Stolen Mataré and the Weirdness of Art Theft Investigation

From Interpol's most recent flyer showing the most-sought-after works of stolen art, I see that a sculpture by Düsseldorf-based artist Ewald Mataré is on the list:

Matare

One of the interesting things about these posters is how little information there is about the stolen artworks. You learn only the name and place of the theft (e.g., Rome -- a 'church') and some descriptions, not even the title of the artwork. Ordinarily when you're spreading information about a crime, you add as many details as possible. Not here. 

I wonder what the strategy behind this is? Interpol obviously knows the details but is choosing not the share them. There must be some reason for this. Perhaps to make it easier for someone to report or return the work of art anonymously? But that's just a guess.

Another interesting wrinkle is the American authorities' method of investigating the biggest art theft in modern history (by value, at least), the 1990 theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. Two men posing as cops stole art worth hundreds of millions -- 2 Rembrandts, a Manet, a Degas, a Vermeer. Still unaccounted for. Hints of mob involvement. The US authorities have repeatedly announced they think they know who committed this theft:

In March 2013, the FBI said it believed it knows the identity of the thieves. They believe that the theft was carried out by a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England, and that the stolen paintings were moved by a criminal organization through Connecticut and the Philadelphia area in the years following the theft. The FBI believes some of the art may have been sold in Philadelphia in the early 2000s.

...

On August 11, 2015, FBI special agent Peter Kowenhoven revealed that the two suspects of the theft, previously identified by the FBI but not revealed publicly, are deceased. In an interview with the Associated Press, Kowenhoven declined to identify the individuals.

They have questioned people, but have not arrested or prosecuted anybody. Again, the puzzling ambiguities. Why announce that you think you know who did it without any searches or prosecutions? It's one thing to not have enough evidence, but what purpose is served by announcing that you don't have enough evidence? Just recently it turned out that one of the security guards who were 'overpowered' during the incident was seen buzzing someone into the museum against policy the day before the theft. But he was not arrested.

What tactical purpose does all this caginess serve? Anyone have an idea?


Venice: Where Ignorant Artists Clash by Night

When I visited the most recent documenta, there were dozens of dull didactic installations meant to indoctrinate visitors into the proper attitudes toward everything from organic farming to the Western Sahara. Fortunately, there were also intriguing works of art.

Yet the trend toward unoriginal laments on the state of the world from art bureaucrats continues unabated. Here is Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the current Venice Bienniale, writes in his introduction to the show:

One hundred years after the first shots of the First World War were fired in 1914, and seventy-five years after the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the global landscape again lies shattered and in disarray, scarred by violent turmoil, panicked by specters of economic crisis and viral pandemonium, secessionist politics and a humanitarian catastrophe on the high seas, deserts, and borderlands, as immigrants, refugees, and desperate peoples seek refuge in seemingly calmer and prosperous lands. Everywhere one turns new crisis, uncertainty, and deepening insecurity across all regions of the world seem to leap into view.

...blah blah blah. To paraphrase Mary McCarthy, every single word of this is wrong, including 'and' and 'the'. 

A few charts from Our World in Data, the site run by economist Max Roser which turns the best and latest data into informative charts:

Wars-Long-Run_military-and-civilian-fatalities-from-Brecke
Wars-Long-Run_military-and-civilian-fatalities-from-Brecke
Wars-Long-Run_military-and-civilian-fatalities-from-Brecke
Wars-Long-Run_military-and-civilian-fatalities-from-Brecke

Nrewabspov

Wars-Long-Run_military-and-civilian-fatalities-from-Brecke
Wars-Long-Run_military-and-civilian-fatalities-from-Brecke
Wars-Long-Run_military-and-civilian-fatalities-from-Brecke
Wars-Long-Run_military-and-civilian-fatalities-from-Brecke

 


The Unknown Fate of the Düsseldorf Artists' Bunker

Now for the less-appealing side of Wersten. While innocently bicycling down the Kölner Landstrasse, I was confronted with perhaps the ugliest goddamn building I have ever seen. Not intentionally ugly, as in Brutalism, but unintentionally ugly, as in whoever designed it despised humans and wanted to actively make them suffer.

Which is true, since the building was originally a bunker (g) built by the National Socialists.

