Statues of Limitations

Archaeologists Don’t Dig Moynihan’s Art Collector Pal for Stolen-Treasures Post

Retiring senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's legacy is one for the ages, according to those who bow and scrape before him. But one of his last official acts has reignited an age-old, worldwide controversy over stolen art.

The dispute is over President Clinton's recent announcement that he is appointing big-time art collector Shelby White to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which is supposed to help stop the flow of ancient foreign artifacts into the hands of private collectors.

The high-society, big-spending White and her husband, financier Leon Levy, own a cache of Greek and Roman art that Women's Wear Daily has dubbed "the finest collection of ancient art in the world."

Obsessed with ancient senators, the couple have taken quite a liking to some modern-day ones as well. They and their associates have pumped thousands of dollars into Moynihan's campaign coffers over the past 20 years. The couple, who are consistent donors to Democratic candidates—with occasional contributions to Republicans—also have strong personal and political connections to Moynihan, and for many years he has carried their water in the international dispute over suspected looting.

Moynihan's clout apparently trumped opposition to White by the 11,500-member Archaeological Institute of America, whose president, Nancy Wilkie, was quoted in The New York Times last week as saying of White's appointment: "It's like putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop."

Art has long been a plaything of the rich, but in the raging dispute over the plundering of ancient treasures from around the globe by private collectors, the Times is, too. In a lengthy story last week about the controversial appointment of White, the Gray Lady, who's partial to patrician Democrats, did lay out the facts—but not all of them. It neglected to point out that White herself writes for the paper about the superrich and their philanthropy—though not about her husband's or her own financial affairs. And though the paper named Moynihan as the "sponsor" of White's appointment, and noted that Moynihan has fought on the side of art dealers against countries whose ancient objects are being pillaged, it neglected to note the closeness of Moynihan's personal and financial connections with White and Levy and their buddies.

Levy, whose personal fortune topped $600 million as recently as two years ago, according to press accounts, can well afford to spend not only thousands on political campaigns but millions on art. Fourteen years ago, White and Levy paid $1.32 million for a 6000-year-old statuette of a Greek goddess; at the time, it was the highest price ever paid at auction for an antiquity.

And now the center of the ancient world has shifted from Greece and Italy to the couple's Sutton Place South palace, which, judging from press accounts, resembles Xanadu—if Citizen Kane had ever unpacked and displayed his booty. Countries like Great Britain, Italy, and Turkey aren't impressed. They've long protested the looting of their treasures—literally dug up by grave robbers in some cases—and subsequent selling to private collectors.

White and Levy have not been accused of thievery, and White has strongly defended their purchases as aboveboard, legitimate, and legal. In addition, the couple have been quoted as saying they only have temporary control over the treasures and are merely loving caretakers. But some archaeologists claim that most of their treasures have suspect origins; they, on the other hand, stoutly deny buying looted treasures.

But somebody is. In the past 20 years, they and other collectors have pushed the prices of overseas objects beyond the reach of even the richest museums, according to press accounts. Groups ranging from Guatemalan peasants to Turkish villagers to Italian government officials have pleaded with U.S. officials to impose import restrictions that would clamp down on the soaring antiquities market.

The U.S., however, has dragged its heels, not signing a 1970 worldwide UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) pact on the issue until 1983. And even then, according to press reports, Moynihan (himself the owner of valuable art from overseas) led the charge on behalf of art dealers and collectors to water down the U.S. restrictions.

In bidding wars at art auctions, museums have little chance against wealthy collectors and, in some cases, have forged alliances with them. A political contribution here and there couldn't hurt, either. Live politicians cost a lot less than statues of dead ones, but campaign records reveal an impressive string of donations by White and Levy and their friends to Moynihan and other Democratic senators.

Levy gave Moynihan's campaign $1000 back in February 1979—when $1000 really meant something. His contributions to politicians have increased, the records show, but not at the rate his fortune has. Worth only $310 million in 1994, according to Forbes, he was estimated to have more than $600 million by 1998, when his longtime business partner Jack Nash's personal fortune was estimated to be $550 million.

Despite that growth, Levy still continued to give Moynihan chunks of money in $1000 increments over the years. But he also gave similar chunks to Senator Charles "Chuck" Schumer and Democratic senatorial candidates in other states. (In a rare outburst, he gave a total of $25,000 in 1995 and 1996 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.) Of course, Shelby White gave Moynihan like amounts. And so did Nash. And so did longtime Levy-Nash lawyer R. Todd Lang Jr. And so did Levy relative S. Jay Levy of the Jerome Levy Economics Institute, a Bard College think tank that Leon Levy founded. In the logrolling spirit, Moynihan was named to the institute's board.

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