July 16, 2006

The Medici conspiracy

Posted at 9:54 pm in Similar cases

A new book tries to uncover the true story behind art collectors & museum curators in the modern world – do the lead the plundering of ancient sites, or are they innocently caught in a situation outside of their control trying to preserve as much as they can? To consider it from another viewpoint, does the rest of the world see things in the same way as the curators of the Metropolitan Museum & the Getty?

The Australian

The Medici Conspiracy / Mona Lisa Revealed
Historical conspiracy theories meet the art world in these two scholarly works, writes Frank Campbell
July 15, 2006

The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities
By Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini
Hardie Grant Books, 380pp, $34.95
Mona Lisa Revealed: The True Identity of Leonardo’s Model
By Giuseppe Pallanti
Skira, 119pp, $29.95

COULD it possibly be true that the world’s greatest museums and collectors have presided over the worst destruction of ancient archeological heritage in history? Can they really be responsible for stripping the Mediterranean, China, Nepal, Iraq, India, Cambodia, Peru, Niger and all the rest?

In the past 40 years, globalisation of the antiquities market has led to unparalleled theft. More than 100,000 Italian tombs have been robbed. Peasants with picks and heavy machinery have hacked their way through half their patrimony. Frescoes have been sawn up, vases deliberately smashed to facilitate smuggling and priceless objects damaged to disguise their importance. The fate of individual objects is one thing; far worse is the elimination of the archeological record. If sites are not recorded scientifically, they’re useless. The history of mankind itself is compromised.

The stolen artefacts can also lose their meaning. Who made them and where? How do they fit into the story of civilisation? It gets worse. The muddying of the historical record enables forging to flourish. Entire categories of bogus objects arise, modelled on fakes with a spurious provenance.

It’s all about provenance. An object’s provenance is its personal history. Museums, collectors and auction houses venerate it. Provenance adds much to the value of an object. Genuine provenance validates cultural context as well as legal title.

Peter Watson’s provenance is impressive. Formerly an investigative journalist and now attached to a Cambridge University research institute, he specialises in exposing art fraud. Sotheby’s: The Inside Story is perhaps his best-known book. Cecilia Todeschini, his co-author, cut her teeth on the mass Mafia trials in the 1990s. The Medici Conspiracy is a forensic thriller. You can put it down, but only to make coffee. Based on court records and police files, it starts in 1994 with Italian police pursuing stolen vases in Germany. Raiding a suspect’s warehouse, they stumbled on an Aladdin’s cave of looted antiquities, the centrepiece of which was a 20m-long pool crammed with recently excavated terracotta vessels. Immersion in water is the first step in restoration of these objects. Detailed records were seized. In 1995 the trail led to a Swiss warehouse, owned by the Mr Big of Italian antiquities theft, Giacomo Medici. Medici traded loot for decades: 3800 artefacts were found in his warehouse, stolen items and numerous fakes as well as the real thing. He kept meticulous records (35,000 pages) and thousands of photographs. Years of painstaking detective work then tracked the looted artefacts from tomb to dealer to museum, collector and auction house. Medici was convicted in 2004, sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $16 million. An appeal is pending.

The key to unravelling the criminal network was a diagram discovered by police, which listed names, roles and places. The trade was vast and well organised, reminiscent of global drug trafficking. It was also lucrative at the top end: a Sicilian silver hoard, for example, was sold by local robbers for $40,000, then for more than $1million to a Swiss dealer, then for $4 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There’s no justice in the criminal world: the peasants received only 1 per cent of the final price. Disgraced London dealer Robin Symes was found with $500 million worth of dodgy antiquities in 33 warehouses. These revelations have already had an impact on the policy and practice of nations and cultural institutions.

The worst offenders, the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan, have repatriated looted objects. Sotheby’s ceased auctioning antiquities in London in 1997, although much of the trade simply switched to Bonhams. An academic study showed that 82 per cent of recent collections had no provenance. The provenance of most of the rest was mere euphemism, validating an object by reference to other recently looted collections, or vaguely referring to some regional origin. Museum curators did the same.

The Medici Conspiracy has been attacked by American critics, who claim that dealers and curators are not part of a grand criminal conspiracy. It’s just market forces, runs the argument. This is disingenuous. Curators of big museums know full well that the vast majority of unprovenanced antiquities are recently looted. At the very least, they turn a blind eye. Big museum money drives the trade. For all the talk of a new, chastened integrity, old attitudes die hard. Take this statement in the Baltimore Sun on June 21 this year by a leading US museum director, referring to Robert Hecht, doyen of American antiquities dealers: “I don’t think that there’s a museum in this country that doesn’t have something that Bob Hecht sold them … thanks to Bob Hecht there are many of us in this world who are able to see works of art that reflect on our shared heritage.” Hecht is now on trial in Italy for criminal conspiracy, as is Marion True, former Getty Museum curator.

A review cannot do justice to the intricate web of dealer deceit. You’ll just have to read the book.

What a relief now to turn to genuine scholarship and a brave attempt to deepen our understanding of the provenance of “Madonna” Lisa. Guiseppe Pallanti, a Florentine teacher, spent decades trawling the city’s archives. It paid off. Pallanti proves that Leonardo da Vinci’s family knew Ser Francesco del Giocondo, who married Lisa Gherardini in 1495. There’s no proof of a commission, but it seems likely. Lisa’s social world is fascinating, married as she was to an adventurous entrepreneur. It’s hard to believe that Renaissance Florence had a population of only 60,000. There’s a salutary message there.

The Mona Lisa was regarded as a masterpiece from the start. Pallanti regards it as a turning point in Renaissance portraiture, beyond “faithful reproduction” to “the fully successful (representation of) … mind and body … (expressing) the mystery and absolute that is in each of us”. Whether this is more a manifestation of the recent Mona Lisa fetish than accurate history of art, I’m not sure.

Whatever, Leonardo kept the painting, apparently modifying it for years. Pallanti suggests that in the end the Mona Lisa was “more symbolic than real”. But aren’t we all?

* Frank Campbell is very real; he’s even more symbolic.

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