUSÉE D’ORSAY AND LYING DOWN IN FRONT OF MANET’S OLYMPIA (1863)

 


FROM THE ARCHIVES

 
FROM 1911 & 1913
‘A PLAIN STEAL’:
The Theft and Recovery of the Mona Lisa

FROM 1956
WIRETAPPERS AND ART GALLERIES:
The Other Knoedler Trial

FROM 2009
THE FAKING OF THE RUSSIAN AVANT-GARDE:
A Six-Month ARTnews Investigation Reveals
That Inauthentic Works Now Outnumber Authentic Ones




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