National Press Club

National Press Club Book Rap reveals stolen art secrets, cultural impacts

September 28, 2016 | By Andrew Kreig | andrew.kreig@gmail.com

Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, appears at a National Press Club Book Rap on Sept. 27, 2016, to promote “Sacred and Stolen: Confessional of a Museum Art Director”.

Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, appears at a National Press Club Book Rap on Sept. 27, 2016, to promote “Sacred and Stolen: Confessional of a Museum Art Director”.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The longtime director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore riveted a National Press Club Book Rap audience Sept. 27 with his journey of discovery into the netherworld of stolen art and its cultural impacts.

Gary Vikan, director of the museum from 1994 to 2013, used his new book Sacred and Stolen: Confessional of a Museum Art Director, to describe “the messy underbelly of museum life: looted antiquities, crooked dealers, deluded collectors, duplicitous public officials, inside thefts and failed exhibitions.”

Vikan, born in small town Minnesota and holder of a doctorate from Princeton, described himself as naïve regarding the profession’s tawdry elements as he worked his way up from a junior position at Harvard’s Center for Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.

But the 1970s and 1980s were what he called “The wild world of buying art,” and the lessons came fast for him and others.

“I wandered into this maelstrom without intending to get into any mischief, pretty much,” Vikan told his audience after enthusiastic introductions by NPC's Book & Author Committee members Eleanor Herman and Michael Curley.

Vikan’s story-telling flair recalled that of Mark Twain and Bill Clinton, Herman said.

Turkey’s invasion of the northern part of the island nation of Cyprus in 1974 created a flood to Western markets of art that helped educate him about the illicit channels for stolen art and also the cultural impact of such art.

Turkish authorities, who took advantage of a fledgling independence movement to wrest defacto control of the island’s north from pro-Greek authorities, were happy to see Hellenic art removed from Greek churches, helping reorient the culture, Vikan said.

Such war-torn conditions foster opportunities for smugglers and con men to swindle collectors, Vikan said. He recounted several such stories, including one whereby the late Texas art collector Dominique deMenil was able to showcase in Texas a collection of Byzantine frescoes she had unwittingly acquired in 1983 from a stash looted from Turkish-occupied Cyprus.

The unusual twist to Vikan’s story is that the government of Cyprus of agreed to a brokered arrangement whereby she could keep the artwork for 15 years so long as she restored and returned it. The result, he says, was a huge win-win because deMenil, an heiress and famous collector who died in 1997, was able to increase appreciation for the art by exhibiting it to American audiences before it was returned. “The solution was elegant,” Vikan concluded of what started as a major embarrassment.

Vikan, a member of President Bill Clinton’s Cultural Advisory Board and also recipient of a knighthood in France, described a number of factors such as better communications within the art world that have curtailed traffic in stolen art. He denied, for example, reports that the Islamic State group is successfully selling stolen art on a major scale from Syria and Iraq. “No dealer or buyer,” he said, “wants to get close to it.”

“Those days are over,” Vikan said of the wild era when he began his career. “And that’s good.”