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The Medici Conspiracy

Suzan Mazur continues to explore the events surrounding the controversial acquisitions [1] of many of the artefacts in the Metropolitan Museum & the Getty, by talking to Peter Watson, author of a book on art dealer Giacomo Medici who is currently facing trial in Italy.

Scoop (New Zealand) [2]

Krumpets With Medici Conspiracy’s Peter Watson
Monday, 20 November 2006, 8:36 pm
Article: Suzan Mazur
Tea & Krumpets With Medici Conspiracy’s Peter Watson

By Suzan Mazur

The Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was the designated meeting spot, in the bar made famous by Ludwig Bemelman’s mural of Manhattan, Carlyle’s very own Euphronios masterpiece. Bemelman’s was packed at 5:30, and I ran into US News & World Report publisher Mort Zuckerman, who was happy to see me thinking I was his date. Medici Conspiracy author, Peter Watson, arrived soon after. And Peter and I settled in at a table beside one of Bemelman’s bankers on the wall.

Watson’s wife, a pretty, petite woman, who works as a “business getter” for Christie’s auction house giving lunches and dinners for customers, also stopped by briefly to say hello.

But it was far too noisy to talk about antiquities conspiracy at length, so Peter and I agreed to meet for tea later in the week a bit further down Madison Avenue at the Lowell Hotel.

Peter Watson is an intense man. He studied at Tavistock Clinic in the UK for two years under primal scream psychiatrist R.D. Laing and for a time served as European Editor of Psychology Today. Among 13 books – he’s written one called War on the Mind: The Military Uses and Abuses of Psychology, another, The Modern Mind, and the more recent one, A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud.

But he’s also been writing about art conspiracies for a quarter century, first for the London Observer and London Times, as the paper’s New York correspondent. The art stories began with a quest to find a stolen Caravaggio painting and led to publication of his book, The Caravaggio Conspiracy.

Watson next took on a scandal at Sotheby’s in London, involving the auctioning of looted Italian vases, and turned that into a book, Sotheby’s: The Inside Story.

Sixty Minutes interviewed him and produced a segment based on the Sotheby’s scandal. And both the Caravaggio and Sotheby’s books have been features on British television.

Watson’s newest book, The Medici Conspiracy, carefully presents Italy’s push to rein in the ring of antiquities smugglers who’ve looted half the country’s Greek & Roman culture. The organization, or “cordata”, allegedly includes a couple of Americans: art dealer Bob Hecht and former Getty curator Marion True – both now on trial in Rome. Dealer Giacomo Medici, who rounds out the conspiracy and who Watson names the book after, has already been sentenced to ten years for antiquities trafficking and awaits his final case appeal in January.

Since I’ve also written about antiquities and Hecht et al., beginning with a report for The Economist in 1987, Peter and I thought it would be productive to have a dialogue.

He was in New York, invited by the group, “Saving Antiquities for Everyone”, to speak at their awards ceremony the previous night in Chelsea. With the speech over, Watson was relaxed, ebullient and ready to chat about Medici in between munches of English scones and tea sandwiches. He was off the next day to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving to talk more about books with one of his best friends while his wife plays bridge, which he said “she does very well”.

Will a film be next? Watson says he doesn’t like writing screenplays, but that he’s quite happy for people to buy The Medici Conspiracy book for a film. “I know how to write books,” he says. “I enjoy writing books. Books are my natural idiom.”

He also likes the life of moving between his homes in London and the south of France. “I don’t want to disturb that too much”, he said.

Watson removed his jacket for the meeting, revealing a red striped shirt. As we sipped tea in the mirrors of the Pembroke Room, he still seemed a tad under the influence of a first-time meeting earlier in the afternoon with the provocative former director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thomas Hoving — the man who bought the Euphronios vase from Bob Hecht for $1 million dollars in 1972.

My interview with Peter Watson follows:


Suzan Mazur: You make the case early on in the book, establish the importance of what the Italians have been doing in terms of reclaiming their ancient art. You highlight the Etruscans having the “earliest urban civilization in the north Mediterranean” and say they were as much “founders” of Western civilization as Greece and Rome. That they were excellent at science and technology, for instance, and built stone arches, paved streets, aqueducts and sewers, which the Romans are sometimes given credit for.

