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.
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.
One of the toughest cases to crack for the group was that of the Alingana Murthy from the Ball State Museum. In July 2015, the group broke the story of the Ball State University Museum of Art’s acquisition of the Chola Bronze Alingana Murthy – Shiva embracing his consort Parvathy. This exquisite piece of art, at least a millennium old, was ‘acquired’ through Subhash Kapoor’s smuggling network.
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)
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.
We now have images of the Shiva-Parvathy bronze in what appears to be a pre-repair condition. The color photograph is not from 1969. Further, the soil encrustations and damage are akin to those usually seen with freshly excavated bronze hoards. An expert collector especially of the stature of Dr Figiel with published works on Indian Metullurgy and Arms – especially given his seminal work “On Damascus Steel” in 1991, would have known that a bronze fresh from such an excavation in this condition must be immediately cleaned to stop advent of any bronze disease. He would have cleaned up the bronze as soon as he had acquired it.
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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 India Pride Project, a volunteer group set up after the Indian governments’ shoddy investigations and lame attempts to bring back smuggled art treasures frustrated, has taken to social media and online activism. Over the last four years, this group has painstakingly built a volunteer sourced image archive of Indian art works now being housed in overseas museums and art auction houses.
How on Earth was Myers able to smuggle a work of art to outer space? After five of his fellow artist friends signed on to the project, Myers began by reaching out to NASA, hoping they would be as excited about the prospect of bringing art to the moon as he was. “They told me a lot of people wanted to send mementos to the moon, and that if I had some big names behind me, I might have a chance,” he said in a New York Times article recounting the story, published on November 22, 1969, two days after the Apollo 12 crew began its return trip to Earth. “I then called a guy in NASA’s public relations division in Houston, who seemed optimistic. So we proceeded on the assumption that we could work through regular channels.”
When he was sixteen, Simon and his family relocated to San Francisco, where had graduated from high school in 1924. In 1925, at his father's insistence, he enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley, but left his pre-law studies within the first six weeks to start a sheet metal distribution company. He enjoyed early success and invested $7000 in 1927 in an orange juice bottling plant in Fullerton, California, which was insolvent, and renamed it Val Vita Food Products Company. He soon added other fruit and vegetables to the product lines and purchased canning equipment.
It is a very pretentious title, but yeah I was a big-time smuggler. I was very ambitious. It all started to get serious when I went to Russia after Beirut. In Russia the art smugglers all worked together so that they could have their claws in many different countries overseas. So if you were "in the game" and a promising prospect like I probably was and had contacts with one clan, you could have contacts with all the clans. I was involved in a big way because I knew all the people and could reach out to them. I could get to the countries behind the iron curtain. I was also dealing with VIPs. Don't think this was some kind of scumbag organization-we were dealing with people who were very high up on the political ladder. All you had to do was make sure everybody had his cut.
Regardless of how a museum shares information about provenance, the most important goal is to be as forthcoming and accurate as possible. To that end, documenting an object’s provenance may involve not just tracing its history of ownership (what do we know?), but also recording the sources of that information (how do we know it?), and noting the differences between verified and unverified data. Information about provenance can come from verbal statements, circumstantial evidence, or attestations provided by a seller or donor that have not been (and often cannot be) corroborated. Museum records should reflect these uncertainties and any vague or hypothetical statements.
But Scotland Yard were after him, and he was busted while awaiting a big importation. He skipped bail and fled abroad, loaded a ketch with over a ton of Moroccan resin, and crossed the Atlantic using a sextant and dead reckoning. He eventually offloaded to a New York distributor, only to be caught in a chase through Manhattan; he was sentenced to six years in a penitentiary.
It may come as a surprise to even the most art-attuned earthlings that the art world actually extends beyond the limits of our home planet. Unknown to many dealers, curators, and other art-loving terrestrials, there is a micro museum on the moon. Conceived of by artist Forrest Myers in 1969, the Moon Museum was established on the lunar surface after works by six contemporary artists arrived with the Apollo 12 mission, the second moon landing. Drawings by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, and Myers were inscribed onto a ¾-by-½-inch ceramic chip, which then hitched a ride to the moon, covertly affixed to the leg of the Intrepid lunar lander.
Happy with my work, the next time he took me to Armenia. He was smuggling of course, and when we got there we had drinks with the chief of police. There was a big organization bringing in lots of pieces from Moscow and Leningrad. The Russians and the Armenians were like mafia clans. They were very well-organized and working together. From there we took a bunch of art and flew to Beirut-the customs there were in on the game. We paid them off. That was basically the first time I smuggled on a large scale.