Morland came out to find his profits had gone. Old friends shunned him and the family firm went bust. So for the next thirty years he became a professional smuggler, plying his trade across the Mediterranean, shifting tons of hash from Berber tribesmen to gangland heavies and alternating between periods of sudden wealth and bleak incarceration. In 1980, 1990 and again in 2000 he was caught and jailed for long terms. Now he lives in ‘pretty good poverty’ teaching pottery classes. This is his amazing story.
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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.
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.
Oh fuck yes! Look, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but the art market is a billion-dollar industry. If it [smuggling] is not tolerated on certain levels, the banks would never reach their peaks. I had people on my payroll at customs... it was barely even necessary to smuggle because you could bring it in almost officially so long as you pay a little bit to the right people.
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.
Michel: Well, by the time I was 15 I had been kicked out of seven schools. I must have been ADHD or whatever, because I fucking hated school and was always looking to start something for myself. So I began importing cheap hippie coats from Istanbul. They were basically sheepskins turned inside out with some sleeves on them. I began selling them in this hashish bar in Holland. They sold like fucking hotcakes. So I was going up and down between Istanbul and Holland quite a lot. Business was going well, and I was eventually approached in Istanbul by a man named E.
Subhash Kapoor, an art smuggler, is accused of running a major smuggling racket from South India. He has helped many international collectors and museums illegally acquire millennia old Chola bronzes and exquisite sculptures. Ongoing investigations have led to the discovery of 2622 items worth Rs 800 crore smuggled out of India. Despite all this collectors and museums across the world are refusing to divulge information about their illegal acquisitions of valuable Indian art.
The India Pride Project, a volunteer group set up after the Indian governments’ shoddy investigations and lame attempts to bring back smuggled art treasures frustrated, has taken to social media and online activism. Over the last four years, this group has painstakingly built a volunteer sourced image archive of Indian art works now being housed in overseas museums and art auction houses.
In 1972, Simon bought a tenth-century South Indian bronze Nataraja, or dancing Shiva, from New York dealer Ben Heller for $900,000. The Indian government declared that the statue had been stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu and smuggled abroad. Although Simon was quoted (New York Times, 12 May 1973) as saying that he had knowingly bought smuggled art ("Hell yes, it was smuggled. I spent between $15 and $16 million in the last two years on Asian art, and most of it was smuggled") he vehemently denied the quote (Los Angeles Times, 13 May 1973), declaring that the work had been legally imported into the United States. In the same Los Angeles Times article, he stated, "As a collector deeply and emotionally involved in art, I deplore the rape of art treasures of any country." In 1976 Simon reached an amicable agreement with the Union of India whereby he agreed to return the Nataraja. In exchange, the Indian government agreed that Simon could keep and display the bronze in his museum for nine years first.
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.