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.
Pieces started filtering onto the London art market in the 1980s and a British aristocrat, the Marquess of Northampton, formed a consortium to buy 14 of them, along with the late Peter Wilson, at the time chairman of Sotheby’s. Forged documents from Lebanon were produced to give a provenance to the treasure, and it was put up for sale in New York in 1990 at a price of $50m. However immediately three countries – Hungary, Croatia and Lebanon – claimed the cache as being from their territories. The works were hurriedly withdrawn from sale.
Are the days of buying antiquities over? They do not need to be. As long as museums set a high ethical standard for collecting and establish responsible research practices that discourage the circulation of recently-looted objects, there is no reason not to continue to acquire antiquities. The arrest of Nancy Wiener serves as a serious reminder of the pitfalls of acquiring poorly-documented works of art, and the benefits to the art world of buying only those objects with an extensive and verifiable collecting history. Rather than being subject to investigation and seizure, well-researched objects are sure to remain in museum collections for the enjoyment of future generations of visitors.
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.
E was established in the international art market, as well as the black market at the time. He must have seen some potential in me. Obviously you had to take risks in the art smuggling world, and he probably saw me as somebody who would take them, which was indeed true. I had a Dutch passport as well, which I'm sure didn't hurt. So E wanted me to take these stolen antique byzantine oil lamps and crucifixes back with me to Holland. I did, and sold them for top dollar to private collectors in Europe.
The reality is, the presence of the Moon Museum in outer space has yet to be confirmed by subsequent lunar missions. It may even sound like something ripped from the pages of a pulp science fiction novel, or from the annals of conspiracy theories, rather than art-historical fact. But if we are to believe the telegram Myers received two days before the Apollo 12 launch, “‘YOUR ON’ A.O.K. ALL SYSTEMS GO,” signed “JOHN F,” our planet’s nearest satellite may also be the most distant museum in our universe.
It was, but things changed later when I went to the Jos Plateau in Nigeria. I saw these incredible Nok terracotta heads that they bury in the graves for their ancestors. They were potentially million-dollar pieces and I was there to buy them. But then I met the people-the Jos Plateau is very cold at night so we sat around campfires-and they hardly had anything to eat, yet they sit up all night to protect their ancestor's culture from vultures who want to come and dig and steal and kill to get the terracottas. That touches your heart. You can't deal with those things. You don't want to have people dying for art. It was all just a game, but then I was on top of that hill and suddenly confronted with reality. If that doesn't change you, you aren't a human being.
Though NASA never technically rejected the Moon Museum, they didn’t exactly approve it either. Myers was unable to get the agency to officially commit to his project, so instead he devised a Plan B. After contacting the non-profit organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which strove to connect engineers and artists for projects involving new technologies, he made contact with scientist Fred Waldhauer of Bell Laboratories, himself a founding member of E.A.T. Using techniques typically employed to create telephone circuits, scientists at Bell etched the six artists’ drawings onto an iridium-plated ceramic chip the size of a postage stamp. Waldhauer then convinced an engineer at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation who was working on the lunar lander to attach the chip to its leg, hiding it within the layers of gold insulation blankets wrapped around the spacecraft.
Bonhams and Christie’s say that they had done research on their pieces, but were hampered by Italian authorities’ refusal to make the photographic database available to auction houses: “While we have a careful due diligence process in all other respects we have no way, without the co-operation of the Carabinieri, of checking this particular database. This case illustrates why that co-operation would be helpful,” said a spokesperson for Christie’s. As for the Roman statue, it was put on display in a New York art fair last year – but failed to sell. The US authorities are hoping to return it to Italy.