This is a couple days old, but Italian authorities have recovered a work by Renoir, 33 years after it was stolen in Milan.
This portrait of Rosalie Tobia by Modigliani was left in a staff bathroom close to a customs checkpoint in the Bergamo airport last week. Richard Owen of The Times has an article here.
The painting may be worth as much as $1.2 million. It was found wrapped in a sheet, packed in a box. Authorities have speculated that someone was trying to smuggle it out of the country. Italy’s Ministry of Culture would most likely have prevented the painting from leaving the country. Authorities also fear this may be part of a larger smuggling operation.
What seems most likely is a smuggler lost her nerve right before going through customs. Of course, the work has yet to be authenticated, so someone could have just forgotten a painting.
“Italian police arrested 52 people and recovered several hundred smuggled archeological artifacts as part of their “tomb raider” investigation into international art theft.
More than 300 carabinieri of the finance police and paramilitary art squad searched suspects’ homes in eight Italian provinces early today and found smuggled goods of “considerable worth,” Italy’s Culture Ministry said in an e-mail.
Three years of investigations into a group of Sicilian “tomb raiders” led to the searches, arrests and uncovering of a wider international network, with contacts in Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the U.K. and U.S., the statement said. The investigation and raids were coordinated by the magistrates from the Sicilian province of Gela, the e-mail said.”
The Bloomberg story got one important detail very wrong. It incorrectly stated that the Getty has agreed to return 52 antiquities to Italy. In fact, Italy demanded the return of 52 objects; the Getty has agreed to return 25 of them in principle, along with one other which was not on the list.
The Malta Star has more on this story as well. It seems that many of the Sicilians arrested were not “from usual criminal backgrounds but rather from the professions and the business community and also include collectors and antiquarians.” If that’s true, it would be quite a blow to the antiquities trade. One difficulty the Italian authorities may have is following through with convictions of these individuals, who may be considered upstanding members of their community.
There is a slew of new reports marking the continuation of the high-profile antiquities prosecutions in Rome. The New York Times has a piece, and the Washington Post picks up an AP story. Francesco Rutelli also has an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, which can be downloaded from the Italian Ministry of Culture’s website here.
Is there anything new being said? Not really. Much of the back and forth involves trial tactics and public posturing on the part of Rutelli. Though he has some good arguments in his opinion piece, much of it is frustratingly vague or inaccurate. When he speaks of Italy “renouncing possession of these works of art” in reference to 46 contested objects held by the Getty, he conveniently fails to acknowledge the Getty has agreed to return 25 of them. Also, his claims of providing “exhaustive and reliable documentation” to the Getty may be true, however if the evidence were as damning as he indicates, Italy would certainly have first, asked US federal prosecutors to initiate a civil forfeiture action as they did in US v. An Antique Platter of Gold 184 F.3d 131 (2d Cir. 1999). This would have allowed for the return of the objects, while the US Department of Justice foots the legal bills. Thus, it seems to me that the evidence Ruteli is discussing may not be quite as damning as he indicates. He also makes it seem as if the issue of this bronze Athlete found in the Adriatic sea clearly belongs to Italy. This is a gross oversimplification. There seems to be good arguments that the object was found in international waters, and was in fact Greek in origin. Though he may be right that the bronze came ashore in Italy, the law violated would be an Export restriction, not a state-vesting provision. This makes Italy’s claim much different. If nothing else, the article was well-timed to coincide with the reopening of the trial in Rome though.
At the trial itself, the testimony of Pietro Casasanta seems intriguing. He details over 50 years of his experience dealing in Italian antiquities. He was testifying for the prosecution, not because he had any ties with the defendants, but because he played a role in the antiquities trade in general. He indicated that “From one day to the next we went from art experts to criminals…I saved thousands of artifacts that would have been ground into cement. … It’s a shame that they don’t make me a senator for life.” Interesting comments, especially given Italy’s recent efforts at stemming the trade. Perhaps the biggest gain Italy has made in recent years is cutting off Switzerland as a transit state. Switzerland has recently signed on to the UNESCO Convention and, more importantly, secured a bilateral deal with Italy.
Lee Rosenbaum continues her good work on this controversy by soliciting a response from Michael Brand, Director of the Getty Museum. He clarifies many of the charges leveled against him. Perhaps most interesting, he indicates that the Getty is careful when repatriating objects. In fact, one of the objects claimed by Italy “a Kore … had been claimed by both Italy and Greece, and we now have agreed to return that object to Greece. This is precisely why we have to respond to these claims very carefully.” That seems reasonable, and in fact much of Brand’s comments paint a picture of the Getty attempting to work out a reasonable compromise with Italy.
Of course, the true nature of the negotiation process may lie somewhere between Brand and Rutelli’s conflicting accounts. However Rutelli often seems inclined to elevate the rhetoric. However, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, it would seem that the Italians have accomplished a great deal. Certainly, reputable institutions and museums are now thinking twice about acquiring Greek, Roman, or Etruscan objects which might have come from Italy. A protracted public relations struggle is certainly not good for the public image.
A new art exhibit in Rome will display 100 works of art that the Italian Art Squad, the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protect Unit, have recovered in recent years. The exhibition will take place at the Palazzo Incontro, (Meeting Palace).
It is often said that if we could gather all of the stolen works of art into one museum, it would be the world’s finest collection of art. That claim is of course quite far-fetched and nearly impossible to quantify, but perhaps this exhibition will illustrate how much art is being lost.
The exhibition, titled “Stolen art, the return” includes Young girl with red stockings by Amedeo Modigliane (pictured here) which was stolen from its private owner in the 1990’s, and has never been publicly displayed. Other works include two paintings by Francesco Barbieri, known as il Guercino. Also, an artifact called the “Ivory Face” uses a technique called chryselephantine which combines Ivory and Gold. Its age and provenance are unknown however, illustrating how much context can be lost when illicit excavation takes place.
The exhibition is quite remarkable, and a very shrewd move by the art squad. It is a very tangible expression of how many works are being lost, and how a well-funded and committed police force can limit the illicit trade in these works.