Portrait Of An Art Swindle

This is a cautionary tale for people who dream of breaking into the big leagues of art dealing. In the late 1980s, Peg Goldberg, a small-time Indianapolis dealer, went to Amsterdam to buy a Modigliani painting. She wound up being offered what she thought was a great deal on a group of early Christian mosaics from Cyprus. A banker friend back home was happy to advance the $1.2 million to buy them. Visions of a multimillion dollar resale to the Getty or some other well-heeled customer carried Goldberg along.

Then things went sour. The mosaics, it turned out, had been looted after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. They had even been the subject of an article, which should have warned off an astute buyer. The Greek Cypriot government sued for recovery and won.

Enter author Hofstadter, trying to discern the truth of this notorious case. While he never nails it down completely, his investigations in Europe and Cyprus produce a portrait of the antiquities trade very different from what one gets in tony art magazines. It's a seamy world where the line between dealers and smugglers and other unsavory operators is blurred. Governments wink at some deals and crack down on others. Goldberg seems like an innocent dupe. Then again, it came out in court that there was a $120,000 difference between the purchase price and the bill of sale she gave the bank--though she insisted the bank knew of the discrepancy.

Hofstadter never makes up his mind about her and other characters, and his portraits of Balkan and Turkish players verge on caricature. But it's hard to write off his point about the antiquities business: It's a dangerous game for amateurs.