If you haven’t yet read the profile of Christos Tsirogiannis by Vernon Silver, you should. Silver wrote a terrific account of the Euphronios Krater called The Lost Chalice, so this extended profile into how Tsirogiannis uses his database, and how auction houses and prosecutors use this information is fascinating. I really recommend you give it a read, but here is a taste:
When he finished clicking through the last of Christie’s 109 lots, Tsirogiannis was ready to dive into his archive. It’s meticulously organized so he can fetch images from one of three major dealers, including Medici, and from galleries and smaller dealers whose photos help him reconstruct who owned what and when. Within each of these libraries, he has folders for about 10 object types, amphorae in one, kylix drinking cups in another. Those in turn are categorized by shape and color. Figurines are sorted by animal type—horses are with horses, boars with boars.
To vet the catalog, he’d made a list of about 15 suspect lots. Then, one at a time, he looked for matches. The laptop screen was filled 14 across with thumbnails from the Medici folder, and Tsirogiannis’s eyes darted left to right as he scrolled through in an intricate game of Memory, where players turn over two cards at a time looking for a pair.
He’d barely begun when he needed to run to a lunch meeting. He would continue the search that evening; we could meet the next day, he said. As we prepared to leave, he deleted the downloaded portion of the archive. Tsirogiannis’s curiosity proved overwhelming. As soon as I left, he logged back in. “These are things that always have priority for me,” he told me later. What he found made him late for his appointment. By midnight, he’d alerted law enforcement on two continents.
Police in Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy have announced arrests in a four year investigation named Operation Demetra. The name for the investigation has a bit of history, which it may be worth remembering. Demeter, the ancient Greek Earth goddess was likely depicted in the notorious Getty goddess. The Getty mistakenly referred to her as Aphrodite.
As many of you likely know, the story of this and other illicit acquisitions by the Getty, and the tax fraud perpetrated to pay for much of this is described in the terrific book, Chasing Aphrodite. In a nutshell: The statue was first smuggled from Morgantina. Looters broke her into pieces, and it was acquired by the Getty in 1988 for $18 million. While at the Getty, it was described as the finest classical piece of sculpture in North America, perhaps even outside of the Mediterranean and Europe. She was brazenly referred to for a while as the Getty Goddess, before ultimately being returned to the small archaeological museum at Aidone after evidence of the statue’s theft and connection to organized crime groups in Sicily helped build a case for return. Aidone and this part of Sicily are covered in wheat fields, the choice of using Demeter for a codename, goddess of the Earth and the wheat harvest was certainly intentional.
These objects were likely looted from archaeological sites in Sicily, and the investigation recovered an astounding 25,000 objects including coins, statues, and pottery fragments.
One of the individuals arrested was Thomas William Veres in London, a man of Hungarian origin antiques dealer who has long been involved in trafficking illicit material from Sicily to other parts of Europe and abroad. Police told reporters that:
The London art merchant Thomas William Veres commanded a transnational criminal holding that was able to traffic considerable quantities of Sicilian archaeological artifacts . . .
He was prominently featured in a case of another Sicilian antiquity, the Gold Phiale case. In 1991 Veres helped transport an ancient Greek Phiale (plate) to Switzerland where it was sold to Michael Steinhardt for $1.2 million. Veres was referred to by Federal prosecutors as a Swiss art dealer. Veres and another art dealer, Robert Haber, revealed how little faith they had in the licitness of the gold plate when in the purchase agreement with Steinhardt thy agreed that:
If the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser.
Steinhardt’s customs agent failed to accurately disclose the purchase price and the location of the plate, which ended up setting an important precedent for customs forfeitures and the use of civil forfeiture by Federal prosecutors in the United States for securing the return of illicit material.
It likely came as no surprise then to many who follow the antiquities trade that the name William Veres appeared in the news reports of arrests stemming from Operation Demetra. That investigation reveals a massive looting, smuggling, and counterfeit operation involving the movement of authentic and inauthentic material across borders, where histories were fabricated, and sales routinely took place.
“sequestrare l’Atleta di Lisippo ovunque si trovi”
Translation: Seize the Athlete of Lysippos, wherever it is found.
A court in Pesaro on June 8 has for the third time ordered the seizure of the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, currently in the possession of the Getty Foundation. The Getty Foundation purchased the Bronze in 1977 for approximately $4 million dollars. The Getty has maintained that the Bronze was found in international waters in the Adriatic Sea. Italy though has long sought the return of the Bronze on the grounds that the fishermen who pulled the Bronze up in their nets were required under Italian law to report the discovery, that the Bronze became subject to Italian heritage law when it was brought ashore, and that it was abused and smuggled before ultimately being acquired by the Getty.
The difficulty of course will be can an Italian court successfully seek the assistance of an American court to enforce this forfeiture order. I have argued that yes, it could. Italy via its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States could trigger a transnational forfeiture that if successful would be a powerful tool on the part of nations of origin.
The Getty though may decide to appeal this decision, and I’ll defer to Italian attorneys the question of whether those appeals have merit. To be sure though, Italian officials are continuing to aggressively use their own courts to seek the return of this rare Bronze.
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.
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.”
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.
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.