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.
Morland was heir to a Quaker dynasty and lived a gilded youth: his father was a renowned physician and his mother was a key figure in modern art, friend of George Orwell and Henry Moore. At 6ft 3in tall, good-looking and well-connected, he skied for England, had a beautiful wife and children, a London des-res, a farmhouse in Malta and the world at his feet.
It may come as a surprise to even the most art-attuned earthlings that the art world actually extends beyond the limits of our home planet. Unknown to many dealers, curators, and other art-loving terrestrials, there is a micro museum on the moon. Conceived of by artist Forrest Myers in 1969, the Moon Museum was established on the lunar surface after works by six contemporary artists arrived with the Apollo 12 mission, the second moon landing. Drawings by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, and Myers were inscribed onto a ¾-by-½-inch ceramic chip, which then hitched a ride to the moon, covertly affixed to the leg of the Intrepid lunar lander.
But Scotland Yard were onto him, and he was arrested while awaiting delivery of large importation. He skipped bail and fled abroad, fitted out a wooden ketch, loaded it with a ton-and-a-half of cannabis resin and crossed the Atlantic, using a sextant and dead reckoning. He eventually sailed up the Hudson and unloaded to a New York distributor, only to be caught in chase through the streets of Manhattan and sentenced to six years in a penitentiary.
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.
Simon accumulated a significant private art collection which included works of the Impressionists, Old Masters, modern and native art. In the 1960s, he spent $6 million on artworks – an inventory of slightly less than 800 objects – and real estate – a building at 18 East 79th Street – from the Duveen Gallery in Manhattan, which specialized in old masters. Scholars including the critic Clement Greenberg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Theodore Rousseau studied the Duveen purchases for Simon and were able to identify numerous misattributions. Simon ended up selling much of the collection and only kept around 130 objects, primarily paintings, a handful of sculptures, a few porcelains, and a cape purportedly worn by Charles IV of Spain. However, his collection holds three autographed Rembrandt paintings, considered highly important works of Rembrandt in Southern California.
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.