To catch a culture thief

A vast global market in stolen and forged art and artefacts has only grown in the context of the pandemic, but technology and international policing may be catching up

On Art

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Late 2021 has seen a flurry of activity as a number of objects with contested provenances were returned to their countries of origin. In October, Jesus College, Cambridge became the first institution in the world to send back a Benin bronze, looted in 1897, when the sculpture of a cockerel it has held since 1906 was returned to Nigeria.

Aberdeen University quickly followed suit with the restitution of its head of an oba — king. And in France, the Quai Branly museum in Paris held a six day exhibition of 26 bronzes from Dahomey from its collection as a last hurrah before shipping them back to Africa.

According to Interpol, cultural property crime is on the increase

Meanwhile, the Gilbert Collection —1,200 items of precious metalwork and objets de vertu housed at the V&A in London — has returned to Turkey a gold Anatolian ewer (above) dating from 2,250 BC after it was found to have been linked with at least two known dealers in illicit antiquities before it was sold to the property dealer collector Arthur Gilbert in 1989. The V&A is a signatory to the Combating Illicit Trade guidelines which state that an institution “should reject an item if there is any suspicion about it, or about the circumstances surrounding it, after undertaking due diligence”, so the ewer had to go.

In the United States, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has also returned 248 smuggled antiquities to India, the majority of which were handled by Subhash Kapoor, a former Manhattan antiquities dealer, who is currently on trial in India charged with smuggling and theft.

This restitution comes after the National Gallery of Australia announced in July that it would return to India 13 items it had bought from Kapoor, who sourced pieces from across southern Asia, from Nepal and Afghanistan to Thailand and Cambodia. So far, more than 2,500 items have been recovered from his network of smugglers.

 In Africa, coins were the most counterfeited items

According to Interpol, cultural property crime is on the increase. A report collating data from 72 member countries reveals that in 2020 854,742 objects were seized globally — not just antiquities but also coins, medals, paintings, sculptures, rare books, maps and manuscripts. While more than half a million of these items were recovered in Europe their origins are widespread and fuelled by an increase in illicit excavations — up by 32 per cent since 2019 in Africa, 187 per cent in the Americas, and 3,812 per cent in Asia.

If the pandemic made archaeological and paleontological sites nigh on impossible to safeguard, Covid closures meant that thefts from museums were down: 95 per cent of the world’s museums shut temporarily at some point in 2020. Nevertheless, Frans Hals’s painting of Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer (1626) was stolen in Leerdam in the Netherlands (the third time the picture has been taken); Van Gogh’s Spring Garden, 1884, was extracted from the Singer Laren Museum; and paintings by Annibale Carracci, Salvator Rosa and Anthony van Dyck were pilfered from Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford. As the head of Interpol’s Works of Art unit put it: “As countries implemented travel restrictions and other restrictive measures, criminals were forced to find other ways to steal, illegally excavate and smuggle cultural property.”

One such alternative, counterfeiting, also continued apace. The report finds that some 4,000 forged objects were seized in 2020 (there is no data from the US so the actual number will be considerably higher). In Africa, coins were the most counterfeited items, in Asia it was archaeological pieces, while in Europe paintings and sculpture accounted for half the intercepted forgeries.

Some of the coins recovered by Operation Pandora

Although it is impossible to stop the trade in forged and stolen art and antiquities, Interpol and other agencies are concentrating on making it harder for purloined items to reach the open market. Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database has descriptions and pictures of 52,000 items — a relatively paltry number but it is growing. It has also just launched an app, ID Art, that gives access to the database.

It uses image recognition technology and has already been used to identify Roman gold coins stolen in Switzerland, a thirteenth century processional cross from Romania, as well as two Italian statues and a pair of Dutch paintings. If someone sees something at a fair or in a shop that catches their eye — for good reasons or bad — a quick click on the app will show whether it is on Interpol’s database, even if it can’t definitively prove a pure provenance.

Since 2016, Europol, Interpol and the World Customs Organisation have also been running Operation Pandora annually, which targets illicit trafficking. There has been criticism that previous iterations retrieved little of real value but in 2020, Pandora V marshalled customs and law enforcement authorities from 31 countries with border checks and investigations in auction houses, online sales and museums.

The result was 56,400 cultural goods seized, 300 investigations opened and 67 arrests made. Among those detained was a Spanish man responsible for the theft of 94 objects from churches; a Frenchman linked to 27,300 stolen archaeological artefacts; and in Greece the recovery of 5,533 ancient coins in a single raid. Not all the goods recovered had artistic worth: in Slovakia the authorities found several hundred Second World War live grenades.

However, numerous items will have escaped detection and some will eventually make it on to the dealer collector museum pathway. Some might even be handed back in years to come.

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