The Hidden World of Stolen Art and Artifacts

Mar 14, 2017

Where does the art you enjoy in any given exhibit come from?  The Department of Art and Art History at Washington and Lee in Lexington collaborated with the University’s Roger Mudd Center for Ethics to host a conference in early March that looks at the ethics of acquiring cultural heritage objects around the globe. It’s an open secret in the art world that many objects are stolen. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler filed this report.

An exhibit now on display at Washington & Lee’s Staniar Gallery depicts in photo-realistic paintings missing art and cultural objects --  sacred stone sculptures – that have been stolen over the years from Kathmandu, Nepal.  Except in artist Joy Lynn Davis’ rendering, the missing objects have been returned to their original location, painted in a conspicuous gold leaf.

MELISSA KERIN:  Joy is showing the realities of this widespread stealing in Kathmandu that’s been going on from the 1960s onward.

Melissa Kerin is an assistant professor of art history at W&L.  She says the show illustrates a problem in the art world that no one, until recently, has wanted to talk about.  But it’s been happening for centuries. And that is the widespread looting of cultural heritage objects from around the world – Nepal, Syria, Iraq, Native American communities here in the States. Pilfered objects from these places have a way of ending up in museums and galleries.

KERIN: Anything that you see in a museum or in a collection could have a dubious provenance. We need to begin to ask questions around who is entitled to own this stuff.

So how do stolen antiquities from Nepal find their way into a gallery in Berlin? A lot of countries lack the resources and infrastructure to properly safeguard their cultural heritage objects.  And the underground network can be difficult to track.  Only in the last ten years has there been a crackdown on questionable transactions.

KERIN: When we think about art and we think about museums and auction houses they often have this kind of pristine, unsullied aura about them.  And in fact there’s a very insidious underbelly.

A topic of discussion at the W&L conference was, what happens to a country such as Iraq or Syria when it loses so many antiquities through vandalism and theft?  A recent example: the destruction of the ancient Syrian site of Palmyra by ISIS. They blew up 2,000 year old temples, toppled arches, trafficked antiquities.

What happens, explains conference keynote speaker Neil Brodie of Oxford University, is that cultural identity weakens, memory weakens.  His own work as an archeologist has been impacted. He mentions working around a Bronze Age site in Greece that was badly looted in the ‘60s.

BRODIE: You can’t help but think all the time had it not been looted, instead of working around a hole in the ground we might be working around a unique, spectacular Bronze Age site which would have changed our understanding both of the Bronze Age in Greece and the wider Mediterranean area.

The illicit trafficking of cultural heritage objects has impacted art research itself. Melissa Kerin confronted this while researching wall paintings at a Buddhist temple on the border of India and Tibet.

KERIN: It compromises what I can say about any of these objects that I find.

She was concerned that revealing in her research where exactly the paintings came from could provide a treasure map for thieves.

KERIN: This is the reality of any art historian who works in the field.

It’s a complex problem with no one neat solution. Even repatriation – returning looted objects back to the original country – becomes tricky because there’s a chance they’ll be stolen again.

KERIN: The value of the object has been jacked up by the fact that that it has been ripped out of its context, placed on the Western market, put in a big museum somewhere in the West, so now we know, oh, this is super valuable in terms of monetary value.

And in many cases, it’s not at all clear who to give the artifact back to. Erin Thompson is a professor in the emerging field of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

ERIN THOMPSON: Plenty of objects have been smuggled out of Syria and have been seized in other countries, including the U.S., and we’re not sure who to give them back to. Do you give them back to the regime government who’s notable not only for human rights abuses and for selling antiquities to profit itself?

Western museums have a long history of hanging on to antiquities for so-called safekeeping.

THOMPSON: The British Museum has been saying since the 19th century, Oh, it’s not safe to return these objects to this place or that place, to Greece, to Nigeria.  So the desire to hang on to these very beautiful objects is so strong that I worry that we’ll never accept that it’s safe enough to send them back home.