On those 5,000 Antiquities Seized in Rome

archeological treasures at the Terme di Diocleziano museum in Rome, Italy.  Photograph: Claudio Peri/EPA
Just a portion of the antiquities on display at the Terme di Diocleziano museum in Rome, Italy.
Photograph: Claudio Peri/EPA

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?

 

 

Two Ways of Policing Heritage

A red-figured krater withdrawn from auction at Christie's in Dec. 2014 after Christos Tsirogannis connected the image to David Swingler, who has been investigated by US Customs Authorities and was sentenced to prison in absentia in Italy
A red-figured krater withdrawn from auction at Christie’s in Dec. 2014 after Christos Tsirogannis connected the image to David Swingler, who has been investigated by US Customs Authorities and was sentenced to prison in absentia in Italy

Christie’s had an auction of antiquities on Dec. 11, and some of the objects up for auction were ‘matched’ with photographic archives seized from dealers and collectors who deal in illicit material. These matches have always left me a little uneasy. If an object is matched, it means it is most likely looted. But the auction houses have no good way to match these objects because these photo archives are closely held by law enforcement agencies and a group of researchers. There are claims that the auction houses could go directly to Greek or Italian officials and have these objects checked against these databases for free. As Christos Tsiogiannis answered when asked by Catherine Schofield Sezgin: “The auction houses, and the members of the international antiquities market in general, always have the opportunity to contact the Italian and Greek authorities directly, before the auctions. These authorities will check, for free, every single object for them.”  But it seems they do not do this. Objects are invariably withdrawn after a match, where they disappear back into collections in most cases, and we are left with little progress in stemming future looting and protection of sites. And so each new antiquities auction continues the cycle of public shaming and return. But the looting continues.

That was the core point of a paper I presented last year in a meeting of ISPAC and the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime in Courmayeur. Some of the papers have been collected and published by Stefano Manacorda and Arianna Visconti. I’ve posted my short paper “Two Ways of Policing Cultural Heritage” on SSRN. From the introduction:

The title of this paper is, of course, a play upon the title of Professor John Henry Merryman’s well-known essay which laid out the ways of conceptualizing cultural property law there are two ways to think about cultural objects. One as part of a national patrimony, and second as a piece of our collective cultural heritage. In a similar way there are two ways to envision jurisdiction of cultural heritage crime. Criminal law can of course apply to policing the individuals responsible for stealing, looting, selling and transporting illicit art and antiquities. Or, law enforcement resources can be used to secure the successful return of stolen art, and the protection of sites. The criminal law can regulate people; and it can also regulate things. In order to produce meaningful change in the disposition of art, it must do both effectively. Focusing on art at the expense of criminal deterrence for individuals is an incomplete strategy.
Fincham, Derek, Two Ways of Policing Cultural Heritage (December 10, 2013). Courmayeur Mont Blanc, Italy, edited by Stefano Manacorda, Arianna Visconti, Ed. ISPAC 2014 . Available at SSRN:http://ssrn.com/abstract=2536542

 

Church theft of a Guercino in Modena

"Madonna with the saints John the Evangelist and Gregory the Wonderworker", 1639, by the Italian artist Guercino
“Madonna with the saints John the Evangelist and Gregory the Wonderworker”, 1639, by the Italian artist Guercino

Holidays and festivals always bring increased risks to works of art. Perhaps because the usual traffic of locals and visitors is reduced, and there aren’t as many who might notice something that would be odd or uncharacteristic. I’m not sure if that is one of the contributing factors to the theft of this Guercino depicting St. John the Evangelist and the Madonna. The work was stolen from the Church of San Vincenzo in Modena Italy earlier this week. Whether the start of Italy’s Ferragosto holiday this week led to the Church being more at risk is just speculation on my part, but may have been a contributing factor. Perhaps the biggest factor is the lack of funding at the Church, and the inability to pay the bills on a security system installed to protect the works in the church. As reported by Hannah McGivern in the Art Newspaper:

According to the parish priest Gianni Gherardi, who reported the theft, the church could not afford to insure the painting. Its alarm system—fitted during a renovation in the mid-1990s that was financed by the local bank Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena—had been inactive since the funds dried up, said Monsignor Giacomo Morandi, the vicar of the archdiocese. 