Then you describe the Greek vase painters – particularly the brilliant red-figure artists of the 6th-4th centuries BC, who were their day’s Michaelangelo, Raphael and da Vinci and produced paintings of a quality “the world would not see again until the Italian Renaissance.” You mention that these vases – red-figure as well as black-figure – were placed in Etruscan. tombs. And then you note that maybe as many as 100,000 of these tombs – Etruscan and others – were robbed by Bob Hecht, Giacomo Medici and the organization, the “cordata”.

Would you pick up there and comment further on the destruction, which resulted in a loss of half of Italy’s Greek and Roman culture?

Peter Watson: It began with the discovery of Giacomo Medici’s archives [following raids by the Swiss and Italian authorities] and three senior archaeologists being assigned to those archives. It was a first for these archaeologists to have the leisure to examine so many objects.

Normally archaeologists can only see these things for a day or two when they come up for view prior to an auction. When other people are jostling to see them. When you can only get a few minutes with some of the objects. Or if they come into a gallery, you can go and have a quick look. Whereas with the Medici material, the archaeologists were let loose amongst all the objects and were able to link many of the objects, as we show in the book, with specific tombs.

There was that quote from Gilda Bartoloni [an Etruscologist at La Sapienza University, Rome] where she said that normally an average archaeologist would be lucky to come across two important tombs in a career. But that in Medici’s warehouse there was material from about 50 important tombs. The archaeologists basically know what an average tomb consists of. So it’s possible to work out from the number of objects that are there, how many tombs have been plundered. On the ground, like we saw when we were in Foggia, in Apulia, are the pits the tombarolis make. So the archaeologists have some idea of the scale of damage.

Let’s just stick to the world of classical archaeology for a minute. The world of classical archaeology is a finite field. We know there are roughly speaking 16,000 Cycladic sculptures in the world. We know that there are so many thousand Apulian vases, black figure attic vases, etc. It is a finite world that can be measured.

So this is how they arrived at the conclusion that 100,000 tombs have been looted. The calculation can be made from what is known, from the number of tombs that have been properly excavated over many years. According to Ric Alia’s research [Archaeologist, Boston U] , for instance, one vase on average is found in every nine tombs. So the dimensions are known.

Suzan Mazur: How much progress do you think the Italians have made so far in reversing this?

Peter Watson: According to Daniela Rizzo [Archaeologist, Villa Giulia Museum, Rome], the latest information is that digging is down by half. And the Carabinieri art squad, who’ve been seizing objects, say the quality of seized objects has collapsed. Now whether this is just a temporary thing or it’s more than that remains to be seen.

Tom Hoving was just saying he thinks it’s a major sea change. And last night I heard that the one of the key galleries has asked to be released from its lease because they’re closing down. Because the bottom’s dropped out of the market.

Suzan Mazur: How many people in the cordata, of the names in the “Organigram”, have you tracked down and talked to?

Peter Watson: Hecht hasn’t talked to us — to me or to Cecilia Todeschini, who worked with me on the book as researcher and translator. Medici I talked to but he wouldn’t talk to us. Gianfranco Becchina wouldn’t talk to us. I talked to George Ortiz. Frida Tchacos wouldn’t talk to us. Eli Borowsky’s dead. Nikolas Koutoulakis is dead. A score of people listed [tombaroli] I didn’t talk to.

Suzan Mazur: You worked with the Carabinieri. They were your main soure?

Peter Watson: In Italy we worked with Paolo Ferri [Public Prosecutor], Daniela Rizzo [Archaeologist, Villa Giulia Museum, Rome], Maurizio Pellegrini [Document Expert] and Roberto Conforti [Head, Carabinieri Art Squad].

Suzan Mazur: But you’re of the opinion, obviously, that Medici is the key guy. You’ve titled the book , The Medici Conspiracy. Or do you think it was Hecht?

