Tideland Studio

The Perfect Copy: ‘The Stolen Collection’

What’s the fuss about?

In the autumn of 2023, Tideland Studio exhibited a collection of 3D-printed works at the Biennale for Craft & Design in the old welding hall at Copenhagen Contemporary. The nine small figures, intricately constructed from strands of fired clay, may seem a bit peculiar at first glance. But make no mistake. They are the digital trace of a global issue, where precious cultural heritage is unabashedly sold to the highest bidder. A trade chain that extends from terrorist groups in the conflict-ridden Middle East to international market platforms like eBay, before disappearing into private art collections and out of history – perhaps forever.

The nine figures are replicas of real artefacts: historical objects sold on eBay, assessed by their sellers to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia, described in western scholarly circles as ‘the cradle of civilization’. By combining AI, photogrammetry, and ceramic 3D printing, Tideland Studio has, in an almost hacker-like manner, produced a copy that mimics the now vanished original.

‘The Stolen Collection’ stands as raw, ceramic shadows of what may have been irreplaceable, plundered cultural heritage. However, since no expert has had the opportunity to examine the artefacts closely, asses their value and importance and secure them a place in a museum, they have instead been subjected to the global art market. A market that thrives on stolen cultural heritage, though the definition of what is considered ‘stolen’ continues to be debated within the world of art and culture.

Tideland Studio

The architects Jonas Swienty Andresen and Simon Strøyer are behind Tideland Studio. Together they explore the intersection between architecture, art, technology and sustainability. For the Biennale for Crafts & Design 2023, the duo had created the work The Stolen Collection.
Tideland Studio

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Plundered Cultural Heritage

Tideland Studio is shedding light on a serious issue with their project ‘The Stolen Collection,’ a matter first brought to the architects’ attention in a report from the podcast ‘99% Invisible.’ (1) In collaboration with Kerning Cultures, the report explains how the war in Syria since 2011 has not only caused significant civilian losses but also inflicted serious damage on the country’s cultural heritage. Syrian archaeologist Amr Al Azm initiated an urgent initiative for local archaeologists, who, with the utmost discretion, tried to document damage and theft of cultural heritage while the war raged – often at the risk of their own lives.

During ISIS, this work became extremely dangerous. ISIS initially destroyed cultural heritage to attract global attention but quickly discovered that Syria’s antiquities could be a valuable resource, thanks to the large international art market. Excavation, collection, and sale of antiques became an organized trade and a lucrative source of income in the terrorist group’s economy, where individual items could be sold for up to $35,000.

Desperate citizens who had lost all other means of livelihood contributed to digging up and reselling the country’s cultural heritage, while ISIS, as an intermediary, could take 20% cut of the earnings. The artefacts would be transported across the border to Turkey, from where the objects would be sold at auction houses to art dealers and private buyers from neighbouring countries as well as the global north.(2) After purchase, the objects can be transported to new destinations, and with this intermediary step, they are separated from their country of origin. And from this point Western dealers, among others, can resell the objects to interested buyers via online platforms.

The more hands these artefacts pass through, the more unclear the provenance (a term denoting an object’s background and sales history) becomes, and the objects can conveniently blend into the vast array of antiques on the art market with their path to the open market shrouded in mist. And the demand is high.

Loose Legislation

Between 2014-15, it was estimated that ISIS had earned around 350 million Danish kroner from the sale of trafficked antiquities and art objects. (3) However, regardless of who ultimately profits, the damage is the same: cultural heritage wrongfully removed from their countries of origin, mainly ending up in the hands of private collectors. And here, they are poorly protected.

In 1972, the UN adopted the UNESCO Convention, an international treaty to combat illegal trafficking of cultural objects. It states that all trade in, export, and import of cultural heritage objects after 1970 should be considered looting and therefore illegal. (However, trade and export of cultural heritage and art objects from before 1970 are considered a lost cause.) Around 190 nations have signed the treaty, but the actual legislation and enforcement of laws vary from country to country and are, to say the least, lax.

