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.
Simon accumulated a significant private art collection which included works of the Impressionists, Old Masters, modern and native art. In the 1960s, he spent $6 million on artworks – an inventory of slightly less than 800 objects – and real estate – a building at 18 East 79th Street – from the Duveen Gallery in Manhattan, which specialized in old masters. Scholars including the critic Clement Greenberg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Theodore Rousseau studied the Duveen purchases for Simon and were able to identify numerous misattributions. Simon ended up selling much of the collection and only kept around 130 objects, primarily paintings, a handful of sculptures, a few porcelains, and a cape purportedly worn by Charles IV of Spain. However, his collection holds three autographed Rembrandt paintings, considered highly important works of Rembrandt in Southern California.
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.
However, probably the most dramatic case of looted antiquities concerns the notorious £100m ($167m) Sevso treasure, a magnificent cache of late Roman silver dating from the fourth or fifth Century AD and comprising inlaid platters, ewers and bowls, which was unearthed in the 1970s, almost certainly in Hungary. The finder, a Hungarian soldier, was later found hanged in a cellar, and two of his friends died in unexplained circumstances. The silver – contained in a giant copper cauldron which he had buried in the cellar – had disappeared.
He hasn't given many interviews over the past six years, but I managed to track him down for a chat. After learning I did a bit of unlicensed boxing before becoming a journalist, Michel took a liking to me, as he is a fighter himself. He once had so many contracts on his head that Scotland Yard detectives allegedly placed bets on how long he had left to live before he was murdered by a hitman.
“Further, 232 objects comprising of brass and copper alloys, gold with enamel work, silver, stone and terracotta in possession of the Indian consulate were also inspected by the ASI officials. Among them, few were identified as antiquities, like the stone image of the Buddha of Mathura School, a terracotta image of the Buddha belonging to the Gupta period and a set of 10 copper plates engraved with Quranic verses of the late Mughal Period,” the ASI said.
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.