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Italy’s lost treasures return

A look back at some of Italy’s restitution successes [1] against US galleries & institutions. It has created a shift in opinion that has helped many other cases to be seen in a more credible light, but there is still a lot of addition work to do.

Wanted in Rome [2]

Margaret Stenhouse,
CULTURE: Italy’s lost treasures return

Thanks to government efforts antiquities excavated illegally and smuggled out of the country for sale to complaisant foreign museums are now making their return.

Ever since he took over as Italy’s minister of culture in May 2006, Francesco Rutelli has been engaged in a bitter battle with several museums, mainly in the United States, to have illegally exported Italian works of art and antiquities returned to their country of origin.

By threatening to boycott any collaboration with museums guilty of purchasing cultural property suspected of having been smuggled out of Italy by dishonest dealers, Rutelli managed to win his first victory with the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. In September 2006, the MFA pledged to return 13 important antiquities to Italy, including a marble statue of Vibia Sabina, wife of the Emperor Hadrian, believed to have come from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, and a series of magnificently decorated Etruscan vases dating from the fifth to the third century BC. In return, Italy agreed to loan significant works to the MFA for special exhibitions and displays and to give the Boston museum the benefit of its know-how in the fields of scholarship, conservation, archaeological investigation and exhibition planning.

Even more significant was the agreement reached in 2006 with the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which purchased the magnificent Euphronios Krater, a ceremonial vase containing the wine and water used at banquets and sacrifices, in 1972 from Robert Hecht, an American art dealer at present on trial in Italy for allegedly trafficking in plundered antiquities. According to evidence supplied by an Italian tombarolo (tomb robber), the krater, an authentic masterpiece of Etruscan art dated to 510 BC, came from illegal excavations in Cerveteri north of Rome. After continued pressure from Italy, the Metropolitan has now promised to return the vase sometime between 2008 and 2010. Meanwhile, the museum has agreed to display it with the caption “Lent by the Republic of Italy”.

However, the toughest battle Italy has faced has been with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. As far back as 1996, the Getty museum came under fire for the dubious origin of many of the objects in its antiquities section. That year, the Getty had purchased a prestigious private collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan artefacts from New York collectors Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman. Very few of the items, however, had documented provenance and members of the archaeological community loudly denounced the act as a flagrant example of how traders, collectors and museums tacitly condoned the movement of illicitly acquired antiquities.

Up until the mid 1990s, dealers such as Hecht had had a field day in Italy, driving gaily round the countryside buying what the tombaroli had dug up the previous night. Despite the desperate efforts of Italian police, who seized over 600,000 objects from illegal excavations between 1970 and 1996, the haemorrhage continued on an inestimable scale. Smuggling was made even easier by the fact that Italy had no complete data bank documenting its vast cultural heritage. A step in the right direction was taken during the 1990s when the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, Italy’s special corps of heritage protection police, compiled a register of stolen works.

Hecht was exposed in 1995 when Italian and Swiss police raided office premises in Geneva belonging to Giacomo Medici, an eminent Italian art dealer with a less than crystalline reputation. They found hundreds of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan artefacts, as well as a photographic archive containing pictures of pieces from the moment they came out of the ground to when they were put on the market. Medici was subsequently condemned in 2004 by an Italian court to ten years imprisonment and a fine of e10 million. Evidence from the Geneva raid led police to his alleged accomplice, Hecht.

The Italian judiciary is now pressing criminal charges against Hecht and former Getty curator, Dr Marion True, who is accused of authorizing the purchase of looted items, laundered through the antiquities market. Some of these are among the most important discoveries of the period, such as the rare cult statue known as the Venus of Morgantina, found in the Sicilian province of Enna and sold to the Getty in 1988.

In September 2007, Rutelli signed an agreement with the Getty to have 52 disputed pieces in its collection returned, including the Venus. Most of these pieces have already been handed over, but the Getty bargained to hold on to the Venus until 2010.

However, a complex legal battle continues to rage over the so-called Getty Bronze – the statue of an athlete dated to between the fourth and second century BC, occasionally attributed to the Greek sculptor Lysippos, and a key part of the Getty collection since 1977. It was recovered from the Adriatic sea off the coast of Fano in the Marche in 1964 by fishermen, who concealed it and subsequently sold it. However, the Getty claims that there is no proof that the statue was actually found in Italian waters and has decided to postpone any decision regarding restitution until legal proceedings are concluded.

Meanwhile, other deals recently achieved include agreement with Princeton University Art Museum to return eight treasures from its collection, while negotiations are under way with other museums around the world known to possess illegally exported goods.

However, Italian art critic and former undersecretary for culture Vittorio Sgarbi warns that the success of the present negotiations should not raise expectations to unrealistic levels; this didn’t mean that the Louvre would have to give back the Mona Lisa or that the British government be obliged to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, he wrote in a recent article for national magazine Oggi.

Museums in America and many others worldwide have agreed to accept 1970 as the cut-off point after which illegally exported antiquities are liable to be returned to their country of origin. This was when the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) convention on illicit trade in cultural property was approved. Works of art and antiquities acquired illegally prior to that date are therefore not covered by this recommendation. But with museums from Copenhagen to Texas, Berlin to London still holding a rich cache of classical grave goods and antiquities procured within the last 25 years or so, Italian museums may well have to look to expand their exhibition space. A show displaying treasures that have recently been brought back from the Getty, Boston MFA and Princeton University Art Museum is currently running at the Quirinale Palace.