The Met’s latest forced return of looted art

A Paestan Krater, which was connected to the Medici Polaroids

Yesterday Tom Mashberg reported in the NY Times that the Met would be returning this Greek krater to Italy. The Met has returned many objects to Italy in recent years, because they have been looted from tombs and archaeological sites before being smuggled abroad.

In 2014 this krater was linked by researcher Christos Tsirogiannis to Polaroid photos which had been seized from the Geneva warehouse of Giacomo Medici.

The interesting aspect of the story here appears to be the very slow response on the part of the Met to questions presented by Tsirogiannis. Tsirogiannis told the NY Times that the evidence: “[S]uggested that the item was disinterred from a grave site in southern Italy by looters,” before it passed on to Medici.

Medici was an antiquities dealer, convicted of trafficking in illicit cultural objects, and many objects which passed through his gallery/collection/storehouse have been deemed illicit. Reached by Mashberg for the story, Medici said:

[H]e had no recollection of having handled the vase in question. “Absolutely not,” he said. He said he had been released from house arrest last year after serving half of an eight-year sentence that was shortened by time off for good behavior and a two-year amnesty provision granted to all Italian prisoners.

“I am a free man,” Mr. Medici said. “I went on trial, it lasted years, I was convicted for some of the objects” that Italian prosecutors believed had been looted, “and now I have nothing more to do with the justice system. The story is finished.”

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Dallas Museum of Art Announces 6 Repatriations

The Orpheus Mosaic, once looted and now returned to Turkey

In a press conference today Max Anderson, the new director at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) announced an agreement with Turkey to return this 2nd Century AD Roman Mosaic, and other objects. The mosaic was acquired in 1999 at a public auction at Christie’s in 1999 for $85,000. According to the DMA, after noting on Turkey’s cultural heritage ministry website that there had been an Orpheus mosaic missing, Anderson contacted Turkish officials. He was given photographic evidence showing the and comparing the mosaic with a border, being removed by looters near ancient Edessa, modern Sanliurfa in Southern Turkey.

In announcing the return, Anderson also announced a new initiative called ‘DMX‘ which attempts to seek loans and exchange agreements. A move that if successful would position the museum to pioneer the ideals of a universal museum while also respecting the laws and restrictions placed on objects by their nation of origin.

But other objects were also revealed. The DMA officials also announced that they had uncovered objects in their collection from Edoardo Almagià, an on-again/off-again antiquities dealer who has been tied to looted antiquities by Italian officials. The other objects may be more interesting, including:

  • a pair of bronze shields decorated with the head of the man-bull deity Acheloos, dating from the 6th century B.C.E;
  • a red-figure krater, designed for the burial of Greek nobles in southern Italy, dating from the 4th century B.C.E;
  • the head from an antefix, dating from the 6th century B.C.E; 
  • and a calyx krater, dating from the 4th century B.C.E.
The volute krater, 4th century B.C.E. its
provenance was “English collection”

Almagià is an interesting figure. In a 2010 interview with the Princeton alumni magazine, he is boldly critical of Italy’s heritage laws, and the agreements between Italy and the United States:

You are immediately equated with a criminal nowadays by being a collector. You have in Italy hundreds of thousands of people that have antiquities at home. They might have inherited them or bought them. In my youth, there were flea markets, and you could buy every antiquity you wanted. All those people that bought things – are they all criminals? It’s like Prohibition in the United States – there’s a criminal underworld. Italian law leads to crime. By legalizing the market in antiquities, you destroy the black market and eliminate the incentive to make forgeries.

He has been investigated by the public prosecutor in Rome since 2006, and his New York apartment has also been searched by U.S. Customs officials. Chasing Aphrodite points out that the returned material has ties to the usual suspects: Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, and Giacomo Medici. And also notes other museums have similar objects. Given Turkey’s increasingly muscular calls for repatriation, the DMA has positioned itself to create favorable agreements with foreign nations, and also set itself apart from other institutions with similar material with insufficient histories. When I see these objects at a museum, with a scant or nonexistant provenance listed, I assume it must be looted. Forward-thinking museums are increasingly doing the same. And despite what value there may be in viewing the object in a ‘universal’ museum, that probable criminal history increasingly renders the display of these objects unjust.

