5 Antiquities Dealers Arrested in Hobby Lobby Scandal—and the 9 Other Biggest News Stories This Week

Catch up on the latest art news with our rundown of the 10 stories you need to know this week.

01  Israeli police have arrested five antiquities dealers in connection to the unfolding Hobby Lobby scandal.

(via NPR)

Authorities in Israel picked up the five dealers in Jerusalem on Sunday, also finding ancient papyrus fragments, frescos, and other objects, as well as $200,000 in cash. Police say the dealers were linked to the unfolding scandal surrounding the purchase of artifacts looted from Iraq by the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby. Last month, the company reached a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department that will require it to forfeit the objects and pay a $3 million fine. Israeli police say the five dealers arrested are suspected of tax evasion, tax fraud, and money laundering in connection with the sale of some $20 million in artifacts to Hobby Lobby president Steve Green, a major backer of a planned Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. Court documents filed in the U.S. in connection with the Hobby Lobby settlement described a scheme to avoid scrutiny from American customs officials, including the falsification of invoices accompanying the artifacts sent to the U.S.


02  Sotheby’s missed its second-quarter earnings target as higher investment expenses weighed on profits.

(via the New York Times and Bloomberg)

The auction house posted profits of $76.9 million in the second quarter, a fall of 14% from the same period last year. On Thursday, share prices dropped by the largest amount in nine months. However, the firm’s investments in business lines such as private sales and artist estate management appear to be putting the company on a lucrative path. Revenue for the period ending June 30th rose 5% to $314.9 million from $298.7 million, and is up 24% so far this fiscal year. Private sales ramped up by 52% from the first half of 2016, to $333.8 million this year. But the increased revenue came with significant costs. Expenses rose 20%, thanks to “projected payment of target bonuses for employees and investment in areas such as technology, digital marketing and specialist expertise,” Bloomberg reported. The market is tilting towards the high end, with the $1 million-plus segment seeing a rise in buyers, lots, sellers, and average lot price. But profit margins for Sotheby’s were largely flat at 16.3%, suggesting the firm is investing heavily in winning and marketing those lots, such as the $110.5 million painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat that made headlines when it sold at Sotheby’s in May. The company’s share price had hit a new record, near $58, the week ahead of its earnings announcement but closed Thursday at $51.15.


03  An ancient vase formerly on view at the Met was seized by the Manhattan District Attorney after the D.A.’s office received evidence it was looted from Italy in the 1970s.

(via the New York Times)

Authorities sent a warrant for the Greek vase, which dates back to 360 B.C. and is known as a “bell krater,” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week, at which point the museum delivered it to prosecutors. Questions around its provenance arose in 2014 after forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis published research connecting the vase to Giacomo Medici, an art dealer convicted in Italy for conspiracy to traffic illicit antiquities. Tsirogiannis said he alerted the Met to his findings, but received no response. The museum said it reached out formally and informally to Italian authorities about the matter. Frustrated, Tsirogiannis sent his evidence, which includes Polaroid photos of Medici with the bell krater, to Manhattan prosecutors in May. They were sufficiently convinced the piece had been looted from Italy. It is now likely the object will return to Italy. “The museum has worked diligently to ensure a just resolution of this matter,” a spokesperson for the Met told the Times. In a separate case this week, Manhattan prosecutors seized a second ancient statue, a marble sculpture of a bull head, currently on loan to museum. A Met curator researching the work found it likely had been looted during the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s, and reported the matter to higher-ups at the museum, who alerted Lebanese authorities. They, in turn, contacted American law enforcement to retrieve it. The owners of the work say they hold clear title and have sued New York prosecutors (and antiquities directorate in Lebanon) for its return.


04  A Canadian government panel has again refused to certify the significance of the bulk of a 2013 donation of 2,070 Annie Leibovitz photographs, as questions remain over if they will ever be shown.

(via the New York Times)

Valued at $20 million Canadian, the photographs were donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia four years ago by the Mintz family—just two days after they were purchased for $4.75 million U.S. from Leibovitz herself. But the gift raised a number of red flags. Donors can apply to have their gifts reviewed by a Canadian board to determine if the works are of “outstanding significance” and “national importance” in order to qualify for a tax break for the donors following an assessment. Had a deduction been granted for the Leibovitz collection, it would have resulted in a tax windfall more than double the price originally paid for the pieces. After four applications, the board has certified only 762 pieces at a value of $1.6 million. “We disagree with the decision,” the museum told the Times in a statement. “We consider Annie Leibovitz to be one of the most influential photographers of her time and feel the collection is culturally significant—to our province, our country, and internationally.” The refusal to certify the entire collection has prevented Leibovitz, who still holds the copyrights to the works, from being paid in full. Under the terms of her deal with the Mintz family, the photographer was to be paid half of the $4.75 million upfront, with the other half coming following the certification. And though the Canadian museum owns the photographs, Leibovitz still holds the copyrights and can control their exhibition.


