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.
The issue of fragments is also more complex than Watson and Todeschini allow. The Getty’s enthusiasm for fragmentary acquisitions of murky provenance is unfortunate, and it would be particularly reprehensible if, as the prosecution suggests, dealers were able to play on this enthusiasm by purposely breaking vases and selling them to the museum in successive batches. Yet the authors are misleading when they suggest that the reconstruction of vases is unusual, and that fragments have negligible scholarly value. Most museum collections—including those in Italy itself—contain vases that have been reconstructed from fragments, and the study of fragments has been an important part of vase scholarship since at least the early years of the twentieth century.
The authors run into more trouble in their suggestion that True was not alone in her actions. On the one hand, they portray True as a high-flying curator who did business, and had social relations with unethical dealers, as part of a larger plot to spirit looted objects out of Italy and into the Getty. At least some of this behavior, the authors suggest, was derived from True’s former mentor, Dietrich von Bothmer at the Met, a formidable vase scholar who has been criticized for having a cavalier attitude toward provenance. But True, it turns out, sought advice from many other scholars too, including curators at the British Museum, and the Princeton Art Museum, and university scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, many of the acquisition practices for which she has been indicted seem to have begun under Jirì Frel, the Getty’s first antiquities curator, who was forced out of the museum in a scandal and whose shenanigans are well known. A number of the Getty works traced to Medici, for example, were acquired under Frel, before True’s tenure began.2
Watson and Todeschini conclude that all of these people, like True, were consciously acting “in secret and in long-term collaboration with known smugglers, fences, and tomb robbers.” But it is hard to argue the existence of a “secret” cabal if so many different scholars were involved, across several generations, while the policies practiced—however lax—were generally accepted in the museum world. And it remains far from clear that all of these curators and scholars had knowingly involved themselves in a highly organized criminal network. One problem is that, throughout the period in question, it was common for buyers to know very little about the chain of ownership of an object, and such facts were often considered irrelevant to museum scholarship. Museums relied on dealer warranties and, beginning in the 1980s, they began notifying the relevant foreign governments whenever they bought works of unknown provenance. We now know (and True herself has acknowledged) that this system was hopelessly inadequate, and there are indications that, in the absence of outside pressure, museums were negligent and at times grossly insensitive to cultural patrimony issues. But this does not prove a conspiracy.
On March 29, I attended a hearing in the Rome trial of Hecht and True in which Watson was called to testify. For months, the case has captivated the American press and terrorized the museum world. It was instructive to see what actually went on inside the courtroom. The hearings are held in an ugly court building not far from the Vatican, and, according to the complicated Italian trial calendar, take place at the rate of only one or two per month; a case such as this could last for two years or more. The trial is before a presiding judge, not a jury, and the defendants do not have to be present unless called to testify. The main protagonist in the affair is Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the lead prosecutor, who sits on the left with other members of the prosecution and lawyers for the Culture Ministry; lawyers for the two co-defendants sit on the right. A roll-down projection screen is used by the prosecution to show documents, photographs, and other evidence.
After a long delay, during which most of those present went downstairs to the bar for coffee, Peter Watson began to testify. It was a peculiar spectacle. While he was introduced, the prosecution began showing a short film depicting clandestine excavation somewhere in Italy. But it later emerged that the film was a reconstruction, not live footage. Watson spoke in English, and his testimony was translated by a young Italian woman provided by the court. Yet she managed to confuse such basic terms as “buy” and “sell,” “funded” and “founded,” “owed” and “owned.” At times, the presiding judge, who seemed to have a stronger command of English, would interrupt and correct her. (She had particular difficulty translating Watson’s recollection of a dinner in 2001 at which True apparently “blushed” when asked about Medici. “Che vuol dire questo ‘blushed’?” the judge asked.)
Watson’s testimony concentrated primarily on Robin Symes, a prominent London antiquities dealer whose clients included the Getty, the Fleischmans, and other collectors such as Leon Levy and Shelby White. Symes was a rival of Hecht’s, and the Italian investigation has revealed that he also had close ties to Medici, although he has not been charged in the case. Watson offered much background about Symes’s secretive business practices, and the fashionable society that Symes and his late Greek companion, Christo Michailidis, frequented. They both knew True, and Levy and White; and according to Watson, Michailidis, who came from a Greek shipping family, provided capital that allowed Symes to dominate the elite end of the antiquities market. In 1995, Michailidis introduced True to a lawyer who arranged for a $400,000 loan for her to purchase a vacation house on the island of Paros, and in 1999, Michailidis died after falling down some stairs at a villa in Umbria, where he and Symes were apparently attending a dinner given by White and Levy. Two years later, Symes became embroiled in a bitter legal fight in Britain with the relatives of Michailidis, who were trying to claim his share in the dealer’s business interests. Symes himself eventually went to jail briefly on contempt of court charges.
