- Elginism - http://www.elginism.com -

The crack down on looted artefacts in museums

Based around the publicity currently surrounding [1] the Getty’s collection, this article looks not only at the current restitution requests made by the Italian government, but also more generally at the issues that surround the antiquities trade in the twenty-first century.

From:
Bloomberg News [2]

Tomb-Robbing Trials Name Getty, Metropolitan, Princeton Museums
Oct. 31 (Bloomberg)

Photos seized from a Swiss warehouse paint a story of global skullduggery, Rome prosecutor Paolo Ferri says. The thousands of Polaroids depict how Greek pottery and Roman statues looted from 2,000-year-old tombs in Italy made their way to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

At the journey’s end, convicted Roman antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici and American dealer Robert Hecht posed in front of museum cases displaying looted relics, he says.

“This is evidence of an international conspiracy,” says Ferri, who, 10 years after the warehouse raid, is using the photos to crack the alleged smuggling ring. “Traffic in archaeology goes from Italy to Switzerland, and from there, it’s sold to most art museums in America.”

The Getty’s former antiquities chief, Marion True, is the first museum curator to be prosecuted with the Polaroid evidence.

True, 56, is scheduled to go on trial on Nov. 16 in Rome on charges of handling or receiving 35 stolen objects and for conspiracy for her alleged role in a smuggling business that Hecht and Medici ran. Medici, 67, was convicted on Dec. 13, 2004, of receiving and exporting stolen antiquities, and is appealing.

Hecht, 86, who was indicted on the same charges, denies wrongdoing. He is scheduled to go on trial with True.

True, who has a doctorate in fine arts from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, declined to comment for this story. “The Getty continues to believe that Dr. True’s trial should result in her exoneration,” the museum said in a statement.

Princeton, Boston, Cleveland

The Getty case is just a slice of an illicit global trade in antiquities that stretches from the Egyptian desert to Chinese tombs to Peruvian monuments, and pulls in some of the most- respected names in art and academia.

At least 52 items the Getty has acquired or handled were looted or came from smugglers, according to charges against Hecht, Medici and True that were contained in Italian court documents obtained by Bloomberg News. Eight such pieces are in the Metropolitan, 22 are in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and one each are in the Princeton University Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art, the documents say.

Italian judges haven’t charged the museums with any crime.

These objects represent a small part of the tainted antiquities in museums, Ferri says.

At Princeton, a psykter, a vase for cooling wine, that’s listed in Hecht’s indictment is one of some 50 items that originated with Medici, he says. “They have many, many items whose provenance is Medici,” Ferri says of the New Jersey museum.

Princeton’s Pots

The Princeton museum’s spokeswoman, Ruta Smithson, says Ferri’s contention is wrong.

“A search of museum records finds no indication that we have acquired anything at all from Mr. Medici, either directly or indirectly,” she says. “The Italian authorities have requested information about the psykter, and we have provided it.”

Illicit trade in antiquities and cultural items totals as much as $4 billion to $6 billion a year, the U.K. House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee found in July 2000 after gathering testimony on trafficking’s worldwide scope.

Looted items can highlight a museum’s collection. The Euphronios krater, a 12-gallon (45-liter) pot painted with a scene from the Trojan War, sits spotlighted in the center of one of the Metropolitan’s new Greek galleries.

Thomas Hoving, the former Met director who paid $1 million for the krater in 1972, now says he believes tomb robbers stole it. It’s among the allegedly looted items Italian prosecutors charged Hecht and Medici with handling.

Met’s Silver

Also from the Metropolitan’s collection, Hecht is charged with handling and exporting a 15-piece set of Hellenistic silver that Italian authorities say was looted from Morgantina in Sicily.

Among the items in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for which Hecht is charged is a 2,500-year-old vase depicting young athletes jumping, which is on view in the museum’s Early Greek Gallery.

The artifact at Cleveland’s museum for which he’s charged is a lekythos, or oil jar, painted with black figures.

The Getty’s Web site features a 2,300-year-old black vase from Apulia in southern Italy, painted in red figures that depict Perseus and Andromeda after he saved her from a sea monster. The vase is included in the charges against Hecht, Medici and True.

To get such pieces, True would tell Medici what she wanted to buy, Medici would sell the item to Hecht or other dealers and Hecht would sell the object to the Getty with paperwork that made it seem as if it had come from a known international source rather than from illicit excavations, Ferri charges.

`Clandestine Digs’

Ferri says he has Polaroids of the vase, known as a pelike, that were taken during its restoration under Medici’s supervision. He also has shots of Medici posing at the vase’s display in the Getty.

