August 11, 2008

The fight against the tombaroli

Posted at 1:26 pm in Similar cases

Maurizio Fiorilli has in recent years been no stranger to restitution cases in his work for the Italian Government. Here he talks about some of the issues he is dealing with, as well as the way that the problems of looting are exacerbated by the policies of many of the museums that receive the stolen artefacts.

Sunday Telegraph

Maurizio Fiorilli: scourge of the tomb raiders
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 10/08/2008

Bad news for the art thieves who for years have been selling Italy’s ancient treasures to foreign museums: ‘Il Bulldog’ is on your case. Alastair Smart meets the resolute attorney demanding their return

Pasquale Camera didn’t do light lunches. After a third plate of veal Napolitano, washed down by his nth glass of Barolo, the 25-stone ex-police captain galumphed his way out of a Naples restaurant, climbed into his Renault 21, and set off north for Rome. The August heat was intense, and just a few miles up the motorway, he fell asleep at the wheel, smashed into the guardrail and overturned his car. He died instantly.

Yet, as local police officers learnt from searching his glove-box, Camera was more than just the latest fatality on Italy’s roads. On his death in 1995, they found photographs of 10 looted artefacts, setting off an international trail of raids, investigations and seizures that uncovered a vast antiquities-smuggling network, connecting Camera and the team of tombaroli (tomb raiders) he employed, via a pair of shady art dealers, to America’s most prestigious museums.

Thirteen years after Camera’s somersault off the motorway, and with an estimated 1.5 million items looted from Italy’s myriad archaeological sites in the past four decades, the government is finally clamping down. Its uncompromising state attorney, Maurizio Fiorilli, has forced heavyweight art establishments such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, and the J.Paul Getty Museum in California, to relinquish 100 dubiously acquired masterpieces and return them to Italy. Seventy of these are now on show in a stunning state exhibition in Rome.

Nicknamed ‘Il Bulldog’ by the Italian media for his over-my-dead-body approach to cultural diplomacy, Fiorilli, after sealing one prickly Stateside deal, reportedly insisted on travelling with the recovered prizes, from museum to airport, and seeing them back onto their plane to Italy.

Fiorilli’s office, at the Avvocatura dello Stato (Government Law Bureau), sits in the suitably historic setting of Rome’s medieval backstreets. It’s rather spartan inside, with sober mahogany furniture and little by way of ornament, except a huge bust of Hercules placed proudly at the front of his desk.

Though he speaks fluent English, Fiorilli has insisted that we conduct our meeting in Italian – making him speak my language, not his, would be cultural imperialism, and Fiorilli has made a career of standing up to that. Disarmingly, Il Bulldog greets me with a warm smile. But why? Have the former Getty curator Marion True and the American dealer Robert Hecht, both on trial in Rome for trading in stolen antiquities, just been found guilty? Or has he forced another chastened museum director into surrendering an Etruscan bronze or Apulian vase?

‘No, neither. There’s never any forcing or surrendering. Relations with the museums we’ve signed deals with are good,’ Fiorilli tells me. ‘They know we’re not trying to empty their entire collections, but just addressing 38 years of illegal excavating and export of Italian artefacts’.

His dating is so precise, because 1970 was the year of the landmark Unesco Convention, by which United Nations states, in response to the rampant looting of archaeological sites worldwide, outlawed the importing of another nation’s ‘cultural property’ without consent.

Peru, Egypt and Greece (Elgin Marbles, anyone?) are among the many states clamouring to get antiquities back from foreign museums, but Fiorilli stresses that their gripes are usually about pre-convention lootings and are very different from Italy’s. ‘Since 1970, whole new rules of behaviour have been in force for art-purchasing internationally, and pieces illegally trafficked after that date must return to Italy not as a concession, but as a matter of course.’

The attorney speaks from a position of strength and he knows it. Unlike his peers in Athens, Cairo or Lima, he can assert a legal, as well as a moral, right for the return of looted material: he can cite not just the Unesco Convention, but also an Italian law of Mussolini’s, that from 1939 onwards any item found on its soil belongs to the Italian state. ‘We’ve even got proof of where pieces ended up,’ adds Fiorilli, pointing to half-a-dozen boxes on the shelf beside his desk, each marked in thick red ink with a different museum’s name.

