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.
Morland came out to find his profits had gone. Old friends shunned him and the family firm went bust. So for the next thirty years he became a professional smuggler, plying his trade across the Mediterranean, shifting tons of hash from Berber tribesmen to gangland heavies and alternating between periods of sudden wealth and bleak incarceration. In 1980, 1990 and again in 2000 he was caught and jailed for long terms. Now he lives in ‘pretty good poverty’ teaching pottery classes. This is his amazing story.
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.
Hundreds of bronze works like the Alingana Murthy were buried for centuries and were almost lost to the world because those who buried them probably died during the invasions. The Alingana Murthy and Parvathi are coming back home to take their place – thanks to the India Pride Project. Hundreds of other priceless Indian art treasures await their turn.
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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.
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.