Scion of a wealthy family, Francis Morland was one of Britainís most talented young artists, a contemporary of David Hockney and Peter Blake and a leading figure in the 1960s New Generation movement. At the same time he lived a remarkable secret life, as the biggest dope trafficker in the UK. He stuffed his abstract sculptures full of cannabis to ship to the American market, moved yachtloads of hashish to Europe and, years before Howard Marks, became the countryís first major drug baron.
In 1972, Simon bought a tenth-century South Indian bronze Nataraja, or dancing Shiva, from New York dealer Ben Heller for $900,000. The Indian government declared that the statue had been stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu and smuggled abroad. Although Simon was quoted (New York Times, 12 May 1973) as saying that he had knowingly bought smuggled art ("Hell yes, it was smuggled. I spent between $15 and $16 million in the last two years on Asian art, and most of it was smuggled") he vehemently denied the quote (Los Angeles Times, 13 May 1973), declaring that the work had been legally imported into the United States. In the same Los Angeles Times article, he stated, "As a collector deeply and emotionally involved in art, I deplore the rape of art treasures of any country." In 1976 Simon reached an amicable agreement with the Union of India whereby he agreed to return the Nataraja. In exchange, the Indian government agreed that Simon could keep and display the bronze in his museum for nine years first.
More recently, this year, the Department of Homeland Security seized seven objects in the Honolulu Museum of Art’s collection because they had been notified that the works were smuggled into America. Six of the objects came from Subhash Kapoor, whom authorities believe looted over $100 million in art. After that, the museum’s director, Stephan Jost, returned the works that Greene donated eleven years earlier and found that no signed warranty was given to the museum either.
The group’s activism has ensured the return of art works like Sripuranthan Nataraja, Vriddchachlam Ardhanari (brought back from Australia), the Sripuranthan Uma and more. These have been returned with much fanfare during the visits of heads of state/government of Australia/Germany. You can see pictures of Modi with the returned Nataraja, Angela Merkel handing over the Kashmir Valley Durga (housed in Stuttgart) below.
Buried treasure, mysterious deaths, looting, forged documents, secretive Swiss bank vaults and shadowy intermediaries. This is not a description of a Dan Brown thriller. It’s real life: the trade in illegally exported antiquities. As prices soar into the millions of dollars for the top pieces, so does the incentive to dig up treasures in Italy, Greece, Turkey and farther afield, pass them to “runners” who will sneak them illegally across borders, store them in a Swiss vault and then quietly slip them into the trade. The players in this murky world can make a fortune, but this is a dangerous game.