Insider: Days and nights at the museum

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Carol Sorgen

Gary Vikan offers an insider’s view of the Walter’s Art museum, which he directed from 1994 to 2013, in his new book.

If you live in Baltimore, you know the Walters Art Museum. But just how well do you know it?

Thanks to Gary Vikan’s recently published memoir, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, the next time you visit the Walters, you’ll have a greater appreciation of just what goes on behind the scenes of an internationally renowned museum — one Baltimoreans are fortunate to have in their midst.

Sacred and Stolen came into being after Vikan came out on top in a 2015 literary competition sponsored by a writers’ retreat in Vermont called When Words Count. Six writers competed in categories that included manuscript quality, marketing plan and book cover design.

Winning the contest garnered Vikan a contract with Select Books, a New York-based independent publisher, as well as a national book launch and the services of a literary agent.

Contest judges cited Vikan’s “charm,” and a press release described Vikan as “an exquisite storyteller and raconteur in the spirit of Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe and Bill Clinton.” 

Vikan, who is 70 and lives in Guilford, was director of the Walters from 1994 to 2013. But he has been with the museum since 1985, serving nearly as decade as curator of Medieval art and assistant director before becoming director.

From medieval art to Elvis

While at the Walters, the affable Vikan — an internationally known medieval scholar — curated a number of critically acclaimed exhibitions, most notably, those devoted to the art of the medieval Orthodox Church. 

During his tenure, Baltimore art lovers also saw the elimination of the museum’s general admission fee (as is true of the Baltimore Museum of Art), as well as open access to all of its digital assets. 

In 2013, Vikan stepped down from his position at the Walters to write, teach and lecture on topics as varied as Byzantine art, Elvis Presley, the Shroud of Turin, looted art, cultural property policy, neuroaesthetics, and art forgeries. In addition, he consults with cultural nonprofits, collectors and dealers.

Bribery, forgery and more

If you think of museums as, well, “sacred” repositories of the world’s great treasures, you may be in for a surprise as Vikan details the many instances of briberies, forgeries and stolen art works in the art world.

You’ll find out, for example, how Vikan’s discovery of three fake pieces of early Christian Egyptian sculpture in the Hirshhorn Museum led to the discovery of dozens of other fakes throughout the United State and Europe.

You’ll also read how Vikan was able to reunite pieces of a priceless gold signet ring and key that had been separated for nearly 1,000 years by offering a woman a new refrigerator.

And how the deputy director of the National Museum of History of Ukraine accepted a $20,000 bribe, but then failed to deliver the promised pieces for an exhibition at the Walters. And those are just for starters.

One could come away thinking that Vikan has a penchant for landing himself in the midst of such situations, but apparently the art world does have its seamy underside.

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Justice and UNESCO have reported that art crime has been the world’s third highest-grossing criminal trade in the last 40 years. Only drugs and weapons surpass it.

Like Vikan himself, Sacred and Stolen is both approachable and down-to-earth. Not to worry if you slept through your college survey of art classes. Vikan has done his homework, and it makes for a compelling, enjoyable read.

Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director is available on Amazon and at local booksellers and, of course, at the Walters Art Museum.