Church theft is a difficult problem in Italy, with so many churches filled with so much amazing art, hardening all these sites to thwart theft is an expensive and difficult undertaking. Church art theft usually involves smaller minor objects like candlesticks, smaller paintings of lesser value, and other ecclesiastical art. This theft appears to be of a much higher profile. This high profile of course makes it more of a headache for the thieves. There is no legitimate market any time soon for this work.

 

Corporate donors funding preservation in Italy

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome
The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome

There has been an upswing in the use of corporate funds to preserve and rehabilitate some of the World’s great cultural heritage sites in Italy. Gaia Piangiani and Jim Yardley report for the New York Times:

While private-public partnerships are common in the United States and many other countries, the government has traditionally been responsible for maintaining historical sites in Italy, and even today some historians and preservationists worry that the shift could lead to crass commercialization. Critics complain that companies have exploited cultural sites by commandeering them for elaborate dinners or the display of luxury advertisements.

Indignation ran high in Florence after it was discovered that city officials had allowed Morgan Stanley to hold a dinner inside a 14th-century chapel for a rental price of $27,000. Florence’s mayor doubled the rent to $54,000 after the outcry, but some argued that price was not the core issue.

“There are sacred places where one can simply not hold a dinner,” said Salvatore Settis, an expert in cultural heritage law and a former director of the J. Paul Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. “Not even for four million euros” ($5.4 million).

Many preservationists were also outraged that Rome’s mayor allowed the Rolling Stones to rent Circus Maximus for an outdoor concert last month.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has often spoken about the need to enlist private companies to underwrite work at sites like Pompeii, where more than $137 million in European Union funds has already been spent. In May Mr. Franceschini, the culture minister, announced a new tax deduction intended to encourage private-sector donations for the restoration and preservation of museums, archives, libraries and theaters.

To many other nations this kind of corporate assistance seems relatively benign. So long as the sites receive much-needed care, there seems to be little potential harm. The Mausoleum of Augustus, right around the corner from the Ara Pacis in Rome, is badly in need of some attention, and may it with a donation from a Saudi Prince.

Gaia Pianigiani & Jim Yardley, To Some Dismay, Italy Enlists Donors to Repair Monuments, The New York Times, Jul. 15, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/arts/design/to-some-dismay-italy-enlists-donors-to-repair-monuments.html.

Updating the forfeiture of the Fano Athlete

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa
Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa

Mike Boehm of the L.A. Times reports on the current status of the Fano Athlete/Getty Bronze dispute. A division of Italy’s High Court (Corta Suprema di Cassazione) is expected to weigh an appeal of an earlier forfeiture order this week. I’m quoted as the lone dissenting voice arguing the Bronze should be returned to Italy. I think a return is the just thing to do when you consider the violations of Italian patrimony laws which occurred when the Bronze was smuggled ashore, hidden in violation of Italian law, and then allegedly treated very badly before being smuggled to Brazil, then conserved in Europe before the Getty acquisition.

For a full discussion of my understanding of the history of the case and the reasons why I think Italy stands a good chance of having the Bronze returned soon, you can have a look at my forthcoming piece in volume 32 of the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal.

Both Stephen Urice and Patty Gerstenblith seem to see the case differently:

“I’m baffled by this,” said Stephen Urice, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law who’s an expert on art law and cultural property law. “Even if you apply our ethical norms today, I don’t see a problem.”

Patty Gerstenblith, a leading advocate of protecting archaeological sites and sending looted art back to nations of origin, said that “Victorious Youth” shouldn’t be considered a looted work and needn’t be returned. Italy never had a legally valid ownership claim, she said, because the statue wasn’t found in Italian waters or on Italian soil, and it wasn’t made or owned by modern Italy’s Roman and Etruscan forebears.

Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and director of its Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law, said the fishermen who netted the statue did break Italian laws by hiding their find instead of reporting it to authorities. So did the original buyers who shipped “Victorious Youth” out of Italy without a proper export permit.

