Not Dissimilar to an Illegal Arms Deal

A Review of Gary Vikan’s Sacred and Stolen

/ by Eli Szydlo

In a cinematic introduction, not dissimilar to an illegal arms deal, Gary Vikan draws the reader into the harsh and overlooked realities of purchasing antiquities. Rarely the immoral and illicit circumstances surrounding the purchase are considered, instead the combined beauty and history draw in the public viewer, who perceive the objects as a display of the wealth and representation of the power of the respective countries of origin. Even in an instance of museum theft, Vikan hints at the disturbing nature of targeting artwork, when the thief admits that the motivation of the theft, was because he “Loved to fondle it,” which gives the reader the distinct impression that this action is more akin to a slight perversion.

The illicit and immoral are seemingly black and white issues, involving artwork that is stolen and looted from their countries of origin, and ultimately smuggled into the open market. It readily becomes apparent that this is an issue marred in shades of grey. Vikan argues that it is not simply an issue of ethics about where the items came from, and how they came to be on the market. Rather, it is a question of how the decisions of the museum and the private collectors will affect the future of the object, and how those decisions can benefit the historical and educational values that will be offered to the public.

From being raised in a rural, north-eastern city in Minnesota, with a father who worked at a printer’s press, Vikan was surrounded by farming, and schools that focused heavily on athletics, with little exposure to the art world. He found his fascination with art early on, with the help of a collection of National Geographic magazines in his bedroom. He describes his discovery of this interest as “finding his religion.” This fascination would eventually lead him to pursue his education in art history, and to be accepted into Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute associated with Harvard, where Vikan would further develop his specialization in Byzantine art. Eventually he would become a curator and, somewhat begrudgingly, the director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

As his career progressed, Vikan repeatedly referenced the challenges he faced in presenting the numinous, a suggestion and innate feeling of the presence of divinity. His initial exhibit as assistant director of curatorial affairs and curator of Medieval Art at the Walters, titled “Silver Treasure from Early Byzantium,” gave him the opportunity to display on a much larger scale, and to be able to focus more on the public perspective rather than the academic values. He continually attempted to evoke the feeling of the Byzantine era in his displays, with mixed success, noting how his displays presented conflicting feelings, one of the religious fervor in a place of worship, and the other the history of the object presented in scholarly dictations.

Throughout the book, it is abundantly clear that Vikan has numerous interactions with individuals known infamously throughout the field of art crime. Names such as Marion True, Gianfranco Becchina, Giacomo Medici and Robin Symes, are found repeatedly in Sacred and Stolen, and are further discussed in other published works, such as Chasing Aphrodite and The Medici Conspiracy. These individuals are intertwined in the politics and processes of how illicit art enters public museum collections, and their involvement speaks volumes as to the ethical questions Vikan struggles with.

The reader can easily imagine the continual internal debate that seems to haunt the author. On one side, the reader can envision the small town ideals Vikan holds, demonstrated in his awareness of the ramifications of supporting the illicit behavior of smugglers and dealers taking advantage of the art market. On the other side, the reader can see Vikan at the head of a world-renowned institution, vying for the objects sought by any number of museums, regardless of the objects illicit origins. This, however, isn’t as simple as one would imagine, and through the stories and personal reflections, the author describes how the involvement of the museums can bring legitimacy to this artwork, that otherwise might be destroyed or remain hidden away from the public.

A common debate between museum staff and archaeologists is internalized by Vikan, and through his discussion of Dominique de Menil’s acquisition of the looted Lysi fresco fragments. In presenting a hypothetical scenario, in which the fragments were never permitted to be traded Vikan concludes that the fragments would most likely have been destroyed, altered, or hidden away. Vikan argues that in reality, the “flexible” legal guidelines for antiquities acquisition of the 1980s gave way for the fragments to be preserved, and potentially returned to their country of origin once their safety could be guaranteed.

While the idea of safeguarding the art and antiquities is commendable, Vikan appears to avoid describing the details that would be required. Many questions come to mind, of who would assess the safety of the location? Would the museum be able to claim the item as its own after a period of time, if the country of origin doesn’t stabilize? Does the museum have to care for the objects as the original culture would, or does the museum know best? These questions are not recent, and are prevalent discussion topics between the museums, and the cultures claiming ownership rights to what is being displayed for the public view.

The memoir effectively reflects upon the key aspects of the career of Gary Vikan, and allows the reader to gain valuable insight into the inner workings of the institutions who seek to display these objects for the education of the public. Unfortunately, Vikan only begins to discuss the issues of ethics in interacting with the illicit art market trade. The bias of the museums roles as a “protector” of foreign artifacts is consistent with the larger museum perspective, and unsurprising considering Vikan’s career and position within the Walters Art Museum. The reader is given examples from Vikan’s life and career that supports one side of an incredibly complicated and on-going debate.  

Eli Szydlo

’s latest book is “Stealing History: Art Theft, Looting and Other Crimes against Our Cultural Heritage.”