Art Thieves, cont.

Alison and i have real experience dealing with Anonymous' here on this blog, and i gotta tell ya, they grow some good ones up there in the Research Triangle. Simultaneously annoying, persistent and wrong-headed, the Anonymous from the Art Thieves post below takes the cake. I'd like to take this opportunity to take 'em to task. Let's start here:

After 4, or maybe 5 separate comments Anony-pie had this to say:

Not obsessed with your goofy statements, Walter, just mildly compelled to set the record straight lest some unsuspecting soul take your thoughts too seriously regarding art theft.
Well, i gotta disagree at least a little bit about the "not obsessed" stuff. As an obsessive person i feel i have a license to call the kettle black. 4 or 5 comments in half as many days, while possibly not obsessive, is, you've gotta admit, a bit extreme. I also want to call Anonyhole's well-intended effort to save "unsuspecting souls" from what is called my "ill-founded diatribe" and "outlandish and groundless accusations" into question. I mean, after all, my education is in the arts--and particularly in the area that wants to disrupt the party line of the arts in question. I probably have at least as much credibility as Anonimo to say these things. At least, i guess that's true. How would i know? After all, Anoninosy is hiding behind anonymity (and then has the gall to suggest i'm the coward?). Hell, Anononamecaller could be just about anybody. They could be Hitler for all we know. Why you gonna trust them?

Anyway, let's look at Anonorexic's claims:

1) "There is a strong underground market for stolen art."
2) "One of the major issues is that museums are often gifted items forever that have demand in the private market. Many items are held in private offices, vacation homes, etc."
3) "There is a LOT of money also by third world regimes who need palaces and homes decorated."
4) [concerning the eventual return of two of the works, Anonirotten has this to say] "Half of the Swiss heist was recovered undamaged. All evidence points away from the scenario you described in your illfounded diatribe."

#1: the "strong underground market." From the February 12th's New York Times we find the author of an article mentioning that the "looming question for the police and the public, is not only who committed the crimes but, given the near impossibility of selling the paintings, why?" Says Karl-Hienz Kind (an Interpol oficer in charge of art theft) "The fact that there are no buyers lined up helps account for the recovery of famous works like the Munch paintings, which were recovered in 2006. 'The thieves have difficulty finding someone to take them,' he said."

#2: re: These donated works are "held in private offices, vacation homes, etc." I'm not even sure what is the point of this claim, so i'll just stick to this: Listen, Anonomosity, if you were the curator of say MoMA in New York, and i were a Guggenheim and i found out that the Cezanne i gave you last year is down at your house on Kiawah (instead of on the museum wall or in deep storage), then i'm reporting you as a thief. And it'd be an "inside job" just like i'm claiming.

#3: re: work needed to decorate palaces. You've got to be kidding right? This is the part where i figured you were just joking with me. First, please site a source for this claim, and second, i'm under the impression that it's the west that always steals it's culture and objects from the third world, not the other way around. (picasso's "primitive work," slaves, diamonds, underpaid work force, jazz, etc.) Yes, there are stories of how "Balkan organized crime rings" are stealing art and trading it for guns (Boston Globe 2/16), but this has only been theorized by the Art Loss Register, a private organization that represents buyers and probably only profits by perpetuating stories like this. Additionally, "A suspect in the December theft of two paintings in Brazil told the authorities that the works were to be delivered to a collector in Saudi Arabia. (NYT 2/08)" Both in your case, anononono, and the the other two, i'd like to point out that the culprits are probably a little browner than Western Europeans and Americans. Those pesky brown people! Always stealin' Whitey's shit!

#4: re" the claim that "All evidence points away from the scenario you described in your illfounded diatribe." I enthusiastically differ! The NYTimes mentions that, like my claim, "Most art theft experts say that the idea of such an evil connoisseurs’ black market is largely a myth, and that many art thefts are committed with insurance company shakedowns in mind." I'm simply claiming that it's the owners, museums and art world that's doing the shaking. After all, everything actually points in that direction. I've given you evidence that art theft is not profitable for the thief. Additionally, i want to point out that insurance has been indeed collected for the damage of the paintings, while two of them have been returned to the museum. Insurance will pay for the loss of the other two, which, if history and almost all of my research has found, will be recovered undamaged twenty years from now. In other words, those paintings will show up, after the statute of limitations has run out, undamaged in a cardboard tube like "a drawing by Picasso [taken] from the Paris home of Diana Widmaier-Picasso." Or perhaps like the Goya painting found in 1965 by police in a railway baggage office in London. (Telegraph UK 11/02).

