• Email
  • Print

The Medici Conspiracy’: An Exchange

In response to:

Notes from Underground from the May 25, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

We are grateful to Hugh Eakin, in his review of our book, The Medici Conspiracy [NYR, May 25], for drawing our attention to two errors. These have been corrected and will be incorporated in future printings and editions. In the same spirit, however, we would like to draw attention to a number of errors in his own article. We appreciate that, in the press of events, it is difficult to get everything right but the cumulative effect of these errors gives a misleading impression of our book.

It is quite untrue, for instance, to say that the “main theme” of the book is that Marion True used a network of dealers in New York, London and Switzerland to create clean provenances for works she knew had been illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy. The world of antiquities is not always to be looked at from the vantage point of America only. The book is, after all, entitled The Medici Conspiracy and its main theme, as this implies, is that an Italian dealer, Giacomo Medici, with offices and warehouses in Geneva, supplied museums throughout the world, over several decades, with illegally excavated and smuggled antiquities, many of which were of world-class importance and were always sold through other dealers or “fronts,” although the buyers frequently knew who the real vendor was. Fortunately for the Italian authorities, Mr. Medici kept a full documentary and photographic record of his dealings. These show that he was the central cog in a world-wide, largely clandestine network. Marion True is discussed in the text, yes; but so are a number of other dealers, archaeologists and curators in America, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Great Britain and Japan.

It is not true that we “have little to say about the evolving debate among museums about acquisition ethics and standards.” Half of chapter two and pages 320–324 discuss exactly this.

It is not true that we “devote so little space” to Marion True’s part in acknowledging the Getty’s earlier failings in regard to the acquisition of illicit material. Page 219 is devoted specifically to this and it is treated elsewhere in passing. Yes, we put this discussion in the words of John Walsh, then director of the Getty, who was interviewed in the course of the Italian investigation. But the fact that we included this material, culled from a much longer interview, shows that we are alive to the issue.

It is not true that the film shown in court when one of us (Peter Watson) gave evidence at the trial in Rome was a reconstruction. This film showed tomb robbers in the south of Italy, near Foggia, in the process of looting tombs, in one case destroying as much as was discovered by using a mechanical digger in the dead of night. This was followed by another sequence in which a self-declared tomb robber demonstrated to PW how he used his “spillo,” the tool used by tomb robbers to probe the earth for tombs. In other words, this was not a reconstruction either. We were both present when each of these footages was filmed.

It is not true that most museums, including those in Italy, contain vases that have been reconstructed from fragments in the same sense that some of the Getty’s vases have been reconstructed. The vast majority of vases, when discovered and excavated, are in fragments. They are then reconstructed. In the Getty’s case, however, more than one vase had been reconstructed over a period of several years, the fragments arriving from different dealers and in spurts. This is not a pattern paralleled in other museums. We can confirm that scholars in Italy and Great Britain have been aware of the Getty’s idiosyncratic practice for some time.

It is not true that the Italian Culture Ministry has been a “particular supporter” of Marion True and the Getty. On September 14, 2004, Peter C. Erichsen, Vice President and General Counsel of the museum, wrote to the ministry proposing that, in exchange for the Getty returning three objects (the Asteas krater, a bronze Etruscan candelabrum and a stele), the Italians would drop all legal actions. The Italians refused. Moreover, despite the fact that the Getty subsequently returned the objects in question, in the current trial in Rome against Ms. True and Mr. Hecht, the ministry is civil plaintiff, a fact that Mr. Eakin ignores.

Mr. Eakin accuses us of giving a misleading chronology for the Getty’s acquisition of the Fleischman Collection, arguing that this collection was not acquired until after the museum’s new policy was in place in November 1995. We are rewording this, to make our own argument clearer, but Mr. Eakin well knows—but ignores the fact—that the Getty had been negotiating to acquire the Fleischman Collection since 1992. Quibbling about the chronology does not change the thrust of the argument.

Mr. Eakin is right, however, when he says that we appear not to have interviewed any of the defendants in the case. Almost no one mentioned in our book, who formed part of the underground network, would talk to us, not in America, not in Switzerland, not in Italy. Some actively rebuffed us, others didn’t return calls. But, up to a point, they talked to the Italian investigators. Which is why we quote the documents so extensively.

