February 16, 2011

The Journal of Art Crime: Essayist Patrick Hunt on Missing Miniatures from Priceless Illuminated Manuscripts

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

In the fourth issue of The Journal of Art Crime, essayist Patrick Hunt writes about theft to medieval vellum pages in “Missing Miniatures from Priceless Illuminated Manuscripts” even at monasteries situated in the Swiss Alps and in cave sanctuaries in Nepal.

Patrick Hunt has followed “several of his life-long dreams” – archaeologist, art historian and author – “for the last 20 years at Stanford University”, starting as a Visiting Scholar in 1992 and teaching regularly since 1994. He has directed Stanford’s Alpine Archaeology Project since 1994 and publishes on a wide variety of subjects, from archaeology to art history and related humanities topics.
ARCA blog: Dr. Hunt, you write in your essay that in Bangkok a publisher of a book recording Nepalese religious art thefts was robbed in 1986 of 80 original photographic slides that evidenced the destruction of art. Can you guess as to the motivation of the thieves? Do you often think that they have no shame? Or can you imagine that the sale of stolen art is so great that no wonder these items are stolen?

Dr. Hunt: I wish an appreciation for beauty motivated such wanton destruction in the case of Nepalese religious art, but as usual in art theft, greed for highest profit margin seems unmitigated by respect for cultural treasures in their rightful contexts, however remote. In Bangkok, it was likely the associates of the thieves who wanted to remove any evidence of a crime having been committed so authorities would have a tougher time proving provenance as well as to facilitate sale to unsuspecting buyers for a “clean bill of health”. Organized crime – hidden behind “professional” moles - may often be involved, but the trite adage still applies: if no demand existed, supply would shrink accordingly. In some cases, the desire to collect something exotic that may even remind one of a wonderful trip may generate a legitimate desire to purchase a sentimental keepsake of distant travel, but these are not applicable motivations when thieves shamelessly rip religious art out of shrines solely for resale several continents away. For me, the clue that organized crime was involved in Svayambhunath was the murder of the priest trying to protect the site. Collecting is full of such shoals, so caveat emptor. If most collectors, usually decent people, only knew the trail of blood, they would generally shy away, and criminals know this. Plus, unfortunately provenance is simple to fake unless would-be collectors spend a lot of money to verify their sources.

ARCA blog: You cite one of the most “egregious gangster-like robberies” as the 2004 assault with a stun gun on a rare books librarian at Transylvania University Library that ended with the theft of rare books valued between $500,000 and $750,000 and the arrest of four college students who were apprehended when they tried to sell the material to Christie’s auction house in New York. This case, you say, was “ludicrously amateur” – what motivated these college students to do something like this? Were they prosecuted and jailed? What are the consequences for book theft?

Dr. Hunt: These four college kids – all of 20 years old - were just plain stupid. I don’t want to systematically categorize such acts as frathouse follies although it’s tempting in this caper. This kind of brazenness can at times be pinpointed to alcohol-emboldened macho dares, and such perpetrators are commonly puerile males who were either never caught or substantively punished for lesser pranks. But it’s still an amoral response to cultural relativism to think a rare library collection is fair game. In this case, they were unlikely to be intellectuals who knew the books well; they were not young academics who normally fully respect public opportunity to use resources within a library, where special collections are also conserved and cared for rightly. But they did get caught, thanks to their inability to foresee that reference librarians are well-educated people who know how to do their research. Plus, having assaulted the librarian with a stun gun added incentives to catch them when they rashly impersonated known book dealers in communications with Christie’s. After pleading guilty, they were ultimately each sentenced to 87 months in December, 2005.

ARCA blog: You write that in 1995 an honored medieval professor researching at the Vatican Library cut out several illuminated 14th century leaves with fine miniature paintings from a Vatican codex that had been commissioned and annotated by Petrarch. Is it only about the money?

Dr. Hunt: Unlike the college students, this 1995 theft is probably more complicated. Here, a true bibliophile, a respected medieval studies professor who knew the material better than nearly anyone in the world, lapsed into a form of early dementia at age 68. It reminds me of a fascinating book by an author acquaintance, Allison Hoover Bartlett's The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession (Riverhead Books, New York, 2009). Obsession and even emotional hardship can drive otherwise moral people to do horrible things that would normally be unthinkable to them. Here in the case of Professor Anthony Melnikas, motivation is still largely a mystery, but it doesn’t seem to be entirely about money even though the priceless Petrarch leaves ended up with a book dealer before being spotted and returned to the Vatican. His likely dementia does not in any way excuse the crime, and we should hold such scholars who have almost unlimited access to an even higher responsibility.

ARCA blog: You tell of $750,000 book theft from Harvard, $1 million stolen from books at University of California at Los Angeles, and that many more books have probably been mutilated but are still unaccounted. Recovery is dependent upon perusing likely dealers and even antiquarian book fairs where such missing medieval art may turn up. If one of our readers sees something suspicious, what steps should be taken?

Dr. Hunt: The first step I recommend is to contact the parent body of this blog, ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes Against Art), as well as the ALA (American Library Association) because they regularly report library thefts once recognized. The second step might be to contact the FBI if it involves any possible element of organized crime, which sadly is already deeply involved, especially in art theft for money laundering. But I urge anyone in the latter instance to be very careful because crime cartels show little value for human life and snoopy people can disappear. Alert the right authorities and then get out of the way. The major auction houses are doing more due diligence these days, so less visible places might be venues where stolen rare books turn up more readily. The old canard about suspiciously low prices for rare books or possibly purloined medieval illuminations cut out from their pages, like anything else, is apropos: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. In my Stanford courses like “Plundered Art” and in my books and articles, I find the forensic side fascinating but as always, truth about human behavior is ever more strange than fiction. Even if it’s less than 0.1% of the population who perpetrate brazen art crimes, one of my great mystery crime author friends, Ridley Pearson, reminds that you just can’t as easily make this stuff up. Justice may be slow, but unlike melted-down gold and silver, if the work is not destroyed – which would be totally counter-productive - the book trail can usually be followed.
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