Tuesday 15 April 2014

Art looting and smuggling: A deadly business

Georgina Adam ('Art looting and smuggling: A deadly business ', BBC 15 April 2014 ) discuses the dark side of the antiquities trade ("Some antiquities are rumoured to be cursed; but those stolen and sold really do leave a trail of lawsuits – and sometimes bodies – in their wake")
The art the Nazis hated 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.
Those involved in it, at whatever level, are running the risk of becoming part of networks which involve some very nasty criminals indeed. The antiquities trade has, according to The New York Times, become so huge it is worth billions of dollars each year and the biggest international crime outside drug and arms trafficking.

The article mentions:
- the withdrawal in March 2014 by Bonhams of the Assyrian stele ("estimated at £600,000-£800,000 ($1m-$1.3m) [...] containing a curse in cuneiform")  suspected of being looted from eastern Syria at an unknown date.
-  Bonhams and Christie’s pulling smaller objects from their March sales this year, on presentation of evidence they'd passed through the hands of Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina.
- another Becchina piece ("a $4m (£2.4m) ancient Roman statue in a New York warehouse").
- "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 (sic) countries".
- The notorious ("£100m ($167m)") Sevso treasure
It is not entirely clear why this text bears the dramatic title it does, there were unexplained deaths associated with the Sevso Hoard, but other cases of deaths and injuries associated with this business (and there have been a few) are not mentioned.

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