  1. Michael Granberry, Dallas Museum of Art returns rare work of Roman art, signs memorandum of understanding with Turkish government for international exchange Center Stage, Dallas News (Dec 3, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More Reactions to the "Medici Dossier"

Kimberley Alderman starts a discussion on whether Italy should release all the images in the “Medici Dossier”. 

Christie’s is being criticized for leaving on the auction block three items which have been alleged by archaeologists and an Italian prosecutor to have originated from the famous and illicit antiquities trader, Giacomo Medici.  Italy, however, has not submitted a formal request for repatriation of the objects to the U.S. government or even a title claim to Christie’s.

She offers some strong comments from attorney William G. Pearlstein:

What the Italians are doing is outrageous. They are deliberately withholding the Medici files from the public, allowing hot pieces to remain in circulation and then playing up every seizure for maximum publicity value. They continue to play the role of victim when actually they have became cynical predators on American institutions that want nothing more than to do the right thing.

David Gill responds with his typical pointed questions about diligence for buyers, Christies, and collecting histories. I think many good points are made here, and we need to have an open conversation about what role the market and auction houses can or should play in this trade.  Damage is done, demand remains high, and the current rules aren’t preventing destruction or producing an honest market.  I’ve argued that auction houses need to be held to a higher standerd, because they act as heritage market makers, and the fact that an object comes up for auction means something, and is an important event in the history of an objects such that increased liability should attach when these objects are found to be lost or stolen.

  1. David Gill, Christie’s, the Medici Dossier and William G. Pearlstein Looting matters (2010), http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com/2010/06/christies-medici-dossier-and-william-g.html (last visited Jun 7, 2010).
  2. Kimberley Alderman, Is Italy “Asking For It” By Refusing to Release the Medici Photographs? Three items at Christie’s raise questions « The Cultural Property and Archaeology Law Blog, http://culturalpropertylaw.wordpress.com/2010/06/06/is-italy-asking-for-it-by-refusing-to-release-the-medici-photographs-three-items-at-christies-raise-questions/ (last visited Jun 7, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Why Can’t the Public see the Medici Polaroids

The Euphronios Krater, which passed through Medici

I’ll offer my best guess, and invite any comments below.  First, a little background.  In 1995 authorities seized a number of looted antiquities and photographs from the freeport warehouse of Giacomo Medici.  The investigtion was chronicled in Peter Watson’s The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities–From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums. These photographs continue to play a role when antiquities are auctioned, particularly when auctioned objects correspond to these photographs.  They are released intermittently.  Francesco Rutelli discussed a few of them at the ARCA Conference in July of 2009

 David Gill calls these antiquities “toxic” and cautions dealers and auction houses to perform “ultra-rigorous due diligence searches” when these objects correspond to the Medici polaroids. Mark Durney has confirmed with the Art Loss Register that the Medici archive is registered on its database, but “it only has half of the total number of photographs that were said to have been seized from Medici’s warehouse”.  Mark then asks how many pictures (and more importantly how many discrete objects were photographed): “Were there in fact 4,000 photographs recovered from Medici’s warehouse?”  So we have a rough estimate of some 14,000 images, only some of which may have been included in the Art Loss Register.  Mark asks:

Why have the estimated 14,000 photographs seized from various Swiss warehouses not yet been made available to the public? Clearly, one of Interpol’s intentions when it opened its database to the public in August 2009 was to increase the public’s awareness of a fast-growing problem. Full and open disclosure of significant photographic evidence related to looting and the illicit antiquities trade, such as the Medici archive, would be in the interests of preserving cultural heritage. Only then will we be able to publicly examine the realities and challenges inherent in that goal.

So many of these photographs have not been publicly released. Some may not even have been given to the ALR.  Why not?  I’ll offer my best guess.  Because if there is a publicly available, search-able database of these Medici images, then there is a limited effect to the images.  They can only be used to limit the sale of objects which were actually looted and photographed.  By reserving and holding on to the images, the authorities now have a kind of  “penumbra” to impact the market for the antiquities which have been photographed, but also any object which might plausibly have passed through Medici’s warehouse. 

