This June I had the chance to visit the town of Aidone in Southern Sicily. It’s a town that I’ve written and thought a lot about, so when we had the opportunity to pop up from teaching in Valletta for a long weekend, we jumped. Its fame comes as the result of a series of looting scandals.
The village and the archaeological site has been written about a great deal, but I haven’t come across many who have actually visited the site and the Muesum. For decades, the site it represented in a tangible way the competing interests of illicit looters and archaeologists. Archaeologists would excavate during the summer, looters would raid the site after they left. Year after year the cycle continued.
If you are reading this you probably have some strong feelings about where the Dea di Aidone (aka the Getty Goddess) should reside. This short essay is a collection of my own thoughts about the ancient site of Morgantina and the nearby town of Aidone.
To give a bit of the history as I understand it, the island of Sicily was subject to the control of many Mediterranean civilizations, and Morgantina’s history reflects this. Morgantina was founded perhaps seven or eight centuries before Christ. At some point it came under the control of Syracuse. Much of what now exists at this site reflects a city at the edge of the ancient Greek world. At some point in the third century BCE Morgantina may have chosen to throw their lot in with Carthage, a choice which likely proved costly when it was finally captured by Rome. Morgantina may have fallen on hard times, and the city itself seems to have been largely deserted by the First Century CE.
Thesite has been the subject of a number of archaeological excavations, mainly by American archaeologists, and also the target of antiquities looters who ultimately sent objects on through the illicit black market in antiquities. Many of the most beautiful items looted ended up in American Museums, notably the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of art. This seems to me to be a notable correlation. How is it an accident that most summers for the last 60 years have seen american archaeologists digging at Morgantina, and also the museums of the United States acquiring works from the very site. Assigning blame to the archaeologists who dig there, the local officials for protecting the site, or the museum curators who
acquire this material seems unproductive for this short essay. But visiting the Museum in Aidone and the site of Morgantina I was struck by what a colossal policy failure the looting represents.
Italy and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek art museum in Copenhagen on Tuesday announced an agreement for the return of antiquities taken illegally from Italy.
Objects repatriated include the contents of a tomb from near Fara north of Rome. Those objects had allegedly passed through Robert Hecht, a familiar name to those who follow illicit antiquities. Hecht passed away in 2012, and had been the subject of a criminal trial in Rome in 2005, allegedly for dealing in illicit antiquities.
Robert Hecht described buying the Etruscan chariot from Giacomo Medici:
I’ve written a great deal here about the ongoing dispute between the Getty Museum and officials in Italy over this ancient Greek statue.
In the wake of a pair of regional court rulings in 2010 and 2012 in Pesaro, Italy there seemed a chance that Italy would secure a trans-Atlantic forfeiture of the athlete (which I considered in an article).
But now those Italian court orders have been ruled in violation of the European convention on human rights because the cases were not heard in open court. This should not come as a great surprise, as the Italian court of cassation remanded the case to an Italian constitutional court in 2014, and a favorable result seemed remote. And Italy is now left with an embarrassing and incomplete forfeiture effort, which was only ever going to be the first step of a legal strategy which would be given high marks for degree of difficulty. So this “Fano Athelete” as the Italians describe him will likely not be taking a trip to Italy any time soon.
At present the bronze is a part of the “Power and Pathos” exhibition currently on display at the National Gallery in Washington.
Geoff Edgers managed to snag an interview with Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum, and the subject of an antiquities-trafficking trial in Rome. A trial that even Paolo Ferri admits was only to “show an example of what Italy could do.”
I don’t imagine many will change their view of True based on the reporting or her comments. There is nothing especially revelatory here—perhaps its best viewed as a reporting coup by Edgers in getting access to True. But its also an initial first step by True in seeking to get her own book published. The piece even links to a few small excerpts of her memoirs. Here are the handful of paragraphs which stood out to me:
A decade after her downfall, True knows that she was singled out, with Hecht, by the Italians to strike fear in American museums. The strategy worked. The Getty and others, fearing prosecution, returned hundreds of objects worth millions of dollars.
True was never found guilty — the trial ended in 2010 without a judgment – and the curator maintains her innocence. But today, for the first time, she is talking openly about the way she and her museum world colleagues operated. Yes, she did recommend the Getty acquire works she knew had to have been looted. That statement, though, comes with a qualifier:
If she found out where a work had been dug up from, she pushed for its return. In contrast, many of her colleagues did little, if anything, to research a work’s source. None of them were put on trial.
The pursuit of True was aided by raids of dealers and a massive leak of internal Getty documents to a pair of Los Angeles Times reporters. That paper trail linked looted sites in Italy to the museum’s Malibu galleries.
True plainly did recommend the acquisition of looted material. A revelation that few if any in the museum community have acknowledged publicly. But the fact that Edgers fails to acknowledge in his reporting is the damage done to future sites. The sums of money paid by the Getty fueled more looting.
In a ceremony this week officials from the United States and Italy announced the return of 25 looted objects to Italy. The various press releases from the U.S. and Italian authorities have details on all the returns. But I want to highlight one object which fascinates:this 6th-century BC Kalpis, likely looted from near Vulci, which depicts how Dionysus dispatched some Tyrrhenian pirates. It was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art in 1982, but was later connected by Italian authorities to Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina. The vase was sold in 1982 for a mere $90,000. The history of the object given to the Toledo Museum was that it had been in the collection of a Swiss collector named Karl Haug, and had been in his family since 1935—predating Italy’s 1939 national ownership declaration. In June of 2012 Immigrations and Customes Enforcement agents “consctuctively seized” the vase, allowing it to remain in the possession of the Museum. This week’s ceremony marks the formal return of this and other objects with similar stories.
Elisabetta Povoledo reported for the NYT:
Inquiries were begun in the last decade or so in nine Homeland Security field offices, including New York City, Buffalo, Baltimore, Boston, Miami and San Diego, leading to the returns.
Gen. Mariano Mossa, commander of the T.C.P., said at the news conference that the value of the objects was difficult to gauge. But the quality and rarity of many of the artifacts made them irreplaceable, officials said.
Each artifact returned to Italy had its own story.
The three first-century B.C. fresco fragments depicting human figures, for example, were stolen on June 26, 1957, from the Culture Ministry offices at Pompeii. Tracked to a San Diego warehouse, they were taken by agents in September 2012 from the private collection of an unnamed “American magnate” before they could be sold at auction, Italian officials said.
The authorities later identified the frescoes as belonging to the Allen E. Paulson Trust, which forfeited them to the United States government, which then returned them to Italy.
This is very much in keeping with how these ancient works of art are dealt with. It’s almost exclusively an object-centered approach. These objects are returned while officials in both the United States and Italy are able to announce the hard work they are doing, but there are no new prosecutions.
I’m very much looking forward to participating in this Friday’s conference at the Capitoline Museum in Rome marking the 20th Anniversary of the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Property. If you haven’t registered yet, and happen to be in Rome, I’m afraid registration is closed. But I’ll be offering some thoughts on the conference when I get back home next week.