Anyone who has seen an Indiana Jones movie has regarded it with a sense of disbelief. Would an Ivy League scholar with a doctorate in ancient history really find himself in the middle of all kinds of shady characters, sketchy situations and stolen art?
According to Gary Vikan Ph.D., an expert in late ancient and early medieval art who has helped collect priceless artwork for leading museums, duplicitous government officials and shady dealers are par for the course. In fact, it’s the art world’s dirty little secret—the glittering treasures on their pedestals and priceless paintings in their burnished frames that adorn museum walls are often either stolen or forged. How often? According to Newsweek, the U.S. Department of Justice and UNESCO reports art crime as the world’s third highest-grossing criminal trade during the last 40 years, after drugs and weapons.
Vikan, who retired after nearly two decades as the director of The Walters Museum in Baltimore, reveals exactly what goes on behind the scenes in the our nation’s most revered museums in his new memoir, SACRED AND STOLEN: Confessions of a Museum Director (SelectBooks, September 20, 2016).
He goes deep down the rabbit hole where the truth about the world’s art treasures lies. From his beginnings at Princeton University, to Harvard’s revered Dumbarton Oaks collection in Washington, DC, to the Menil Collection in Houston, and finally, to The Walters, Vikan has witnessed firsthand the hustle, shady dealings, bold-faced forgeries and outright thefts that have placed treasures in art museums—only to have them once again disappear.
SACRED AND STOLEN is far more than an autobiography, it’s a thrilling adventure, as Vikan navigates the highs and lows of the art world, including discerning that a famous group of Egyptian sculptures was forged, helping to save a chopped up medieval Cypriot church fresco, bribing an official representative of an Eastern Bloc country, and much more. It also looks into why we crave beauty and the spiritual enrichment that goes beyond mere acquisition of art. And it follows his quest to bring a sense of wonder and deep feeling to the public thought the dramatic presentation of art.
Main image credit: The Walters Art Museum