Francis Morland was one of Britain’s most talented young artists, a contemporary of David Hockney and Peter Blake and a leading member of the 1960s “New Generation” movement. At the same time he lived an even more remarkable secret life as the biggest drug trafficker in the UK. He stuffed his abstract sculptures full of Lebanese cannabis to ship to the lucrative American market, moved yachtloads of Moroccan hashish to Europe, and years before Howard Marks, became the country’s first recognised drug baron.
Uncovering a stolen object offers a museum the valuable if bittersweet opportunity to examine its past collection practices. Pinpointing exactly how that object slipped through the cracks can help ensure other stolen objects will not slide by in the future. While there is no failsafe way to avoid mistakes completely, there are concrete steps that can be taken to increase diligence before an acquisition is made. In particular, museums should draw a distinction between objects that are securely documented and those that are ‘said to be’ from a particular collection. Many of the objects Wiener sold, now under investigation, supposedly came from private European owners but had no real paper trail. Some of the sculptures that both she and Kapoor handled, which are alleged to have been stolen, were accompanied by signed declarations that they were outside their countries of origin before 1970. These attestations are now believed to be false. Verbal and written statements do not carry the same weight as documentation in an exhibition catalogue, sale record, or archival material.
“If it is true that they’ve succeeded... by some clandestine means,” NASA’s assistant administrator for public affairs, Julian Scheer, said in 1969, “I hope that the work represents the best in contemporary American art.”Indeed, each artist’s contribution to the Moon Museum is representative of his own signature style. On the top register, Warhol’s tongue-in-cheek depiction of his initials in the guise of a penis is positioned next to a crude line by Rauschenberg and Novros’s black square marked by angular lines. Below, a Mickey Mouse drawing by Oldenburg is flanked by Myers’s serpentine abstraction and Chamberlain’s circuit-like diagram. Existing in fewer than 20 editions, including one now owned by the Museum of Modern Art, the Moon Museum is also one of the 1960s’ rarest multiples.
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.
Despite every best effort, many museums have made acquisition mistakes in the past and unwittingly accessioned works of art that were stolen from storerooms or plundered from archaeological sites. No museum should deaccession an object without having a justifiable reason for doing so. If, however, an investigation turns up looted antiquities in a museum collection (for example, if photographs show an object shortly after it was illicitly removed from the ground, or if its provenance documentation was demonstrably forged), then a museum has an obligation to redress the break in the chain of that object’s ownership in some way. Usually such a resolution is achieved through a financial settlement with, or physical return to, the country of modern discovery. Museums hold their collections as public trusts, and no museum should wish knowingly to retain stolen property on behalf of the public.
Buried treasure, mysterious deaths, looting, forged documents, secretive Swiss bank vaults and shadowy intermediaries. This is not a description of a Dan Brown thriller. It’s real life: the trade in illegally exported antiquities. As prices soar into the millions of dollars for the top pieces, so does the incentive to dig up treasures in Italy, Greece, Turkey and farther afield, pass them to “runners” who will sneak them illegally across borders, store them in a Swiss vault and then quietly slip them into the trade. The players in this murky world can make a fortune, but this is a dangerous game.
×