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.
Bonhams and Christie’s were also forced to pull smaller objects from their March sales this year, after they were alleged to have passed through the hands of two notorious antiquities smugglers, Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina. Both had been convicted of trafficking in looted objects, for which Medici was sentenced to 10 years in prison and paid a 10m euro fine – the largest ever imposed for such a crime by Italian prosecutors. Polaroid photos of an immense cache of objects in his Swiss warehouse apparently identified a second or first century BC jug offered for £4,000-£6,000 ($6,700-$10,000) at Christie’s, and a third century pottery pyxis (cosmetic pot) offered for £3,000-£5,000 ($5,000-$8,400) at Bonhams. Earlier this year, the US government seized a $4m (£2.4m) ancient Roman statue in a New York warehouse – it too had passed through Becchina’s hands.
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.

Subhash Kapoor, an art smuggler, is accused of running a major smuggling racket from South India. He has helped many international collectors and museums illegally acquire millennia old Chola bronzes and exquisite sculptures. Ongoing investigations have led to the discovery of 2622 items worth Rs 800 crore smuggled out of India. Despite all this collectors and museums across the world are refusing to divulge information about their illegal acquisitions of valuable Indian art.

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.


Bonhams and Christie’s say that they had done research on their pieces, but were hampered by Italian authorities’ refusal to make the photographic database available to auction houses: “While we have a careful due diligence process in all other respects we have no way, without the co-operation of the Carabinieri, of checking this particular database. This case illustrates why that co-operation would be helpful,” said a spokesperson for Christie’s. As for the Roman statue, it was put on display in a New York art fair last year – but failed to sell. The US authorities are hoping to return it to Italy.
×