Those documents were made available to us by the Italian authorities because of our earlier investigations, in which we had exposed Sotheby’s culpability in the illegal export of art objects out of Italy. As a by-product of a “sting” operation, necessary for a convincing demonstration of wrongdoing, one of us (PW) was named as a defendant in the subsequent case. Under the Italian system, all defendants have access to court documents. Of course, we had several conversations with the Italian authorities in the course of writing our book, as we did with a number of archaeologists, dealers, law enforcement officials and academics in several countries. But Mr. Eakin saw the text of our book before anyone in Italy did. We make it clear, on almost every page, that we share the Italians’ aim in trying to expose the unvarnished truth of this unsavoury world, and that we support their right to recover antiquities that have been looted from their soil.

His argument that, despite the extensive damage done to antiquities, as revealed in our book, many of the most important illicit pieces ended up in public trust in display cases of prestigious museums, is a familiar one. We last heard it during our interview with one of Italy’s most notorious tomb robbers who uncovered a fabulous ivory face. We subsequently discovered that he had unearthed this object using a mechanical digger. How much else of a once-rich Roman villa was destroyed during this “excavation” no one knows. He certainly didn’t.

Peter Watson

Cecilia Todeschini

London and Rome

Hugh Eakin replies:

Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini are to be commended for correcting some of the errors in their book, although it is unfortunate that readers will have to wait for another printing or edition to find out what errors those are.

As for their other comments, they repeatedly use the incantatory phrase “it is not true” to take issue with points of interpretation in my review. It is worth taking these objections in order. They concede that their book is about a conspiracy involving museums and dealers, but they insist that it is “quite untrue” that Ms. True—the only museum official to be charged in the investigation on which their account is based—is a main protagonist in their story. More than 100 of the book’s 379 pages include discussion of True or the activities of the Getty during her tenure, and True herself figures in twelve of the book’s twenty-one chapters—more than any other museum official. I leave it to readers to determine if this qualifies as a “main theme.”

Watson and Todeschini write that “it is not true” that they have “little to say” about evolving museum standards. They do have a single sentence in Chapter 2 in which they state, without elaboration, that, “In the 1980s …museums revised their acquisition policies but, very often, it has to be said, these moves were not much more than window dressing.” The other passage they refer to at the end of their book concerns their own recommendations, not existing practices. Yet since the 1980s, there have been numerous conferences devoted to this issue (including several in which Ms. True participated); collective statements such as the 1988 Berlin Declaration, the 1998 Rutgers Resolutions, and the 2003 Berlin Resolution; and dramatic policy changes at institutions as diverse as the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, the Berlin State Museums, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—some as recent as 2004. Again, readers can decide if I have correctly characterized their omission of these developments.

Similarly, they protest that “it is not true” that they devote little space to Ms. True’s efforts to address the Getty’s acquisition practices, observing that they included comments from John Walsh, the former Getty director, about this issue on a single page of their book. But these comments were lifted from prosecution documents, not taken directly from Walsh, and they are of such a broad and general character that it is impossible for the reader to evaluate them. Indeed, the authors use them not to provide specific facts concerning Ms. True, but rather to suggest Walsh’s “eagerness to support True and his own Getty.” It is remarkable that they do not have more to say, for example, about Ms. True’s involvement in shaping two successive acquisitions policies at the museum. Leaving aside the crucial (not “quibbling”) matter of chronology, the Getty’s 1987 and 1995 policies are directly relevant to the authors’ subject, and a discussion of the specific strengths and weaknesses of each would have provided valuable background for their argument. They also make scant mention of the circumstances of the Getty’s restitution, at True’s behest, of a number of objects to Italy, including thousands of small fragments. These efforts do not excuse any improper behavior on the part of the Getty, but they were widely noted at the time and should be examined.