Although those illegalities raise ethical questions that might make a museum in 2014 steer clear of a purchase, Gerstenblith said, they have no bearing on the fishermen’s right to have owned and sold the bronze statue, or the Getty’s right to keep what it bought.

In any case, the forfeiture effort is persistent, and the Italian authorities seem inclined to use every tool at their disposal to help secure a return, including cultural diplomacy, mutual assistance treaties, and domestic Italian court proceedings.
Mike Boehm, The Getty’s “Victorious Youth” is subject of a custody fight, latimes.com (May 7, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-getty-bronze-20140507-story.html.
Derek Fincham, Transnational Forfeiture of the “Getty” Bronze, 32 Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal (2014).

My article on Italian Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze

My article “Transnational forfeiture of the Getty Bronze” examining the Italian efforts to forfeit the Getty Bronze will be appearing in Volume 32 of Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal (forthcoming, 2014) soon. Later in May the Italian Court of Cassation is expected to perhaps give a final ruling.

In the meantime here is my analysis of how Italy could successfully use its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States to secure repatriation.

From the Introduction:

Italy has been engaged in an ongoing fifty-year struggle to recover an ancient Greek bronze. The “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” has a remarkable story. It was lost at sea in the Adriatic in antiquity; found by chance in international waters; smuggled into the Italian seaside village of Fano; hidden first in a bathtub, then a cabbage field; smuggled and hidden in Brazil; later conserved in Germany and London; and ultimately purchased by the Getty Museum only months after the death of the Trust’s namesake, J. Paul Getty. Getty refused to allow his museum to purchase the statue during his lifetime without a thorough and diligent inquiry into the title history of the Bronze, a step the trustees of the Getty did not take prior to acquisition of the Bronze.

The question is not whether the Bronze was illicit when the Getty trustees made the decision to acquire it. It most certainly was, and still is. The question now is whether the Getty will be able to continue to retain possession. In the press and in cultural property circles, the Bronze is considered nearly un-repatriatable given this convoluted history. But an Italian forfeiture action in Pesaro has quietly set in motion a means by which Italy might repatriate the Bronze through a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. This transnational forfeiture marks the creation of a useful new tool in the struggle to repatriate looted and stolen cultural objects. And perhaps more importantly, the dispute signals a continuing trend reflecting the importance of domestic law in source nations in cultural heritage law.

“Getty” Bronze Appeal Today in Rome

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa
Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa

Today Italy’s Corte di Cassazione will hear the Getty’s appeal in the dispute over this “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth”. The Bronze was acquired by the Getty in 1977, and has been a cornerstone of its collection. But in 2007 a new seizure suit was brought in Pesaro. The most recent ruling ordered the Bronze seized, wherever it is located.

The question then must be, if the High Court in Rome upholds the seizure, will an American court enforce it? I wrote an essay titled “Transnational Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze“, soon to be published in the Cardozo Art & Entertainment Law Journal, examining this question.

My conclusion is that yes, the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the United States and Italy, in conjunction with U.S. law, does provide for U.S. assistance in an American court. The law in question, 28 U.S.C. § 2467, provides a framework for enforcing these foreign orders. But the Office of International Affairs in the State Department still has discretion in determining whether to bring suit to help enforce these foreign orders. The only guidance given in the law is to let the “interest of Justice” guide the decision made by the official. The Getty no doubt will be arguing today in Rome in the hopes that the case ends today before Italy inevitably requests assistance from the State Department.

Transnational Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze, Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal (forthcoming, 2014).

Italy protests against selling antiquities to satisfy Symes’s debts

ivory mask
An ivory head of Apollo, looted in 1995 by Pietro Casasanta near the Baths of Claudius, and seized from Robin Symes in 2003 and repatriated to Italy.

