Yale case is prime example of change in art theft attitudes, author says | Crain's Baltimore

Yale case is prime example of change in art theft attitudes, author says

Amid a sea change in attitudes of museum administrators toward possibly stolen art and artifacts, one director recently published a book calling on his counterparts in Connecticut and elsewhere to continue the progress.

Speaking the day of a signing event at Ferguson Library in Stamford, Gary Vikan said his book tracks an evolution from “wild west” ethics to one of heightened morality and sensitivity. Museum leaders should become advocates for places that may have been pilfered and work with concerned parties to ensure priceless objects are returned to their rightful owners, said Vikan, whose book is titled “Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director.”

There are an increasing number of museum curators and directors that won’t accept art without papers verifying its travels and proving it’s not stolen.

“There has been a pretty dramatic change,” Vikan told Crain’s Connecticut in a phone interview. “It’s even surprised me at times.”

There is still a lot of “hot” art circulating, said Vikan, who was director of Walters Art Museum in Baltimore from 1994 to 2013.

According to a Bloomberg News report in 2011, black market art deals total about $6.3 billion year.

Some art “thefts” are not thefts in the classic sense, said Vikan, adding that moral ambiguity is a frequent ingredient. He cited the widely publicized case involving the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and artifacts that Hiram Bingham III, a Yale graduate who went on to become a U.S. senator from Connecticut, discovered in Peru beginning in 1911.

Bingham’s excavation of the Inca mountain fortress at Machu Picchu had the consent of the government of Peru. Bingham, who wrote a best-selling book about his Peru adventures, promised to return the objects, which included pottery, jewelry and bones, but that didn’t occur during his lifetime. He died in 1956.

Yale and Peru reached a memorandum of understanding in 2007 aimed at repatriating the highest-quality items but the deal collapsed the following year, according to reports. Peru later sued Yale and the case made political waves all the way up to former Peru President Alan Garcia and President Barack Obama in 2011.

Yale ultimately returned all 5,400 items to Peru, with the Peruvian leader praising Yale for keeping the collection intact and not allowing it to become scattered in private collections all over the world.

The situation is an example of what properly channeled advocacy can accomplish, Vikan said. 

“People make promises and those promises are sometimes forgotten,” said Vikan, who was part of another case involving Peruvian artifacts. “People in my business are getting better at remembering their promises, which is a good thing.”

Art is meant to lift the spirit and that is thwarted when art is stolen, no matter how well-intentioned the expropriation might be, Vikan said.

Vikan and James Bash Cuno, another art world veteran who has written about ownership and morality, are “deep thinkers” who are helping reshape museum personnel attitudes, said Sam Quigley, director of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London.

“It’s not like doing a title search on a house,” he said. “No one has formal ownership of antiquities. These are quite picky issues. It’s murky. Sometimes you have to go with your gut.”

The New London museum has dealt mostly in modern works during Quigley’s two-plus years as director so the issue of antiquities ownership has not been an issue there, he said.

“The world is getting smaller,” Quigley said. “We have to be good neighbors. There are a different set of rules now.”

In one of his last official acts as director of the Baltimore museum, Vikan returned a “spectacular” gold monkey-head bead to the cultural attache at the Embassy of Peru in Washington, D.C., during a December 2011 ceremony. The bead was part of a necklace that had been in the Moche tomb site at Sipan, Peru, which was looted in 1987. It was sold, donated, displayed at museums and eventually seized by U.S. authorities on behalf of Peru.

Involvement by the Federal Bureau of Investigation helped rivet people’s attention to the matter, according to Vikan.

“…It’s true that principle was involved, but so was an FBI agent from the Criminal Investigative Division,” Vikan wrote in his recently published book. “In this case … I felt I had done the right thing. The necklace is a spectacular work of first importance to Peru, it had clearly come from a plundered site post-1970, and at least one other monkey head from the same set had recently returned to Peru. Like the Elgin Marbles, John Bourne’s gold monkey should be sent home, so that a great work of art might once again be made whole.”

Although no specific cases involving Connecticut are in Vikan’s book, the considerable collections at Yale and the state’s proximity to Boston and New York make it a target for art thieves and those wishing to hide stolen art, the author said.

One case to make local headlines was the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The Hartford Courant reported that reputed mobster Robert Gentile had been a person of interest in the theft, although two searches of Gentile’s Manchester home did not turn up any of the missing pieces.

The case resurfaced in the Boston Globe last week, with a report that Gentile was recently hospitalized while in federal custody but made no disclosures about the theft to his Hartford-based lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan.

FBI agents including some in the bureau’s New Haven office have been working on the Gardner case for years, partly because of the suspicion that some of the missing pieces were either moved through Connecticut or are somewhere within the state’s borders. An FBI representative declined to discuss the case, referring to previously issued news releases.

In another case, a $40,000 heist struck Yale’s Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life in 2009, according to media reports.

Yale’s museum security team is constantly monitoring art works and reviewing arrangements, said Joellen Adae, spokeswoman for the Yale University Art Gallery.

“We have an excellent security team here at the museum,” she said.

The New England Museum Association, whose membership includes 91 Connecticut museums and 540 Connecticut museum workers, will host a panel discussion titled “Caught on Camera: Museum Security Best Practices as Taught Through Real Video Surveillance Footage” during its three-day “Plug In: Museums and Social Action” annual conference next month in Mystic. The security panel will be held at 11 a.m. Nov. 10 at the Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa.

“Technological advances and building design has helped improve security in museums fortunate enough to be able to invest in them,” said Dan Yaeger, the Massachusetts-based museum association’s executive director.

October 5, 2016 - 10:27am