October 29, 2006

A history of looted antiquities

Posted at 1:38 pm in Similar cases

Another review of Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini’s book – The Medici Conspiracy.

Financial Express (Bangladesh)

Saturday, October 28, 2006
Tomb raiders are far busier than most mortals realise
Christian Tyler

The starting point for this damning account of the traffic in classical antiquities is 1972, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought a Greek bowl for mixing wine and water, the Euphronios krater, for $1m then a record sum. The underground chain behind it and other deals began to unravel following a daylight robbery at Melfi castle in the southern Italian province of Basilicata in 1994.

The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities —
From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums

by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini
PublicAffairs $29.95/£15.99,
379 pages

The Medici Conspiracy is the stuff of thrillers. Yet the authors’ narrative is for the most part unexciting, with its lists of objects, persons and meetings. There are reasons for the lack of suspense. The Italian police were lucky. The criminals were careless. And the outcome is known to the reader in advance. But what the book has to tell us is astonishing. Most people know that the trade in antiquities has its problems. Here it is shown to be far worse than anyone outside the ring could have suspected.
Among their revelations is the fact that more than 80 per cent of the classical antiquities on the market have no true provenance: they are either looted or faked. The same is true of the objects in big private collections, which are put together not for love, but for tax breaks. Most of the best things from Italy never come to auction but are bought from tomb robbers (tombaroli), smuggled to “collectors” in Switzerland, held in warehouses, then drip-fed through “respectable” art dealers to museums. Auction houses have been cavalier about provenance. But so too have museums (the British Museum is an honourable exception). As a result they are stuffed with loot. The authors cite an internal review conducted by the J. Paul Getty Museum showing that up to half its antiquities are of dubious origin. Surprisingly, most of the traffic — as far as Italy and Etruscan antiquities are concerned — has been controlled by very few fences and dealers. One of the principals until his arrest was Giacomo Medici, the central character of this book. Medici was not a scion of the great Florentine family, but the son of market-stall traders in Rome who built up a network for smuggling illegally excavated objects out of Italy. When police raided his office outside Geneva, they found millions of dollars worth of antiquities and thousands of Polaroids of dirt-encrusted treasures.
Medici was tried and sentenced in Rome last year, and is on appeal. Among those currently on trial charged with similar offences of conspiracy, smuggling and receiving are Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty, and Robert Hecht, one of the dealers who had liaisons with museums and private collectors.
Of course, tomb robbers and treasure hunters have been around for centuries. Archaeologists wail that when something is stolen, all context, and therefore much information, is lost. No doubt they are right. But the tombaroli don’t care, nor do the private collectors, nor – now it appears – do the scholars and curators of some of our famous museums. But they are the ultimate target, and must bear the responsibility.
As the authors observe: “We are told that the tombaroli of Italy went crazy when they heard the price that had been paid for the Euphronios krater.”
Under syndication arrangement with FE

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