Princeton Curator the Focus of Criminal Investigation

In 2007 Princeton University Art Museum agreed to return four antiquities to Italy, and hold four others on loan for four years.  This came during a wave of negotiated returns from American museums like the MFA Boston, the Met, the Getty, and others. 

Now the N.Y. Times is reporting that Italian prosecutors are focusing on Michael Padgett, an antiquities curator at Princeton University along with Edoardo Almagià, an antiquities dealer. 

It should come as no surprise that Italian authorities are investigating Almagià, as ICE agents seized “archaeological material” from his apartment in 2006.  More surprising perhaps are the charges brought against Padgett, the curator at Princeton.  Charges were brought against Marion True, a curator at the Getty, whose trial has been slowly progressing for the last five years.  There were indications or perhaps only assumptions that she would be the lone curator charged. 

This should be an interesting investigation to watch develop.  The True investigation has certainly had a dramatic impact on the antiquities trade. 

From a practical matter, I wonder what was contained in the settlement agreements with Italy and these museums.  Was there no discussion of immunity for curators who may have acquired some of these objects which are being returned?   

  1. Hugh Eakin, Italy Focuses on a Princeton Curator in an Antiquities Investigation, The New York Times, June 2, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/03/arts/design/03curator.html?pagewanted=all (last visited Jun 3, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Francesco Rutelli on the Euphronios Krater

File:Villa Giulia cortile 1040216-7.JPGThis Saturday I participated in the ARCA Conference on the study of art crime in Amelia Italy.  I’ll have a lot more to say about my time in Italy, ARCA, and the masters course generally in the coming days, but I wanted to share one of the highlights.

One of the speakers, and the recipient of one of the ARCA awards was Francesco Rutelli, former Culture Minister of Italy.  Following his short discussion there was time for a couple of questions, and I was able to ask about his thoughts on the current disposition and position of the Euphronios Krater, on display here at the Villa Giulia.  Michael Kimmelman had an interesting piece last week in the New York Times, arguing “Italy’s biggest prize in the war against looting antiquities went on view recently at the Villa Giulia in Rome” but that “Italians didn’t seem to care much”.  I found that to be pretty typical, as an American visiting Rome, itis not really easy to see how or it can be quite difficult to find where the Krater, or many of the other returned objects are currently on display, particularly in a city and country with so many beautiful objects and heritage sites, wich  which truly is an enormous open-air museum. 

I asked Rutelli about that, about how Italian’s don’t seem all that interested in the Krater and how not many people are visiting it.  He responded with what I thought was a pretty thoughtful answer.  He stated that the piece is in “the correct place” and that in “scientific terms it is correct”.  It is an Etruscan object, and the Villa Giulia is the Etruscan museum—arguing that if the piece had been properly and legally excavated from Cerveteri, this is where the piece would have been displayed.

He did acknowledge though, that there may have been problems with “publicity and information”, a problem he traces to the current government, which he argued “should do more”, and these repatriated objects should all be displayed together as part of a meaningful message. 

He had a lot of interesting things to say, and the presentation of the award, and the audience of ARCA Masters students, interested observers, and reporters gave him an opportunity to look back on the repatriations of the last few years; and of course he was the public face of much of the negotiations between Italy and many North American museums.  Though he did point out that it was not just North American institutions.  Repatriations were also reached with Japanese and other European institutions—a fact often overlooked.  I’ll have much more to say about his other comments, which included Robin Symes, and a kind of a response to James Cuno, in the next few days.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Italian Authorities Showcase Recovered Antiquities

Italian authorities yesterday displayed two medieval frescos and other objects recovered during antiquities investigations reports the AP and ANSA.  The medieval frescos were recovered as a part of the investigation into Marion True, which were found at the home of a Greek woman, Despoina Papadimitriou on the island of Schoinoussa in 2006.  Also displayed were some of the objects recovered from Operation Phoenix in which “goods were handed over to Italian authorities by two Lebanese brothers who operated a Geneva antiquities gallery.” 

More impressive work from the Carabinieri, but will there be an end to the cycle of looting, seizures and arrests? 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The True/Hecht Trial Continues

The ongoing trial of Marion True and Robert Hecht continued last week in Rome.  It is worth remembering perhaps that this prosecution began in 2005 and alleges True and Hecht conspired to traffic in illegal antiquities. One of the important pieces of evidence are the pictures seized in a 1995 raid of a Geneva warehouse. 

A number of arguments and defenses still need to be presented, and as Elisabetta Povoledo reported on Friday in the NY Times, True and her lawyers intend to defend the acquisition and challenge the prosecution’s evidence on each object.  At the trial True said “If ever there was an indication of proof of an object coming from a certain place, we would deaccession it and return the object, regardless of the statute of limitations”.  The difficulty is the two very different views of what this “proof” may entail.  True will argue that there was no direct evidence for many of these objects that would indicate they were looted; however the prosecution will surely counter that there must have been some indication that these objects could not have just appeared out of thin air, and these masterpieces were certainly looted.  The trade itself capitalizes on these different views by hiding and shielding from view the history of an object. 

