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October 27, 2023



An article in a recent The Week magazine entitled A Reckoning Over Looted Art strikes a bit close to home.  A big part of my life has been spent in the Far East where I became fascinated by just about everything that part of the world had to offer.  Maybe it is not surprising that I became an amateur collector of Asian artifacts.  Mind you, it was long before Indiana Jones glamorized the life of an archeologist, saving precious art treasures from being lost and relocating them to museums, where they could be viewed by the public.  In the past, that would have been recognized as an honorable profession.  Today, many museums are facing claims to return art and sculptures to their original homes.  In some cases, the artworks were outright stolen or removed to retain them for posterity. 

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While living in Japan in the early 1970s, it became clear that the U.S. dollar would soon take a massive devaluation relative to the Japanese Yen.  Foreigners could bring in U.S. dollars and convert them to Free Yen which in theory had to be spent in Japan.  There was also a U.S. tax question that it was most probably a taxable transaction, if the yen were converted back into dollars, thereby generating a threefold gain.  With all that purchasing power at hand, I chose to acquire a rare Sui Dynasty (581-605) statue, shown below, that had been looted from a Chinese tomb during WW II by Japanese invaders.  It came in a wooden case that had been handmade in Japan (circa WW II) to keep the treasure protected so it could be removed and taken to safety in the event of a fire in Tokyo which were quite common during the war.   It never occurred to me to consider making a trip to China to return it, given all the difficulties I had experienced with Chinese oil industry thieves in Mongolia. 

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On another occasion, I received an early morning call in Bangkok from my oil and gas partner in Texas telling me we had just made a huge oil discovery.   My reward was to go straight to a very famous Thai antique shop and purchase three rare Buddha images, shown below, that had been stolen from a temple in the Shan States of Burma.  I had never spent anything like the amount I paid for them though the oil discovery well soon piddled out.  It would never occur to me to return the statures to Myanmar as it is called today.  Given the ongoing civil war and genocide in Myanmar, the Tatmadaw Army of the clueless ruling junta would probably burn them for firewood.    

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When a visitor enters a herdsman’s dwelling, or ger, on the steppe of Mongolia they are offered a strong salt/tea poured into a round silver bowl that is passed around only to the men.  It is followed by a bowl of fermented mares’ milk and finally a bowl of vodka.  If you can just make it through to the vodka, you will be fine.  One group of men—one bowl and one bowl per ger. 


As the herdsmen began to move into the capital of Ulaanbaatar following the collapse of the Soviet Union, they would find housing in Russian era apartments and sell their bowls.  I assembled a rather large collection with a portion of them shown below.  It was often very tricky to get them out of the country, but clever management of luggage worked every time.  The worst result would be someone buying the antique bowls to remove the silver and melt it down to become ingots.  Oddly, the Prime Minister of Mongolia once gave me a vintage musket which I had to accept though I anticipated all kinds of problems as I took it back to the U.S.  Amazingly, no customs or security personnel ever asked what it was.

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In today’s world, there are sentiments being expressed that looted art should be returned to their original homes which has generated a serious debate among museums.  UNESCO passed a convention in 2000 such that most museums will not accept possession of artifacts without documentation that they were legally exported after 1970.  On the other hand, The Week magazine reported that many institutions believe they are the rightful owners of treasures.  In the early 19th century, British aristocrat, Lord Elgin, returned to London from Greece with a boatload of antiquities from the Pantheon in Athens.  He claimed he had the permission from the Ottoman officials.  Recent requests from Greek authorities for their return fall on deaf ears. 


The Pantheon has been restored with the Greeks providing a space for the potential return of the Elgin Marbles shown below.  Several years ago, I attended a banquet in the Pantheon Museum and had the opportunity to visit with the gentleman who oversaw the restoration.  It was tempting, but I chose not to bring up the Elgin Marbles though there is little doubt that they have been safely preserved in the British Museum.  By the way, there is also one of my Chinese Sui statutes in the British Museum as well which is a great place to visit in London.  Ultimately, there is no simple resolution of where stolen artworks belong as much depends on where they will be protected for future generations to study the history of this world.

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