In fact, Watson has done extensive research on Symes and one of the more entertaining chapters in The Medici Conspiracy examines the dealer’s flamboyant career. These social connections have also proven troublesome for True, who resigned from the Getty last fall over what the museum called a “conflict of interest” in her Greek real estate purchase. (To make matters worse, it turned out that she had accepted a second loan from the Fleischmans—only days after the Fleischman collection was acquired by the Getty in 1996—to repay the first. Ms. Fleischman has since resigned her position as a trustee of the museum.) In recent weeks, with Italian assistance, Greek officials have begun an investigation of their own. They raided the house on Paros belonging to True, where they took into custody a small number of artifacts; and then they raided a large villa, on a different island, belonging to a relative of Michailidis (a member of the family who has been fighting Symes in British court), where they seized a large collection of allegedly unregistered antiquities.
Yet this colorful sideshow has revealed far less about True’s curatorial activities than her social life, and it is unclear how much of Watson’s testimony about Symes and his Greek partner can be used as evidence. Watson’s account was based in large part on documents he has seen only briefly and which he himself has not been allowed to copy. The documents, which include copies of Symes’s business files and shredded papers taken from the dealer’s garbage, are in the possession of Michailidis’s Greek relatives, and have not been available to the Italian prosecution. Watson told the court that he has seen only a small part of this material—provided by the relatives—and he is uncertain whether there are other papers that have a bearing on the case. (Ironically, Watson and Todeschini themselves argue in the book that “any court, anywhere, would insist on the documentation being original.”)
The hearing also gave some indication of the extent of Watson’s own involvement in the trial. At one point, in response to questions from one of the defense lawyers, Ferri, the prosecutor, made some effort to clarify Watson’s position. He noted that Watson had testified previously in the Medici trial. Then, the following exchange took place:
Prosecutor: Have I ever asked you to give evidence, have I ever asked for your collaboration regarding various dealers?
Prosecutor: How many times have you met with me?
Watson: Several times.
So in addition to testifying in both trials, Watson has also assisted the prosecutor on other aspects of the case. There is nothing strange about a witness offering special expertise to a court. What is strange, as The Medici Conspiracy reveals but does not acknowledge, is that, while serving as a witness, Watson has been given private access to parts of the court record that have not yet been made public. And he has been given permission to publish selectively from this record while the trial is still underway. Watson’s “collaboration” with Ferri on the case, combined with the authors’ overwhelming reliance on court records, cannot but raise questions about their own use of evidence.
As with the trial in Rome, The Medici Conspiracy is full of interesting information. Unfortunately, the authors’ zeal to prove some of the more speculative charges in the case is not matched by their attention to detail. One of their more puzzling assumptions is that museums often do not publish accounts of the works they acquire, apparently so as to hide works of illicit origin. They write, for example, that the Getty “never published” the bronze Etruscan candelabrum that, along with a tripod acquired at the same time, turned out to have been stolen from a private collection in Rome. They further assert that the museum “finally admitted it did have the candelabrum” only in November 2005, when it agreed to return the object to Italy. But the Getty published an account of the piece, together with a photograph, after the purchase, in 1991, and again, prominently, in 2002, in the Handbook of the Antiquities Collection. The Getty has certainly had many flaws, but failure to publish its acquisitions in a timely fashion is not one of them.
More damaging is their repeated misattribution to Marion True of two entries in the 1994 Getty catalog of the Fleischman collection, which describe Pompeian fresco fragments that match with another fragment that had recently surfaced on the market. According to the catalog one of these fragments, a trompe l’oeil lunette showing a mask of Herakles, “matches precisely the upper portion of a fresco section in the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection…and is from the same room as catalogue number 125 [the second fragment].” This is disturbing, since Italian investigators later discovered that looters working for Medici had indeed excavated a large Pompeian villa. Removing frescoes usually involves the destruction of an entire ancient structure and is one of the more heinous actions committed by looters; no scholar would knowingly condone it.
“How did Marion True know that the frescoes came from the same room?” Watson and Todeschini ask, insinuating some collusion by True in their removal. But True didn’t write the entries in question; they were written by Maxwell L. Anderson, then a scholar of Greek and Roman art who was not a member of the Getty’s staff but was director of the museum at Emory University. More importantly, Anderson was able to match the fragments, and extrapolate their presumed location in an ancient house, from visual evidence in the frescoes themselves. “One can imagine the room from which this fragmentary wall emerged,” Anderson writes in the second entry. “Based on the right-to-left orientation of the shadows on the columns, this was part of the right-hand wall upon entering the room.”3 So the catalog doesn’t prove anything. As elsewhere, it seems that the authors are repeating the assumptions of the prosecution without examining the evidence themselves: later in the book, they note that Ferri, the lead prosecutor, also thinks that True had written the catalog entries. This is not a small point. If Watson and Todeschini are to be believed, it is True’s apparent inside knowledge of the frescoes’ presumed removal—which Ferri derives from her authorship of the catalog entries—that made the prosecutor “determined to bring True to trial.”
