Blog Subscription via

April 23, 2021

Stealing venerated relics: An ancient pastime that lives on today

The Cistercian abbey of San Galgano

The Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale - TPC) have recovered the Reliquary of San Galgano, a work possibly attributed to the 14th-century goldsmith Ugolino di Vieri.  The Medieval Christian object of faith was stolen from the Seminario Arcivescovile Siena more than 30 years ago, in 1989.

Over time, by accident and changes, little remains of San Galgano except for some of the church's relics and a fantastic sword which is a story unto itself.  Most of the accessory structures of the Cistercian abbey are gone, leaving us with only the roofless building's stone skeleton with its grouped piers and ribbed vaults.  Despite its ruin, it is an impressive Gothic architectural masterpiece and one of the most exquisite religious structures in Tuscany. 

Recovered along with ten other stolen works of art, the Reliquary of San Galgano's is believed to have been stolen as a theft to order.   And as sacrilegious as that may sound, given what reliquaries are used for, stealing venerated religious objects is not as uncommon as one would like to think.  

Nor should the theft of these types of liturgical items be underestimated, as their intrinsic worth is more than the sum of their antiquarian value.  Their uniqueness being more that just the costly materials they are made from, or the fame of the artist who crafted them.

Creepy though it may be, their true value lies in the “valueless.” For its the bits and pieces, things like the skull, jaw, left ilium, or even the foreskin of the departed that catch the eye of Church devotees as well as thieves.  In 1087, shortly before the First Crusade, sixty-two sailors from Bari stole the actual bones of St. Nicholas, interred at a church in Myra, a city in modern-day Turkey.  Back then, in the beginning of the High Middle Ages, religious relics were big business. Having a relic brought pilgrims, and with pilgrims came money. So it's no small wonder that a new church, the Pontifical Basilica di San Nicola, was built afer his bones were taken, as Nicholas' disinterred remains drew quite an audience.

St. Catherine of Siena, who died in Rome in 1839 lies buried inside the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Her dismembered holy head however, was parted from her body and secreted back to her home town where her patrons in Siena inserted it into a gilt bust of bronze. Other parts of her body are scattered inside and outside of Italy.

But not all thefts where committed by the religiously well intentioned, intent on veneration.  Flash forward to the modern era and the reliquary of San Franco, known as the Hermit of Gran Sasso, was stolen in Assorgi in 1974 only to be found later with an antique dealer in Milan.  Likewise, the remains of the immensely influential philosopher  St. Thomas Aquinas were stolen in Naples in 1978 with some saying all that was left was an odor of sanctity.  His silver case ended up as a religious novelty on a collector's shelf.

Having said that, not all church thieves steal for a quick and easy payout. Some commit acts which are even more blasphemous, ghoulishly holding the very bones of the venerated hostage.   On November 7, 1981 two men armed with guns struck the Chiesa di San Geremia in the Cannaregio area of Venice. Breaking into a glass coffin on the main altar, the hooligans snatched the wrapped remains of Saint Lucia, one of the early church's most famous martyrs, leaving the scene so quickly they left her head and mask behind.  

Six and a half years later, on April 18, 1988, the remains of Pope Celestino V were swiped from the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L'Aquila.  Thankfully, his bones were recovered two days later in a niche of the cemetery of Cornelle and Roccapassa where the crooks had parked the Pope temporarily, hoping to lay low until the investigation died down.  

A year later thieves also took the bones of the peasant who became a friar, St. Joseph of Copertino (the patron saint of flyers).  And, as recently as 2020, a gold and crystal casing holding droplets of blood from Pope John Paul II was nicked from the  Cathedral in Spoleto.

Despite breaking one of the Church's Ten Commandments, no one but the thief and his maker may understand what provoked each of these individuals to steal a particular relic, or in the case of the Reliquary of San Galgano, why the thief's sponsor coveted this particular item. But it is up against this backdrop that we can understand a little bit why some see the return as a small miracle.

