In Parts I and II, we recapped the details of the Nancy Wiener case so far and examined the characteristics of the art market that make it susceptible to antiquities trafficking. Part III looks at the instances of institutional failure in Wiener’s case, where the checks and balances in the system did not act to prevent her from carrying out her alleged criminal activities.
Nancy Wiener’s case reflects the inadequacy of the due diligence performed by buyers, auction houses, and museums when ensuring genuine and legal provenance of cultural artifacts. At best, their behavior could be characterized as negligent, and at worst, complicit, in prioritizing profits and plausible deniability over the law and ethics.
The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and Association of Art Museum Directors mark 1970 as the internationally accepted threshold date for artifact provenance, meaning that a work must have been outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970, or legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970. Although many museums have complied by this date, auction houses have been slower to adapt their practices. Christie’s is to be credited for the numerous voluntary repatriations they have made over the years. However, “according to the complaint only required evidence that the objects had been on the market since 2000”, regardless of that country’s patrimony laws (unless there is an earlier bilateral agreement with the United States). As the Wiener case shows, this comes with risks.
According to the complaint, it allowed Wiener to consign her mother’s collection to Christie’s after being turned away from Sotheby’s for not being able to provide ownership history. Christie’s allegedly only requested provenance for the top 20 lots of the 380-lot sale, to which Wiener produced a document titled “Provenance and Country of Origin Details” that contained false or flimsy provenance. Examples of dubious prior ownership that Wiener listed include an unnamed member of the Diplomatic Corps, Doris Wiener herself (who had consigned them for auction then re-acquired them), and Spink & Son, another antiquities dealer which had also been entangled in a looted antiquities case. Christie’s offered all 380 lots from its New York showroom for a total sale of $12.7 million.
Commercial institutions like auction houses are not alone in facing these challenges. The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra, and the Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM) in Singapore are two examples of museums which had also purchased stolen or looted art. Each museum purchased one of a pair of Seated Buddha statues, originating from the ancient Indian city of Mathura, from Wiener in the early 2000s, without required solid provenance. In fact, the ACM required no statement of provenance at all.
The NGA only began investigating the authentication of its Seated Buddha statue in 2012 after the investigative reporter Jason Felch (of Chasing Aphrodite) began raising questions about its provenance following a tip from an anonymous source. According to Felch, the extent of the NGA’s due diligence was limited to requesting a search certificate from the Art Loss Register (ALR) stating that the sculpture was not in its database of stolen objects – a declaration which Felch notes as “largely useless” for looted antiquities since the database does not contain information on illegally exported artifacts unless they have been previously reported. The ALR itself warns that they “cannot guarantee the provenance of any Designated Item and the Client cannot solely rely on the results of any search or enquiry by the ALR.”
Similarly, the ACM stonewalled Felch when he enquired about the ownership history for the other Seated Buddha in the pair. With further investigation it was uncovered that Douglas Latchford, a Bangkok-based collector, helped Wiener fabricate the provenance papers for both of the sculptures. The provenance documentation that Wiener provided the museums was forged, falsely identifying a British expat stationed in Hong Kong as purchasing the statues in the 1960’s. In the end, the NGA announced that it would “donate” its Seated Buddha to India, and it received a refund of $1.2 million from Wiener.
While this is merely one episode among many in the long-running saga of Nancy Wiener, this particular example reflects the important role of museums in the stewardship of antiquities. As institutions created for the education and edification of the public, museums can and must do better to increase transparency in the way they “acquire artifacts, accept donations, process loans, and publicize any doubts they may have about an object’s hazy provenance.” While industry guidelines suggest that “the best efforts be made to determine provenance, and you must not knowingly acquire any work that’s been stolen,” the lack of specific requirements leaves wiggle room for plausible deniability and “puts a premium on not knowing.”
Museums are charged with the lofty responsibility of guarding our past for the future, and they should act in accordance with the highest professional and ethical standards to live up to that duty. As the Wiener case shows, in the end, adopting these standards will also protect their own institutions.
Read Part IV here.
This is a guest post by our intern Nicole Ong. Nicole is currently a student at Georgetown University, earning a degree in International Relations. If you’re interested in interning with the Antiquities Coalition, please email email@example.com