Peter Watson: I think you can’t really have one without the other. Medici’s role was more interesting and less known. I think Becchina has a less interesting role. But may turn out to be even more interesting.

I mean I don’t know whether you can say it, but Becchina had an interest in a cement company in Greece, which is also a construction company, Herakles cement. And they’re building a major road across Greece. And, of course, this is a wonderful way of turning up material.

And Becchina may have an added dimension that Medici doesn’t have. There’s also the fact that Becchina comes from Mafia country. So he may be connected in a way that I don’t think Medici was.

Suzan Mazur: You don’t think Medici was.

Peter Watson: I don’t think Medici has anything to do with Mafia. No. He’s not used any Mafia lawyers. He’s not known to have had contacts.

Suzan Mazur: What of the rumors that Hecht had his connections.

Peter Watson: I don’t believe in these rumors. People are always trying to make things more than they are.

When I did the Caravaggio book, for instance, there was a definite possibility that they were connected. And I’d taken a large advance from the publishers. And Doubleday said, if all these people are Mafia, then we’re not going to publish the book. It’s too dangerous. Even for us.

They published Gay Talese’s book on organized crime. So they asked him. And he said, “Can you remember the lawyers and I’ll tell you if they’re mob lawyers?”

And we found out that a couple of these people had been charged and were due to stand trial. We found the name of the lawyers. And they weren’t mob lawyers. So we went ahead and published. It was quite safe. So I don’t think it’s very useful to say everybody’s connected unless you’re absolutely certain. And I don’t think Medici was and I don’t think Hecht was.

Suzan Mazur: Why and when did you first become involved with tracking looted art?

Peter Watson: It goes back to 1979 when we were on strike at The Sunday Times in London. There was a big dispute between the printers and the owners – Thompsons. And Thompsons, in order to take on the unions, suspended publications for eleven months. And the journalists were not party to the dispute. So we were in the position of being paid and having to turn up every day at work with no newspaper. We had to go through the motions in case the dispute was resolved..

But the paper didn’t come out for eleven months. So a few of us thought we would spend the time writing books. At that time there’d been a spate of art theft. Antiquities, paintings, and so forth. I wanted to write a book about it and I went to see the Italian minister in the Department of Culture whose job it was to get back stolen art.

And he said to me, “Don’t write a general book.” He said, “I don’t trust the Italian police. Why don’t you and I collaborate and try and get it back — the most important missing painting, which is the Caravaggio?”

That led to my book, The Caravaggio Conspiracy, which came out in 1983. I didn’t recover the Caravaggio, but I did recover six other paintings that were smuggled.

We had an amazing piece of luck in journalistic terms anyway. The smuggler turned out to be a Catholic priest who was at the Vatican’s mission to the United Nations. That got headlines. So I got very interested in stolen art then. And then I started writing for The Observer.

I came here for a couple of years as the New York correspondent for the London Times and then when Murdoch took over, I resigned and went back to work for The Observer.

It was then in November 1985 – one of my contacts was Brian Cooke at the British Museum – and we used to meet twice a year for lunch and discuss what was happening in archaeology and so forth. And he said – “I’ve got a story for you. Sotheby’s is selling a whole bunch of smuggled art, looted vases.” And that’s how it started.

Suzan Mazur: Did you have any idea that your work would become the centerpiece of a movement about not only saving antiquities but in a sense saving what’s human in all of us during one of the darkest chapters of war and dehumanization in world history?

Peter Watson: I wasn’t aware that it was the centerpiece.

You know when I met Brian Cooke, two things happened. He’s a very quiet man. He had no idea it was going to take off. And then, of course, the crucial thing happened, which I suppose was when I called Sotheby’s to get a comment on this and I had to speak with Felicity Nicholson, who was the head of the Antiquities Department.

Suzan Mazur: She must have been a character.

Peter Watson: A piece of work.

She said, I don’t think anyone ever knows where antiquities come from. But the point was that when I’d rung up the department, a man had answered the phone. And he put me through to Felicity Nicholson. I didn’t know who he was. But he knew who I was. Because at the time the phone call came through, he was on his lunch hour and he was reading The Caravaggio Conspiracy.

