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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Art Thefts

The theft of The Scream from a museum in Oslo provides a look at the little glimpsed world of art thefts and recoveries.

Textile Arts

A survey of museum textile exhibits illustrates how we adorned our homes and dressed ourselves over the centuries;

Art Thefts

Tempera on board 83.5 x 66 cm
M 514

The Madonna (1893 - 94)
Oil on canvas 90 x 68.5 cm
M 68

The Scream has become so familiar as a symbol of man's angst that it has been reproduced to being the subject of an inflatable. Two of Edvard Munch's four versions of The Scream have been the target of a theft. One version was taken on February 12, 1994 from the National Art Museum, the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. One of the versions is said to be in the hands of a private collector .Fortunately, it was recovered some three months later. But one of the two versions residing in Oslo's Munch Museum has been stolen during a daylight raid along with an almost equally famous painting, The Madonna (1893 - 94).

Munch wrote about the inspiration for The Scream:

I was walking along a path with two friends — the sun was setting suddenly the sky turned blood red I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

The Munch Museum text refers to The Frieze of Life, a major work Munch produced including The Scream in the 1890s " described by himself as 'a poem of life, love and death'. The Scream from this series with its strong expression of conflict and tension has become the very symbol of the alienation of modern man. With his emphasis on mental anguish and his distortion of colours and form, Munch is regarded together with van Gogh as the main source of German Expressionism."

"In 1908 Munch suffered a nervous breakdown, and the following year he returned to Norway where he spent the rest of his life. His palette became brighter and his motifs changed, but his art still reflects in a vigorous way the same existential problems of his earlier days, mirroring his own life into old age."

Perhaps the most well known theft of valuable paintings in the United States were from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The field of art theft is a concern of international justice organizations such as the FBI, which maintains a National Stolen Art File. The Gardner Museum theft tops its list of unsolved cases.

"A Five Million Dollar Reward is offered for the safe recovery of all stolen items in good condition. The recovery of an individual object will result in a portion of the reward, based upon the object's market value."

"On March 18, 1990, the Gardner Museum was robbed by two unknown white males dressed in police uniforms and identifying themselves a Boston police officers. The unknown subjects gained entrance into the museum by advising on-duty security personnel that they were responding to a call of a disturbance within the compound. Security, contrary to museum regulations, allowed the unknown subjects into the facility."

"Upon gaining entry, the two unknown subjects abducted the on duty security personnel, securing both guards with duct tape and handcuffs in separate remote areas of the museum's basement. The unknown subjects brandished no weapons, nor were any weapons seen during this heist. Other than a 'panic' button located behind the guards' watch desk area, the museum alarm system was internally only. Since the panic button was not activated, no actual police notification was made during the robbery. The video surveillance film was seized by the unknown subjects prior to their departure."

"While in the museum from the hours of 1:24 a.m. to 2:45 a.m., the unknown subjects seized the following works of art, the values of which have been estimated as high as 300 million dollars." The paintings and objects taken from the museum include:

Vermeer, The Concert; Oil on canvas, 72.5 x 64.7 cm

Rembrandt, A Lady and Gentleman in Black; Oil on canvas, 131.6 x 109 cm. Inscribed at the foot, REMBRANDT. FT: 1633.

Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Oil on canvas, 161.7 x 129.8. cm. Inscribed on the rudder, REMBRANDT. FT: 1633

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, Etching, 1 3/4" x 2", (Postage Stamp size)

Govaert Flinck, Landscape With an Obelisk, Oil on an oak panel, 54.5 x 71 cm. Inscribed faintly at the foot on the right; R. 16.8 (until recently this was attributed to Rembrandt).

Chinese Bronze Beaker or "Ku", Chinese, SHANG DYNASTY, 1200-1100 BC; height of 10 ", diameter of 6 1/8", with a weight of 2 pounds, 7 ounces

Manet, Chez Tortoni, Oil on canvas, 26 x 34 cm

Oh, and as an aside, if your name is Isabella, the museum provides free Museum admission to everyone with the first name “Isabella” in honor of the founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner. Isabellas of all ages are invited to enjoy the Gardner's permanent collection, atmospheric setting, and changing floral displays and special exhibitions for free… forever!

Other thefts included that of a famous Stradivarius Violin: "On October 18, 1995, a Stradivarius violin was reported stolen from the New York City apartment of its owner, Erica Morini. Ms. Morini, a world renowned concert violinist, was in the hospital at the time of the theft and has subsequently died. The violin, made in 1727 by Antonio Stradivari, is known as the Davidov-Morrini Stradivari."

An FBI case that demonstrates their success in recovery was one concerning the theft of Navajo Ceremonial Artifacts: "According to a 1910 reference book on the Navajo, each traditional ceremony requires a separate buckskin jish, (the medicine bundle of a Navajo chanter), which contains feathers, rattles, stones, pollens, animal tissues, native herbs, ochres, and clays, and additional paraphernalia for specific chants. These Navajo medicine bundles are considered very sacred."

"In addition to jish, Yei'is (masks) are also sacred and are not to be sold or possessed by non-Navajos or even Navajos untrained in their use. Archaeologist and Navajo expert David Brugge, said that Yei'is "are among the most sacred paraphernalia in Navajo religion." The Navajo Tribe, which enacted its own law in 1978 protecting religious artifacts, believes that the masks are tribal property "not to be sold or traded outside the clan or tribe." By traditional standards, Brugge told them, a widow does not usually inherit her husband's belongings, such as yei'is which typically go to another ceremonial singer."

" In October 1994, FBI Special Agents were alerted to the possible sale of ceremonial objects, some with protected eagle feathers attached. Working with the art gallery owners who were selling the objects, a price list was compiled and photographs of the objects were taken. A Zuni "constellation bundle" was priced at $850, a redtail hawk fan sold for $325, and peyote fans with eagle feathers were sold at $600 apiece."

An odd venue for two 17th century tapestries provided the location for their theft: The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. The FBI listing gives some details of the loss: "On March 30, 2001, The Breakers Hotel reported to the Palm Beach Police Department that two 17th century tapestries were stolen from the Gold Room at the hotel. Hotel security reported that the alarm system did not function properly and video cameras did not capture the tapestries being stolen. The two tapestries were insured for $55,000. The Breakers has offered a reward of $5000 for the return of the tapestries, and $1000 for information leading to the return of the tapestries."

The Interpol site of recent art thefts contains a comprehensive illustrated collection of works stolen in Europe and elsewhere, including objects from Iraq and Afghanistan. A section of Interpol's site is devoted to art objects recovered but not claimed.

Art Loss Register
Database of lost and stolen art

Los Angeles Police Department
Section on art theft

Museum Security Network
Reports and technical developments

BBC documentary, Art Crime


Textile Arts Exhibits>>

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