Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire, England

Inside the Art Market: Grave Robbers and Ruins

“Rare Tiffany stained-glass windows, which were primarily installed in churches and cemeteries, have been particularly coveted by criminals since the 1960s.”

—New York Times, August 13, 1999

I have long been fascinated by architectural ruins: their footprint and random artistry, the way they’ve settled into the landscape over time, become overgrown and hidden behind weeds, works of decay in progress but also a thing of beauty. Some ruins, like the Coliseum in Rome or the Parthenon in Athens, are grand tourist attractions of enormous power and mystery. It can be a humbling experience standing amidst all that history and human drama. Other ruins, like the crumbling barns and farmhouses one glimpses from the car on a remote country road, seem almost invisible, unappealing eyesores soon to crumble and collapse or be bulldozed away. But these ruins also convey a certain mystery and romance. One wonders who lived within, the stories the place might reveal.

One doesn’t immediately think of the art market when looking at ruins. There would seem to be no visible connection between artwork and abandoned, decayed buildings. But when you think of how much art work flows into the market from ruins, from archaeological digs and plundered burial sites and even war zones, you start to appreciate the origins of much of the art on the market in so many diverse fields of collecting. You start to ask: “What purposes did these objects originally serve before they were broken apart, hauled away and put on view in a sleek art gallery, an auction saleroom?

And what was left behind?

I am thus reminded of a screaming newspaper headline from an art-related trial that took place in 1999: “Expert Guilty in Scheme to Steal Tiffany Glass from Tombs.” It was hard to believe, but true: the “erudite expert,” Alistair Duncan, formerly a specialist at Christie’s and a renowned authority on Tiffany glass, had conspired with a Queens grave robber and a Bronx antiques dealer to steal a nine-foot Tiffany stained-glass window from a cemetery mausoleum and sell overseas “at a hefty profit.” Similar thefts had been committed over the years, motivated no doubt by the rising value of Tiffany glass on the world art market. It was the kind of sacrilege one could scarcely imagine taking place in the art market, a realm of serenity and politesse.

Stepping back from the art market as we know it today, however, and thinking of those ruins in faraway places, one can easily see the connections between them and, say, the hushed showrooms of an antiquities dealer on Madison Avenue or the glittering salerooms of the major auction houses throughout the world. Even the ancient Egyptian sculpture of the god Sekhmet that stands over the entrance to Sotheby’s on New Bond Street in London, an unclaimed lot from a sale long ago, begs the question: “Where did it come from, and what was left behind?

This question has always intrigued me. Years ago, back in the 1970s, when I was writing freelance magazine articles for various publications, I decided to pitch an idea to The Smithsonian on the ruined abbeys and monasteries of England, Scotland and Wales. I would drive about the countryside and visit places like Rievaulx and Jervaulx, great cathedrals as well as small and obscure chapter houses, taking photographs and recalling the tale of destruction. At this moment in my career I had no connection at all with the art market; and yet it was in many ways this journey would mark the beginning of my career in it.

Yorkshire, Early Autumn

Nearing Richmond, an ancient town in the north of Yorkshire with streets made of cobblestone, I found the sign I had been looking for and swung the car off the main road. I followed a tight, twisting path down into a hollow that was lush, dark and remote. It was early evening. The sun had disappeared and rolling storm clouds threatened rain. The wind blew hard. It occurred to me, as I drove past open fields, that just before nightfall was not the best time to visit abbey ruins. They loomed ahead, a grim collection of half-razed buildings made of ragged stone, crows darting among them. The place had been destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII, his men pillaging it as they might an enemy village—although this had been a monastery. It was called Easby Abbey, a house of the Premonstratensian order, and had been a very small, impoverished house. Haunted though Easy Abbey now appeared, I parked the car by a stream and hopped the wall to have a look around.

Having no plan to help me identify the ruins, I randomly poked into cellars, crept along broken passageways, followed stairwells that led nowhere, and examined jagged lines of stone jutting up from the grass, trying to get a sense of where the refectory might have been, the reredorter, the abbot’s lodging and the warming room. The only building I was certain of was the church, which had all four walls intact. It was getting late. I imagined cowled monks slipping into their pews with lighted tapers in hand, chanting their night offices, praying and meditating during the long hours before dawn.

Still under the spell of Easby, I left the grounds and drove on to Richmond for the night.

In 1534 over 800 religious houses of various orders were scattered throughout England and Wales. By 1540 there were none. The king had them seized and demolished in a campaign known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The abbeys fell because Thomas Cromwell, loyal Vicar General to Henry VIII, knew his king needed money. He also knew that the abbeys were in steady decline, and he decided to send out commissioners to assess the wealth of each monastic house and to gather whatever evidence they could against the monks. The commissioners dutifully came back with stories of “murders, sodomies, whoredoms in destroying of children, for forging of deeds and other infinite horrors of life.”

More interesting to Cromwell, however, were the financial reports. He discovered the monasteries owned nearly a third of all the land in England and had a combined annual income of more than £800,000. At a place like Canterbury, where for centuries pilgrims had enriched the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket with gifts of gold and silver, the assets were staggering. Cromwell had no intention of letting this fortune remain in the hands of degenerate monks.

