Notes from Underground

The investigation that led to Italy’s startling campaign against American museums is the subject of The Medici Conspiracy, by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini. The precipitating events are clear enough. In September 1995, Italian and Swiss police, acting on a lead, raided the Geneva warehouses of an Italian antiquities dealer named Giacomo Medici. Inside, in an unlocked vault, they discovered several thousand Polaroids and photographs showing Greek vases, sculptures, and other objects immediately after clandestine excavation, before and after restoration, and, finally, as they appeared when they went on the market. In a few cases, there were also photographs of Medici himself standing next to important vases and sculptures in museums around the world (see illustration on page 50).

It was an astonishing windfall. Medici had been one of the biggest suppliers to leading international dealers in the antiquities trade since the late 1960s, and here was systematic visual documentation showing that objects he passed on derived from illicit digs in Italy. Italian prosecutors and police spent the next decade tracing as many of the objects as they could through the antiquities market and, when possible, to museum collections. In December 2004, Medici was convicted of trafficking in illegal antiquities and fined ten million euros—the largest penalty ever handed out in an Italian antiquities case. The 659-page judgment, which is now under appeal, presents an impressive body of evidence that Medici had for years been running, with several other dealers, a huge illegal antiquities ring. And it documents, irrefutably, that a number of the best objects he passed on to the market ended up in leading collections and museums. This extensive paper trail provides the basis for the current case against True and Hecht, and for the various claims against the Getty, the Met, and other institutions.

But these facts alone are not what have made the Italian investigation so threatening. Far more disturbing is the suggestion that museums have been actively complicit in the plunder and destruction of Etruscan necropoli and Vesuvian villas. By indicting Ms. True, Italian prosecutors are attempting to prove a conspiracy (associazione per delinquere), involving a circle of dealers in New York, London, and Switzerland, and collectors and museums in the United States. According to the allegations, True used this network to create fences and clean provenances for works she knew had been illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy. This hypothesis is the main theme of The Medici Conspiracy, as its title makes clear. In fact, the authors go a good deal further than the Italian prosecution. Their book, they say, is

about an ugly conspiracy to rip these grand and important objects from the ground and smuggle them abroad. It proves beyond doubt for the first time that a good number of the antiquities in many of our most prestigious museums, and held in the best-known collections, have been illegally excavated and passed through the hands of corrupt dealers, curators, and auction houses, shaming us all.

This is a devastating charge …

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Letters

The Medici Conspiracy’: An Exchange July 13, 2006