Medici Conviction Upheld

[medici_sarpedon.jpg]An Italian appeals court this week upheld the conviction of Italian art dealer/smuggler Giacomo Medici according to a report by Steve Scherer for Bloomberg.  Medici had been convicted of conspiracy to traffic in antiquities in 2004 and sentenced to a 10-year term.  It seems to be a very stiff sentence when compared to most art and antiquities crimes.  The Appeals court in Rome upheld the conviction and set the sentence at eight years, while upholding a 10 million-euro fine.  Italian Prosecutor Paolo Ferri told the LA Times that this was a “very hard sentence. This is the first time in Italy that this type of crime has been given such a high punishment.”

This is the most recent culmination of the 1995 raid on the Medici warehouse in Switzerland which uncovered objects, polaroids, and otherevidence which has resulted in a number of repatriations from museums all over the world, but particularly North American museums.  Here of course is Medici, triumphantly posed next to one of his most notorious objects, the Euphronios Krater, when it was on display at the Met in New York.

This now leaves Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty, whose criminal prosecution is currently ongoing.  One question worth asking is, where are the other dealers, tombaroli, and museum staff?  Where were those able to elude prosecution, not just in Italy, but in the United States as well.

I’ll have much more on this, and Italy’s cultural policy next week in light of Francesco Rutelli’s comments at last Saturday’s ARCA conference in Amelia Italy, including his thoughts on what other objects need to be returned, why they were sent back, and his thoughts on objects which had been acquired by Robin Symes.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Another Suicide in the Wake of the Federal Looting Investigation

Steven Shrader, one of the 24 individuals indicted for dealing in looted antiquities killed himself Thursday night. This comes after the suicide of another man in connection with the case. The sad news should increase the criticism by two Utah senators who have asked for a Congressional investigation into the tactics used by Federal Authorities.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports:


News of a second death in the antiquities crackdown surprised southeastern Utahns . . . . “That’s tragic — if it’s the result of his concerns over his case,” said Phil Mueller, a Blanding resident and Redd family friend. “I don’t know — I don’t know [Shrader]. But to hear the news is certainly very tragic.” Mueller added that he doesn’t accept federal authorities’ explanation that they needed a show of force in the raid because they believed most of the suspects could be armed. “You could walk up to any house in San Juan County,” he said, “and they’d probably have a gun.”of a second death in the antiquities crackdown surprised southeastern Utahns, although those contacted said they had not heard of Shrader.

These suicides are certainly tragic, and though some blame may be placed on the tactics used by federal agents, the simple truth is when you violate federal law, you are running the risk of arrest and prosecution. Digging up Native American remains is not an innocent activity one accidentally does it seems to me. And as more of the search-warrant affidavits are made public, there is more and more allegations of clear wrongdoing on the part of the indicted individuals. Patty Henetz for the SLT summarizes the recent affidavit released by federal court:
On a brisk morning last September, three men — including a federal undercover operative — carried shovels and rakes to an ancient Puebloan mound on public land in San Juan County. As they piled dirt onto a blue plastic tarp, out popped a skull.

The discovery, recorded in real time and detailed in recently released federal court papers, didn’t seem to slow the men much.

Richard Bourret picked up the skull and put it back in the hole, the documents say, then he, Vern Crites and the operative, whom federal authorities call the “Source,” folded the tarp and funneled the dirt back into the hole. There wasn’t quite enough to cover the damage.

Crites lamented a lost opportunity, saying he “wished that fella had still been intact, the skeleton, I mean.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Backlash over Federal Arrests in the Southwest

https://i1.wp.com/www.delsjourney.com/images/news/news_02-07-01/2-3855_Butler_Wash.jpg?resize=420%2C280Brendan Borrell has an interesting piece for Scientific American following up on the number of arrests which focused on the theft of Native American objects from the four corners region, which has been described as a massive outdoor museum.  Pictured here are the Butler Wash ruins near Blanding. 

Two Utah senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett have both called on Congress to investigate the actions of the federal agents surrounding the arrests, which led to one apparent suicide, the raid of one home for 10 hours, involving 300 agents and a SWAT team. 

One of those arrested, Brent Bullock tells Scientific American, “I’m guilty of arrowhead collecting, as is two-thirds of this town.”  It seems he:

[T]ried to sell a blanket fragment, fireboard, and stone hoe known as a Tchamahia. In a phone interview, he said that, like Lacy, he was also asked to identify the spot where the items were obtained and he subsequently signed a Letter of Provenance.  He says agents later showed up at his house, placed his arrowheads and other artifacts in bags, and photographed them although they did not have permission to seize his or any other artifacts yet. “They ripped this place apart,” he says. “This town is all stirred up.”