In their investigations after Pasquale Camera’s car crash, Italian police learnt that he had been one of various ‘middlemen’, employing tombaroli and then selling the finds to leading Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici – head, allegedly alongside Robert Hecht, of an international smuggling ring. Medici’s warehouses in Geneva were raided by police later in 1995. They discovered not only 10,000 looted artefacts but also, more significantly, Polaroid photos of a few thousand others, shot just after their excavation while many were still encrusted in soil, and accompanied by a list of their purchasers, predominantly the top museums in America.

Verifying these movements and sales took Italian police a whole decade. ‘For one, objects had routinely been broken into fragments and then sold part-by-part to a museum… where they were restored,’ explains Fiorilli. Some also had been attributed a phoney history – Hecht claimed, for example, that the Euphronios Krater, a 2,500-year-old terracotta urn sold to the Met in 1972, had come from a private collector in Lebanon. However, investigations indicated it had actually been looted, probably from an Etruscan tomb near Rome. He claimed that another plundered treasure, the Sabina statue (a towering, marble sculpture of Emperor Hadrian’s wife Sabina, sold to MFA in 1979), had come from an aristocratic family collection in Bavaria.

To make the Italian investigators’ task even tougher, the Polaroids gave no clue to what had been excavated where. Plus, the sale from dealer to museum wasn’t always the only transaction to track. Often an American private collector might purchase the suspect pieces, before selling or donating their collections to a museum, years later – the $80 million antiquities collection of the New York philanthropists Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, which they passed over to the Getty in 1996, alone accounted for 12 of the 100 pieces repatriated to Italy.

The Italian state finished untangling this web in 2005. Finally, it had compelling evidence for its negotiations with American museum directors, and this allowed Fiorilli to call the shots. Either they gave back the requested artefacts, or he would prosecute them for alleged trading in stolen goods, as he is with True and Hecht now, and in 2004, with Medici, who was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The museums were bullish at first, insisting that they had no case to answer and that their buys were always above board. But ultimately, after months of tense negotiations, they all caved in, under the weight of Fiorilli’s evidence and the gaping holes at the heart of their own purchasing records. Princeton University Art Museum was the most recent, returning eight treasures in November 2007; and the chief offender, the Getty, returned 40 earlier last year, embarrassingly just months after its antiquities wing, Getty Villa, re-opened from an eight-year, $275 million renovation.

‘Our agreements with the Americans aren’t just one-way, though,’ insists Fiorilli. ‘In return, they’ll receive other antiquities on long-term loan from Italian museums.’ Yet, whatever these loan items might be, and so far they’ve been few and far between, they’re surely just the carrots by which Fiorilli avoids using the stick of prosecution. None will compare in quality to the Sabina statue or Euphronios Krater – described by the Met director who bought it as ‘among the 10 greatest works created in the Western world’ for its red-figure decoration by the Greek master Euphronios – or indeed to any of the 70 works repatriated by Fiorilli’s deals and now on display at the Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces exhibition.

It’s a marvellous show, and Fiorilli admits that even a gnarled bulldog like him ‘wept in wonder’ on first seeing it. Yet there’s a strong whiff of triumphalism about ‘Nostoi’ too. It’s a modern equivalent of the Roman army parading in triumph through the streets, with the booty captured in some foreign campaign.

The exhibition catalogue is prefaced by a series of galling, through-gritted-teeth endorsements by America museum directors: ‘Despite the sense of loss, this is also an occasion for us to celebrate’ (Getty); ‘We’re delighted to be collaborating with Italy’ (MFA). Then there’s the politically symbolic choice of holding the exhibition at the presidential palace, the heart of the Italian state, located atop Rome’s highest hill, the Quirinale. And even the title Nostoi – the Greek word for ‘homecoming’, used in Homer to describe Odysseus’s fated journey home after the Trojan War – suggests something teleological about the pieces’ returns.

So why all this patriotic breast-beating? Is it a nationalistic outlet from the mire of modern Italy, where public debt is mounting and garbage piles the streets uncollected? An assertion of its glorious past, by a nation of hapless present?

