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.
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)
So long as museums continue to spend money to acquire even well-provenanced antiquities, they will be signaling that antiquities are worth a lot of money whether well-provenanced or not. That in turn will drive continued circulation of recently-looted artifacts for less-fastidious collectors around the world. Museums should certainly make provenance info about objects acquired from dealers who have been arrested, they need to do much more than that if they want to make a real difference. To begin with, all provenance information about all artifacts that museums consider acquiring — not just about artifacts sold by arrested dealers, not just about artifacts acquired, but also artifacts looked at and refused because the provenance looked dodgy — should be made available for researchers and to the police. Beyond that, museums should shift themselves, and encourage collectors to shift, away from purchasing antiquities so as to reduce demand, and museums should think of ways in which they might generate financial support to help pay for more site guards. One way would be for museums to take out of storerooms and lease out artifacts that collectors would gladly pay to temporarily display (like the Palmyra sculpture the Boston MFA showed for the first time in decades to honor the decapitated Palmyra site director). Another way would be for museums to push collectors and dealers to join them to support the imposition of a tax on antiquities sales, with the revenues dedicated to funding better and more site protection and policing of the illicit trade.
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 Italian and other governments are becoming far more aggressive in seeking the repatriation of looted antiquities. Italy in particular waged a long legal battle against Getty curator of antiquities, Marion True, for acquiring illicitly exported pieces, although the case finally exhausted the statute of limitations. And in recent years numerous American museums – including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Boston’s Museum of Fine Art and the Getty in Los Angeles – have been forced to return looted antiquities to their host countries. These include the famed Etruscan Euphronios krater (wine bowl) dating from 515 BC and which was bought by the Met in 1972 for $1.2m. It turned out that this had also been handled by Medici, and the museum gave it back to Italy in 2006. Just this month, the Getty said it was returning a 12th-century Byzantine illuminated New Testament to the Greek Dionysiou monastery – from which it had disappeared more than 50 years ago.