Now, let me introduce you to the real thieves:

"Emil Georg B├╝hrle sold arms to the Nazis during the Second World War, and remained a controversial figure for his unrepentant admiration of the far right." (Scotsman UK 2/08). Buhrle, whose museum the paintings were in, bought those paintings with blood money.
Several paintings in his museum were in Jewish homes until Emil's supplier of millions of dollars, The Nazis, stole them and sold them or offered them in exchange for weapons.

The people in power that create what i claim is a "false market" for this work. One of my favorite scholars (whose name i won't sully by including it in this ridiculous post) calls the "art world" an “integrated, trans-national economy of auction houses, dealers, collectors, international biennials, and trade publications, that, together with curators, artists and critics reproduce the market, as well as the discourse that influences the appreciation and demand for highly valuable artworks.”

A friend of mine used to work for arguably one of the most famous artists living today. My friend G. used to paint his paintings for him. When G. was finished, J. would come in, sign his name to the bottom and sell the painting for $600,000. Of course, we don't consider this theft as the artworld has always worked that way. After all, all of Alexander Dumas' novels were written by his creative writing students. Much of Rodin's work was conceived and executed by his lover Camille, but no one wants to hear about that. And let's not forget the artists or their patrons who illegally run up the price of their own work at auctions so as to artificially inflate the value of the rest of their ouvre.

Or how about Charles Sachii who single-handedly funded, through the use of his own millions, the rise of YBA's like Damien Hurst and then cashed in on his own sensation. I mean, come on! Tracy Emin is cool and everything, but do really think My Bed was really worth £150,000?

I've said it before on here: If people'll cheat you for a nickel, you know when there's a billion dollars at stake some serious hanky panky is going down.


Good news out in the world

I've been absent here on Baxter Sez for a while because my mantra these days is prioritize. I am all about focusing on my top priorities, and these days Baxter Sez hasn't been on that list. However, I have some good news related to the thing that is my top priority right now (my book), which inspired me to share some of the good things that have been happening lately. Consider this your Friday happy booster.

  • I have signed with NYU Press to publish my book, Revolution Grrrl Style: Zines and the Future of Feminism. I'm really happy about this because they're publishing some outstanding feminist work here lately, and they have a great pop culture list, so I think they'll be ideal for my project. Last night I sent emails sharing this news all the grrrl zinesters I've interviewed, and most of them have sent me sweet, encouraging emails back. They are the coolest! I hope this project will do them justice.
  • Last week CofC's WGS Program sponsored two outstanding performances of The Vagina Monologues. This year I did nothing--nothing!--to help with this show. The student director, performers, and producers did it all, and it was fabulous. They raised nearly $8000 for People Against Rape and the Magdalene House of Charleston.
  • My good friend Chris McKaskle's new book, Accepting Your Resurrection, is for sale now. This is an incredibly smart, warm book that uses concepts from Christianity as a jumping-off point for big spiritual ideas that go far beyond Christianity. I haven't talked about spirituality much here, but Chris is one of the people who has been a key figure in my spiritual journey, and I'm so excited that she's put some of her insights into book form.


Art Thieves

Today's news includes a report concerning thieves stealing paintings from a Swiss Museum. Here's you a link to Google news for the story. The facts--just so you won't have to go look--are three thieves, in ski masks, walked into a swiss museum, during business hours, and stole 4 paintings--a Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet and a Degas. The paintings are valued at 163.2 million dollars.

Here's the deal: I'm willing to bet my butt that any "art theft" story is crap. Most of these stories suggest the paintings are used to: collect a ransom from museum, collect a reward from the museum's insurance company, or "sell the art at a fraction of its value in exchange for weapons or drugs." Well, first of all, i doubt seriously the drug/guns thing. I mean, let's say you're an arms dealer like some James Bond kind of thing. Aren't you going to want to hang that sucker up and show it to your next arms dealing party?

Gentlemen, if you'll now look to your left you'll see Edvard Munch's The Scream. You may remember it being stolen last year in Norway. Well, i have it.
If i were a savvy arms dealer at this guy's party, i wouldn't even bother waiting for the shoot-em-up that usually comes at the end. I figured i'd just leave, call the cops and then, when everybody else is carted off to jail, go back to Arms-Dealin' Bill's house and take all his guns. Besides, don't you reckon it'd be embarrassing to be an arms dealer with a weakness for Monet?
So what are you in for? Ak-47s?

No, I got caught with Waterlillies.

