In a recent article posted on The Art Newspaper’s website, the topic of diplomatic immunity in the art world was discussed and there seem to be a number of cases in which consuls and diplomats abuse their power.
Recent cases include the trial against Ladislav Otakar Skakal, a former honorary consul at the Italian embassy in Luxor (The Art Newspaper states, Cairo). Skakal is being held accused of smuggling over 21,000 artifacts out of the country. Based on a separate report from the Telegraph, Skakal allegedly attempted to smuggle a total of 21,855 artifacts from various historical periods in a diplomatic container from Alexandria to Salerno, Italy. Authorities also found artifacts in the consul’s former home in Cairo and rented safes in private banks.
A second case revolves around the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C. where works of art, including those by Manuel Cabré, Armando Reverón, and Héctor Poleo (their combined value is said to be about $1M), were found to be missing. In a recent press release, the U.S. Treasury, FBI, Italian police, and museum experts are working side by side to identify and locate the valuable European and Latin American artworks that went missing when the transfer of power took place between Nicolas Maduro and Juan Guaidó in Venezuela. It is believed that Maduro’s group smuggled them out of Washington before Guaidó took over.
According to Till Vere-Hodge, an art and cultural property lawyer at Constantine Cannon, “Diplomatic pouches are not normally checked at a border when leaving a country of origin.” That means there is a low risk of being caught for crimes of smuggling art and antiquities across borders. A prime example of this is when Mariouena Dikeni, wife of the Togo ambassador in Moscow, successfully smuggled out a Joachim Wtewael painting. Based on a 1998 report from the Independent, the work was given to Sotheby’s, London, in 1992 and determined to be a known work looted from a German art gallery towards the end of World War II. After going to trial, it was ruled that the work should be returned to Germany.
Other issues surrounding art and embassies include the threat of violence. In 2011 the British embassy in Libya was attacked and set ablaze in retaliation for a NATO airstrike that killed members of the Muammar Gaddafi family. £130,000 worth of paintings were lost in the fire.
The final issue proposed is the fact that while the consuls and diplomats may receive diplomatic immunity for their crimes, but the works themself do not. As a result, there is a threat of future problems when someone attempts to transfer title legally.