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.
Thanks to the extraordinary value of art these days, supported by the need of the 1% to fill their homes with grand works, it is hardly surprising that criminals are attracted to this market. But let me suggest that current 3D printing technology may reduce the value of original art by allowing true “museum-quality” reproductions to be created at prices far below the cost of original or smuggled art, reducing the theft problem, while also allowing museums to expand their collections in an affordable way.
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.
Seeking a permanent home for his collection of over 4,000 objects, in 1972 he welcomed an overture from the financially troubled Pasadena Museum of Modern Art. He ultimately assumed control and naming rights, and in 1974 it was renamed the Norton Simon Museum. In 1987, the University of California, Los Angeles, announced an "agreement in principle" with Simon for the transfer to the university of the art collection owned by two Simon foundations – the Norton Simon Foundation and the Norton Simon Art Foundation. The plan was to keep most of collection in Pasadena, administered by UCLA, the Simon board and the Norton Simon Foundation. The university was to build a separate museum facility on campus for part of the collection. However, Simon withdrew his offer three months after the announcement was made.
But at-least for Indian antiquities, the 1969/70 cut-off is no holy grail. There are other legal provisions for ensuring the return of smuggled artifacts. These include the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 which can be read in addition to Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 or even the Indian Treasure Trove Act of 1878.
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.