05  Archaeologists discovered a “Little Pompeii” in Vienne, France, that dates back to the first century.

(via Hyperallergic and The Art Newspaper)

Deemed an “exceptional discovery” by the French Ministry of Culture, the 75,000 square foot district was at one point an entire Roman neighborhood replete with private homes, a market square, artisan workshops, and a school of rhetoric or philosophy. Fires in the second and third century devastated the area, resulting in its abandonment in the fourth century, prompting discoverers to dub it “a veritable little Pompeii.” The site’s buildings and mosaics remain in remarkably good condition and will be on display in the Saint-Romain-en-Gal museum. Lead archaeologist Benjamin Clément explained that fires enabled the preservation of the architecture and reportedly called it “undoubtedly the most exceptional excavation of a Roman site in 40 or 50 years.” The development project that began in the South of France in April was originally scheduled to finish in fall but has been extended to December, with developers claiming they will integrate the images and objects into the new buildings in addition to potentially incorporating the park itself.


06  Police recovered a stolen Basquiat painting in Spain, but some have questioned whether the work is authentic.

(via artnet News)

Last week, authorities apprehended a 67-year-old woman accused of stealing the work from the home of a private collector who she worked for in Alcúdia, Spain. According to police, the woman, a British national, planned to hold the work ransom for €30,000 (which she said she was owed) but was apprehended just hours after the theft. The work is likely extremely valuable given that it is dated to 1982, considered Basquiat’s prime. But some have raised questions about the painting’s authenticity. Editor and art collector Miquel Font told the local paper Diario de Mallorca that “Basquiat used words in his painting, but there are too many here, he didn’t use that many.” Official authentication of Basquiat paintings is notoriously difficult given the artist’s prolific output and the absence of an authentication committee, which was disbanded in 2012.


07  A 17th-century Italian altarpiece will require a year of conservation after a 2014 theft severely damaged the work.

(via The Art Newspaper)

The Guercino altarpiece was stolen from the church of San Vincenzo in Modena after Sunday mass, when thieves took advantage of an alarm that wasn’t functioning due to a lack of funds. Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus (1639) was recovered in February after Moroccan police got a tip from a local art dealer that they were approached by someone trying to sell the stolen piece for about £800,000. As is often the case with art thefts, the work was badly damaged during the heist and subsequent transport out of the country, when it was rolled up in a carpet. Paint has been lost from nearly 30% of the work’s surface and it will have to undergo a year of conservation in Rome before it can be displayed again.


08  The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation raised over $30 million at an art auction for the actor’s environmental charity.

(via Vanity Fair)

The event, held in St. Tropez, featured performances by Madonna and Lenny Kravitz, alongside an auction of works donated by artists such as Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, Jonas Wood, Cecily Brown, Rudolf Stingel, Tracey Emin, and Urs Fischer (whose piece sold for more than $2.5 million). A paint and crushed-plate portrait of DiCaprio by Julian Schnabel instigated a bidding war between the actor and the film producer Harvey Weinstein before selling to DiCaprio himself for $400,000. The $30 million will go to the actor’s foundation, which is dedicated to climate-change prevention and wildlife preservation. DiCaprio’s auctions have generated an audible buzz over artworks, such as Hirst’s 24-carat gold woolly mammoth skeleton that was purchased at an earlier Riviera auction for close to £9 million (and later found its way to the Faena development in Miami).


09  Javier Pes is stepping down from his role as the editor of The Art Newspaper.

(via The Art Newspaper)

Pes will leave his position in September after working for the publication for almost a decade. He has served as editor for a little over a year following his promotion to the post last June. “This has been a hard decision to make but the time feels right to leave at the top of my game to write about a greater variety of artists and museums and pursue other projects,” Pes said. Anna Somers Cocks, the chairman of The Art Newspaper, said that the search for a new editor will now begin. Pes will “retain a close relationship” with the publication following his exit, according to the announcement.


10  The World Monuments Fund has partnered to aid in the restoration of several buildings in Japan’s Kumamoto Castle Town that sustained significant damage during a 2016 earthquake.

(via Art Daily)

Approximately 350 buildings were damaged in the April 2016 quake. An initial series of buildings that sustained particularly high levels of damage were demolished immediately following the natural disaster. An additional 300 still-standing structures are at risk of needing to be torn down. A study commissioned by the World Monuments Fund and cultural heritage preservation organization ICOMOS identified five buildings to prioritize for restoration in order to preserve the town’s streetscape. Kumamoto Castle Town was built approximately 400 years ago but many of the town’s Edo period structures were largely destroyed during Japan’s civil war in 1877. “When natural disaster hits, conservation of a town like Kumamoto is as much about the community residents who live and work in its historic structures as it is about the buildings themselves,” said Joshua David, President and Chief Executive Officer, World Monuments Fund. He said he hopes their work at Kumamoto Castle Town can inspire future community-oriented preservation initiatives.


—Artsy Editors

Cover image: Photo by Nicholas Eckhart, via Flickr.