Lance Charnes's Reviews > Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director

Sacred and Stolen by Gary Vikan
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really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction-art-culture, nonfiction-crime-espionage, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who want the inside dirt on museums, told politely

We think of museums as being staid places run by boring academics in tweed, full of old paintings created by dead people, or shiny artifacts made a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Nothing interesting -- or, gasp, scandalous -- could ever happen in those places, right?

Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Museum in Baltimore, begs to differ. On the first page of this memoir of his experiences in academia and the museum world, he's packing a bag full of cash to pay off a Ukrainian fixer so the Walters can get some very special artifacts for an exhibition. Sacred and Stolen is that kind of book.

The throughline for Vikan's story is his continuing struggle with two opposing drives: his wish to bring the beauties of medieval art (especially Orthodox Christian art) to the Western world, and the need to protect these artworks from the thieves, looters and vandals who make them available to museums and collectors in the first place.

There really isn't a legitimate antiquities trade anymore, not since 1970; anything that appeared on the market since then is by definition stolen. Yet tens of thousands of artifacts circulate through licit and illicit channels, reaching rich collectors or acquisitive museum curators in spite of their lack of clean provenance or clear title. Vikan tells about his own brushes with this beautiful loot, especially some remarkable Orthodox mosaics ripped from the ceilings of Cypriot churches following the 1974 Turkish invasion.

Despite being a Princeton Ph.D in medieval studies, Vikan still knows how to write so normal people can understand him. He's not quite a Hoving-esque cocktail-party raconteur (see my review of False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes for that); this book is more like spending an extended, partly-liquid lunch with the man in the museum cafe as he dishes about the odd, funny, sad, scary and laughable things he's seen and done over a thirty-year career. The fifty-cent words are few and the author has a sense of humor, both about his job and himself, that's refreshing in a genre that often serves as a platform for self-promotion or settling scores.

As is usual for books on this subject, you meet a wildly diverse bunch of people along the way: heiresses, smugglers, art dealers, thieves, crafty church officials, middlemen who thrive on the dark margin of deals, local politicians with agendas, and scholars who pull the strings of academic politics. Vikan's thumbnail sketches of these characters are just about enough for you to get a flavor of them, but not necessarily enough to always be able to keep them sorted. A cast list at the front would've been a nice touch. There are pictures, though, some of them pretty decent, an unfortunate rarity in these types of books. There's even an index, another welcome rarity.

My earlier mention of the late Thomas Hoving is a good point of comparison. He and Vikan were both Princeton medievalists who went on to showy curatorships and, finally, the director's chairs of major museums. They both cover some of the same ground in their books. But Hoving had the inbred gloss and savior faire of one born to privilege, while Vikan was the son of middle-class Minnesota Norwegian Lutherans, the stock that features in Prairie Home Companion. Hoving is glib, smooth, and self-assured, while Vikan still has his modest Midwestern manners and a voice tamed by his tribal requirement to be nice. They're both good company, just in different ways. Ultimately, which one you prefer will depend on whether you want to go drinking with the man, or sit down in the back yard over lemonade and a casserole. Either way, you'll learn a lot and have a good time.
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Reading Progress

December 11, 2016 – Started Reading
December 17, 2016 – Shelved
December 17, 2016 – Finished Reading

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