So he knew who I was. And this, of course, was James Hodges, who listened in to my conversation with Felicity and realized that she was feeding me a pack of lies. That she knew exactly where the antiquities came from – that they came from Giacomo Medici in Switzerland and Robin Symes next to her office in Switzerland.

So that always stuck with him. And then years later, when he had his hand in the till at Sotheby’s, he was hoping to persuade them not to prosecute him if they found out why he’d stolen all these documents. And they just said no. You’re trying to blackmail us. You’re going to court. And so he turned to the press.

And the one person he knew because he’d been reading my book was me. So he brought me all the Sotheby’s documents. So that is the chain of coincidence.

Suzan Mazur: Do you keep in touch with him?

Peter Watson: No I don’t

Suzan Mazur: Is he okay now? I know he was in jail.

Peter Watson: He got nine months, which means in England he served about five. All but the first two weeks in an open prison. You’re let out during the day and you have to be back by 4:00pm. It’s really designed for people who’ve been in prison for a long time to help them get used to the changed world they’re eventually going to be released into.

But a number of white collar criminals go there more or less straight away when there’s no violence and where they probably won’t do anything again. And he was classified as this.

I don’t know whether you read the Sotheby’s book. But I went down to see James at the open prison. He had to share a room with a rapist. While he was there, the big scandal of the prison was — I hope this doesn’t offend you. – it was so awful.

The currency in the British prison system is tobacco. One man had got into such massive tobacco debt that he could never repay it. And so it was discussed as to whether he was going to be murdered or whether he could repay this debt. He owed a tobacco debt to four people. And the solution was found.

His wife was smuggled into the prison. And she fellated the four creditors and the guard who’d done it. James told the story in a mixture of embarrassment and disgust and surprise and humiliation that he was amongst all this.

Suzan Mazur: The psychic damage. . .

Peter Watson: Can you imagine the circumstances that would lead the debtor and his wife to do such a thing? Just imagine the humiliation. The rough life.

James was affected by prison. Whether it’s open or not – it’s still prison. His wife is American – came from just outside Washington, D.C. And as soon as James got out, he went to America. He would have got out in 1995. And he worked for a head hunter company. And he’s still there. Ten or eleven years later. He’s been promoted. So he’s okay. He’s essentially an honest man who had a moment of weakness.

Suzan Mazur: How dangerous has it been for you to report this?

Peter Watson: Not at all.

Suzan Mazur: Did Silvio Berlusconi’s push to give “freelance antiquities diggers” the green light to dig up the Italian countryside for a commission from the State ever have a chance of winning support with the people?

Peter Watson: I can’t imagine anything Silvio Berlusconi could do could ever be approved of by anybody.

Suzan Mazur: Why is it that the financiers of the antiquities galleries and the big banks that launder the galleries’ profits from the sale of looted art are not made accountable? Why Hecht and not his backer, Jonathan Rosen?

Peter Watson: I think that’s a very good question. We made the point in the book with the ivory head of Apollo, valued at $50 million. That was security for a loan for Robin Symes with Credit Suisse First Boston, I think. And it’s true that these banks are just unfamiliar with, I think, it’s fair to say in this case, unfamiliar with the fact that antiquities are probably looted and they just get them independently valued. Probably from somebody from an auction house. And that person should come under criticism too because that person will know that the stuff has been looted, and all their concern is that they’re lent 45 cents on the dollar usually.

So they’re well covered if the loan goes bad. But this is one of Dick Ellis’s points that once we know who the banks are.

Hill Samuel is a bank in London that lends on a lot of art, but, of course, most of the art they’ll lend on is culture – it’s straight up. Paintings that are coming up for auction. And there’s no problem with the provenance. And they treat antiquities as works of art because they’re sent to auction. And they don’t know any more than that. But the specialists do. And so they should come under criticism.

Larry Kaye (antiquities lawyer for the Turkish and Egyptian governments) made this point that more and more companies should be aware that they’re actually conniving in an illegal chain of events.

