Tom Mashberg reported last week for the New York Times that this red figure amphora will be sent to Italy because of a connection with Gianfranco Becchina.
The match was made thanks to the work of researcher Christos Tsirogiannis, who linked the object with some of the thousands of photographs he has been given access to by Italian authorities. The object was voluntarily relinquished by the gallery, the Royal-Athena Galleries, which have a showroom in Manhattan.
On Wednesday in Rome, Italian officials from the Carabinieri held a press conference to display a reported 5,361 objects recovered from the Swiss warehouses of Gianfranco Becchina. The staggering number of objects, many of which appear to be of museum-quality are disheartening to take in. How many tombs were ransacked? How much information lost?
The objects were, as far as I can gather,were slated for sale internationally, and presented here we can see none of their history and context. Seeing these images, I’m struck both by the destructive nature of the international trade in antiquities, and also the inability of the Italian criminal justice system to respond to these crimes and prevent this kind of theft. If the Carabinieri’s art squad, which by most accounts is one of the best-trainded and best-funded art crime policing outfits in the world cannot stop a massive looting operation like this, what are other countries without such a squad left to learn from the investigation? What does this say about the efficacy of the current approach to looting?
This press conference strikes me as yet another example of so-called “art on the table” events, though it is quite grander in its scope than the typical press conference.
These objects would have been seized nearly a decade ago, with the alleged dealer behind this operation, Becchina, left uncharged, without any criminal consequences for these actions, other than it seems losing all of his illicit merchandise. Why were no charges brought? There is certainly a high degree of likelihood that these objects were looted, but do we know all of these objects are illicit? Would more creative and pragmatic solutions have a better chance than the aggressive but sporadic policing model which is employed to the art trade at present?
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.