Tales of art theft have always captivated the public. Art thieves possess the audacity to steal something that belongs to the world, and they also possess the know-how (and luck) to pull off a heist. However, in the real world, the end of the line for an art theft story is often as simple as “a wealthy celebrity purchased a piece of artwork that they didn’t realize was stolen”.
That’s exactly what happened to American reality TV star Kim Kardashian when she purchased an ancient Roman statue from Axel Vervoordt Gallery in 2016. The statue got held up at the US border when government authorities in the United States detected some unusual irregularities in the paperwork associated with the statue. The statue has been held up ever since, but new developments indicate that it’ll be returned to Italy, as it was illegally looted and smuggled out of the European country.
Looted and smuggled art is big business for the black market. While most celebrities don’t realize that the works they’re buying are looted, the high demand for ancient pieces of artwork means that thieves are always on the lookout for an easy score. The piece in Kardashian’s case, the Fragment of Myron’s Samian Athena, dates back to the first century AD.
The statue was detained in May of 2016 as part of the US’s increasing efforts to crack down on the import of stolen art from Italy. Now, importers need to prove with licenses, affidavits, and other documents that the art was purchased legally and is not a looted piece of work.
Before Kardashian bought the statue, it was purchased by the Axel Vervoordt Gallery from Galerie Chenel in Paris in 2012. The statue’s status as a looted piece of art was tipped off to the US authorities by discrepancies in the two invoices from the Vervoordt Gallery and the Galerie Chenel. Moreover, Italian authorities later claimed that the statue had been seen and photographed in the Vervoordt Gallery in 2011, a full year before they supposedly purchased it from the Galerie Chenel.
Prior to its purchase by Vervoordt, the statue was purchased by Galerie Chenel in 2010 from a German auction house. Before this, it belonged to an English estate, according to Ollivier Chenel, a director of the Galerie Chenel.
Experts from Italy studied the statue and found that it is, in fact, an antique Roman statue. However, Kardashian will have a chance to contest the forfeiture claim in court. Time will tell whether she gets to keep the statue, or if it will be returned to its country of origin.