In March 2014, Bonhams withdrew a 2,000-year old Assyrian stele estimated at £600,000-£800,000 ($1m-$1.3m) and which was slated for auction on 3 April. The broken stone slab depicting a praying king – and containing a curse in cuneiform which would fall on anyone removing it from its site – was suspected of being looted from eastern Syria at an unknown date. The top half of the slab has been in the British Museum since the late 19th Century. Bonhams says that its piece was withdrawn for “further study”.
Still swirling around the market are persistent rumours that there is even more to the treasure than the known 14 pieces. Archaeologists claim that such finds always include spoons and coins, which were missing when the pieces started coming onto the market. Many believe they are still languishing in Swiss bank vaults, with the owner(s) waiting for the provenance issues to be cleared up entirely. It is to be ardently hoped that one day the whole hoard, in all its magnificence, will be returned to Hungary to be displayed together once again.
In addition to this, the Consulate showed the team 327 objects, out of which 251 were found to be historically important antiques. This also contained the 56 terracotta objects returned by the Toledo Museum (Ohio) which was originally gifted to them by Subhash Kapoor. A majority of the terracotta belonged to Chandraketugarh, West Bengal, a prominent site of terracotta art in the first decade, CE. The rest comprised terracotta objects of Harappan culture and of the Gupta period.
The story came to a partial resolution last month, when the Hungarian government announced that it had acquired seven of the 14 pieces from the heirs of Peter Wilson for €15m (£12.4m). As for the Northampton part of the cache, its fate remains mysterious: Lord Northampton divorced his fifth wife in 2012 with a secret settlement said to be worth £17m: it is not known if she received part of the hoard in the deal.
In August 2004, experts examined the works and found inconsistencies. Greene, who had shipped the works from his home in San Francisco, had also been unable to provide provenance and import and export documentation. The collection committee proceeded to veto the annuity deal made months prior. That same year, the de Young museum pulled out of a deal with Greene, this time in exchange for Philippine tribal art, for similar reasons.
On 21 December 2016, art dealer Nancy Wiener was arrested in New York on charges of possessing stolen property and conspiring to traffic in illicit antiquities. Her gallery, which specialised in south and southeast Asian antiquities, had been raided by federal agents during Asia Week last March, at which time several sculptures were seized. The seizures and her arrest can be seen as part of a broader effort to crack down on the illicit trade in Asian antiquities. In 2011, for example, Indian authorities arrested the Manhattan-based dealer Subhash Kapoor on charges of theft and smuggling, while over the last few years, museums and auction houses have voluntarily repatriated a number of sculptures that had been trafficked from Cambodia. The art world has long recognised that Mediterranean antiquities are at high risk of theft and looting, and participants in the trade are now on notice that archaeological materials from around the globe are to be bought and sold with extreme caution.
Subhash Kapoor was an Uttar Pradesh-born US citizen and had an antique gallery in New York. He had smuggled idols from India and Afghanistan. Kapoor is also an important link to an international smuggling racket. Interpol had acted upon a red corner notice and he was detained in Germany. He was extradited and faced trial in Chennai. Currently, he is locked up Trichy prison.
Pieces started filtering onto the London art market in the 1980s and a British aristocrat, the Marquess of Northampton, formed a consortium to buy 14 of them, along with the late Peter Wilson, at the time chairman of Sotheby’s. Forged documents from Lebanon were produced to give a provenance to the treasure, and it was put up for sale in New York in 1990 at a price of $50m. However immediately three countries – Hungary, Croatia and Lebanon – claimed the cache as being from their territories. The works were hurriedly withdrawn from sale.