Posts Tagged Colleen Margaret Clarke

Stealing History : Art Theft, Looting, and Other Crimes Against our Cultural Heritage

stealinghistoryStealing History : Art Theft, Looting, and Other Crimes Against our Cultural Heritage Colleen Margaret Clarke and Eli Jacob Szydlo

Stealing History concisely addresses an area of criminal justice studies which has historically been inadequately represented, thus filling a void in the literature. Well-sourced, this book is an excellent primary or supplemental text, which as a discourse views art theft as a crime perceived by authorities as less important than other more violent crimes. Art and cultural crime ranks third largest in criminal enterprise worldwide, and, the author of this book attempts to break down why crimes of this nature matter. Furthermore, she delineates which steps law enforcement should consider to prevent it in the future.

Cultural crimes include appropriating objects found in museums and private displays, but also objects which represent cultural identity and national history. Historically, heads of state have looted freely while empire building. Various leaders from Great Britain were guilty of this, as well as, Napoleon, Hitler, and more recently ISIL/ISIS, by systematically destroying cultural sites, churches, collections, both public and private, and looting archaeological digs to eradicate any evidence of a culture they want to absorb and oppress, as well as a means to raise money to support their cause. They use it to destroy the hopes of those who grew up with these cultural artifacts as a part of their history and identity. Soul destroying and very calculated, so that they might assimilate the community into their more extremist world view, it is done to prevent the culture from re-emerging.

UNESCO considers the intentional destruction of cultural heritage, not just a crime, but a war crime. Clarke’s main point is that in order for law enforcement and governments to prevent these types of crime, they must first understand what it is they are fighting. She feels many do not respect the severity of this type of crime and classifying it as an art crime means justice is not accorded to the history, culture, intellect, and scholarly works which are being annihilated.

While the US views these as property crimes, Clarke feels they should rather be viewed as cultural crimes or war crimes, which is how the United Nations perceives them. Stealing History addresses the question of priority. The US is the largest market for illegal and illicit artwork globally; and Clarke appeals for more preventative steps by law enforcement, in addition to instituting better security to meet international standards as a step towards reducing these crimes.

She makes the point that destruction of important buildings and monuments are used to shock us, therefore why doesn’t destruction of art and cultural artifacts elicit the same response? A society’s culture is depicted by its art, and history has chronicled primordial cultures through the discoveries of remnants of more ancient societies. Why then, is more reverence given to archaeology than to art? Clarke relates that it is difficult to separate culture from art, a defining factor in a society’s self-identification.

Clarke discusses how damaging it is to a culture to destroy the provenance of historical artifacts by removing them from where they were found, furthermore, not only are pieces damaged by careless thieves, but they are taken out of context; therefore we lose the history connected to the culture of origination. Looting is fairly common in third world countries, and according to Interpol, hundreds of sites have been looted; between 60 and 90 percent of tombs and other archaeological sites. This, Clarke relates is due to lack of government control, as well as opportunistic looting in war zones and poorer economies where government control might be inhibited.

During WWI and WWII works of art in Europe were stolen by invading forces, including Gustav Klimt’s Woman in Gold which was renamed from the original Adele Bloch-Blauer to hide its origin. Since the onset of the war, targeted families were removed from their homes and anything of value was taken and documented by the German military, done to such a scale that it was impossible to document the extent of it. Van Eyck’s Ghent Alter piece of 1482 was taken twice by Germany; once during WWI, when the Treaty of Versailles forced its return and again in WWII. These painted panels have been targeted at least thirteen times, from theft to destruction to censoring. Prior to WWI the victor of a war could plunder without much recourse, however during this period the international art community began to discuss cultural preservation and its protections during times of war, with a focus on monuments.

Sometimes stolen art is bartered back to its owner as a ransom, fetching a better price than selling on the black market, and evading the chance that the work might be recognized and reported. Ransoming is far safer and more profitable for these thieves. While few cases exist of a thief stealing a piece of art merely to enhance their own personal collection exist, Frenchman Stephane Breitwieser stole 239 pieces of art worth $ 1.4b. Unfortunately, he stored the stash at his mother’s and upon his arrest; she shredded the works with scissors, before grinding them in the garbage disposal. Many thieves damage art in the process of stealing it, while, others duplicate the work and then sell the original. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London actually has a display of such forged works of art, over a 100 such pieces.

It wasn’t until 1970 that the United Nations took an official stance on these types of crimes forming UNESCO and as of 2011; these guidelines for awareness and prevention of cultural crimes have been ratified by up to 190 nations. The fault in this convention is that it is not retroactive and crimes committed before the signing of the convention are exempt.

Clarke covers the following topics: media’s portrayal of art crime; history of art and related crimes; cultural differences between the US and Europe and their effect on art crimes; looting and archeological sites, economic impacts, police demands, scrutiny and the future; security and policing globally; and growth of and prevention of art crime. A concise and interesting read with thoughtful suggestions aimed at prevention of future art and cultural crimes in an evolving world. Clarke writes an interesting chapter on police scrutiny discussing how things have changed since 9/11 with local law enforcement having to respond as the first line of defense against terrorism, and indicating why art crime is so far down the priority list as it is lumped in with property crimes and why logistically, it just cannot be given the attention it deserves. One solution, she writes is to educate local forces on the idea that art crime is generally not local, but global, connected to antiquity theft, fraud and terrorism within international criminal organizations, thereby changing the perceptions of these types of crimes.

Author Colleen Clarke, PhD. has been director of the Law Enforcement Program at MSU, and formerly a police officer at Thunder Bay PD. She has contributed to Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America (Sage, 2013) and The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice (Wiley, 2013). She has written for the National Social Science Journal, International Journal of Police Strategies & Management and Law Enforcement Executive FORUM. Co-author Eli J. Szydlo received his background in law enforcement from his undergraduate studies at MSU, and previously studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, encountering the field of art crimes.

Reviewed by Rosdaughr

Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Pages: 176 • 978-1-4422-6079-5 • Hardback • April 2017 • $36.00 • (£24.95)

Advertisements

Leave a Comment