In principle, especially the seller – but also the buyer – is responsible for ensuring that an artwork is legal according to the UNESCO Convention. However, the requirements for evidence can vary significantly from sales platform to sales platform. Sometimes it is considered enough that the seller is deemed ‘of credible character’. Prosecution, fines, and convictions related to illegal sales of antiques and cultural heritage are therefore rare. (4)

When private collections become the Wild West

A lot of good can come from private collections. In Denmark alone, several of our largest museums were founded on collections of art and antiques built by passionate collectors and royals, later made accessible to the public with the best intentions of sharing knowledge and culture with the people.

However, this doesn’t change the fact that there are also several serious dangers associated with a cultural heritage artefact being part of a private collection rather than a museum. Especially if one believes that cultural heritage is a shared human heritage and should be secured for future generations rather than left to the whims of private owners.

As soon as an art object is acquired by a private collector, laws of property rights takes effect. A buyer of an artwork or an antique can remain anonymous and has no legal obligation to grant the public access to the work in the future. There is also no obligation to maintain the work, nor are there any laws preventing the owner from outright destroying it. (5)

The Lost van Gogh

One of the most infamous examples highlighting the danger of having world cultural heritage in private hands is the story of Ryoei Saito, a Japanese tycoon who, in 1990, bought Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” (1890) (6) at Christie’s auction house in New York for $82.5 million. Saito later announced – presumably because he cherished the work – that the painting would be cremated with him when he died. Ryoei Saito died in 1996, and the painting has been missing ever since.

No one knows for sure what happened to the work, although some rumours suggest that Saito sold the painting before his death. (7) Nevertheless, a painting that many art lovers and professionals would categorize as a cultural treasure seems to have disappeared without a trace. The story of Saito and van Gogh’s painting is one of the most infamous in the art world, but it is far from unique.

Due to my education as an appraisal expert, I have witnessed how a collection of works on paper by a famous Danish artist hung in a damp cellar owned by a private collector. The colours had faded, and the paper was deteriorated by moisture damage.

The works, which could have been worthy of a museum collection if in good condition, were irreversibly deteriorating, and there was nothing that could be done. The owner wanted to keep the works. When art and cultural objects are part of private collections, there is no ongoing monitoring or responsibility for their preservation. They risk disappearing forever.

Should all trade in art and cultural objects, antiques, and crafts then be prevented? Not necessarily. There are plenty of artworks and objects that a museum would politely decline if offered as a donation. Either because the subject is not old, rare, or of such significant cultural-historical importance that it is crucial that it remains part of our shared and publicly accessible cultural knowledge bank. Many living artists, craftsmen, and designers also rely heavily on an active art market to make a living from their practice.

However, as Noah Charney from The Art Newspaper suggests in his article ‘Lost art: When works disappear into private collections,’ one might be tempted to wish that ownership of art and art objects could come with a legal requirement for preservation and accessibility—especially if an acquired work is later deemed an irreplaceable cultural treasure.

Are museums the answer, then?

When studying art history, one is often presented with the idea that there is no better place for art or cultural heritage treasures than in a museum. The museum is a centre for knowledge, run by experts and often governed by the state. Here, art and artefacts will be protected and preserved for future generations. They will become available to the public and contribute to our shared knowledge and culture.

Enlightenment, preservation and sharing of knowledge are the highest goals of museums. However, in recent years, a series of scandals have tarnished the good reputation of these institutions. Professionals in high positions, individuals entrusted with a nation’s cultural heritage and precious artefacts , have been caught stealing from collections, being involved in illegal trade of trafficked artefacts , while governments’ neglect of the physical maintenance of museums has resulted in the destruction of irreplaceable artefacts in their care. scandals among the most renowned museums are not hard to find.