And if one had an art squad that had more interest in antiquities and had more people and had a particular attitude, then they might well on occasion do a tour of the banks to say: “Are you aware? Please be aware. And you should not lend on these things.”

I mean if Tom Hoving is right and there’s a sea change, maybe this is another way to progress the sea change by having the antiquiities police.

Suzan Mazur: Do you think it will be easier for other source countries now to proceed to reclaim their looted past – if they choose to do so – because of the Italian effort or will they need to find their own smoking gun, an organization chart, an “Organigram” of their own?

Peter Watson: I think it will be easier but it’s not quite a completely open door.

Suzan Mazur: Are they going to have to have their own Organigram?

Peter Watson: They are going to have to have a certain element of proof – yes. They can’t just say, “That’s Greek, therefore it’s got to come back.” Or, “That’s Egyptian.” You’ve got to find some chain.

Suzan Mazur: You’ve written an op ed for the LA Times in which you say that jail may not be the best approach for the Italians who’re now prosecuting Marion True. Can you say more?

Peter Watson: I think the argument was that if she confessed all and sort of filled out the complete picture of how the illicit trade works, then that would be more useful than putting her in jail. More helpful. And that the best way would be for a deal to be done with the court in which exchange for a non-custodial sentence would reveal everything. And what we actually said was that in our view that would be a preferable solution to just putting her in jail and never really knowing everything. That was our argument.

Suzan Mazur: So that’s what she’s beginning to do.

Peter Watson: Tom Hoving had an interesting take. He thought that she started to clean up the act at the Getty at exactly the same time as the raid on Medici’s warehouse. That Medici called her and said this is the beginning of the end Marion – you’d better start cleaning up your act.

Suzan Mazur: What about Hecht and Medici? What happens to them?

Peter Watson: I think that whatever Marion has done, she’s only been doing it since 1985 at the earliest. Whereas, Hecht and Medici have been doing it since the 1960s. So I think that they’re completely different cases.

And I think that Medici’s sentence of 10 years is no more than he deserves and that a definitive conviction of Hecht – although he won’t go to jail – would be a useful deterrent to others.

I’m not sure what the Italians will do. I expect Hecht to be found guilty. Whether they give him a nominal long sentence and say, “If you were younger this is what you’d get.” Or whether they’ll give him a mammoth fine which he’ll never pay because he hasn’t got the money.

Even Tom Hoving was just saying that apparently he’s a spectacular gambler. That’s why he fell out with Jonathan Rosen. Jonathan Rosen came in one day and found half a million dollars missing from the books.

And I think, the Italians have slightly made a rod for their back. They have charged people with conspiracy. I think that’s why they’ve confined it to Marion and Hecht. Because as I understand it, under the Italian law, a conspiracy to be a conspiracy has to be three people doing the same illegal activity at least three times. [emphasis added]

One of the things that Hoving did confirm just now was where you have the chapter on the fragments and some of the orphan fragments. I write it as a mystery.

He confirmed it. He said this is exactly what happens with fragments. There you have a form of conspiracy, but whether, under the Italian law the same thing was being done on three separate occasions. . . The personnel keeps changing. So now it’s a matter of whether the conspiracy exists. And this may be why Jonathan Rosen wasn’t targeted or maybe he won’t come anyway.

I mean it looks a bit silly to keep trying people in their absence. Whereas, the Italians knew their man with Hecht. They knew Hecht couldn’t resist coming in for the fight. [emphasis added] Scoop: “Bully Bob” Hecht And The Euphronios Questions And they knew that Marion couldn’t avoid it because for her to be convicted it would look very bad.

Suzan Mazur: You really think that’s why Hecht went to court? He couldn’t resist the fight?

Peter Watson: Yes. There’s one section in his memoir. I do mention in the book where in his memoirs he says I like these objects. I’ve never caused anything to be smuggled. Not encouraged. And he did get that woman to fly in from Switzerland with $40,000. He did actually encourage people to smuggle things.

Suzan Mazur: His rapport with women is very peculiar. I think he’s got a fear and dislike of women. He uses women. Puts his wife up to calling Hoving about the Euphronios. Drags his daughters into the business and puts them in key roles at Atlantis Antiquities.