Italy is making another great push for information and cooperation in recovering material from Robin Symes. Why is Italy pressuring the Government and not the estate of Symes? Because the objects may be used to satisfy a tax judgment. These illicit antiquities were seized not because they  have illicit histories—though allegedly many of them do. Rather these objects are being held for an eventual sale that may be used to satisfy tax obligations. The disagreement over the objects sets up a conflict between Italy and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs which is holding the objects. The issue is the tax bill owed by Symes’s firm which is now in liquidation. The Art Newspaper reports that the liquidator attempting to satisfy Symes’s creditors, BDO, may be considering selling the antiquities to Abu Dhabi in order to help that nation build its collection of classical antiquities. And Italy is threatening to sue the liquidating firm.

Robin Symes is an interesting figure. He once held the dubious distinction of being London’s most widely-known antiquities dealer. In a short piece for Culture in Context, Peter Watson describes the fall of Symes (hosted by the folks at Trafficking Culture). It began at a rented villa in Umbria in 1999:

At a dinner . . . hosted by (the late) Mr. Leon Levy, a noted collector of antiquities, and his wife Shelby White, Mr. Symes’s partner, Mr. Christo Michaelides, fell down some steps, hit his head on a radiator, and died in hospital the next day.

Symes and Michaelides had lived together as a couple since the 1970s, but Michaelides’s Greek family considered the men business partners as well, and sought a portion of the antiquities business. This led to a great deal of court scrutiny into Symes and the objects he was buying and selling. Watson reported in 2004:

So far, this case had been a civil case. However, during the course of the (interlocutory) hearings, it had transpired that Mr Symes, who had originally
admitted to storing his assets (mainly antiquities) in five warehouses, in fact had twenty-nine ware-houses spread across London, Switzerland and New York. Becoming sceptical of Mr Symes’s openness in disclosing his assets, the lawyers for the Greek family, Messrs Lane and Partners, began to examine some of Mr Symes’s transactions closely. Mr Symes was followed, and the paperwork for his transactions double-checked. During this scrutiny it emerged that Mr Symes had sold, or said that he had sold, a Granodior-ite Egyptian statue of Apollo to a company in America, Philos Partners, of Cheyenne, Wyoming. When Lane and Partners examined this transaction, it turned out that Philos was a fictitious company, and that the address Mr Symes had said he sent the statue to did not exist. It later transpired that the statue had in fact been sold to Sheikh Al-Tani in the Arabian Gulf.

That is only the first part of the story, which culminated in Michaelides’s family establishing that he had a legal claim to half of Symes’s assets and led Symes to declare bankruuptcy. Of interest to the Italians is the role Symes played in operating between Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici. The objects which passed through Robin Symes carry a strong suspicion of illegality. This illegality though runs up against the obligations that Symes owes to his creditors and the tax authorities. The Art Newspaper reports that Maurizio Fiorilli has requested information about 700 objects which were seized from Symes, including Greek pottery, marble sculpture, teracotta sculpture, and other objects. Archaeologists are rightfully upset that these tainted objects may be sold on the market.

Christos Tsirogiannis tells the Art Newspaper:

“It’s a scandal for the British government,” . . . . Tsirogiannis says that he requested access to the collection as part of his research for his PhD at the University of Cambridge but that BDO failed to respond to his queries. “It would be good to have official announcements from all the governments concerned about the Symes case, so that everyone can learn the whole truth about the key questions: why are the objects identified by the Italian state not being sent to Italy? Are the other governments concerned claiming any objects too? If so, how many and which are they?”

 

Will the ultimate sale of this material continue to embarrass the British Government? Or will Italy be able to secure repatriation of some or all of this material. I would not bet against Italy and Maurizio Fiorilli…

  1. Italy threatens to sue UK firm over ancient loot The Art Newspaper, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Italy-threatens-to-sue-UK-firm-over-ancient-loot/31445.
  2. Watson, Peter. “The fall of Robin Symes.” Culture Without Context newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, Issue 15, Autumn 2004.

Sicily says 23 works won’t travel

A depiction of Scylla, one of the objects from the "Morgantina Silver" collection recently repatriated
A depiction of Scylla, one of the objects from the “Morgantina Silver” collection recently repatriated

A good reminder that even when loan agreements are crafted, they don’t always produce a good deal for the source of this art. Sicily’s regional government has declared that 23 works of art should not go abroad for loans unless there are ‘extraordinary circumstances’. The list includes important paintings by Caravaggio, but also some antiquities, many of which have been the subject of recent disputes, including the Morgantina Silver, La dea di Aidone, the Gold Phiale, and other objects.