What we're dealing with is a two-story L-shaped building, probably about 3 stories tall, with a sheer stone facade with almost no windows. There is a copper roof with dormer windows set in irregular intervals, and strange barred windows, surrounded by bays of dark stone, placed seemingly at random. The entrance is, for some reason, painted a lively orange and white:

Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse

I suspected at first this might be a bunker. Like most German cities, Düsseldorf has many bunkers left over from World War II. They're 3 stories tall and made out of solid concrete. In many cases, it's extremely expensive or impossible to get rid of them, because the explosive force needed to blow through meters of solid concrete would irreparably damage other buildings nearby. Some can be dismantled, but it's painstaking work and usually creates major disruptions in the neighborhood and many complaints by nearby homeowners. The city or state sometimes tries to get rid of the bunkers but local neighborhood opposition gets in the way. So the bunker in my neighborhood, Bilk, still stands, with its annoying mural. One Düsseldorf bunker has even been turned into a church.

This bunker, like so many others, has a fascinating history. According to this article (g), a pair of German artists moved into the bunker in the mid-1980s, which is pretty common. Bunkers make good studios. The city of Düsseldorf granted the artists a lease. This is what Germans call Kulturpolitik: official state support for independent creative artists. The two artists created their studio inside the bunker, and presumably had cultural events there as well. Robbe has invested 70,000 Euro in renovations.Apparently, the bunker at some time officially became the property of the Bima, the Federal Ministry for Real Estate. 

This video from August 2012 gives you an idea of what the place looked like. Six artists had studios there at that time:

 

Then, nearly 30 years later, the Bima announced it had enough. It ordered the city of Düsseldorf to cancel the lease to the two artists by 30 September 2012. The Bima wants to build 'high-quality condos' on the spot. (Wersten is a working-class neighborhood where 50% of the children are on welfare). The artists fought the eviction notice in court. While that was ongoing, a construction firm began ripping the roof off the place, allowing rain and bird-droppings to flood the studio (g). The spokesman for the Bima is annoyed. The artists were supposed to have moved out by September 2012, they didn't, now somebody wants to buy the property. The artists obtained an injunction to stop this work. Apparently the parties were trying to work out a settlement as of early 2013.

I can't find any more recent news about this contretempts since that time. But from the look of the photographs, nothing much is happening in the former artists' bunker...


Snappy Street Art from Shogun1 in Wersten, Düsseldorf

While out biking I took a spin through Wersten, a working-class suburb of Düsseldorf sometimes criticized for its lack of charm (g). Now, I'm not going to lie to you: Wersten's not a feast for the eyes. Lots of nondescript 60s and 70's architecture and charmingly amateurish storefronts. But like almost anywhere in Germany, even this slightly rundown part of town has more parks, playgrounds and plazas than most cities elsewhere.

As I rode down the Kölner Landstrasse, these two graffiti caught my eye. They're on each side of a projecting building facade at 221 Kölner Landstrasse. They're the work of Shogun1, a graffiti artist from Düsseldorf. The manga influence is evident, but I liked the abstraction, the asymmetry, and the complex, cross-cutting rhythms:

Number Plate 221 Kölner Landstrasse
Number Plate 221 Kölner Landstrasse
Number Plate 221 Kölner Landstrasse


Thomas Bernhard Taking No Prisoners

The blog 'The Philosophical Worldview Artist (Weltanschauungskunst für alle Weltanschauer) run by one Douglas Robertson (no idea who he is) publishes fine translations of German-language texts, including this typically scorching 1984 interview with Thomas Bernhard:

FLEISCHMANN: But surely with distance one ought to be able to write about the past more composedly.
BERNHARD: That’s the big cliché about contemplating the past, and it’s obviously totally false.  Old people can write books like that when they’re sitting paralyzed in their armchairs, but it’s not my mode, not yet; maybe the day after tomorrow I’ll still be excited; whenever I write anything, even something peaceful, I’m still basically excited.  In any case, excitation is a pleasant condition; when your blood is sluggish, excitation gets it moving, pulsing; it keeps you alive, and consequently keeps the stream of books flowing.  Without excitation there’s absolutely nothing; you might as well stay in bed.  Now for you, Miss Fleischmann  (laughs), being in bed  is of course only a way of passing the time when you’re excited—right?—and being in a book is every bit as much a pastime.  Writing a book is after all a kind of sexual act, but one that happens at a more leisurely pace than the literal act, which one engaged in when one was younger; it is, to be sure, much more pleasant to write a book than to go to bed with somebody.
 
FLEISCHMANN: Do you regard writing as a substitute for sexual fulfillment?
 
BERNHARD: “Sexual fulfillment” is just a catch-phrase, like, for example, “self-development.”  It’s unadulterated bullshit.  But of course I’ve already said what writing is.  I’d just be repeating myself if I said any more about it.
 