The indictment of Hecht and True says all of the items for which they’re charged are of illicit provenance: “They come from theft, originating with clandestine digs and illegal purchases that for the most part damaged sites such as tombs.”

True spent two decades at the Getty building on the antiquities collection bequeathed by oil baron J. Paul Getty, who died in 1976. On Oct. 3, the museum said True retired after it determined that she’d violated Getty policy by failing to disclose details of a house she bought in Greece.

Francesca Coppi, one of True’s lawyers in Italy, says True tried to ensure the legitimate origins of the Getty’s acquisitions and has returned objects to Italy that were determined to have been stolen.

“Marion True acted in good faith,” Coppi says.

`I’ve Never Smuggled’

While True is a high-profile defendant, the indictment portrays her as marginal in the alleged conspiracy. “Hecht and Medici took on the role of promoters and organizers of the entire illicit traffic,” the indictment says.

Medici declined interview requests through his lawyer in Rome, Susan Spafford. “The activity of Mr. Medici was outside the country and respected Italian law,” Spafford says. “He bought these objects on the international market.”

Hecht denies wrongdoing. “I’ve never smuggled an object out of Italy,” says Hecht, who lives in Paris and New York. “I’ve never bought from illicit diggers. If they want to prosecute me for a vase I sold to the Getty or the Museum of Fine Arts or the Metropolitan, I want to know who excavated it, where and who exported it.”

Today’s clashes over antiquities and their origins are different from efforts by Egypt and Greece to win back artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone or Parthenon Marbles, which foreigners removed centuries ago. Theft from museums also differs from tomb robbing because most objects in museums have been documented.

Erasing History

Archaeological sites hold unique information that raiders erase forever, says Giuseppe Proietti, who heads the Italian Ministry of Culture’s department of research, innovation and organization.

In October, Italian police seized 600 bronze statuettes, marble busts and pots from a home in Austria after tracing them from tomb robbers who had dug at sites near Rome that predate the Roman Empire. While police celebrated the biggest seizure of looted goods in a decade, archaeologists lamented the loss of knowledge about food residue or placement that would have added to the historical record had the items been properly excavated.

“It’s like ripping a page from a book, a page of history in which our ancestors’ story is told,” says Proietti, 60, who has represented the ministry in talks with the Getty Museum over a civil portion of the Italian court case, in which the ministry is one of the offended parties.

Valuable National Resources

What constitutes illegal trade varies from country to country. Egypt, Italy and Turkey, whose cultural heritage is among their most valuable national resources, now say antiquities found on their soil belong to them. They prosecute traders and pressure foreign countries to enforce the laws.

The oldest and most widely adopted global standard is the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization convention on preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.

It covers antiquities more than 100 years old. The U.S., Italy and 107 other countries that signed it pledge to respect a ban on importing material known as stolen.

The Metropolitan Museum won’t comment on antiquities the Italian court documents link to looters, says Harold Holzer, a museum spokesman. He says the Met follows guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors, a New York-based organization made up of 175 museum heads.

No Blanket Prohibitions

Smithson, the Princeton museum’s spokeswoman, says the museum complies with the AAMD’s guidelines. The Cleveland Museum’s spokesman, Robert Bruder, referred questions to Director of External Affairs Donna Brock, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, whose policy also is to follow the guidelines, hasn’t been contacted by the Italian government about its collection, spokeswoman Kelly Gifford says.

The guidelines condemn any actions that damage archaeological sites and restrict buying objects stolen from official excavations, according to the association’s Web site. At the same time, they list no blanket prohibitions on objects from the world’s unofficial or unknown sites, such as as-yet- undiscovered tombs in the Egyptian desert where robbers turn up rich finds.

AAMD Executive Director Millicent Gaudieri says the guidelines cite “official” excavations to mirror terminology used by agencies such as Unesco.

Egyptian Crackdown

Zahi Hawass is striving to protect undiscovered treasures. The secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities is building legal cases against museums and scholars who handle looted objects. After taking office in 2002, Hawass banned from Egypt any academic or institution that cooperates with antiquities dealers.

“The problem of Western museums is, they buy stolen artifacts,” says Hawass, 58, sporting an Indiana Jones-style hat that shades his forehead. “That is very bad.”

Hawass is battling looters at Saqqara, in the desert 12 miles (19 kilometers) south of Cairo. Best known for King Djoser’s 4,800-year-old stepped pyramid, a precursor to the Giza pyramids, Saqqara was the necropolis for the ancient capital of Memphis.

Many of Saqqara’s tombs are unexplored, making them prizes for archaeologists and looters alike.