Peter Watson: That’s very interesting. You may be right.

Suzan Mazur: Hecht’s a very nasty character.

Peter Watson: Everybody says that. Hoving said that he was expelled from the American Academy in Rome for stabbing somebody with a spike. As journalists we used to have a spike on the desk. All the stories that didn’t get published were spiked. That’s what we used to say on Fleet Street. Hecht picked up one of these and stabbed somebody in the side.

Suzan Mazur: It’s amazing that he hasn’t been stopped sooner just for his physical attacks and attempted physical attacks on people. He’s threatened a number of people – including me. His reputation as a bully goes back to his college days in the 30s and 40s at Haverford, ironically, a Quaker school outside Philadelphia. .

What do you think will happen to the other New York dealers as a result of the Italian trial?

Peter Watson: I told you about one of them asking to be released from their lease and closing down the shop.

Suzan Mazur: What about Dr. Jerry Eisenberg?

Peter Watson: I think Eisenberg has got his problems. Let’s put it like that. We’ll soon see if the market really has been impacted, we’re sure the rents are not going to go down are they?

Suzan Mazur: You mention in the book two Japanese antiquities dealers. One, Noriyoshi Horiuchi, who you say was known to have purchased fakes, may be the unidentified “Japanese dealer” who bought Herbert Hunt’s Roman Bronze nude at Sotheby’s in 1990.

It was the most expensive piece on sale and had been exhibited at the Met, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and elsewhere. However, it sold way below estimates of $800,000-$1.2 million for $539,000 (including tax). Hecht and Rosen told me and journalist Ozen Acar the piece was a fake.

You say Horiuchi started buying for the Miho Museum in Shigaraki in 1991. But he may have been at Hunt Sotheby’s and picked up the nude Bronze since he had been buying antiquities since the 1980s.. It’s possible the piece is now in the Miho.

Peter Watson: It easy enough to check. It went below estimates.

Suzan Mazur: Way below. Have you been to the Miho?

Peter Watson: No, but Colin Renfrew has. [Watson says Cambridge’s Colin Renfrew is the greatest archaeologist of his generation.] The Miho’s apparently a spectacular museum. Have you been?

Suzan Mazur: No. But a lot of the antiquities are unprovenanced, I understand.

Peter Watson: All of them. There’s hardly a single provenance there. They are good, however.

Suzan Mazur: You say in the book that Miho bought a lot from Gianfranco Becchina.

Peter Watson: Well Becchina was part of this group of four dealers in Geneva who became the creditors of Horiuchi. Horiuchi basically became their agent in Japan because he owed each of them so much money and there was no prospect of him paying. So basically they had the objects. And they had the buyer with lots of money. Which is a wonderful situation to be in if you’re a dealer.

Suzan Mazur: You pay tribute to Met Ancient Near East expert Oscar Muscarella in your book. How much of a lightning rod has he been in all of this? He early on challenged the theory that the Sarpedon Euphronios was not a looted piece, etc. [Scoop: Antiquities Whistleblower Oscar White Muscarella]

Peter Watson: Oscar is – I was going to say, a maverick scholar. But I don’t think that’s true. He’s a traditional scholar, who’s main loyalty is to scholarship. He’s a fly in the ointment – that’s what a scholar does. And he’s a hands-off, gentle man. His position inside the Met – telling a different story against great adversity – is a heroic thing to have done and he’s paid the price financially. He’s now, after being something of a pariah, become something of a hero.

Suzan Mazur: Are you thinking about now kicking off your shoes after the Medici book?

Peter Watson: No, I’m writing another history of ideas book. I’ve been asked by a British publisher to produce two thrillers set in the art world, which is what I’m going to do next year. And I’ve just written a love story.

Suzan Mazur: Is there anything more that you’d like to say?

Peter Watson: I like your dress.


Suzan Mazur’s stories on art and antiquities have been published in The Economist, Financial Times, Connoisseur, Archaeology (cover) and Newsday. Some of her other reports have appeared on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox television news programs.