No, Art theft has almost always got to be an inside job. First off, the "actual" value of art--like the actual value of paper money--is entirely unstable. These million dollar values are part and parcel of a larger artificial system held in place by the artworld. These values are found in the museum's ability to bring in money because of famous paintings. Or an owner's ability to sell famous paintings. Or, like with Arm's-Dealing Bill, simply showin' off your famous painting. When a painting is taken from this vacuum, it becomes as value-less as the canvas on which it is painted.

No, museums steal their own paintings for insurance reasons or to boost attendence. Owners may steal them for insurance or to boost values. Or, the artworld may actually even collude on these romantic thefts as a way to bolster its own tenuous and artificial standing in our unstable culture.


"Choosing Us" on Feministing

This is old news, but the Baxter Sez readers who haven't already seen this might want to have a look at what Courtney Martin on Feministing had to say about my "Choosing Us" essay. One of my friends emailed me when she saw it online, and I was glad she did because it helped to explain why I was suddenly getting really supportive, positive emails about the essay rather than the expected barrage of nasty hate mail.

I'd thought that I was ready to let the whole thing go, but seeing all the positive comments on Feministing--and also the positive comments from Feministing readers that have been cropping up on the Skirt! site--has been really encouraging and validating. As I often tell my students, having a community of supportive people can make all the difference in the world when you're doing social justice work.


Skirt!'s Feminism 101

Check out this awesome video by former WGS student and long-time fabulous feminist Margaret Pilarski. And then check out the appalling comments! Who are these people?


Human Hands

For the past week I've had a lot of fun at work. One job was figuring out how to cut 50 tennis balls in half. My boss--always the volunteer for community activities, bless his heart--is evidently teaching kids how to ride bicycles--specifically technical riding, or riding that will eventually allow them to negotiate busy, tricky city streets. The way he was going to go about this was to set up an obstacle course, the layout of which was created by half tennis balls. It's a great idea, but it leaves you with the problem of actually cutting tennis balls in half. Not content to just do a half ass job with a box cutter or something, i made a little jig--in this case a four-sided divet lined with sandpaper--and cut them on the bandsaw.

One of the other jobs i got to do was to rebuild an old square grand piano. Here's a picture of it ( i took with my cell phone):

Both the invention and demise of the square grand fall within the Victorian period, so all of them are ornate like this one. The reason they didn't stick around any longer than this is because they sound like crap. They're also exceptionally heavy--i was hard-pressed to even lift one end of this one.

Bad sound notwithstanding some folks still like to have them around. The folks who bought this one just wanted it as a cool piece of furniture, so my job was to put it back into good-looking condition. It was veneered in what was most likely Brazilian Rosewood--the excellent (and now nearly extinct) tonewood used in the really valuable pre-war Martin guitars. I had to repair lots of broken places. To do it i sawed my own little veneer patches from a tiny little chunk of rosewood i found in the shop. It was fun finding the matching grain and getting to smell the sweet spicy smell of the wood while i was sawing it.

A pretty important cosmetic piece was missing at the back of the keys. Without it there one could just see right inside the piano. I had to fabricate one of those--and i used a real strange looking piece of mahogany and dyed it really dark, leaving some streaks in the color to produce a fairly accurate copy of the rosewood. I also got to come up with little molding edges for this piece so that it would match the rest of the piano.

Even though the thing didn't play at all and the pedals weren't hooked up, i put little springs inside the pedal box so that at least they'd feel like they were connected to something. This piano didn't have its music rack with it, so i had to go find one that matched and alter it so that it would lay down properly when the piano was closed and hold itself upright when open.

Shellac was used as the finish. Since lacquer hadn't been invented in 1888 i figured that shellac was the proper route. Besides, i didn't want to pass up the opportunity to get to use the world's best finish: shellac is derived from secretions of the wings of the Lac bug. The bugs don't even have to die to provide it. These secretions are then dissolved in alcohol and then can be rubbed or sprayed onto stuff to create a beautiful--and food safe--finish. Beats hell out of poisonous old lacquer for sure.

The best part about doing all this work was uncovering some of the old, original marks that had been left on it by the makers. It's always fun finding things like that. I had a friend who once discovered an area in his 100 year old house that couldn't be accounted for in drawing the floor plan--in other words, there was just this enclosed closet-sized space in his house that wasn't being used. Upon opening it up, he found a 100 year old note tacked to the wall that read:

What the hell are you doing in here?

I didn't find anything near that fun, but i did get to see little arrows and notes for what piece of veneer went where and beautifully incised lines that laid off where screw holes were to be drilled. They were always perfectly centered.