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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, and anyone with an interest in ancient art and archaeology will want to examine it carefully.

A veteran British journalist who has written several books about stolen art, Watson is well placed to write about the antiquities market. A previous book, Sotheby’s: The Inside Story, and public television documentary deftly exposed the British auction house’s involvement in the illegal antiquities trade and led to the closure of Sotheby’s antiquities department in London. In another earlier work, The Caravaggio Conspiracy, Watson masqueraded as an unscrupulous art dealer as part of an international investigation into the theft of a Caravaggio that had apparently fallen into the hands of the Italian Mafia. The Medici Conspiracy, then, seems to be another journalistic exposé, in which the author’s original investigative reporting reveals an elaborate scheme to get millions of dollars of contraband art into the homes of rich collectors and the display cases of the most prominent museums. The chapter headings alone hint at the flavor and tone of the book’s argument: “Sotheby’s, Switzerland, Smugglers”; “Connoisseurs and Criminals”; “‘Collectors Are the Real Looters’”; “The Metropolitan in New York and Other Rogue Museums.”

But The Medici Conspiracy is not quite the book it appears to be. The authors base most of their account not on original reporting but on information given to them by Italian prosecutors. This is unfortunate. The investigation involves dozens of different people and institutions, in several different countries, over a period of several decades. Yet Watson and Todeschini do not appear to have interviewed any of the three defendants, let alone the various collectors and the officials of the numerous museums they impugn in their book. As a result, much of the broader setting of the story is lost. They have little to say, for example, about the evolving debate among museums about acquisition ethics and standards, and they ignore the highly complex politics of the Italian Culture Ministry, which has been a particular supporter of Ms. True and the Getty in the recent past.1

More to the point, the authors’ access to privileged court documents appears to be a direct consequence of their special relationship to the prosecution. Because of his Sotheby’s book and his research on a London antiquities dealer named Robin Symes, Watson has appeared as a court witness—both in the Medici case and now against True. He has also assisted the lead prosecutor on the case. It is odd that the authors neglect to mention these facts. Still, their book provides the most comprehensive account yet of the investigation that led to True’s trial, and contains much that will be of interest to anyone trying to understand the underground antiquities market and what should be done about it.


Watson and Todeschini are at their best in describing the detective work that led Italy’s special art police unit to Medici’s warehouses and then to Robert Hecht and other dealers. On a highway south of Rome, in the glove compartment of an overturned Renault, police recovered dozens of photographs of illicitly excavated antiquities, including a rare marble statue of Artemis they later recovered from a dealer in Switzerland. In the basement of a Munich villa, they found a large swimming pool used for cleaning dirt encrustation from Greek pots. In Basel, they raided the warehouses of another Italian dealer, Gianfranco Becchina, where they found some five thousand antiquities, “many still dirty with soil,” as well as an additional archive of photographs and documents.

To interpret such disparate clues, police were aided by an improbable discovery. The same year as the raid on Medici’s warehouses, they found, in the possession of an Italian antiquities smuggler, a hand-drawn diagram of the organizational hierarchy of the illicit antiquities trade out of Italy. This diagram, which I was shown in Rome in late March and which is reprinted in the book, shows the interconnections between various local tomb robbers, their regional contacts, and finally dealers in Switzerland and elsewhere. (Switzerland has long been a favorite location of the antiquities trade, with its tax advantages and lack of import and export restrictions.)

Most importantly, the diagram places, near the top of the hierarchy, two rival Italian dealers, Medici in Geneva and Becchina in Basel, and, above them all, “Robert (Bob) Hechte [sic],” with arrows pointing from his name to “Paris” and to “USA—musei—collezionisti” (USA—museums—collectors). In other words, Hecht—who since the 1960s had had a prominent and sometimes controversial reputation for dealing in Greek and Roman art, and whose clients included many leading American and European museums—appears from the diagram to have been the capo dei capi of the Italian antiquities underworld.

The diagram became all the more suggestive in early 2001, when Italian and French police discovered a large file of handwritten notes in Hecht’s Paris apartment. These gave the details of some of Hecht’s exploits over his long career, including his collaboration with “GM” (apparently Giacomo Medici) and other people mentioned in the diagram. They also included an account of his notorious sale of the Euphronios krater to the Met in 1972 which bears out other evidence that the pot was looted from a site at Cerveteri, in Etruria northwest of Rome, and sold to Hecht by Medici. This “memoir” has aroused much interest in the press, and for Watson and Todeschini, it is a key piece of evidence: Hecht is supposed to have threatened other members of the illegal trade with exposure in it. But the notes also contain a second, “clean” version of the Euphronios story, and it is unclear how reliable they are. (Hecht himself insists that he is working on a novel, mixing fact and fiction, based on his career.) Still, the notes did form part of the composite of evidence that helped to persuade the Met to return the krater to Italy earlier this year.

Clearly these were exciting leads, suggesting that Hecht and Medici were central cogs in a very sophisticated enterprise. But how much did collectors and museum curators know about all this? The case against Marion True is based on several elements. The first, and most straightforward, is her personal acquaintance with Medici, which is documented on a number of occasions during the 1980s and early 1990s, although the Getty never bought anything from him directly when she was in touch with him; nor had he been charged with illegal acts at that time. Italian prosecutors allege that she was using a strategy of “triangulation” to buy works from other dealers, such as Hecht, that she knew originated with Medici. In doing so she was allegedly trying to conceal her connection with Medici.

A second argument is based on True’s links to Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, well-known New York collectors and philanthropists. In 1996, they donated and sold to the Getty their valuable collection of antiquities, which they had rapidly amassed in the 1980s and early 1990s. The prosecution claims to have evidence that the Fleischmans were all along buying on behalf of the Getty.

A third argument concerns the Getty’s habit of acquiring fragments of the same Greek pot at different times, and then reconstructing the pot at the museum. According to the prosecution, Medici and other dealers may have released fragments of the same vase onto the market gradually, to avoid attracting attention to illicit works, or to obtain leverage in other larger deals with True and the Getty. A final argument for True’s involvement in a conspiracy, according to Watson and Todeschini, is her frequent collaboration with other museum scholars in the United States and Europe in the study and authentication of objects that derived from Medici and other suspect sources.

These various points raise many questions. The contacts between True and Medici are disturbing. Clearly True was aware of the interconnections between leading dealers such as Hecht and Medici. In at least one case, she thanked Medici for telling her that works the Getty had acquired came from a particular site in Italy. It is very troubling that the museum never appears to have investigated these relationships and their purpose. But these contacts do not reveal whether True was acting according to the designs of an elaborately calculated plan or whether she failed to pose questions about Medici’s dealings while she pursued the Getty’s goal of building the antiquities collection. For one thing, a conspiracy between True and Fleischman makes little sense. The Fleischmans, who are from the Midwest and lived in New York, had much older connections to other museums, including the Met and the British Museum. According to sources I have spoken to in New York and Los Angeles, several museums were interested in the Fleischman collection and it was by no means clear in the 1980s, when they were buying most actively, that the Getty would get it.

  1. 1

    For an illuminating study of the changing antiquities policies of museums and a fascinating cultural history of Greek vase collecting, see Vinnie Nørskov, Greek Vases in New Contexts (Aarhus University Press, 2002). For a discussion of True’s earlier activities in Italy, see my article “An Odyssey in Antiquities Ends in Questions at the Getty Museum,” The New York Times, October 15, 2005.

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