New York antiquities dealer arrested in crackdown on illegal trafficking

Prominent New York art dealer, Nancy Wiener, was arrested last Wednesday (21 December) on suspicion of trafficking illegal Asian antiquities. According to the complaint filed in Manhattan’s Criminal Court, Wiener sold stolen objects to Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses, international museums and private buyers. She has been charged with criminal possession of stolen property and conspiracy to buy, smuggle and launder millions of dollars worth of antiquities from East Asia. 

The Manhattan District Attorney alleges that between 1999 and 2016 Wiener knowingly purchased and provided false documentation for objects stolen from Asian temples and archaeological sites. She is said to have employed an elaborate system of straw purchases to create sham ownership histories, fraudulent provenance documents to disguise the true origins of the pieces and restoration services to conceal damage from illegal excavations.

In one alleged incident, Wiener and another dealer consigned an 11th century Cambodian Baphuon Shiva to Sotheby’s New York. A Sotheby’s employee noticed paint covering cracks in the statue, which suggested an effort to conceal damage from looting. When the auction house questioned Wiener on the object’s provenance she told them she had no written evidence of its ownership history. Sotheby’s sold the statue for US$578,500 (£468,972) in 2011. A spokesperson for the auction house said “Sotheby’s has been cooperating fully with the government’s investigation”.

In another instance, Wiener sold a 2nd century seated Buddha to Australia’s National Gallery in 2007 for US$1.08 million (£875,547). When it emerged that the object had been stolen, Wiener apparently reimbursed the gallery and agreed to have the Buddha returned directly to India.

Wiener’s arrest was made as part of Operation Hidden Idol, a federal investigation into the illicit trade in stolen art and antiquities from South Asia. In the lead up to her arrest, federal agents conducted months of interviews with confidential informants, examined thousands of emails and raided her gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in March.

Wiener is the daughter of Doris Wiener, a pioneering dealer in Indian and Southeast Asian antiquities in 1960s New York. Doris’ clients included Jacqueline Kennedy and Igor Stravinsky. When Doris died in 2011, Nancy is believed to have erased all provenance information relating to her mother’s vast collection of sculptures and paintings. The collection sold for US$12.8 million (£10.38 million) at auction at Christie’s in March 2012 after Nancy consigned it with false provenance information. A Christie’s spokeswoman stated that they were “aware of these very serious allegations against the defendant and are monitoring the legal proceedings closely”.

Following her arrest, Wiener posted US$25,000 (£20,268) in bail and was released. Her lawyers have said they will be examining the charges and will “respond at the appropriate time”.

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