FLEISCHMANN: In this book Vienna is an institute for the annihilation of spirit; what does Vienna mean in your opinion?
 
BERNHARD: Well, as I’ve stated in the book, Vienna is essentially an art-mill, or the biggest art-mill in the world, into which everybody leaps of their own free will, and the current miller is the chancellor, who is in charge there, the cabinet ministers are the miller’s helpers, and all the singers, actors, stage-directors, fling themselves into the mill, and down below the flour comes out.  But this process can only be kept going for so long before the flour for some reason comes out all moldy and smelly.
 
FLEISCHMANN: And why do you think that it’s specifically in Vienna that artists are so [thoroughly] destroyed?
 
BERNHARD: Well, because here in Vienna is where the most spiteful people in the world are to be found; on the other hand you have this mill, the greatest [possible source of] amusement.  Is it not after all amusing to watch people, geniuses and people of good character, flinging themselves into it up at the top, and coming out all deformed down below?  Don’t you find it amusing?

A Concentration of Citroen DS Cars

Visiting Belgium last weekend I came across a 'concentration' (as it's known in French) of classic Citroen DS cars. They're beloved all over the world, including the USA. Why, even the Wall Street Journal loves them, which means this may be the only French thing ever praised in that reliably Francophobe rag:

The DS is not just any old car, as is obvious should you park one next to a ’55 Chevy Bel Air, which then appears to have been built by cave-dwellers. The DS was a front-mid-engine, front-wheel-drive car with rear wheels closer together than at the front, allowing its sleek, tapering bobtail. The rears are enclosed in prim fender spats and, above, the remarkable panoramic greenhouse and fiberglass roof, canted like a beret. Did we mention it was French?

So without further ado, some Belgian Cirtoens:

Beige Gold Citroen

Beige Gold Citroen
Beige Gold Citroen
Beige Gold Citroen

Beige Gold Citroen

 


Business in the Front, Party in the Rear

Yesterday I rode down the Rhein to Urdenbach. The bike route takes you through an industrial area in which there's basically one house left: No. 73, Reisholzer Werftstrasse. The 4-story building stands there completely alone next to a large, empty field. The building has become a favorite for artists and countercultural types (including the sculptor and painter Ute Wöhle, who has a studio there), profiled in this photo essay (g) in the local newspaper.

The facade is being renovated, but the owner lets graffiti artists decorating the back part of the building. Yesterday they were hard at work:

DSCF9240
DSCF9240

Here's what it looked like a few weeks ago. Is that supposed to be Freddie Mercury?

Wall Painting Himmelgeist

 

 


More Peppy/Doom-Drenched Japanese Signage

First of all, a huge thank-you to all the people who responded to the last post. Whenever I think 'blogging is so 2007, why bother anymore?', something like that last comment thread happens. Although I have to say, I do a lot more on Facebook than I do here. You can always sign up with a fake name and follow me without becoming my 'friend'.

In any case, like most travelers to Japan, I found the omnipresent signs more than amusing. Of course, Germany is also full of signs telling you what to do and not do, but they're always generic and uniform. Japan boasts an artisanal underground of graphic designers hired to make instruction of the populace as amusing as possible, generally by creating yet another animated mascot (yuru-chara). They often come with poetic English translations: 'An Important Thing is Protected.' 'No! Drug!' 'Water Can Not Drink'.

So here's a whole contingent of other signs, slogans and mascots from Japan. My attempts at an explanation are in the hover text, but feel free to correct me. The first is actually a poem, posted at Saisho-in temple. Anyone know who wrote and/or translated it?

Saisho in summer poem Woman on tracks signGinza Woman Holding Christian Repent PlacardHardened Japanese CriminalsKyoto main station sign with terrified salarymanMr Funtime and Mr BadassNanzen ji warning sign someone stole my fucking bikeNanzenji fire control yuru-chara (animal mascots)
Nara sign with deer and disabled childrenNo Depositing Carefully Wrapped Packages on StreetShelter for People Who Cannot Go Back HomeShibuya an important thing is protectedShibuya drunken salarymen about to dieShibuya italian slow food lifeShibuya whale meat restaurantTokyo rainbow kitchen special night for boozeYanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovelYanaka no smoking gingko leavesYanaka no smoking signYanaka no! drug! sign
Yanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovel Arashiyama water can not drink Harajuku maple lake vfw girl Kyoto main station what you cannot store in lockers Shibuya donky boulange-001 Shibuya twits the americana hat Yanaka body identification poster outside police station Yanaka stagecoach western 'pub' yeehaw


More Looted Art

The New York Times looks at art seizures by the Stasi:

Between 1973 and 1989 the East German police, known as the Stasi, seized more than 200,000 objects in hundreds of raids, according to experts and official archives. As part of a broader government program to secure Western currency through the sale of the art, the police went after collectors like Mr. Meissner, who, when he objected, was sent, at 79, to a psychiatric hospital and portrayed as an enemy of the state.