The reason for the ban? Loans are only going one way. When these objects are loaned abroad there is not sufficient art sent to Sicily. In essence it’s a one-way exchange, at least from Sicily’s point of view. If art is to be a good ambassador, the transfer should go both ways.

Hugh Eakin reports in the NYT that:

In recent years, Sicily, long a victim of looting, has gained back some of the most prized ancient art in the world, including a seven-foot limestone and marble Greek goddess from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But many of the works reside in small regional museums that struggle to draw visitors. According to a report this year in the Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian daily, the museum in Aidone, which houses the silver and the cult statue, received 13,410 visitors in 2012.

A new administration that took power in Sicily in the last year has expressed disappointment with existing loan practices. In 2005, for example, the Sicilian region sent, on its own initiative, three Antonello paintings to the Met for a much publicized exhibition. Now, those three paintings are on the “immovable” list.

“It’s perfectly understandable,” said Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Met who negotiated the museum’s 2006 restitution accord with Italy. “Sicily doesn’t have the depth. If you take away one of these top pieces, you’ve created a big gap.”

  1. Hugh Eakin, Citing Inequity, Sicily Bans Loans of 23 Artworks, N.Y. Times, Nov. 26, 2013.

United States v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment

The fresco fragment from a tomb in Paestum, via chasingaphrodite.comThe Chasing Aphrodite blog has the story of a noteworthy new federal forfeiture involving billionaire hedge-fund manager and buyer of antiquities, Michael Steinhardt. At issue is this lovely fresco allegedly looted from Paestum. The name Steinhardt will likely be a familiar one as he was a claimant who lost another federal forfeiture action over the Gold Phiale, which helped set useful precedents for federal prosecutors.

The Federal prosecutor’s complaint alleges the importation of the fresco violated US customs law, §1595a, which prohibits the importation of objects contrary to law. The fresco was part of a FedEx shipment into Newark in 2011 that was detained by Customs and Border Protection. the shipment had a customs declaration form, but again, just like with the Godl Phiale case there appears to been misstatements on the customs form with respect to the country of origin for this object. The form declared the origin to be Macedonia, while the complaint alleges the fragment was taken from a tomb in Paestum.

The provenance for the object claims that the fresco was acquired by Lens Tschanned from a Swis art gallery in 1959, and it had been in his home from then until April of 2011. The fresco had no export permissions.

Customs and Border Protection contacted the Italian Carabinieri, and the Tutela Patrimonio Cultrale was able to identify the object as the pediment of a painted tomb north of Paestum in present-day Salerno. This site is known as the necropolis of Andriuolo. The complaint alleges that the figures on the fresco in question are painted in mirror image to another fresco from tomb 53 suggesting they may have likely been installed on different sides of the same tomb.

Here’s the mirror image fresco from tomb 53, which is not on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Paestum. Federal prosecutors appended both of these images in the complaint:

The Mirror image fresco from Paestum
The Mirror image fresco from Paestum

Chasing Aphrodite gives some background of the company Mat Artcare, based in Switzerland:

Mat Securitas is the same Swiss shipping service that transported the Getty Museum’s looted goddess of Aphrodite from Switzerland to London. (See Chasing Aphrodite p. 148).Their motto is “Safe. Discrete. Reliable.”

Will Steinhardt litigate this dispute as aggressively as he did in the 1990’s with the Gold Phiale forfeiture? The Federal complaint makes an extremely compelling case that this fragment was looted from a tomb in Paestum. It’s connection to macedonia seems ludicrous when compared to the other pediment which was excavated and is on display at the museum there.

Complaint, United States v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment, CV 136286 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).

Steinhardt Redux: Feds Seize Fresco Looted from Italian World Heritage Site, Destined for New York Billionaire CHASING APHRODITE, Nov. 18, 2013.