In other places, Watson and Todeschini seem to be confused about chronology. Twice they write that the Getty Museum opportunistically announced a new, more rigorous acquisitions policy for antiquities just after it had acquired the Fleischman collection, which was full of recently surfaced and unprovenanced works: “That makes it regrettable—more than regrettable—that the Getty, and Marion True in particular, saw fit to acquire the Fleischman Collection and then had the gall to declare a new acquisitions policy at the museum.” But the new policy was adopted in November 1995, and the Fleischman collection was not acquired until the following summer, when the Getty claimed that the collection met the standards of the new policy. These and other mistakes again seem to underscore the authors’ reliance on the interpretation of events put forth by the prosecution, and they are significant enough to raise questions about other claims they make.4
In their eleven-year investigation of the antiquities market, Paolo Ferri and the Italian art police have accomplished a remarkable feat. They have shown that the illegal trade is far more organized and efficient than anyone suspected, and that it has routinely supplied the market with pieces of great historical importance. These are troubling facts for anyone concerned about the classical heritage and the way it is being used. It is now clear that museums and collectors have often been less than scrupulous in their pursuit of magnificent examples of that heritage, and that a shockingly large number of pieces likely derived from clandestine excavation of Italian sites. Both kinds of buyers need to be held to account when there is clear evidence that they have knowingly broken the law. Yet the sheer extent of the activity in question—involving not merely a few people, but the common practices of the entire museum establishment over decades—discounts the notion of some carefully orchestrated conspiracy.
In fact, as Goethe realized more than two centuries ago, there is a far more straightforward explanation: market forces. Classical antiquities have an enduring fascination that is not particular to Italians. People throughout the world are driven to acquire, collect, and study them. This has not changed. What has changed is Italian law and, more recently, how it is enforced. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the Mediterranean countries began to pass national patrimony laws restricting the flow of antiquities out of their territories. In the twentieth century, countries like Italy and Greece went further. In 1939, Italy proclaimed national ownership of all antiquities on its soil—including those yet to be discovered. As a result, for close to seventy years, the Italian peninsula has been officially closed to business.
As we now know, this ban, combined with the virtual impossibility of borrowing important antiquities from Italy for any length of time, produced a highly sophisticated underground (and in large part Italian) supply network for the leading international dealers. For many decades, museums, with their long tradition of interpreting objects on formal and aesthetic grounds, often did not blink when precise information about the archaeological setting in which a work was found was missing. Italy itself, whose storerooms are full of Greek pots, and which has more ancient material than it has been able to inventory and publish, seems to have mostly looked the other way. But this precarious system could not last. It placed museum scholars in conflict with field archaeologists, whose work has been increasingly threatened by looters. Many archaeologists now insist that objects are not properly understood when considered in isolation from the sites in which they are found; and some of them are hostile to collecting and exhibiting objects as works of art.
Meanwhile, changing international regulations, and a series of US court decisions, helped propel public opinion against the unfettered circulation of cultural goods and in favor of the national ownership laws of the Mediterranean countries. Now, the Italian crackdown has pitched the museum world into a crisis, with the result that perhaps dozens more works will follow the Euphronios krater back to Italy. And other countries, including Greece, Turkey, and Peru, are now preparing their own ownership claims against American museums.
There are many ironies here. One, surely, is that, in the decades since national patrimony laws have gained force around the world, looting has steadily increased. Another is that countries like Italy, whose archaeological and artistic domains are vast beyond comprehension, and American cultural institutions, whose financial, scholarly, and scientific resources are unsurpassed, have emerged as bitter adversaries. And there is also the complicated issue of the objects themselves: as the extensive records of Medici and Becchina document, the most important illicit pieces ended up not lost or hidden away somewhere, but in the public trust, in the display cases and publications of prestigious American museums. Regardless of the outcome, the trial of Marion True marks the definitive end of the era of museum collecting of classical antiquities and will leave, as Italian officials intended, a lasting scar on the curatorial establishment. But it is by no means evident that the case will resolve the continued plague of looting, or address the legitimate interest of foreign institutions to acquire and show archaeological finds, or even help Italians themselves better preserve and study those finds.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Princeton philosopher, has argued forcefully in these pages for the importance of world museums in giving shape to a cosmopolitan view about the past—and about ourselves—in which objects are treated not as belonging to a particular contemporary nation, but as evidence of the diversity of mankind.5 At a time of growing nationalism and renewed ethnic conflict, this perspective is under severe threat. In recent months, Sunni groups have destroyed some of Iraq’s most important historic Shiite mosques. In early April, Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s senior Islamic jurist, issued a fatwa declaring that the exhibition of statues in homes is un-Islamic. Some Islamic experts fear the fatwa could incite extremists to attack pharaonic monuments. These problems may have little immediate bearing on Italy, but they do suggest the larger risks inherent when cultural heritage is reduced to an instrument of ethnic and national identity.