Criminal penalties may help to ease the taking of objects from these sites, but they also create a great deal of anger and resentment.  I think rather than just focusing on the arrests and the backlash, we should also pay attention to much of the education and outreach being conducted.  Were all of these individuals really hardened criminals, bent on destroying archaeological heritage to sell antiquities?  I’m sure some may have been, but the investigation seems to be failing spectacularly at convincing at least some local residents the importance of heritage preservation.  What will happen when the attention of federal authorities goes elsewhere?  Criminal penalties are important, and certainly justified in many cases.  But I would like the attention being paid to this controversy to focus on some practical initiatives that can do a lot of good before looting and destruction take place.  Take a few examples such as:  volunteer programs, initiatives such as the Comb Ridge project, and continued recruitment of site stewards
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More on the Four Corners Indictments

The LA Times has more on the 24 indictments unsealed yesterday by federal authorities.  The individuals were charged both under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.  The press release is here, which has the names of the defendants, and some of the arrest warrants.  I find it noteworthy for at least two reasons.

First, this seems to be the familiar problem with heritage preservation just about anywhere in the world—helping local residents understand the importance of preserving objects—and not removing them.  In the case of thisarea, there are artifacts, pots, baskets, textiles, axe-heads and other objects often are well-preserved by the dry air, and in some cases aren’t even buried.  I think these arrests are a welcome development, but they aren’t going to be the best or only solution.  These extensive criminal investigations help raise the profile of the problem, but as I’ve argued elsewhere; they aren’t a solution.  These elaborate criminal investigations are expensive, and require a great deal of resources.  I’m not sure either that we can guarantee that these will continue.  I’d like to see these arrests followed by some outreach explaining to the residents of these and other rural communities why these objects need to remain where they are, so they can be preserved for future generations. 

Most of those indicted were residents of Blanding, Utah, which according to wikipedia has the benefit of nearby monuments such as the Natural Bridges National Monument, Monument Valley and the Four Corners area, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Lake Powell), Cedar Mesa archaeological and wilderness area, the San Juan River including Goosenecks State Park, and the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. It is located approximately 1 hour south of the popular recreation hub, Moab, and Arches National Park.

As the piece in the LAT notes:

Southwest residents have been scooping up artifacts for generations. Since the early 20th century, settlers were even encouraged to dig up arrowheads, pottery and other remains. In the 1920s the University of Utah paid Blanding residents $2 per ancient pot.

Federal authorities estimate that 90% of the 20,000 archaeological sites in San Juan County, where Blanding is located, have been plundered.

According to a search warrant affidavit, the FBI and Bureau of Land Management in October 2006 developed “a major dealer of archaeological artifacts” as a source who would help them unravel the informal network of pot hunters profiting off the land’s history. Authorities wired the dealer to record the transactions.

Second, the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazer was at the news conference, in what seems to be a high-profile attempt to highlight how seriously federal authorities are taking the looting of Native American sites.  These charges arose as part of a two-year investigation.  This indicates a dramatic departure from one of the final acts of the Bush administration, which was to pardon a Utah man for stealing objects from Native American territory. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Spain Prevails For Now

“It is this comity of interests and mutual respect among nations . . . that warrants granting Spain’s motions to vacate the Mercedes‘s arrest and to dismiss Odyssey’s amended complaint”. So concludes US Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo yesterday in Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. v. The Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel.

Odyssey Marine has lost in its bid to petition a US court for ownership of the coins, and Spain has prevailed—for now—in its suit to regain half a million gold and silver coins from Odyssey Marine Exploration which recovered them from a wreck in the Atlantic Ocean. The recovery of the coins, thought to be worth as much as $500 million was announced, though the location of the wreck, and information about the wreck was kept secret. In response Spain filed suit, and seized some of Odyssey’s other vessels. UNESCO condemned the recovery, and much has been written and discussed about this recovery, considered perhaps the richest haul ever recovered from a wreck.

In the judgment which I’ve embedded below, the District Court held it lacked jurisdiction over the dispute and the property should be returned to Spain. Though Odyssey Marine attempted to hide the true identity of the wreck, initially code-naming the wreck the Black Swan, the court held that there was enough information to conclude the coins came from the “Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes”, a warship which was carrying treasure back from Peru when it was sunk by the British off the Spanish coast in 1804. Spain, soon declared war on Great Britain, a point which may be lost in all this talk of the treasure. This treasure was an important piece of heritage, and all the talk of Odyssey’s share prices, and the rich treasure haul shouldn’t distract us from why these objects are protected, and why Spain fought so vigorously to have them declared the owner.

So these coins may be destined for Spain, finally, even though these coins were initially taken from Peru, which also asserted an interest. This has been a protracted dispute, and one that may indeed continue at the appellate level. It will be interesting as well to see how much continued involvement Peru has with the appeals process, or if Spain and Peru can come to an agreement about what can or should be done with the objects.

