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Author Nancy Moses says art is worth more than money

| Tuesday, June 7, 2016, 7:57 p.m.
Nancy Moses
Amanda Stevenson Lupke
Nancy Moses
“Stolen, Smuggled, Sold: On the Hunt for Cultural Treasures” (Rowman and Littlefield, $34) by Nancy Moses
Rowman and Littlefield
“Stolen, Smuggled, Sold: On the Hunt for Cultural Treasures” (Rowman and Littlefield, $34) by Nancy Moses

What is the true value of a rare antiquity or object of art?

In “Stolen, Smuggled, Sold: On the Hunt for Cultural Treasures” (Rowman and Littlefield, $34), Nancy Moses writes about a vase found in an Iraqi grave. The size of a thumbnail, it's the largest intact object to come of the war-torn country since the 1920s and has an estimated value of $45 million.

But an archaeologist who saved the vase from the black market might say it is priceless.

“We shouldn't look at the dollar value,” says Moses, who appears June 9 at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland. “We should look at the way that this moving destroys the cultural patrimony of the world. Because once something is extracted, torn out of an archaeological site, it loses its intellectual salience, its interpretative value, the value of revealing the nature of the society out of which it emerged. And that is more valuable than the monetary price of an object.”

Moses' appearance is part of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Made Local series.

According to Moses, the theft of art and antiquities is the third-largest crime in the world, ranking behind only drug and human trafficking. But why do thieves target paintings, sculptures and other works of art that are familiar and inherently more difficult to sell?

For one thing, it's bit more lucrative than robbing a convenience store.

“There probably is some ego involved,” says Moses, former director of the Atwater Kent Museum (now the Philadelphia History Museum). “But the motivation principally is financial. These objects are very valuable. Even when you cannot sell them, I think they're used as collateral. … The economic motivation is there.”

Most egregious is the theft of items stolen from Jews by Nazis during the Holocaust. After World War II, the art market was flooded with paintings, sculptures and other artifacts. Museums in countries relatively unscathed by the war — notably, New Zealand, Australia and United States — were among the eager buyers.

Moses estimates that 25,000 pieces of art from the Holocaust era are openly listed among the collections of museums in the United States. Only 22 of these pieces have been returned to their rightful owners.

When Jewish families attempt to claim paintings and other artifacts, there are significant obstacles. Museums resist returning such pieces and require documentation, which is often difficult to come by. The legal process can be complex because lawyers often take these cases on contingency basis and are reluctant to pursue all but the most lucrative pieces.

Moses says more museums have become amenable to returning art, albeit reluctantly, notably after the film and book “The Monuments Men” brought attention to the stolen art.

“That's just started, and it's very recent,” she says. “It has to do with the importance and value of the art. If the art is important and valuable, museums will fight it.”

In “Stolen, Smuggled, Sold,” Moses writes about the passions stirred by a Lakota Ghost Dance shirt and a copy of the Bill of Rights from North Carolina, which were eventually returned to their original owners. But will real objects remain valuable with the advent of the digital age?

Moses says an increase in attendance at museums across the country indicates an appreciation for “the real thing.”

“I do think that's not going to go away,” she says. “I think that's instinctive in our psyche somehow. But preserving the records of our society in the digital age is more challenging. We have to work on that a little bit more.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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