The restitution ceremony for this and the other recovered artworks will be held at 3:00 pm on Monday, April 26th at the Sala del Palazzo Arcivescovile di Siena.  Presided over by Italy's Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, as well as the cardinal, his most reverend eminence, Augusto Paolo Lojudice, Roberto Ricciardi, Commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage; Barabra Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums and Gianluigi Marmora, Commander of the Carabinieri Unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Palermo there is sure to be an interesting story to tell. 

The event will also be "live" streamed on the Archidiocesi di Siena YouTube channel should you like to listen in. 

April 21, 2021

Restitution announcements sometimes don't (or can't) tell the whole story

Yesterday ARTnews broke a restitution story that a looted sculpture was in the process of being sent back home to Nepal, thanks to the help of the Art Institute of Chicago. The artefact, en route to Kathmandu, was referred to as a caturmukha linga, also sometimes called a Shivalinga or a Mukhalingam.  Yet despite its differing names, these votary linga represent the Hindu god Shiva.  In this instance, the object in question has four faces, each pointing toward a cardinal direction, evoking different aspects of the sacred deity.

According to the article's author, Alex Greenberger, Senior Editor at ARTnews, the museum declined to name the collector identified as the holder of the artwork. One of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States, the Art Institute of Chicago said only that the antiquity in question "had never been accessioned" into their collection.

The Illinois museum also did not provide clarification on the artefact's collection history or elaborate further on how they knew the idol was stolen, or when, or from where, the Shivalinga had been removed.  All this empty space surrounding a restitution is indicative of formal or informal confidentiality agreements and sometimes these are the only means of ensuring a collector, or his or her heir(s), agree to relinquish an artefact voluntarily.

Underscoring this, an email, from the embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal had only limited details and cited that an “agreement” had been reached between the object's holder and the embassy for the caturmukha linga's voluntarily surrender.

But to answer the question on every provenance researcher's mind, I've outlined what we have been able to determine, prefacing it that all this information is available in open-source records available to the public if you are willing to dig a bit deeper.

Last December Nepal's news service Kantipur Daily issued an article discussing an artefact from Nepal in the custody of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. That artefact was described as a four-faced Shivalinga of the Lichchhavi era (approximately 400 to 750 CE).  The sculpture was said to have previously been in the Christie's Collection in London until 1997 when it was purchased at some point by a private individual and ultimately taken to the United States.   Sometime after that, the Shivalinga was presented to the Art Institute of Chicago, apparently as part of the Alsdorf Collection.

Image Credit: POLYMath Design
Businessman and investor James W. Alsdorf, who died in 1990 at 76 years of age, was one of Chicago's top art collectors, as well as chairman of the board of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1975 to 1978. His wife, Marilynn Bruder Alsdorf, an art collector in her own right, died in 2019. The couple is survived by a daughter and two sons as well as numerous grandchildren.  

Over the years the Alsdorf donations significantly enriched the collections of North American Museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago.  Their collection, before it was broken up, donated, or sold, was an example of cross-category collecting and encompassed antiquities, works on paper, European and Latin American art, and Indian and Southeast Asian and Asian art as well as paintings by Frida Kahlo, René Magritte, Joan Miró among others.  Yet some of the objects the ancient art they collected have raised some questions as to whether or not the Alsdorfs conducted sufficient due diligence before purchasing pieces for their collection.

As a testament to their relationship with The Art Institute of Chicago, the Alsdorf's generosity made possible a Renzo Piano-designed renovation to the institution's Alsdorf Galleries for Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art.  It is here where a considerable portion (approximately 400 objects) of the Alsdorf Collection is now viewable.

Outside Illinois,  the couple's sway in the art and political world was no less influential.  Mr. Aldsorf was appointed to the U.S. Information Agency's Cultural Affairs Committee, first by President Ronald Reagan and later by President George H. W. Bush.  But back to our stolen artefact.

In July 1984, the mūrti in question disappeared from the southeast corner outside the Panch Deval, part of the sacred Hindu Pashupatinath Temple Complex on the western bank of Bagmati River which runs through the Kathmandu Valley.  A photograph of the caturmukha linga, noting the period of its theft, is depicted intact on page 117 of Lain Singh Bangdel's book, Stolen Images of Nepal, published in 1989.   The previous height of the four-faced artefact was 28 inches, unfortunately, those who stole it saw fit to hacked it in two, leaving only the upper 16 inches preserved. 