Spain’s Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde is quoted by the BBC, calling the decision “a very important precedent for all future undersea discoveries”. Gregg Stemm, CEO of Odyssey Marine said “I’m confident that ultimately the judge or the appellate court will see the legal and evidentiary flaws in Spain’s claim, and we’ll be back to argue the merits of the case.”

But for now, US Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo has the final word, concluding his recommendation, “More than two hundred years have passed since the Mercedes exploded. Her place of rest and all those who perished with her that fateful day remained undisturbed for centuries – until recently. International law recognizes the solemnity of their memorial, and Spain’s sovereign interests in preserving it.”

For more on the company this older piece from Voice of America is pretty interesting. This suit is really about the continued viability of this kind of business, and the perils of doing so without the support of organizations like UNESCO or other nations of origin:

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Renoir Recovered in Venice

This work by Pierre Auguste Renoir, stolen 15 years ago in Rome was recovered in Venice according to AFP.  Not too many details, but these from the wire reports:

“We carried out all verifications, with the help of Interpol and French and British police, and established that the painting — which depicts a mythical scene — belonged to a Roman family from whom it was stolen in 1984,” [an Italian Police Spokesman said].

Captain Salvatore Di Stefano, another police spokesman, said: “We don’t know the value but it must be pretty high because Renoir did not paint that many mythical scenes.”

With the Treviso resident unable to prove his claim that he bought it at a rummage sale, police seized the painting, dating from around 1895, in order to return it promptly to its rightful owners.

In September 2008, police in Italy, acting on a tip from an art critic, recovered a Renoir nude stolen 33 years earlier from a private collection in Milan. Three suspects were arrested.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Italian Authorities Showcase Recovered Antiquities

Italian authorities yesterday displayed two medieval frescos and other objects recovered during antiquities investigations reports the AP and ANSA.  The medieval frescos were recovered as a part of the investigation into Marion True, which were found at the home of a Greek woman, Despoina Papadimitriou on the island of Schoinoussa in 2006.  Also displayed were some of the objects recovered from Operation Phoenix in which “goods were handed over to Italian authorities by two Lebanese brothers who operated a Geneva antiquities gallery.” 

More impressive work from the Carabinieri, but will there be an end to the cycle of looting, seizures and arrests? 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Iraq Troops Recover Antiquities

From Bloomberg:

Iraqi commandos smashed a smuggling ring, recovering 235 looted Babylonian and Sumerian artifacts that they turned over to the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry. 
The soldiers arrested a gang of seven thieves who were preparing to smuggle the objects outside of Iraq, according to a statement e-mailed today by the U.S. military in Baghdad. They were tipped off by residents in the southern Iraqi towns of Abu al-Kahsib, Bab al-Tawael and al-Amir. 
Among the artifacts presented to the ministry in a ceremony this week were gold jewelry, ceramics and stone figurines, the military said. They weren’t marked with museum serial numbers, suggesting they were illegally dug up from one of Iraq’s estimated 40,000 archeological sites. 
“The Iraqi Army is putting extraordinary pressure on smuggling gangs that steal Iraq’s history to finance terrorist operations,” Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir said in the statement. “The recovery of the artifacts was a joyous occasion because they could not be replaced with money and represented 5,000 years of Iraqi history.”
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting Underwater Sites

Three British divers have plead guilty to looting treasures from a wreck off the coast of Spain:

Peter Devlin, Malcolm Cubin and Steve Russ, all commercial salvagers from Cornwall, were arrested in June 2002 on suspicion of stealing gold and diamonds from a sunken ship off the coast of Galicia, in northwestern Spain.


The three faced prison sentences of up to six years each and heavy fines for theft and destruction of Spain’s cultural heritage. But at a court in Santiago de Compostella yesterday, they pleaded guilty in return for suspended sentences and a fine of €1,000 plus €2,500 costs each.

“We are now convicted criminals in Spain but relieved that after seven years the ordeal is finally over and we won’t have to go to prison,” Mr Cubin (38) a father of four from Truro, said. “We’re disappointed because it’s not what we wanted at all and still maintain we did nothing wrong, but there was nothing else we could do.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

8 Works Recovered 22 Years After the Theft

On Saturday Dutch prosecutors said three people had been arrested in connection with a theft which took place in 1987 from the Noortman gallery in Maastricht.  In the statement Dutch prosecutors said “The suspects were apparently trying to sell the art works to the insurance company that had paid out 2.27 million euros (£2m) after they went missing . . .  The investigation has yet to determine where the paintings have been for more than 20 years,”

 The works were by 17th Century artists David Teniers, Willem van de Velde and Jan Brueghel the Younger, as well as 19th Century painters Eva Gonzales, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Paul Desire Trouillebert.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com