Look, I've been shot at on three separate occasions, I've had guns on my head, I've had police chasing me... To survive I have been a chameleon. As you know, I speak many languages. Also, I'm not attached to anything. It's like living near a fault line-if you hear a noise, pack your things and get the fuck out of there. Don't become too accustomed to anything. I can sleep like a baby on a little field bed.
“Further, 232 objects comprising of brass and copper alloys, gold with enamel work, silver, stone and terracotta in possession of the Indian consulate were also inspected by the ASI officials. Among them, few were identified as antiquities, like the stone image of the Buddha of Mathura School, a terracotta image of the Buddha belonging to the Gupta period and a set of 10 copper plates engraved with Quranic verses of the late Mughal Period,” the ASI said.
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.
We now have images of the Shiva-Parvathy bronze in what appears to be a pre-repair condition. The color photograph is not from 1969. Further, the soil encrustations and damage are akin to those usually seen with freshly excavated bronze hoards. An expert collector especially of the stature of Dr Figiel with published works on Indian Metullurgy and Arms – especially given his seminal work “On Damascus Steel” in 1991, would have known that a bronze fresh from such an excavation in this condition must be immediately cleaned to stop advent of any bronze disease. He would have cleaned up the bronze as soon as he had acquired it.
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.
Buried treasure, mysterious deaths, looting, forged documents, secretive Swiss bank vaults and shadowy intermediaries. This is not a description of a Dan Brown thriller. It’s real life: the trade in illegally exported antiquities. As prices soar into the millions of dollars for the top pieces, so does the incentive to dig up treasures in Italy, Greece, Turkey and farther afield, pass them to “runners” who will sneak them illegally across borders, store them in a Swiss vault and then quietly slip them into the trade. The players in this murky world can make a fortune, but this is a dangerous game.