There are no indications the trial will conclude any time soon, however when it does, one wonders if there is a  possibility that the defendants may earn a not-guilty verdict.  What consequences might that not-guilty verdict mean?  I think to avoid the possibility of other kinds of acquisitions and prosecutions in the future, we should hold institutions to a higher standard of good faith, and the requirements for this should be made plain for museums, dealers and judges to evaluate future acquisitions. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

True/Hecht Trial Continues Slowly

The trial of Marion True and Robert Hect continued last week in Rome.  The prosecution is now in its fourth year.  From the New York Times:

Focus shifted to the dealer, Robert Hecht, who has been accused along with Ms. True of conspiracy to traffic in antiquities looted from Italian soil. Both defendants deny the charges. Daniela Rizzo, an archaeologist, presented documents and photographs of artifacts that prosecutors contend passed through Mr. Hecht’s hands. Mr. Hecht’s lawyer said his client disputed the case made by prosecutors for the provenance of each object. Several objects sold by Mr. Hecht to institutions like the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been returned to Italy.

 Italian court proceedings can be extremely slow, so this may not be that extraordinary.  One wonders at this point though, what are the consequences for Italy and other nations of origin if the defendants are not guilty? 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Repatriation and Universal Museums

Drake Bennett has a good article in yesterday’s Boston Globe titled Finders, keepers. It’s a lengthy overview of the back and forth between museums and nations of origin regarding looted artifacts, and other objects taken during colonial times. It’s worth a read, as it features comments from James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ricardo Elia from the archeology department at Boston University, and others.

Cuno gets featured prominently, perhaps because of his strong arguments that many objects should remain in museums in market nations. He also extends the argument of the late Paul Bator, who in his seminal “An Essay on the International Trade in Art” 34 Stanford Law Review 275 (1982), argued that many restrictions on antiquities, including strong export restrictions serve to increase the black market.

Bennett’s piece is a good overview, and a good introduction to some of the core debates in the antiquities trade. By necessity he paints many of these restitution claims with too broad a brush though. He writes

Along with Italy, the governments of Greece, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Turkey, China, and Cambodia, among others, have pushed to reclaim prized artifacts from collections around the world. They have tightened their laws governing the export of antiquities or intensified the enforcement of existing laws and international agreements; they have made impassioned public cases on the world stage.

I don’t think these nations of origin have in fact increased their domestic legal schemes; in nearly every case he mentions here these nations have had very strong legal regimes for many decades, some dating to the very beginning of the 20th century. Italy for example has a national patrimony law dating to 1939. In some cases they are working more closely with the US State Department under the Cultural Property Implementation Act. However, the main difference is the prominent Italian claims of late, which were the result of one fantastically successful criminal investigation which implicated an Italian dealer named Giacomo Medici, and by association his buyers Robert Hecht, Marion True, the Getty, MFA Boston, and the Met.

This allowed for the return of these implicated objects; of course the claims for return were bolstered by photographic evidence of many of the Nostoi objects, which clearly indicated they were illegally excavated on a massive scale. This is a far different argument than the one for say the return of the Parthenon Marbles, or other objects acquired during colonial times, or for the return of other objects which may have been acquired legitimately. I think we need to be particularly careful not to lump too many of these restitution arguments together, and indeed to be honest about how and why objects are returned. The salient issues remain: how are nations of origin protecting sites domestically, how do market nations respond to illegal activity, how are museums acquiring new objects, and is the market conducting the needed provenance checks? That is the only way to prevent future illegal activity.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Italy, Culture and Politics

Barbie Nadeau has an interesting article online at Newsweek. It makes the same kind of point that a number of commentors, me included, have noticed. Namely, that Italian politicians are often adroit at using Italian heritage for political gain.

Last month Veltroni and Rutelli unveiled another gem on the Palatine Hill: the “Lupercale,” the ancient grotto where, legend has it, a she-wolf nursed Rome’s founder, Romulus, and his twin brother, Remus. The showing of the Lupercale delighted Italians with the suggestion that the legend might be true. But while the romantics were studying the mythology, the cynics were asking questions about just why the finds were being shown off at that time. The grotto, after all, was discovered last January, during the restoration of Augustus’s palace and the iconic collapsed wall. Back then Irene Iacopi, the archeologist in charge of the Palatine Hill, said she discovered the cavern, which is covered with frescoes, niches and seashells, after inserting a 52-foot probe into the ground. So why did it take almost a year for the authorities to make a public announcement about the find?

The answer, it would seem, lies in politics and power. Just days before the showcasing of the Lupercale, Silvio Berlusconi had disclosed his plans to form a new political party that would compete with Rutelli and Veltroni. The news about the grotto, however, effectively eclipsed Berlusconi’s news, leading the former prime minister to describe the timing as “suspect.”

It’s an interesting point I think. But when culture is such an important political issue in Italy, it seems only natural for politicians to manage the news in much the same way the President might shape the news with respect to the economy, the War in Iraq, or other matters.

I do have issues with one claim made in the article though. It is claimed that “Getty Museum curator Marion True went on trial in Rome for conspiracy and receiving stolen artworks for the Los Angeles institution. The trial, which began during Berlusconi’s term and is still ongoing, has directly led to the return of more than 100 artifacts from other American museums that purchased items of questionable provenance, including 40 from the Getty.” I think that may be overstating the importance of the True trial. Certainly it has had an impact, but more important is the concrete Polaroids and other evidence detailed in the Medici Conspiracy. That evidence came as a result of investigation of a theft of objects from Italy which were later traced to Switzerland. That investigation, of which the True prosecution has emerged, is the root cause I think.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com