‘Maybe a little, but this goes beyond internal politics… And if it’s a triumph, it’s over anyone still planning to cynically traffic Italy’s cultural heritage.’ Fiorilli realises there’ll always be looting – it’s impossible to police the 6,000-plus archaeological sites up and down the Italian peninsula. Indeed, the repatriated artefacts are arguably just the finest 100 of the thousands that he could, with Polaroid evidence, have pressed claims for. He’s accepting, too, that MFA is the only museum agreeing to consult Italian experts before making future acquisitions. For he knows his tough stance will make dealers and curators think twice about buying dubious artefacts again.

Fiorilli, who is 68, has been state attorney, a non-partisan position independent of the government, for more than two decades. And though he represents Italy in various other matters, such as tax and trade treaties, these days it’s reclaiming antiquities that takes up the most time. He commonly puts in 16-hour days, with just one secretary and no para-legals for help. So does he see his work as a personal crusade for his country? ‘No, I’m just doing my job,’ he says, looking admiringly at his bust of Hercules. ‘Unlike this guy, I’m no hero in permanent struggle against evil.’

OK, maybe not evil, but does Fiorilli think the American museum directors knew that they were buying stolen goods? Or were they just duped by dodgy dealers? The vast sums shelled out to Hecht and Medici – such as the unprecedented $1 million by the Met, in 1972, for the Euphronios Krater – might suggest the latter.

‘It’s probably inappropriate to be commenting on directorial complicity, at this stage,’ he says. Oh, go on, Bulldog, show us your gnashers. Don’t get all coy and protective of these people, just because your battle with them’s now won. ‘No, pointing the finger and quoting amounts paid by person “x” to person “y” ultimately don’t matter,’ retorts Fiorilli, ‘because you can never place economic value on a nation’s cultural history.’

This is where the Americans, with their everything-has-a-price attitude, have come a cropper. European museums, especially British ones, have always been less swashbuckling free marketeers – partly out of institutional conservatism and partly because funding from the UK’s all-powerful Museums Association is so tight, meaning its strict purchasing rules must be obeyed. The equivalent US body, the American Association of Museums, carries far less clout, individual benefactors tending to fund a museum’s purchases with few questions asked.

Britain also has far less of a tradition of voracious collectors such as the Fleischmans passing on their purchases to its museums. All of which explains why Fiorilli’s major battles so far have been transatlantic. And although he stresses that his investigations ‘are now turning to Europe and Japan’, he’s far from finished in America, where the Cleveland Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts and a host of private collectors are on his hit-list, and where the Getty is still refusing to budge over its showpiece bronze statue ‘Victorious Youth’, attributed to Alexander the Great’s court sculptor, Lysippos. The statue was hauled up by Italian fishermen off the Adriatic coast and eventually sold to the museum in 1997, the Getty maintaining that because the statue was found in international waters, Italy has no rightful claims on it.

Disgruntled American curators aside, Fiorilli’s fiercest critics tend to be the many advocates worldwide of a ‘universal museum’, who – notwithstanding Unesco’s declaration on lootings after 1970 – wonder: ‘Why repatriate to Italy, when we’re all children of the Graeco-Romans ?’ and ‘Aren’t treasures best cared for, and most widely viewed, in a world-class museum?’. But the case of the Italian antiquities is too clear-cut for such questions. They must be repatriated, if only to put the brakes on future looting. As beautiful as an artefact may look in a museum display, once stolen away from its archaeological context, we’ll never know the time, place or society it came from: we’ll never gain insight into the culture that created it.

It’s too late now for the Nostoi pieces, whose original sites will forever be unknown, but Fiorilli hopes better relations between American museums and Italy will mean their ‘gaining such insight together, by excavating sites together legally and staging joint-exhibitions from those finds’.

‘I’m hopeful about the future,’ says Fiorilli – a man renowned for getting what he hopes for.

# ‘Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces’ has now transferred to Palazzo Poli, Rome (+39 06 699 80242); to 9 September

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1 Comment »

  1. Cindy Ho said,

    08.28.08 at 6:16 pm

    For a special tour of the exhibition in Palazzo Poli, “Nostoi: Recovered
    Masterpieces” on September 4 with Laura Flusche, an expert in Etruscan and Roman Art, Architecture and Archaeology, sign up here

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