In 2022, the former director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, was charged with fraud and complicity in the illegal trade of antiquities from Egypt linked to an extensive smuggling network. (8)

In 2023, it was revealed that Peter Higgs, the curator with top responsibility for the Greek and Roman collections at the British Museum, had managed to steal and resell around 1,500 to 2,000 historical gemstones, artworks, and jewellery. The theft was made possible by the museum’s superficial cataloguing of its extensive collection. The sales took place via eBay. (9)

Perhaps most tragic, is the total destruction of Brazil’s National Museum in 2018, where around 18 million objects were lost. Lack of state support had resulted in gross neglect of the museum and poor safety standards before an overheated air conditioning system ignited, engulfing the entire building in flames. (10)

Fortunately, marginalized voices are beginning to challenge old beliefs, even within the walls of museums.

One could argue that such negligence should result in museums losing the right to possess a nation’s irreplaceable art objects and cultural heritage, – especially when it comes to the questions of possessing cultural heritage of other nations. However, the reality is much more complex, and repatriation, as is the professional term , can be very challenging in some cases, either due to war, the original creators of the work no longer existing, or the lack of resources to preserve artworks of enormous cultural-historical significance on the receiving part.

In recent times, there has been an increased awareness of the shortcomings of museum institutions. Theorists and artists have criticized the power structures of museums since the 1960s and challenged their authority. In recent years, there is a growing awareness of issues related to postcolonialism, inclusion, and equality in our museums as representatives of culture and society. Fortunately, marginalized voices are beginning to challenge old beliefs, even within the walls of museums. In the shadow of recent scandals, there is a rise in questions of whether museums still have the right to possess artworks and artefacts that other nations consider central to their identity and culture.

A challenging time awaits the museums, prompting them to reconsider their mode of existence and the values they wish to embody as institutions.

The Stolen Collection by Tideland Studio. The Biennale for Craft & Design 2023.
Photo: Tableau

Aura: Unique Artwork or Exclusive Commodity

To summarize, there are numerous issues and pitfalls when it comes to artworks and cultural objects that constitute our shared cultural heritage on both national and global level . The journey from the place of origin to private collections and museums is often characterized by questionable routes , and the trade in unique and rare items is as lucrative as it is, at times, unethical. The rarer, older, and more significant an art object is, the more valuable and sought after it becomes.

The unique artwork possesses a special aura, as theorized by Walter Benjamin – a unique authenticity. While aura may be an elusive concept, it points to the idea that the original artwork or the thousand-year-old artefact holds a distinct presence, an aesthetic authority. The aura of an artwork is what moves and captivates us when it gleams in the display case in the hallowed halls of the museum – or in the window of the exclusive auction house.

At the same time, one could argue that it is precisely this mindset, this notion that the unique work has a special essence, that makes our cultural heritage a coveted and luxurious commodity. Stricter penalties for the purchase of illegally trafficked cultural heritage and art objects are proposed as a solution, but it does not change the dynamics of a market, where objects looted before 1970 are considered legitimate. History shows that legislation is flawed and easy to circumvent. Therefore, alternative solutions are needed, and ‘The Stolen Collection’ can be seen as pointing us in a possible direction.

However, 'The Stolen Collection' can also be seen as pointing towards another radical possibility – that the future technological development of 3D printing could challenge our understanding of the copy.

Copy and Original: What the Future Might Hold

‘The Stolen Collection,’ with its 3D-printed replicas of vanished originals, highlights a global issue. However, the project also looks forward and suggests an almost activist potential in the new digital possibilities.

First and foremost, the project can be seen as an initial step towards a digital database of sold art objects. A digital archive with the possibility of downloading and reprinting artefacts and art objects that have now been sold to private hands. It is, in itself, a rebellious project. However, ‘The Stolen Collection’ can also be seen as pointing towards another radical possibility – that the future technological development of 3D printing could challenge our understanding of the copy.

It is already possible to create very accurate replicas for museums, and it is not far-fetched to imagine that the technical capabilities of 3D printing could become even more refined in the future. The prospect of printing perfect copies that are identical to the original in material and expression down to the smallest detail could have a revolutionary impact on cultural heritage – and perhaps counteract the market that turns the unique cultural heritage object into a coveted commodity.