The king’s men were dispatched to close the abbeys. At each house the routine was basically the same. The monks were sent packing. All gold, silver and jewelry was sent to the King’s Mint and the household furnishings put up for sale. The demolition crew arrived and windows were ripped out, shrines and altars battered, rooks pulled down. Fires were started inside the abbey church to melt the lead into pigs. The carved wooden choir stalls were used as fuel.

The abbeys were then left to rot—which they did until the 20th century, when the Department of the Environment took them over. Now their lawns are carefully clipped, their stones excavated and repointed. Schoolchildren arrive by the busload to visit them.

I came away from these abbeys amazed at how even mere fragments of stone can conjure up whole pictures from the past. I also came away with a feeling of solitude deeper than any I had experienced in a long time.

At Mount Grace Priory I walked around an immense grassy cloister, peering into the grim cells in which Carthusian monks, living in complete privacy from one another, spent their days praying and reading, never conversing even on festival days. Each cell contained a small dark room with a fireplace, sleeping loft, a vegetable garden, and a high wall to keep out creatures from the woods nearby. A sluice carried in water from a pond. By the front door was an opening in the wall through which food was passed, but it was angled in such a way as to prevent two faces from ever looking at each other.

At Byland Abbey, across the road from a charming pub, I examined a few patches of an exquisite tile-mosaic that once covered the entire church floor. Seeing these delicately beautiful green-and-yellow pieces of thirteenth-century art still in place within the choir of an otherwise demolished church was a poignant revelation.

I arrived late in the afternoon at Gisborough Priory, where about the only thing of any significance left standing is one mighty wall of the church with a great chasm once filled by a stained glass window. I stood far off, knee-deep in a field of red, yellow and orange flowers, shooting pictures of that wall, stark against the horizon, until the parish clock struck the hour of closing.

The morning after visiting Easby I left Richmond for the village of Middleham, looking for a ruined abbey I had heard about in London. The place described was, like Easby, another Premonstratensian house, only it had been restored, converted into private use. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find it.

The town square of Middleham, lined with pubs named the Black Bull and the White Swan, lists heavily in the direction of Jervaulx Forest. I drove through town and on toward the hills, passing men on horses, the rain washing them in sheets. I dropped into a felt-green hollow and stopped to ask a butcher coming home for lunch in his white apron and black slicker where I might find Coverham Abbey. He pointed back up the road and answered, “You mean Coverham Abbey Farm. Look for the pillars.”

The farm lay down a muddy road with cow pastures on both sides. Men driving cows in for milking took no notice of me. The abbey ruins were partly hidden beneath scrub brush, weeds, and other camouflage, but as I approached them I could see they were surrounded, and had been part of, the buildings of a working farm. A cardboard sign on an abbey wall announced, “Goat’s milk, 10p a glass.”

The ruins were partly functional, partly decorative. Farm animals were penned in by abbey walls; two broken arches adorned the center of a garden; elegant medieval windows ran alongside the farmhouse, looking out in the middle of a road where farm equipment and livestock passed through. The place was enchanting, even romantic. On a knoll by the farm stood a parish church nestled in willows bent deep in the slapping wind. Coverham Abbey had probably been quarried for stone to build the church and farm.

Coverham was not a monument, like Fountains and the others. It had actually survived, and it was still playing an active role in English life. I drove away feeling very pleased at having found it.

Brooklyn, Late Summer

It had been many years since I visited the ruined abbeys of England. I had come into the art market in 1989 and worked for over a decade at Sotheby’s; and then started my own firm as an advisor. A call had beckoned me to this house in Brooklyn, a brick mansion on spacious grounds, a covered carport with imposing pillars on one side, as though for ceremonial arrivals. Inside the rooms were imposing, with a grand spiral staircase and many rooms on three floors.

But what I noticed straightaway was the monumental Tiffany stained-glass window on one side of the house, looking out into the carport; a spectacular floral design with bright colors that flashed as the light outside came piercing through. In other rooms were Tiffany fireplace surrounds of many sorts; Tiffany chandeliers; Tiffany clerestory windows above doors. The house had been built by an industrialist in the around 1908, the firm of Tiffany commissioned to provide the fixtures and windows. The house eventually passed into the hands of a church and was now a residence for the senior clergyman.

The great stained-glass window riveted my attention. Here it was, a masterpiece of design, original to the house and all but unknown to the outside world. One reads from time to time of something similar, a Tiffany window commissioned for a wealthy family in the Midwest, perhaps, and eventually removed when the house is demolished. But this window was still intact and in perfect condition, save perhaps for the great quantities of lead holding the enormous colored shards of glass in place.

I was reminded once again of ruins. Looking back on my travels about England visiting all those abbeys and monasteries I had kept wondering what happened to objects in all those houses of worship: the illuminated manuscripts and other rare books, the silver and gold coins, the reliquaries? They had all been removed and either destroyed, seized by the king’s emissaries as loot, or sent on to new owners, one day possibly to surface in the art market.

But here in this house in Brooklyn everything had from the beginning remained intact, undisturbed, almost hidden. It was a thrilling moment to savor as my eye ran over the great window, admiring the craftsmanship of Tiffany as the light began to fade it was time to leave.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire, England. Getty Images.)