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ART & AVARICE : In the Cutthroat Art Trade, Museums and Collectors Battle Newly Protective Governments Over Stolen Treasures

November 12, 1989|STANLEY MEISLER | Stanley Meisler, a reporter in The Times' Washington Bureau, has been a Times correspondent in Nairobi, Mexico City, Madrid, Toronto and Paris.

IN JUNE, 1988 ,Peg L. Goldberg, a 50-year-old Indianapolis art dealer, arrived in Amsterdam to decide whether to buy a painting on the market advertised as a work of Amedeo Modigliani. Paintings by Modigliani, who died penniless and alcoholic in Paris in 1924, are worth millions these days, making them ideal for forgery. Although not experienced in the stratosphere of multimillion-dollar paintings, Goldberg quickly dismissed the Modigliani as a fake. "My gut instinct was that it wasn't right," she explained later. Her wisdom would prove disastrously ironic.

Goldberg turned her attention instead to other art in Amsterdam. She met and was charmed by Michel van Rijn, 39, a Dutch art dealer with the same last name as his countryman, the artist Rembrandt. "He was very intelligent, very articulate, very well read," she recalled later. "We had a great time talking about many things. I asked him if he was descended from Rembrandt, and he indicated that he was and also that his mother's side of the family is Rubens."

Van Rijn dazzled Goldberg with photographs of four sections of a large Byzantine mosaic dating from the 6th Century. The mosaics, each about 2 feet square, depicted the young Jesus Christ, apostles Matthew and James, and an archangel. In the photographs, tiny chips of colored glass infused the portraits with remarkable color, shading and detail. Van Rijn told Goldberg that the mosaics had been removed from the rubble of a church on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus that had been destroyed in the fighting between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. He claimed that they were owned by a Turkish archeologist who had received permission from the Turkish Cypriot government to take them with him to Munich. He said that the archeologist, sickly and in need of cash, was ready to sell them. When Goldberg asked the price, Van Rijn replied, "Three million dollars."

Goldberg had fallen in love with the mosaics. She says she checked with various agencies, but not with the government of Cyprus, to see whether the works might be stolen and was told that they were not. Then, using a loan negotiated by telephone from an Indianapolis bank, she bought the mosaics on July 7 for $1,080,000.

About six months later, two dealers representing Goldberg approached Marion True, curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, and offered to sell the same mosaics--at a huge profit. "I had not formed a view as to the value of the mosaics," True said later, "but I can tell you when I read the price of $20 million, I said, 'Holy doodle.' "

Not only did True turn down Goldberg's offer, but she alerted the Cypprus government, an act that landed Goldberg in a civil case in U.S. federal court and shed more light than ever before on the shadowy, hypocritical and lucrative world of plundered art. Whether Goldberg had been naive or greedy, her actions and testimony exposed how easy it is, for a price, to pick up illicit art and cart it to the United States. If upheld on appeal, the decision in the case by U.S. District Judge James E. Noland to return the mosaics to Cyprus should dampen the ardor of dealers. Few are likely now to handle a piece of stolen art that can be so obviously claimed by its original owner.

Plundered treasures are in wide circulation. Looters, according to some estimates, steal a piece of art or memento of history from Italy every half-hour. Nigeria long ago lost its struggle to staunch the hemorrhage of carvings. Magnificent pieces vanish continually from the temples of India and Cambodia. Unguarded pre-Columbian sites are strewn throughout Latin America, ripe for pillaging. "There are 50,000 archeological sites in Mexico," says Pablo F. Marentes, the cultural minister of the Mexican Embassy in Washington. "You would have to have a whole army to protect them."

Despite widespread laws against plundering, looters, egged on by astronomical prices, hunt everywhere for untapped troves. Suspicious classical sculpture shows up in respectable museums all the time. No one really knows how much smuggled art is sold. "How do you measure illicit traffic?" asks Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a clearinghouse in New York for information about stolen art. Others have guessed that $1 billion to $3 billion worth of stolen art, much of it antiquities, is smuggled every year. That indicates an annual traffic in antiquities of at least hundreds of millions of dollars. Dealers, claiming they must protect the privacy of their clients, often sell antique pieces without offering what is known as a provenance--a detailed list of previous owners. Not every Greek or Roman or Egyptian or pre-Columbian statue without this kind of pedigree is a piece of plunder, however. "But if a provenance is not given," says Lowenthal, "you have to wonder if it has not come out from under the ground recently and then been smuggled across a border."

Inside a Shadowy World

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