Daring to challenge the idea that only the unique art object – the original – holds value and instead considering the copy as a source of aesthetic experience and cultural understanding on par with the original work, there lies a revolutionary potential in 3D printing. The idea of a world where an exact copy of a Van Gogh painting and a thousand-year-old cultural antique t can be downloaded from the cloud and owned by anyone with the ability to print them will likely make many professionals shudder with dismay.

However, the perfect copy contains a strong democratic potential: an opportunity to increase access to cultural heritage and make it available to more people on a global level , rather than limiting it to museum vaults or the private collections of the elite. Hypothetically, with a serie of identical copies of the same work, all considered equal sources of knowledge and aesthetic experience, one could begin to repatriate cultural heritage to its countries of origin without significant losses to museum collections or the visitor experience.

One could imagine the possibility for schools, institutions, and individuals worldwide to print their own collections and have direct access to art and cultural heritage that would otherwise require a journey around the world. One could envision a reality where one could there is touch, hold, and be in direct contact with art and artefacts that would otherwise be locked away behind glass.

And perhaps devaluing the existing, unique original could actually be to its benefit. Maybe the opportunity to print numerous perfect copies could alleviate some of the pressure on the coveted original, shift the balance between supply and demand, and thereby puncture the market’s wild desire to possess the rarest, unique, and exclusive. But this is, of course, a hypothesis.

Nevertheless, in such a hypothetical future, one could start dreaming that our cultural heritage would finally be freed from power plays and criminal interests, and instead take a place in society as free knowledge and common cultural property in the most literal sense.


[1]  Mars, R. & Dowidar, Z. ( 31. maj 2022)

[2] Mars, R. & Dowidar, Z. ( 31. maj 2022)

[3] Krasnik, B. (19. februar 2015)

[4] Mars, R. & Dowidar, Z. ( 31. maj 2022)

[5] France and the United States are some of the only countries with laws that provide artists the right to object to the deliberate destruction of their works, while in the Netherlands there is a duty of maintenance.

[6] Another version of the portrait is on display at the Musée d’Orsay, although the authenticity of this version has been questioned, due to underlying pencil sketches that were unlike van Gogh’s usual working method.

[7] Charney, N. (8. november 2018).

[8] Chrisafis A. (26. maj 2022).

[9] Razzall K., Kennelly L., &  Graham D. (12. december 2023)

[10] Phillips. D. (3. september, 2018) & Angeleti A. (2. september 2022)


Angeleti A. (2. september 2022) After a devastating fire in 2018, the National Museum of Brazil unveils the first stage of its restoration project. The Art Newspaper. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/09/02/after-devastating-fire-in-2018-the-national-museum-of-brazil-unveils-the-first-stage-of-its-restoration-project

Charney, N. (8. november 2018). Lost art: When works disappear into private collections. The Art Nwespaper. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2018/11/08/lost-art-when-works-disappear-into-private-collections

Chrisafis A. (26. maj 2022). Former head of Louvre charged in Egyptian artefacts trafficking case. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/26/former-louvre-head-jean-luc-martinez-charged-egyptian-antiquities-trafficking-case

Krasnik, B. (19. februar 2015). (The world is fighting against IS art trade) Verden går i kamp mod IS’ kunsthandel. Kristeligt Dagblad. https://www.kristeligt-dagblad.dk/udland/verden-gaar-i-kamp-mod-kunsthandel

Mars, R. & Dowidar, Z. (31. maj 2022). Episode 493: Divining Provenance. 99% Invisible. Produced in collaboration with Kerning Cultures. https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/divining-provenance/

Phillips. D. (3. September 2018). Brazil museum fire: ‘incalculable’ loss as 200-year-old Rio institution gutted. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/03/fire-engulfs-brazil-national-museum-rio

Razzall K., Kennelly L., & Graham D. (12. december 2023). British Museum: Accused thief not talking or co-operating, chairman tells BBC. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-67680391

Theme: Crafted Realities

How are the infinite and impactful possibilities of the digital realm utilized? Formkraft explores what the digital state means for the craft and design sector. How can craftsmen and designers best harness the new digital tools, and what pitfalls should they avoid? Read theme