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.
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.
You always have to be a step ahead of them. Most of them you could pay off, but some you couldn't. I was cocky. I would show off in their faces sometimes. It was stupidity, but I saw the news of my smuggling in the papers and I liked it, it showed them I could still do it even though they were after me. Also I'd travel on fake passports and change my appearance. Instead of blue eyes I'd change them to brown with contacts, I'd dye my hair blonde... all those corny tricks. At that time they worked.
The looting and illicit export of art treasures is not a new problem. It’s happened whenever there have been armed conflicts during which victorious troops plundered churches, temples and other buildings. Germany carried out massive looting in World War II. By the start of the 21st Century the trade in illicit antiquities had become so huge it was worth billions of dollars each year and was the biggest international crime outside drug and arms trafficking according to The New York Times. When a piece is stolen, the consequence for scholars is tragic, because essential information about the piece – where it was found, what else was with it – is lost forever.