Robbers smashed the carved walls of the tomb of Hetepka, a hairdresser to the royals. They extracted a false door, a stone slab carved with hieroglyphs that ancient Egyptians believed was a pathway to the afterlife. U.K. police recovered the door, and the tomb has largely been restored, Hawass says.

4,340-Year-Old Tomb

Reminders of looters’ destruction abound in Saqqara. In the 4,340-year-old tomb of Ka-Gmni, a government official, a false door from a nearby burial area sits on its side amid a pile of carved tomb walls and fixtures.

Hawass says antiquities officials have placed them there for temporary storage in this sturdier sepulcher, which is under constant guard.

Egyptian conservators working for Hawass will return the pieces to the tombs or move them into new warehouses on the edge of the burial grounds, where the desert meets groves of date palms. The new facility, with electronic sensors, replaces a storage area that looters had raided twice by digging tunnels underneath. They stole ancient papyruses before fleeing undetected, Hawass says.

Looting is as old as tombs themselves. Ancient Egyptians sealed their mortuaries with heavy doors and long burial shafts or hid them in the hills to throw off robbers.

Building Collections

European museums and private collections stocked up on bounty in the 18th and 19th centuries before countries passed laws to protect their cultural heritage. Military campaigns and so-called grand tour trips taken by the wealthy added to Western collections.

American museums started from scratch. The Metropolitan collected relics directly from archaeological expeditions in Egypt in the early 20th century and then built its collection through purchases and donations.

Competition among U.S. museums to put together the best exhibits fueled the trade in artifacts, says Neil Brodie, coordinator of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

“The demand was from the American museums,” he says. “In the 20th century, they all had to stock themselves.”

Hecht and Medici

The Getty, started with J. Paul Getty’s Greek and Roman antiquities, began to build up the collection after his death. In 1982, most of Getty’s art, housed in a Roman-style villa, passed to the trust that now runs the Los Angeles museum. The museum hired True that year and promoted her to curator of antiquities in 1986, when she got her doctorate.

Hecht and Medici appeared on the scene together in 1987, Medici’s lawyer Spafford says. They visited the Getty to sell it 20 Attic plates with red figures on a black background. The pair also dropped in on the Metropolitan, she says.

“Hecht was acting as a middleman, as the most famous seller of antiquities in the world,” Spafford says.

Hecht, who confirms the account, says he made out an invoice to the Getty for $2 million, payable to Giacomo Medici for the plates and stating that Medici was their owner.

The men left the plates at the museum, which held them for a year and a half while True tried unsuccessfully to persuade her bosses that it was worth spending $2 million on 20 items that would look the same as each other to the viewing public, Hecht says. The Getty returned the plates to Medici, he says.

Posed at Museums

During their visits to the Getty and the Metropolitan, the men posed in front of objects that Hecht had sold to the museums, Spafford says. Medici brought the photos back to Europe, where two decades later they would become evidence in his conviction.

In 1995, Italian police and prosecutors tracking tomb robbers got a break when they persuaded the Swiss government to use a cross-border warrant to raid warehouses in the Geneva Freeport — a trade zone exempt from Swiss customs.

They targeted an address shared by three companies that Medici ran: Edition Service, Fiduciarie Tecafin and Xoilan Trade, according to the court documents.

The Sept. 13 raid turned up thousands of artifacts and photos. In one shot, a 2,300-year-old, dirt-encrusted marble footbath is posed next to the morning’s paper in the trunk of a car. Prosecutor Ferri says the photos trace the items from excavation to repairs — and some of them to displays at the Getty, Metropolitan and other museums.

The pictures also show Medici posing alongside museum cases containing the objects, Ferri says. “It’s to say, `I’m the father of this object,”’ he says.

Photo Evidence

Prosecutors say securing photos of items in the Getty collection — before they got to the collection — was the link they needed to assemble their case.

Spafford counters that the photos aren’t proof of illegal activity. “He’s a friend of restoration and very curious,” she says of Medici.

The photos simply document objects sold by Hecht and visited on their U.S. trip, she says. Pictures of what Ferri says are illegal excavations are actually shots that Medici took of storm damage on his property after a heavy rain, Spafford says.

“It’s only a hole in the ground,” she says of the photos that prosecutors say depict illegal digging for antiquities.

The court papers obtained by Bloomberg News say six of seven Medici-related objects in the Metropolitan Museum match photos from Medici’s warehouse. Two are Attic amphoras, storage jars with handles, painted with red figures.

Stamp of Approval

The Getty has 42 objects handled by Medici that match Polaroids found in the raid, according to the papers.