The Pashupatinath Temple Complex

How this sacred mūrti was smuggled out of the country and into London remains an unanswered (or unpublicised) question. As does what import documentation accompanied the mūrti after its purchase in the United Kingdom and upon entering the United States. 

What is clear, is that Nepal's gods, often leave the country by brutal means, ripped away or sawed into transportable sized hunks, only to be orinamentalised in the homes of private collectors.  This time it took almost 27 years to right a past wrong.  But at least this one 1271+-year-old beloved object is, at last, going home. 

If you would like to follow the identifications of Nepal sacred objects in circulation, please follow the Nepal Pride Project on Twitter or Lost Arts of Nepal on Facebook

April 20, 2021

Restitution: Manhattan and US authorities hand over 33 artefacts stolen from the the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Image Credit - HSI ICE

Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, has been plagued by war and corruption.  That vulnerability has long made it a target for looters, many of whom have stripped thousands of Buddhist and Hindu antiquities, some dating back more than 1,800 years, from their find spots.  But while decades of conflict have devastated the Afghanistan countryside and left its populations impoverished, its dealers like Subhash Kapoor with his tony Art of the Past gallery on Madison Avenue in New York who turned other peoples' misery and misfortune into personal profit.  

Kapoor's clients turned a blind eye to the provenance of the artworks he procured, as did important museum institutions who readily purchased work through the dealer or accepted tainted donations from his well-heeled clients with regularly.  As seen in the restitutions over the last month, this network involved with this single New York ancient art dealer was able to source, procure, and sell illicit material from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Southeast Asia, and southern India, often in quantities of a staggering scale.                                                                            But this week, thirty-three of those plundered artworks were handed over to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, via its first female Ambassador to the United States, Roya Rahmani.  In accepting these artefacts Ambassador Rahami knowledgeably stated: 

“The environment that allows for the plundering of Afghanistan’s treasured antiquities is the same environment that allows for the perpetuation of conflict...traffickers are not just robbing Afghanistan of its history, they are perpetuating a situation where peace does not manifest and the region does not stabilize. Looting Afghanistan’s past is looting Afghanistan’s future.

Image Credit: The office of Afghan ambassador, Roya Rahmani

Image Credit: The office of Afghan ambassador, Roya Rahmani

The 33 artefacts restituted this week were part of a hoard of 2,500 objects valued at $143 million which were seized between 2012 and 2014 as a result of the Subhash Kapoor investigation and the ongoing case being built against the dealer in the United States.  Since August 2020, the Manhattan DA's office, their Antiquities Trafficking Unit and their partners at Homeland Security Investigations have successfully restituted 338 stolen objects to seven countries.

Image Credit - HSI ICE

As we can see from the substantial number of restitutions over the last four weeks, including two artefacts to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and three 13 - 16th century CE artefacts stolen from the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, the breadth of the problem of illicit material in liberal circulation on the legitimate ancient art market is not a minor problem, but rather something more pernicious.  

Despite this, the New York success stories over the last month demonstrate what public prosecutors can do, when art crimes are given a higher priority.  Allocating sufficient resources and allowing collaborative access to experts can serve to facilitate successful law enforcement investigations into criminal activity within the ancient art market which stretches over years and between jurisdictions.  The result being the plundered heritage can be confiscated and returned back home in accordance with the laws of particular jurisdictions involved.

Restitution: Manhattan and US authorities hand over three 13 - 16th century CE artefacts stolen from the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.

One week after its last restitution, on the first of April, the Consulate General of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal in New York received three more Kapoor-handled artefacts at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Those artefacts were: 

  • a 13th century CE wooden beam depicting a colored Apsara
  • a 14th-15th century CE gold seated Buddha in Bhumisparsa Mudra, 
  • a 15th-16th century CE seated Ganesha 
All three of these ancient objects were seized pursuant to the Manhattan DA's investigation of antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor.  In furtherance of the occasion, Consulate General Mr. Bishnu Prasad Gautam, and District Attorney of New York County Mr. Cyrus Vance Jr. signed an agreement establishing the recovery, hand over, and repatriation of the antiquities to the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.  

