Uncovering a stolen object offers a museum the valuable if bittersweet opportunity to examine its past collection practices. Pinpointing exactly how that object slipped through the cracks can help ensure other stolen objects will not slide by in the future. While there is no failsafe way to avoid mistakes completely, there are concrete steps that can be taken to increase diligence before an acquisition is made. In particular, museums should draw a distinction between objects that are securely documented and those that are ‘said to be’ from a particular collection. Many of the objects Wiener sold, now under investigation, supposedly came from private European owners but had no real paper trail. Some of the sculptures that both she and Kapoor handled, which are alleged to have been stolen, were accompanied by signed declarations that they were outside their countries of origin before 1970. These attestations are now believed to be false. Verbal and written statements do not carry the same weight as documentation in an exhibition catalogue, sale record, or archival material.
To be sure, not every work of art legitimately on the market has an extensive paper trail; however, every work of art that was recently looted will certainly lack documentation. Diligent buyers should be attuned to those gaps, particularly for high-value objects, and do their best to verify anecdotal information through independent research. Even if there is no specific record of a work of art, its ownership history may be supported by circumstantial evidence, such as the collecting habits of previous owners, the provenance of comparable objects, or the recollections of trusted experts in the field.
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.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott talk alongside a statue of the Dancing Shiva ahead of a meeting in New Delhi, 5 September, 2014. The $5 million bronze statue was returned to India from the National Gallery of Australia after it emerged that it had been stolen from a Tamil Nadu temple. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
The first object Greene donated, in 2003, to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, whose holdings are shown at the Honolulu Art Museum, was an 11th-century Cambodian sculpture. After the work was delivered to the museum on time and received in good condition, the museum struck up a deal the following year that Greene would receive an $80,000 annuity for the rest of his life. The museum made this deal because Greene had offered to loan 37 more objects under the condition that he could provide sufficient provenance information.
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.
The looting and illicit export of art treasures is not a new problem. It’s happened whenever there have been armed conflicts during which victorious troops plundered churches, temples and other buildings. Germany carried out massive looting in World War II. By the start of the 21st Century the trade in illicit antiquities had become so huge it was worth billions of dollars each year and was the biggest international crime outside drug and arms trafficking according to The New York Times. When a piece is stolen, the consequence for scholars is tragic, because essential information about the piece – where it was found, what else was with it – is lost forever.
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