According to Ariel, “Eisenberg, who runs galleries in New York and London, said he bought most of the antiquities at auctions in the British capital in the 1980s, and decided to return them after Italian authorities recently turned up evidence that they were looted.” According to Giovanni Nistri, who leads the art squad of the Carabinieri “This is a dealer who since 1999 has returned of his own initiative other artifacts that came into his possession”.
What is the significance of the return? It appears to be one of the only examples of a dealer voluntarily relinquishing allegedly illicitly-excavated antiquities. It seems the Italians had some kind of iron-clad proof that these objects had been wrongfully removed in some way.
David Gill at Looting Matters argues this agreement to return objects is significant because “It is now clear that the Code of Ethics and the due diligence processes conducted by members of the IADAA are not rigorous enough.” I think he’s exactly right about the lack of effectiveness of Codes of Ethics, but this agreement has little to do with them. These objects were acquired at auctions, sometime in the 1980’s. The acquisition of these objects in the 1980’s doesn’t strike me as an accurate indicator of the current state of the antiquities trade, though it’s badly flawed to be sure.
The more relevant point I think is how effectively the Italian Culture Ministry uses the press in painting a picture of a vast Italian repatriation campaign. An agreement seems to have been concluded months ago. Why is the story appearing now? It seems to be a calculated move. Seldom does a week go by that there is not news of an arrest, agreement for repatriation or the like. Italy and cultural property is in just about every news cycle. Believe it or not, public pressure like this is the single best tool a source nation has to secure the return of objects. This fact speaks volumes about the fatally flawed body of law which attempts to regulate the illicit antiquities trade. Italy is not using the law to seek these objects because it cannot; instead it is exerting tremendous public pressure on museums and individuals.
(AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)