Mr. Gautam expressed his thanks to the United States Department of Homeland Security and Acting Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Eric Silverman, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr., and Assistant D.A. Matthew Bogdanos, Senior Trial Counsel and Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, who handled the recovery of the Nepali artefacts along with Special Agents Brenton Easter and John Paul Labbat and Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer of the Manhattan DA's office. 

The Nepal officials honoured those responsible for the artefacts' restitution,  bestowing them with a traditional Tibetan Khata, a scarf offered as a symbol of respect and gratitude.  

To date, several investigations have tracked many false provenances provided by Subhash Kapoor. This methodology of back-tracking an artefact to its theft site and searching out the smuggling methods from the source country to Kapoor's U.S. gallery and the collectors who purchased from him has led to several recoveries.  One of those, a 10th- or 11th-century mūrti of Lakshmi-Narayana (Sanskrit: लक्ष्मी-नारायण, IAST: Lakṣmīnārāyaṇa), a manifestation of Vishnu in the Hindu religion disappeared from the Narayan Temple in the Patko Tol neighbourhood in Patan, in 1984.  That sacred object was eventually purchased six years later in March 1990 by David T. Owsley, (a client of Kapoor's) who in turn lent the object to the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA).  On 2 March 2021 officials from the Dallas FBI Field Office and the Dallas Museum of Art announced the voluntary restitution and formal transfer of that mūrti back to the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.

Restitution: Manhattan and US authorities hand over two Kandyan Period artefacts depicting the Lord Buddha in Abhaya Mudra stolen from the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

As can be seen, by the restitutions accomplished via Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance's team over the last month, New York continues to lead the way in the United States in making a significant impact in the identification and restitution of unprovenanced artefacts; objects which fuel a transnational trade in stolen objects and the depredation of both sacred and archaeological sites.

Image Credit: Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations New York

Looking back over the last month, on Thursday, March 25th the DA's office in Manhattan handed over a pair of Kandyan Period (18th Century) Sri Lankan artefacts depicting the Lord Buddha in Abhaya Mudra, which were seized pursuant to ongoing investigations into the dealings of ancient art dealer Subhash Kapoor.  These historic objects represent the first two sacred artefacts to be returned to Sri Lanka from the United States.

Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness, and the abhayamudrā symbolizes protection both aptly fitting to the commitment of the New York DA's Antiquities Trafficking Unit, led by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, who, along with his team of analysts, collaborates with officers of the Homeland Security Investigations, all of whom strive to identify and pursue those who seek to profit from the trade in illegally exported cultural property. 

Assistant D.A. Matthew Bogdanos, Senior Trial Counsel and Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit handled the Sri Lankan recovery along with Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer and Special Agents Brenton Easter and John Paul Labbat from Homeland Security Investigations. 

Ambassador Pieris and Asst. District Attorney Col. Matthew Bogdanos exchange agreements establishing the recovery, hand over and repatriation of the antiquities.

Arrested on 30 October 2011 in Frankfurt, Germany and extradited to India in July of 2012, Subhash Kapoor is presently jailed at the Tiruchirapalli Central Prison.  In India he is on trial for smuggling 28 idols from the Sundareswarar temple, the Varadaraja Perumal temple, and from the Arulmigu Pragatheeswarar temple in Tamil Nadu.  The 71-year-old former Manhattan-based dealer will then have to answer to additional charges in the US, for his role in what prosecutors believe was a $145 million smuggling ring which prosecutors charged laundered stolen artefacts from many countries through his gallery Art of the Past.  

Law enforcement authorities in several countries believe that over a period spanning some thirty years, the disreputable dealer handled thousands of looted antiquities incentivising plunder from those within his network.  Pursuant to the USA/New York investigation, the D.A.’s Office and HSI have recovered more than 2,500 artworks, all believed to have been handled by Kapoor's web of middle-tier dealers, thieves, and smugglers between 2011 to 2020.  The bulk of these historic artefacts were pillaged from heritage sites in Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. 

