In March 2014, Bonhams withdrew a 2,000-year old Assyrian stele estimated at £600,000-£800,000 ($1m-$1.3m) and which was slated for auction on 3 April. The broken stone slab depicting a praying king – and containing a curse in cuneiform which would fall on anyone removing it from its site – was suspected of being looted from eastern Syria at an unknown date. The top half of the slab has been in the British Museum since the late 19th Century. Bonhams says that its piece was withdrawn for “further study”.
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.
Pieces started filtering onto the London art market in the 1980s and a British aristocrat, the Marquess of Northampton, formed a consortium to buy 14 of them, along with the late Peter Wilson, at the time chairman of Sotheby’s. Forged documents from Lebanon were produced to give a provenance to the treasure, and it was put up for sale in New York in 1990 at a price of $50m. However immediately three countries – Hungary, Croatia and Lebanon – claimed the cache as being from their territories. The works were hurriedly withdrawn from sale.
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It didn't seem to calm him down. Maybe he was claustrophobic, or just upset at the prospect of getting stuck in customs? Celian was starting to feel bad for him; he gently put him in the box and said in a softer tone : "Take it easy there buddy. I've worked in a post office before, I can handle it. I'll make sure you're delivered in no time! oh and don't worry, I won't tell anyone about your tastes in music..."
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.
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.”
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.