But now, Mr. Meissner’s story has resurfaced, as his son tries to reclaim what he says was one of the most valuable items seized from his father more than three decades ago: a 1705 still life of four chestnuts by the Dutch artist Adriaen Coorte. In court filings in Munich, the New York family that now has the painting says that it was bought 25 years ago, legally, in good faith and with no understanding that it had been seized by the Stasi.

Until recently, few Germans realized that the covert program, with its echoes of Holocaust-era looting, had ever taken place in the German Democratic Republic, said Gilbert Lupfer, the lead researcher for Dresden’s state art collection.

“It was very, very, well, elaborate, and also very secret,” he said. “That’s the reason why it was not known in the G.D.R.”

The purpose of the program, according to historians, was purely financial. East Germany’s economy at the time was faltering, and its own currency, the mark, was too weak to be of much use in foreign trade. Selling art abroad through brokers in Western Europe guaranteed a steady stream of cash.

To depict the seizures as legal, the Stasi declared that the targeted collectors were “art dealers” who owed as much as 90 percent back taxes on the value of their so-called stock. Since no East German could pay the outsize tax bills, archival records show, the Stasi would take 90 percent of the best objects instead.


Wiblingen Monastery Library and Bleg: Joseph Nickel

A few years ago I bicycled around the Allgäu, a succulent part of Germany on the border between its two large and influential southern states, Baden Württemburg and Bavaria. Gentle hills, meter-wide brooks, and frothy South German baroque churches.

I happened to ride by Wiblingen, which hosts a Benedictine monastery church with a library that looks like this:

Wiblingen Monastery Library

The camera was a Canon Powershot G11, nothing special. The photographer in me regrets the overexposed bits, but overall, it's an eye-feast, and the monastery itself works the magic. Most of what looks like solid marble is actually plaster that resounds when you tap it.

The bleg is this: I paid a couple of euros to visit the museum here, which was detailed -- maps of the monastery's shifting domains, dioramas of the practical winemaking and woodworking and property management of the industrious ora et labora Benedictines, and maps illustrating the fascinating legal history of the local Benedictines: when they were granted their first clerical fiefs, which pieces of land they lost during the War of the Moravian Pretender in 1715, what percentage of their land they rented to tenant farmers, etc.

All relentlessly informative and dull, even for a lawyer. But then one of the pull-out wooden information tablets (the curator had gotten pretty frisky) spoke of The Benedictine Monks receiving the Blutrecht (literally blood-right) from the local prince in the early 1700s. This meant they had the power to enact their own criminal code and inflict corporal penalties. The abbey had become a large local landowner, and the local prince was tired of policing it, so he transferred that authority to the monks themselves. They enacted a crude criminal code, punishing unrepentant blasphemers by death.

Here, the (likely tendentious and unreliable) monastery records describe an interesting case. A local man named Joseph Nickel came to monks' attention. He'd studied in Paris and then returned to Wiblingen to spread his free-thinking views and eke out a living as a highway robber. He even robbed a monk. He was punished a few times. Then one evening he was overheard in a tavern denying the divinity of and blaspheming Mary. He denied nothing at trial, and the monks sentenced him -- as a repeat offender and blasphemer -- to death. They had to have a special scaffold erected since they'd never done this before. He was hung by the river in front of a crowd. The historical account in the museum stressed that the monks were awfully broken up about having to hang Nickel, and, if memory serves, never hanged anyone again.

I remember reading this and being more than a bit surprised, since I'd never heard of a monastery acquiring sovereignty, enacting a criminal code, and actually hanging someone. Perhaps I'm naive.

In any event, that's the story as I remember it, from my memory and blurry photos of the card. I think it's about 80% accurate. My bleg to you is if anyone can find me some other written sources about Joseph Nickel? 98% sure that's his name, because I drilled it into my memory. But I've never found anything more about him. An educated, free-thinking vagabond hanged by monks in the 1700s interests me. Can anyone point me to more information about Joseph Nickel?