The restitution ceremony for the Sri Lankan pieces in New York was attended by H.E. Ambassador Mohan Pieris, Permanent Representative of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Satya Rodrigo, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, Asst. District Attorney Col. Matthew Bogdanos, members of the District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, as well as HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh, HSI Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Erik Rosenblatt, HSI Group Supervisor Stephen Lee, and HSI Special Agents John Paul Labbat, Robert Fromkin and Igor Gamza of Homeland Security Investigations.  District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr joined the official ceremony virtually. 

Ambassador Pieris, Satya Rodrigo, DPR, Special Agent John Paul Labbat & Apsara Iyer, Antiquities Trafficking Analyst
Image Credit: Permanent Mission of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York

For Sri Lankan's thoughts, H.E. Mohan Pieris, reminded listeners that:

Cultural property is intrinsically related to the evolution of a nation’s identity. It forms a vital link to the past, wherefrom the present and future may be nurtured and enriched. It is therefore a moment of joy and cultural renewal when artefacts are recovered and returned to their rightful owners. Regrettably, however, we are dismayed to know that for every return there are thousands that are stolen, looted and trafficked through underground and illicit channels.

District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., for his part, stated that his office issued an arrest warrant for Subhash Kapoor in 2012, followed by a criminal complaint in 2019 that estimated that the “total value of stolen antiquities known to have been trafficked by Kapoor exceeds USD 145.71 million”.  Extradition paperwork has been formally filed in Manhattan in July 2020 which will ensure that Kapoor will face justice in New York as well as in India for the crimes he has been charged within New York's jurisdiction. 

On Monday, the first of April the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. announced a further return of artefacts, related to this ring of traffickers, this time to the people of Nepal.

April 14, 2021

Conference: IFAR's Provenance Research: Where Scholarship Meets Diligence

Provenance Research: Where Scholarship Meets Diligence

Conference Date:  
Tuesday, April 20, 5:00 p.m. – 6:45 p.m EDT:

Conference Location:  
Online (video conference)

Conference Fees: 
General Admission $10.00 + $2.24 Eventbrite Registration Fee
IFAR Journal Subscribers $8.00 + $2.12 Eventbrite Registration Fee 
Full-Time Students with ID $5.00 + $1.94 Eventbrite Registration Fee 


Provenance -- the history of ownership -- is important for verifying the attribution/authenticity of an artwork and also for determining legal title in the case of ownership and restitution disputes. 

Please join AFAR as six distinguished speakers address provenance from a variety of vantage points, including catalogues raisonnés, scientific evidence, digital resources, and the law. This forum is timed to coincide with the U.S. launch of the book Provenance Research Today, edited by Arthur Tompkins and co-published by Lund Humphries and IFAR. Three of the speakers contributed to this book.


LYNN H. NICHOLAS, Author, The Rape of Europa
MARC MASUROVSKY, Co-founder, Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP); Academic Director, Jewish Digital Cultural Recovery Project (JDCRP)
THOMAS R. KLINE, Partner, Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC
JENNIFER MASS, President, Scientific Analysis of Fine Art, LLC; Mellon Professor, Bard Graduate Center
LISA DUFFY-ZEBALLOS, Art Research Director, IFAR
SHARON FLESCHER, Executive Director, IFAR

Lynn H. Nicholas will provide an overview and historical perspective regarding Nazi-era provenance research. Marc Masurovsky will focus on digital resources and a new initiative to create a comprehensive, holistic database of looted objects. Thomas R. Kline, Esq. will address legal issues surrounding provenance. Dr. Jennifer Mass will explore scientific means of verifying provenance. Dr. Lisa Duffy-Zeballos will discuss catalogues raisonnés as aids to provenance research, and Dr. Sharon Flescher will address some of the challenges in provenance research. The program will conclude with Q&A and discussion.

Note: For a limited time, we are pleased to offer program registrants a 30% discount off the purchase price of Provenance Research Today: Principles, Practice, Problems. For details about ordering, see the emailed confirmation you will receive after you have registered.

REGISTRATION:  Click Here to Register on Eventbrite. Everyone, including IFAR Members/Supporters, must register here via Eventbrite.