Universities can be more than consumers in the illicit antiquities market; academic institutions that write about, display or verify an item’s provenance can increase the object’s value by providing a stamp of approval, Brodie says.

In a Bloomberg survey of 1,773 auction lots handled by New York auction house Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. from December 2000 through June 2005, items that had been exhibited, associated with a museum or authenticated sold for 98 percent more than the average estimate Sotheby’s projected before the sale. Items that lacked such an imprimatur sold for 70 percent more.

Oxford University’s archaeology lab went beyond authenticating artifacts for dealers and auction houses.

It worked for robbers and smugglers before the university, the oldest in the English-speaking world, stopped its commercial business of testing earthenware in 1997, says Doreen Stoneham, the scientist who did the testing.

`They Were Tombaroli’

In about 1970, Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art began supplementing its budget by charging private clients to date pots and statues through thermoluminescence, or TL. The tests measure how much radiation objects have absorbed, yielding an approximate date of when the pottery was originally fired.

Stoneham built a customer list consisting mostly of art dealers, some of whom worked illegally, she says.

In the mid-1980s, two Italian clients flew Stoneham to Lugano, Switzerland, to test a fragmented Etruscan sarcophagus. They led her to the basement garage of a bungalow and told her they’d found part of a tomb in the south of Italy.

They wanted advice on which direction to dig to find more. She says she told them she couldn’t help because she was a lab scientist, not an excavator.

“They were tombaroli,” she recalls, using the Italian term for tomb robber. “They didn’t hide it.” When others might enjoy weekends playing golf, these men spent Saturdays stalking the countryside for tombs, she says.

“They were doing a bit of digging illegally and dealing in antiquities,” she says.

No Questions Asked

In another case, Stoneham flew to Rome, where clients on the outskirts of the city were restoring pre-Colombian artifacts. She says the objects were smuggled out of South America.

“It was OK at the time,” Stoneham says of working for tomb robbers. “You take your sample, and you don’t get on your high horse.”

In 1990, Mike Tite, who had been keeper of the British Museum’s research lab, became head of the Oxford lab and Stoneham’s boss.

Soon after, a documentary called “African King” explored the illicit trade of artifacts from Mali in West Africa to private collectors in Europe. Tite was interviewed about his lab’s no-questions-asked authenticating of undocumented, 900- year-old terra-cotta statuettes of human figures.

Archaeologists slammed the lab. Ricardo Elia of Boston University and Christopher Chippindale of Cambridge published editorials and letters in the independent journal Antiquity, which Chippindale edited.

Oxford’s `Golden Goose’

In 1992, Tite, now 66, banned tests of West African objects for private individuals. Then, in 1997, he eliminated commercial TL testing of all artifacts for nonacademics.

“One thinks a little while before killing a golden goose,” Tite, who retired in 2004, says of the seven years it took to shut the operation. “It became inappropriate to find oneself as a university handling objects of dubious provenance with a high probability that they had been smuggled.”

Stoneham resigned, packed her things and started her own company, Oxford Authentication Ltd., in an office park in Wantage, a half hour from Oxford by car.

“Our job is spotting fakes,” she says in offices that contain a one-room lab for processing pottery powder samples and three rooms for the company’s four employees. “I hope it helps prevent a lot of fraud.”

`I Just Take the Money’

Stoneham has built Oxford Authentication into the top authenticator for antiquities made of clay.

Of the 98 earthenware objects sold at Sotheby’s March auction of fine Chinese ceramics and works of art, 12 were advertised as having dates verified by Oxford Authentication, the only authenticator listed.

Stoneham charges the same rates as the university did, 180 pounds ($318) for pottery and 250 pounds for porcelain. She tests almost 3,000 items a year, for annual sales of almost 600,000 pounds.

“Don’t ask me about the legality of it,” she says. “That’s not my problem. I just take the money and tell them if it’s genuine or not.”

The new director of the Oxford lab, Mark Pollard, distances himself from Stoneham. “We wouldn’t touch anything that is illegally exported,” he says.

Pollard says authentication can increase an object’s value 10-fold. “The nub of it is, Does that encourage illicit trade in antiquities?” he says. “I guess it probably does.”

The Met’s `Pirate’

Hoving, 74, the Metropolitan’s former director, says the sentiment surrounding museums’ responsibilities toward antiquities is changing.

“I was delighted I was a pirate,” says Hoving, who says he liked the adventure of building a great collection in the 1960s and 1970s with pieces like the Euphronios krater. “We all began to realize it was over, getting to be too embarrassing.”