There is yet hope that the urgent debate provoked by the True case will lead to an improved international system. Museums must do their part. On April 17, in a lecture before the National Press Club in Washington, Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, called for a new dialogue between museums and the archaeological community. This is a welcome first step, but it remains to be seen what the response from archaeologists will be. The Met’s own recent agreement with Italy—providing for return of some pieces in exchange for others that Italy will supply on loan—demonstrates how museums and foreign governments can resolve disputes in a way that is beneficial to both. As the Greek archaeologist Christos Doumas told me, the philosophical divide between countries like Greece and Italy and collecting nations such as the United States could also be reduced if American museums would make more of their own collections—and the cosmopolitan perspective they represent—available to the national museums of Mediterranean and other countries with extensive archaeological resources. The British Museum, under Neil MacGregor’s leadership, has set an excellent example in this regard, with its expansive loan exhibitions to Africa and China.
But large American collecting institutions, including the Met, should also be prepared to take a stand about future acquisitions and their relationships to antiquities collectors. In its most recent guidelines, the American Association of Museum Directors has left some ambiguity about its position on antiquities that do not have a clear legal provenance, allowing in exceptional circumstances for acquisition of some objects with dubious credentials.
Improved museum practices can only reduce looting, however, if countries that are the source of archaeological finds are willing to consider far-reaching reforms of their own. In his testimony in the True case in early March, General Roberto Conforti, the former head of the Italian art police, told the court that the problems Italy faces today have been abetted by overly restrictive laws governing international loans of archaeological material. Italy should loosen its lending rules, as Conforti suggests, but it should also establish a legal international market for objects that have been registered by the government. Britain, for example, has an efficient system of rewards for amateur archaeological finds that benefits both British institutions and the finder in question, while avoiding much of the loss of information that usually comes with an unscientific dig. At the same time, new forms of international archaeological collaboration and sharing of finds could reduce market demand and ensure that excavation occurs with greater sensitivity to preservation of sites and objects across the Mediterranean basin. Finally, proceeds from a legitimate, government-controlled market could help fund security at designated unexcavated sites, so that parts of the underground heritage are preserved for future generations, who will no doubt possess far more sophisticated methods of excavation than we do now.
Unfortunately, in the absence of changes on both sides, it is likely that the underground network that was exposed in the True case will be reestablished and perpetuated in other countries and other circumstances. In China, for example, where looting is punishable by death, there is a large and growing market for unprovenanced antiquities. This is not a mere question of criminality, as Watson and Todeschini suggest, but of scarce cultural resources, unlimited demand, and, ultimately, a widespread and deeply felt urge to enjoy and study the many vestiges of the past. Until such issues can be addressed in a truly comprehensive way, no amount of legal restrictions and prosecution is likely to alleviate the problem, and by driving the trade further underground, they may make it worse.
—April 27, 2006
May 25, 2006
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. ↩
No fewer than ten objects at the Getty that have been traced to Medici were acquired by Frel and his immediate successor, Arthur Houghton. Ironically, despite her active program of acquisitions, True went to considerable lengths to acknowledge the Getty’s earlier failings, and spent much of the 1990s trying to reform the museum’s antiquities policies. It is strange that the authors devote so little space to this complicated evolution and True’s part in it. ↩
I am grateful to Maxwell Anderson for this point. It is a well-known technique to interpret the original location and function of a fresco containing architectural ornament by clues within the decoration itself. Anderson had previously written about the Levy-White fragment in the 1990 catalog of their collection, which was published by the Metropolitan Museum, and could draw on his earlier study in making the match. ↩
Watson’s and Todeschini’s account of dealings between archaeologist Malcolm Bell and the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the Hellenistic silver objects claimed by Italy is particularly muddled. They write that in the late 1990s, the FBI offered its assistance to Bell in his effort to study and authenticate these objects “as part of the new bilateral agreement between the United States and Italy.” But the bilateral agreement did not come into force until 2001, and Bell told me that the FBI had no part in his research. ↩