But this causes its own problems.  There are not really any negative consequences when an auction house puts an object up for sale and then is asked to withdraw it.  There may be some negative publicity, but surely this must be factored into the cost of auctioning these objects.  What a mess of a market. 

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

Auction Houses and the Sale of Heritage

“You have to know the dirty tricks, there are dirty tricks”.

So says Claude Pariset an antiques dealer from Champagne, discussing the art trade in the New York Times yesterday. 

A number of recent stories of this ilk continue to show why the auction house system of the sale of art and antiquities, with its anonymous sellers and buyers has had devastating consequences on our heritage.  As I’ve argued, these auction houses play an important role in the market, know exactly what they are doing, and yet the anonymity continues to shield their practices, and allow for the sale of looted and stolen pieces of heritage. 

First, an update on the wrongdoing at the Hôtel Drouot auction house in Paris.  Late last year French authorities had uncovered stolen artworks, and an art-trafficking network.  Now there are further reports of corruption, including faking bids, collusion to keep prices down, and theft as well. 

This comes as Bonham’s auction house tries to find some antiquities to sell in its auction today.  It has withdrawn a marble statue which was included amongst the notorious Medici polaroids. It has also withdrawn some Roman funerary sculptures that bore signs that they had recently been illegally excavated, pictured above.  An Anglo-Saxon stone was also removed from auction.

After concerned authorities and archaeologists contacted Bonham’s, these objects have all been withdrawn from auction.  But that does not mean they won’t be sold again privately, and does not mean that we know who the sellers were. 

  1. Scott Sayare, Chatter of Swindles and Scams at Auction House, The New York Times, April 26, 2010.
  2. Dalya Alberge, Roman sculptures withdrawn from auction amid fears they are stolen, The Guardian, April 27, 2010.
  3. Mike Pitts, Save our Anglo-Saxon stone!, The Guardian, April 24, 2010.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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

Repatriation and Universal Museums

Drake Bennett has a good article in yesterday’s Boston Globe titled Finders, keepers. It’s a lengthy overview of the back and forth between museums and nations of origin regarding looted artifacts, and other objects taken during colonial times. It’s worth a read, as it features comments from James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ricardo Elia from the archeology department at Boston University, and others.

Cuno gets featured prominently, perhaps because of his strong arguments that many objects should remain in museums in market nations. He also extends the argument of the late Paul Bator, who in his seminal “An Essay on the International Trade in Art” 34 Stanford Law Review 275 (1982), argued that many restrictions on antiquities, including strong export restrictions serve to increase the black market.

Bennett’s piece is a good overview, and a good introduction to some of the core debates in the antiquities trade. By necessity he paints many of these restitution claims with too broad a brush though. He writes

Along with Italy, the governments of Greece, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Turkey, China, and Cambodia, among others, have pushed to reclaim prized artifacts from collections around the world. They have tightened their laws governing the export of antiquities or intensified the enforcement of existing laws and international agreements; they have made impassioned public cases on the world stage.

I don’t think these nations of origin have in fact increased their domestic legal schemes; in nearly every case he mentions here these nations have had very strong legal regimes for many decades, some dating to the very beginning of the 20th century. Italy for example has a national patrimony law dating to 1939. In some cases they are working more closely with the US State Department under the Cultural Property Implementation Act. However, the main difference is the prominent Italian claims of late, which were the result of one fantastically successful criminal investigation which implicated an Italian dealer named Giacomo Medici, and by association his buyers Robert Hecht, Marion True, the Getty, MFA Boston, and the Met.

This allowed for the return of these implicated objects; of course the claims for return were bolstered by photographic evidence of many of the Nostoi objects, which clearly indicated they were illegally excavated on a massive scale. This is a far different argument than the one for say the return of the Parthenon Marbles, or other objects acquired during colonial times, or for the return of other objects which may have been acquired legitimately. I think we need to be particularly careful not to lump too many of these restitution arguments together, and indeed to be honest about how and why objects are returned. The salient issues remain: how are nations of origin protecting sites domestically, how do market nations respond to illegal activity, how are museums acquiring new objects, and is the market conducting the needed provenance checks? That is the only way to prevent future illegal activity.

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