Watson and Todeschini write that “it is not true” that the film shown during Watson’s testimony “was a reconstruction.” This is puzzling, since the film was described to the Italian court by Paolo Ferri, the lead prosecutor in the case, as “a reconstruction of the work of a tomb robber” (una ricostruzione del lavoro di un tombarolo), and since, as the authors also point out, it shows a tomb robber demonstrating how to use a tool for clandestine excavation. The Italian court rightly considered that such a demonstration is a reenactment, not an actual depiction, of looting.

Watson and Todeschini are correct to stress, as I did in my review, that the extent of the Getty’s acquisition of pottery fragments has been unusual. As I wrote, the Italian investigation has produced disturbing evidence that this activity seems to have encouraged an illicit trade in fragments. If it can be shown that Getty officials knowingly took part in this trade, the museum should be held accountable. The authors are mistaken, however, in suggesting that the dispersal of fragments through the market is unusual, or that museums have only on rare occasions matched fragments with vases already in their collections. They are misinformed when they write in their book that “it is not as if fragments are especially important in a scholarly or academic way.” As Professor John Boardman, the classical archaeologist and a leading authority on vases told me, the practice of making “joins,” identifying and matching fragments from different collections, has occupied specialists for many decades. Moreover, the use of fragments in the attribution and study of particular vase painters was not, as the authors write in their book, confined to “the early part of the twentieth century.” Most major museums, and numerous universities in Germany, Britain, and the United States have study collections of what J.D. Beazley, the father of twentieth-century vase scholarship, called disjecta membra (scattered parts).

As for Ms. True’s earlier relations with the Italian Culture Ministry, it is astonishing that the authors seem to have taken their research no further back than 2004. They might be interested to know that in 1995 True and her Getty colleagues sponsored a large conference on the conservation of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean region that was attended by archaeologists and cultural officials from Italy, Greece, and many other countries. In 1997, True was able to obtain approval from the Italian ministry for a thirteen-month loan of important antiquities—a period that was more than twice the six-month limit then stipulated by Italian law. And in July 2001—with preparations for the Medici trial well underway—senior members of the Culture Ministry praised the Getty and the University of Bern for taking the initiative to “collaborate with [Italy’s] Fine Arts Administration” on an “innovative plan” to repatriate some three thousand terra-cotta fragments and small bronze objects that had been acquired by the two institutions more than twenty years earlier; and to work with Italian scholars to reconstruct the archaeological history of the objects, which have now been traced to an important archaic sanctuary in Calabria.

The ministry’s subsequent decision to become actively involved in the prosecution of Ms. True came after failed negotiations in 2002 with Deborah Gribbon, the Getty’s director at the time, to get back other objects traced to the Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. This should be seen as a turning point, and it is a pity that Watson and Todeschini do not give some account of the ministry’s changing strategy during the investigation and trial. (Contrary to what they write in their letter, I did not “ignore” the ministry’s part in the trial; I pointedly observed that lawyers for the ministry sit with the prosecution in the courtroom.)

Watson and Todeschini provide useful information clarifying their own position in the Italian investigation. Not only do they confirm, as I wrote in my review, that they have been given access to privileged court documents as a result of a relationship with the prosecution; they also write, without providing details, that Watson has been a defendant in another case. Since Watson has served as a witness in two cases and defendant in a third—all three apparently related to the authors’ subject—it seems particularly unfortunate that the authors did not disclose in The Medici Conspiracy either his connections with prosecutors or his status as a defendant.

As the authors have now conceded, they spoke to none of the defendants in the Medici investigation, and, indeed, to “almost no one” of the many people they implicate in a larger conspiracy. They claim, without mentioning names, that they were rebuffed or that their calls were not returned. This may come as a surprise to Ms. True, who said through her American lawyer that she was never approached by Watson or Todeschini about the book; to Harold Holzer, the spokesman of the Met, who is quoted in the book but says he never spoke to or was called by the authors; and even to Malcolm Bell, a prominent archaeologist with years of experience in Italy who would have been able to correct some of their mistakes, including those involving Bell’s own efforts to get back a group of silver objects from the Met. Bell told me he was never contacted by the authors.

Their neglect of original reporting is all the more a shame, since their access to a vast accumulation of court documents might have given them an ideal position from which to produce a definitive independent account of the Medici investigation. That account remains to be written.

  • Email
  • Print