On 21 December 2016, art dealer Nancy Wiener was arrested in New York on charges of possessing stolen property and conspiring to traffic in illicit antiquities. Her gallery, which specialised in south and southeast Asian antiquities, had been raided by federal agents during Asia Week last March, at which time several sculptures were seized. The seizures and her arrest can be seen as part of a broader effort to crack down on the illicit trade in Asian antiquities. In 2011, for example, Indian authorities arrested the Manhattan-based dealer Subhash Kapoor on charges of theft and smuggling, while over the last few years, museums and auction houses have voluntarily repatriated a number of sculptures that had been trafficked from Cambodia. The art world has long recognised that Mediterranean antiquities are at high risk of theft and looting, and participants in the trade are now on notice that archaeological materials from around the globe are to be bought and sold with extreme caution.
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.
We keep finding such buried treasures routinely to this day in South India. Such discoveries yield multiple centuries old bronzes. Some constitute entire bronze sets from temples – buried to prevent them from the onslaught of iconoclasts in the mid 14th century. We might never know where this particular bronze work of Alingana Murthy was found. We might never know if any other bronze works were found along with it and smuggled out of India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott talk alongside a statue of the Dancing Shiva ahead of a meeting in New Delhi, 5 September, 2014. The $5 million bronze statue was returned to India from the National Gallery of Australia after it emerged that it had been stolen from a Tamil Nadu temple. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
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.