In 1972, when he bought the krater, Hoving said Hecht supplied documentation that showed the relic had come from a Lebanese man whose father had gotten it, in pieces, earlier in the century. Today, Hoving agrees the krater was looted from Cerveteri, near Rome, and the Lebanese documentation was switched from a less valuable vessel.

“We really were suckered,” Hoving says of the deal with Hecht, whom he says admitted the switch to him when confronted years later.

“That is a lie, and I never switched any document on any krater,” Hecht says. “That’s a figment of his imagination or a construction of his evil mind.”

Sawed-Off Head

Prosecutors in the U.S., spurred by evidence provided by the Egyptian and Italian governments, among others, are starting to pursue looting cases.

In February 2002, a jury in U.S. District Court in New York convicted New York art dealer Frederick Schultz for conspiracy to receive antiquities. Hawass says the case involved suppliers associated with the Saqqara looting.

Among the bounty was a stone head of King Amenhotep III, which looters sawed off a statue and smuggled out of Egypt by coating it with plastic and painting it in gaudy colors so it would look like a cheap souvenir, according to court documents.

“Every pharaoh, it seems, has a price on his head,” U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff wrote in a Jan. 3, 2002, denial of a motion by Schultz to dismiss the case.

Schultz, 51, a former president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art, sold the head to a private collector for $1.2 million, according to judges’ rulings. In July 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Schultz’s appeal seeking to overturn his conviction.

Dealer Convicted

Schultz is serving the end of a 33-month prison sentence at a halfway house in the Bronx, New York, and is due for release in December, the Federal Bureau of Prisons says.

Messages left at the halfway house and his home and office weren’t returned. His lawyer listed on court documents, Paul Shechtman of New York, said he no longer represents Schultz.

Schultz’s prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York argued that the National Stolen Property Act, which criminalizes the receipt of stolen goods that have entered the U.S., binds the U.S. to respect Egypt’s patrimony law.

Egypt’s law, enacted in 1983, declared that all antiquities found in the nation after that date belonged to the government. Egypt and other countries are using the Schultz conviction to build criminal cases against dealers and collectors in the U.S.

Some collectors are willing to defy such laws.

Smuggling to Preserve

Antiquities are simply art that happens to be underground and should be dug up and spread worldwide to save them from threats such as Afghanistan’s Taliban, says George Ortiz, 78, a Switzerland-based collector whose artifacts were displayed at the Metropolitan in 2003 and the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1994.

“I don’t consider an object exported illicitly as stolen,” says Ortiz, who says he knows Hecht and Medici from his dealings in the art market.

“It’s the patrimony of humanity, and it’s the only way to save it from iconoclasts,” he says, referring to the Taliban and other groups that destroy sacred objects.

Hawass, noted for his television work as a consultant for National Geographic and in documentary films on the pyramids, is striving to make sure stolen Egyptian antiquities don’t wind up in Western museums.

He has beefed up a previous practice of searching for looted items only at the Cairo airport by posting guards at seaports that he says have been used to smuggle items to Jordan. He’s also adding more guards at tombs and temples.

Police on Camels

In the three years since Hawass took over, Egypt has recovered 2,000 objects from overseas, mostly from auction houses and dealers, says Ibrahim Abdel Megid Ramadan, 52, director of a new stolen artifacts department that Hawass established.

While these are victories for the Egyptians, they’re largely limited to recovering pieces that were already known. The loss of unknown artifacts, stolen by illicit excavators, has to be prevented at the source, Hawass says.

In the desert of Saqqara, a dozen Egyptian men cheer one another on as they take turns running out of a Sixth Dynasty tomb with baskets of rubble balanced on their shoulders. They deliver the pieces to archaeologists, who rake through the rocks and pottery shards.

In a green tent, Kamil Kuraszkievicz, an Egyptologist from Warsaw University, says he has noticed an improvement in security.

Squat guardhouses, fashioned from the yellow stone of the desert, dot the surrounding ridges. Armed police on camelback patrol the high ground.

Raiders Armed With Shovels

“They increased the number of guards, who are much better,” says Kuraszkievicz, 34, who has dug at Saqqara for nine years.

He suspects heightened security will preserve artifacts for study, rather than losing them to the market.

“The problem was that the Egyptologists didn’t even get to know about these things,” he says.

As Ferri prepares his case against True in Rome, there’s little doubt that raiders armed with shovels are digging up ancient relics in the Egyptian desert and the hills of Italy, erasing history for a profit.

If the world’s top dealers, collectors, universities and museums provide collaboration and a ready market, there will be little incentive for the latter-day tomb raiders to stop.