Hundreds of bronze works like the Alingana Murthy were buried for centuries and were almost lost to the world because those who buried them probably died during the invasions. The Alingana Murthy and Parvathi are coming back home to take their place – thanks to the India Pride Project. Hundreds of other priceless Indian art treasures await their turn.
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.

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.

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.


I'm not going to bullshit you. Single shipments from Russia were between one and three million, which in the 60s was a lot of money. And these were regular trips-twice a month. It was raining money so I made my base in Beirut. Moneywise Beirut was a free banking market, so you could exchange a million dollars completely open on the square and no one would ask any questions. Of course you had to play the cat and mouse game with Interpol.
So long as museums continue to spend money to acquire even well-provenanced antiquities, they will be signaling that antiquities are worth a lot of money whether well-provenanced or not. That in turn will drive continued circulation of recently-looted artifacts for less-fastidious collectors around the world. Museums should certainly make provenance info about objects acquired from dealers who have been arrested, they need to do much more than that if they want to make a real difference. To begin with, all provenance information about all artifacts that museums consider acquiring — not just about artifacts sold by arrested dealers, not just about artifacts acquired, but also artifacts looked at and refused because the provenance looked dodgy — should be made available for researchers and to the police. Beyond that, museums should shift themselves, and encourage collectors to shift, away from purchasing antiquities so as to reduce demand, and museums should think of ways in which they might generate financial support to help pay for more site guards. One way would be for museums to take out of storerooms and lease out artifacts that collectors would gladly pay to temporarily display (like the Palmyra sculpture the Boston MFA showed for the first time in decades to honor the decapitated Palmyra site director). Another way would be for museums to push collectors and dealers to join them to support the imposition of a tax on antiquities sales, with the revenues dedicated to funding better and more site protection and policing of the illicit trade.
Bonhams and Christie’s were also forced to pull smaller objects from their March sales this year, after they were alleged to have passed through the hands of two notorious antiquities smugglers, Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina. Both had been convicted of trafficking in looted objects, for which Medici was sentenced to 10 years in prison and paid a 10m euro fine – the largest ever imposed for such a crime by Italian prosecutors. Polaroid photos of an immense cache of objects in his Swiss warehouse apparently identified a second or first century BC jug offered for £4,000-£6,000 ($6,700-$10,000) at Christie’s, and a third century pottery pyxis (cosmetic pot) offered for £3,000-£5,000 ($5,000-$8,400) at Bonhams. Earlier this year, the US government seized a $4m (£2.4m) ancient Roman statue in a New York warehouse – it too had passed through Becchina’s hands.
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