Create an account to receive our newsletter, course recommendations and promotions.Register for free
Ahead of the free online course Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime from the University of Glasgow, Meg Lambert, a teaching assistant at the university, takes us through some of the most famous and costly incidences of art crime.
The modern trade in looted and stolen antiquities is big money – estimates range from $2 billion to $6 billion. But these numbers are misleading – by its very nature as a black market, statistics about art crime are almost impossible to obtain. While we can’t know the true financial scope of the illicit antiquities trade, sale prices can give us a glimpse of just how much some people are willing to pay for an object, and how much they’re willing to cover up in order to sell it.
Below are some of the most famous cases of art crime in which looted and stolen objects have been sold, or nearly sold, for enormous amounts of money.
The Euphronios Krater, or the “Hot Pot”, is a red-figure calyx krater (a bowl used for mixing wine with water) that was made in Athens circa 515 BC. It is thought to have been excavated illegally in 1971 by tombaroli (‘tomb robbers’). The pot was allegedly sold to infamous dealer Giacomo Medici for around $88,000, before being smuggled into Switzerland, and sold again to dealer Robert Hecht for $350,000. In 1972, the krater was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for $1 million. At the time, this was the most a museum had ever paid for a single object.
However, the New York Times published a series of articles that began widespread questioning of the krater’s true provenance, which was largely withheld by the museum. The matter seemed resolved when the Met put forward evidence that Hecht had sold the krater for collector and dealer Dikran Sarrafian, whose father had obtained the krater in London in 1920. However in the 1990s Italian investigations of Giacomo Medici and Robert Hecht began uncovering contradictory evidence. Photographs found in Medici’s storehouse and a handwritten account found in Hecht’s Paris apartment supported the argument that the krater had in fact been looted.
In 2006, the Metropolitan reached an agreement with Italy for the return of twenty objects, including the krater. The Euphronios krater arrived in Italy in 2008, where it is now housed permanently at the Villa Giulia in Rome.
You can read the full story about the Euphronios Krater on the Trafficking Culture website.
In 1988, art dealer Peg Goldberg travelled to Europe to shop for works for her gallery in Indianapolis. She was presented four mosaics by dealers Michel van Rijn and Robert Fitzgerald, and their lawyer, Ronald Faulk. She was told the seller was a Turkish archaeologist, who had found the mosaics in an abandoned church in North Cyprus. The mosaics had allegedly been exported to Munich with the permission of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). In reality, the mosaics were originally from the church of Panaya Kanakariá in Cyprus, and had been reported stolen by the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) Director of Antiquities in 1980.
Goldberg was shown fake export documents, and claimed to have made efforts to determine that the mosaics had not been reported stolen. However, she failed to contact the TRNC, the RoC, Interpol, or experts in Byzantine art to confirm this. The mosaics were ultimately bought for $1,080,000 by Goldberg, Fitzgerald, van Rijn, and Faulk, who agreed to split the profits on the resale, with Goldberg set to receive 50%.
Back in Indianapolis, Goldberg attempted to sell the mosaics for a whopping $20 million. She approached various museums, among them the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Marion True, then curator at the Getty, was suspicious about the mosaics’ origin. She contacted the Republic of Cyprus, which confirmed that this was an incidence of art crime and the mosaics had indeed been stolen. When Goldberg refused to return the mosaics at their request, they began legal proceedings. Goldberg lost both the initial trial and the appeal, and in 1991, the mosaics were returned without any compensation to Goldberg. They are now housed in the Byzantine museum in Nicosia.
The Getty Aphrodite is a limestone and marble statue of a female deity, which dates from 425-400 BC. It is thought to have been dug up illegally in 1977-8 around the ruins of the ancient city of Morgantina in Sicily. In 1986, London dealer Robin Symes bought it for $400,000 from Swiss resident Renzo Canavesi, who claimed it had been in his family since 1939. Two years later, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles bought the statue from Symes for $18 million.
Wary of art crime, in 2006 the Getty hired private investigators to look into Getty acquisitions. It was during this investigation that they found photographs sent by Canavesi, who had approached the Getty directly in 1996 in hopes of selling some “missing pieces” on the statue. In 2007, in light of evidence uncovered during the investigation, the Getty convened a seminar of international experts to determine the possible find spot of the Aphrodite. Not long after, the Getty agreed to return the Aphrodite to Italy. It arrived in December 2010, and can now be viewed in the museum of Aidone, the modern town nearest to Morgantina.
You can read more about the Getty Aphrodite on the Trafficking Culture website.
In the 1980s, local looters targeted the Peruvian site now known as Sipán, looking for gold treasures to sell. The site, which dates from 1 to 700 BC and is assigned to the Moche Culture, did not disappoint: it yielded hundreds of artefacts that quickly inspired a flurry of art crime as they found their way onto the international market. One of these was the gold backflap thought to have come from the elite tombs of the Huaca Rajada.
In 1997, the backflap was in the hands of smugglers Denis Garcia and Orlando Mendez, who were searching for a buyer. Garcia attempted to arrange a sale through an art brokerage firm in New York. Unfortunately for him, the company was part of an FBI undercover operation targeting art theft. Garcia was referred to an FBI agent in Philadelphia posing as an art broker. The agent contacted Garcia, who described the object and proposed a price of $1.6 million. Inevitably, Garcia and Mendez were arrested, along with Consul General of Panama Francisco Iglesias, who was helping to facilitate the sale. While Consul General Iglesias was released due to his diplomatic status, Garcia and Mendez pled guilty to interstate transportation of stolen property and smuggling. The backflap was returned to Peru in 1998.
You can read more about Sipán and its treasures on the Trafficking Culture website.
In 2008, the National Gallery of Australia bought the Dancing Shiva, or Nataraja, from art dealer Subhash Kapoor for $5 million. Kapoor, a Manhattan-based dealer, assured the museum he had purchased the statue from a Washington DC man in 2004. Despite warnings from art law expert Shane Simpon that the acquisition was risky, particularly due to the NGA’s own inadequate provenance research, the museum went ahead and bought the statue.
In actuality, the bronze was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Tamil Nadu, where it and other large bronze idols were worshiped before the temple fell into ruin. These statues were stolen by thieves hired by Sanjivi Asokan, the head of an idol smuggling ring. In 2006, the Shiva was sent to art dealer Subhash Kapoor and received in New York by Kapoor’s company Nimbus Imports Exports. Asokan was paid about $200,000 for his trouble, while his thieves were paid about $12,000. Kapoor displayed the piece in his Madison Avenue gallery, Art of the Past, until it was bought by the NGA in 2008. However, the museum would not have long to enjoy it.
In 2011, Kapoor was arrested at Frankfurt International Airport and extradited to Chennai, India in 2012 on charges of receiving stolen artefacts. Not long after, US federal authorities seized an estimated $100 million worth of ancient art linked to Kapoor and issued an arrest warrant for him in the United States for his role in an international antiquities smuggling network. Dozens of museums were found to have bought objects from Kapoor, chief among them the National Gallery of Australia. Though the NGA long denied that the Shiva had been exported illegally, ultimately the evidence was stacked against them. In 2014, the Shiva was returned to India. Asokan and the alleged thieves of Sivan Temple idols have all been arrested and are being tried in India alongside Kapoor.
You can read more about the Subhash Kapoor smuggling network and affected museums on the Chasing Aphrodite blog.
To find out more about art crime and the seedy underbelly of the art world, join the free online course Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime from the University of Glasgow now.
Images recreated using Creative Commons.