Stolen Art: The Illegal Antiquities Trade Is Still Going Strong

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

National Geographic Magazine recently ran an article highlighting how rampant tomb raiding and trade in stolen antiquities still is. I know what you're thinking. Tomb raiding is nothing new — the looting of ancient art has been going on for hundreds of years. So, why is it being written about and highlighted now? What's changed? 

The answer: war and politics.

The political unrest in Egypt has meant that police, who were patrolling and protecting ancient historic sites, have been pulled away to other parts of the country, leaving the sites open to looters. And the looters have taken full advantage. New holes have been dug all over ancient tombs in the country — so many in fact that they are visible in satellite imagery! 

And, many believe that artifacts that have recently been salvaged by terrorist organizations are being used to fund their activities. 

Which leads to an even more complex issue: Who is buying these stolen antiquities?

You may be surprised to learn that many of them are being bought up by reputable museums and art galleries both from black market and legitimate sales. Museum curators often make the argument that if they don't purchase the antiquities, they will disappear into private collections or risk being mishandled and destroyed by looters. But, this also means that these museums could inadvertently be funding terrorist organizations — I told you it was complex. 

Creating false documents for stolen items is also becoming more common, meaning that looted items are appearing in legit auction houses without the buyers even knowing that the objects were stolen. 

It's the wild west out there for those seeking to stop the flow of stolen archeological items. 

If you want to learn more about this world, check out one of the books below. These are all fantastic reads and give you some insight into the history behind looting and what's being done about it now. 

  1. Loot: The Battle Over The Stolen Treasures Of The Ancient World
    For centuries, the Western world has plundered priceless treasures from the ancient world in order to fill their museums and galleries. Now, for the first time, the countries where many of these ancient civilizations originated are fighting back. Countries like Greece, Egypt, Turkey and Italy are taking on powerhouses like the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The British Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum causing everyone to ask the question; Who does history belong to?
  2. Hot Art: Secret World of Stolen Art
    Author Joshua Knelman is an award-winning journalist and editor who immerses himself in the shadowy world of art theft that takes him all over the world and through a web of corruption, secrecy, and violence. He delves into the lives of both professional thieves and the people that chase them, revealing that (though it may not make it to the front page of the newspaper) art theft is no fringe activity.
  3. The Medici Conspiracy
    A real-life conspiracy, this book looks at the illicit, secret journey of looted antiquities that have been raided from tombs in Italy and made their way into some of the world's biggest and most prestigious museums. 
  4. Master Thieves: The Mystery of The Gardner Museum Art Heist
    Investigative journalist Stephen Kurkjian has written the definitive, revealing history of the famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist that took place 25 years ago. The book takes a look at the investigations, theories, blunders, and complex web of the Boston mafia that all contributed to the paintings being stolen and remaining hidden for all this time.

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Reads For The Road: "Master Thieves—The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off The World's Greatest Art Heist" by Stephen Kurkjian

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

Investigative journalist Stephen Kurkjian has written the definitive, revealing history of the famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist that took place 25 years ago. Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist takes a look at the investigations, theories, blunders, and complex web of the Boston mafia that all contributed to the paintings being stolen and remaining hidden for all this time.

After twenty-five years, the biggest art theft in world history is still an open case… no one has been arrested and nothing has been recovered. In fact, there hasn’t even been a single confirmed sighting of the thirteen stolen pieces.
— page 217 of "Master Thieves"

On the night of the theft, two men disguised as police officers gained entry to the museum through the back entrance. They tied up the two security guards, and, wearing masks, ran through the museum smashing glass and cutting priceless works of art from their frames. They then disappeared into the night without a trace and despite the local police, the FBI, investigative journalists, and even members of the mob making inquiries; there has been no trace of these paintings.

The heist is second on the FBI’s list of the longest unsolved art thefts in the world.

Amongst the stolen works was a priceless Rembrandt that is thought to be the most valuable work of art currently missing from any museum in the world.

Well almost all investigative techniques have been exhausted in the search for the missing paintings; the last one that both the FBI and the museum are relying on is the public. The hope is that by getting the word out in the press and social media, there will be a tip that will lead to the recovery of the paintings.

Oh, and did I mention that there is a $5 million reward for any tip that leads to the recovery of the works and a promise that the tipster will never be prosecuted!?

Here’s hoping that the reward money and Kurkjian’s book will help generate even more interest that will lead to the recovery of this missing piece of art history. 

The Mind-Blowing Paintings Of Ben Johnson

by Lindsay Shapka in ,

Mirador de Lindaraja, Ben Johnson, 2013. acrylic on canvas (image source)

British artist Ben Johnson is in no rush to get his paintings done. In fact, he has spent the equivalent of 17 years on one painting alone! 

He is best known for his works that show intricate architectural spaces, and large-scale city skylines from places like Hong Kong, London (you can see this one at the National Gallery in London), Jerusalem, and Liverpool. 

These layers of paint create incredible works, but Johnson has said that these creations are not something that he does for fun, but something he feels compelled to do. 

The BBC recently interviewed him for an upcoming exhibit. Click the link below to learn more about him and see him at work.

Is Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling at The Vatican Under Threat?

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

The Sistine Chapel recently celebrated its 500th Birthday and, along with a huge party, it also got a warning — it may soon have only a limited amount of visitors.

More than 20,000 people a day — that's 5 million a year — visit the chapel, making it THE MOST visited room in the world! That's a lot of people packed into a space that is only 130 feet long and around 143 feet wide (approx. the same measurements that are recorded in the Bible for The Temple of Solomon).

Though many of these visitors are respectful cultural-tourists, more and more they are herds of people who are there only to say that they were, know little about the value of what they are looking at, and have no qualms about using flashes to take photos (camera flashes damage the pigments in the paintings) or even touch the work (NOT GOOD).

According to Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums:

"The anthropic pressure with dust, the humidity of bodies, carbon dioxide produced by perspiration can cause discomfort for the visitors and, in the long run, damage to the paintings." (From the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano)

The Sistine Ceiling by Michelangelo          Vatican City

Interestingly, if he were still alive, Michelangelo himself may not have cared if the work was damaged.

He hated it.

In 1508, he was ordered by Pope Julius to redecorate the ceiling which pulled him away from what he loved most — sculpture. In a letter to one of his friends, he called the work "a miserable job" and wrote, "I'm not a painter".

Not someone to do anything halfway, he mastered the fresco technique and, despite hating every minute of it, created one of the most iconic works of all time.

More than 20,000 people a day—that’s 5 million a year—visit the chapel, making it THE MOST visited room in the world!

So, with human breath damaging this stunning chapel that is important to the pious, the artists, the historians, and mass tourism alike, what is the solution?


Apparently, the Vatican is searching for a high-end air purification system that will keep the work safe. Until a solution is found, constant restoration is the only other option other than limiting numbers or closing the doors of the chapel altogether.  

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