Italy reached an agreement with the Glyptotek

Contents of a tomb from the Sabine Hills, north of Rome
Contents of a tomb from the Sabine Hills, north of Rome

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:

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Cornell will repatriate 10,000 clay tablets

Jason Felch reported for the LA Times art blog that Cornell University is slated to return an astounding 10,000 clay tablets to Iraq. Some date to the fourth millennium BCE. The collection was donated by Jonathan Rosen. Rosen was a business partner of Robert Hecht for a time. Hecht’s name will be familiar to many, as he was a dealer with deep connections to many likely-looted antiquities.

Many of the thousands of tablets may have been looted after the 1991 Gulf War. Felch reports that one subsection of the tablets were valued at $50,000 when they were imported; but received a whopping $900,000 tax deduction when they were gifted to Cornell in 2000. That in a nutshell is the sad tale of how looted antiquities can pay big for wealthy collectors.

But also, neither Cornell nor Rosen will discuss how these tablets were acquired, or much of anything about their ownership history. Leading to the likelihood that some or all of the objects are stolen, looted, or even fakes.

From the piece:

Harold Grunfeld, attorney for Jonathan Rosen, said all of the tablets “were legally acquired” and that the federal investigation found “no evidence of wrongdoing.” He said the tablets at issue were donated by Rosen’s late mother, Miriam.

“It has always been the Rosen family’s intent that these tablets reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research and for the benefit of the public as a vast informational tool in explaining life in the ancient world,” Grunfeld said.

The Iraqi government requested the return of the tablets last year, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Binghamton, N.Y., is brokering the transfer.

“We’re not accusing anyone of a crime, but we believe they should be returned,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Miro Lovric.

Cornell officials declined to comment pending a formal announcement but issued a statement saying that the university “appreciates the opportunity it has had to participate in the preservation and study of these invaluable historical artifacts and welcomes the opportunity to continue this work in participation with the U.S. and Iraqi governments.”

 

  1. Jason Felch, Cornell to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3, 2013.

Hecht Trial Ends With a Whimper as Well

“I am not proud to say that Italian justice is slow. It is mortifying.”

So says Paolo Grigio Ferri, the prosecutor who helped build the case against Marion True and Robert Hecht, and also helped secure the return of many objects looted from Italy in recent decades. He was referencing the trial of antiquities dealer Hecht which has ended in Rome as a panel of three judges ruled the five-year statute of limitations expired. This was the same anticlimactic result which ended the trial of Marion. True and Hecht will not have the courtroom certainty of guilt or innocence attached to their names, though many of the important objects they acquired and exchanged have been returned to Italy.

From Elisabetta Povoledo’s report:

The court ruling, issued Monday, came in response to a request from Mr. Hecht’s lawyer to dismiss the case because the statute of limitations on the charges had elapsed in 2011. The lawyer, Alessandro Vannucci, said he had hoped the trial would fully exonerate his client, who has always maintained his innocence, “but it was cut short.” This decision “does not do Bob justice,” he said, using Mr. Hecht’s nickname. The judges did not express an opinion on culpability or innocence. But they ruled that a series of objects that had been confiscated from Mr. Hecht’s homes should return to their “rightful owner,” which was identified as the Italian state, a decision Mr. Vannucci said he would contest.

  1. Elisabetta Povoledo, Italian Trial of American Antiquities Dealer Comes to an End, ArtsBeat, January 18, 2012, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/18/italian-trial-of-american-antiquities-dealer-comes-to-an-end/ (last visited Jan 18, 2012).
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

Update on the True/Hecht Trial in Rome

Over the weekend, Elisabetta Povoledo of the New York Times updated the antiquities trial underway in Rome. Daniela Rizzo, an archaeologist who featured prominently in Peter Watson’s “The Medici Conspiracy” testified that the antiquities trade “was a sophisticated method of laundering,” in which private collectors would acquire looted antiquities and donate them to museums.

As Povoledo states, “None [of the private antiquities collectors] are on trial here. None have been legally charged with any wrongdoing. Nor do Italian prosecutors contend that the collectors had evidence that certain objects had been looted. Yet the prosecutors have clearly adopted a strategy of calling attention to collectors, especially well-heeled Americans, with the implicit message that every player in the global antiquities trade is within their sights.”

Apparently the prosecutors are attempting to send an international message to collectors: check your provenance or risk future prosecutions. That seems a noble goal at the macro level. However in this case, the defense attorney’s are angry at this tactic as Francesco Isolabella, one of True’s attorney’s said it was beyond Ms. Rizzo’s purview to “come up with inductive or deductive theories”, and she was making “evaluations that only a prosecutor can make…She should stick to identifying Etruscan vases.” The True/Hecht trial will drag on, but I think there has been a gear-shift in the way the antiquities market seems to operate, at least in some sectors.

Last week, a bronze sculpture of artemis was sold by the Albright-Knox museum for $28.6 million at an auction, a record for both sculpture and antiquities. One of the main factors in the high selling price may have been the sculptures clean provenance, which was purchased from a Manhattan dealer in 1953, long before the 1970 UNESCO Convention which is often used as a benchmark for provenance.

Both the Met and the MFA Boston agreed to return antiquities to Italy. Italy wants the Getty to return 52 objects in its collection, and the Getty has offered to return many of them, but Italy wants all of them back and won’t accept a so-called partial repatriation. Private collectors donated many of these works to these institutions, and in exchange they get considerable tax benefits. If the Hecht/True trial results in a conviction, I would anticipate more prosecutions and threats of prosecutions by other collectors and dealers.

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

Prosecution of Marion True and Robert Hecht Resumes in Italy (UPDATED)


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.

UPDATE:

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.

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

Negotiations Stall between Italy and the Getty

Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s minister for Cultural Heritage, is apparently not pleased with the way negotiations have been going with the Getty museum regarding the return of a number of Italian antiquities, the LA Times reported last week. Giuseppe Proietti, a senior cultural official has said in a recent interview that “The negotiations haven’t made a single step forward…We will not accept partial solutions. I will suggest the Italian government take cultural sanctions against the Getty, suspending all cultural cooperation.” Apparently, such an embargo would have a limited effect, because Italy does not generally loan many objects anyway. A number of papers around the world have picked up this embargo story, including the Australian, and The Times. Its yet more evidence of Italy’s aggressive new strategy to repatriate its antiquities, and prevent their illicit excavation.

Much of the tension here involves a debate between what John Henry Merryman has called cultural nationalists and cultural internationalists. Cultural nationalists generally believe that an object belongs in its context. So in this case, they would argue the Italian antiquities are best enjoyed and appreciated in Italy. On the other hand, Cultural Internationalists generally believe in an open and honorable antiquities market, which allows objects to be bought and sold. In that way, the market moves them to the location where they can best be preserved and studied. Both positions seem reasonable to me, however they are mutually exclusive, and lead to a great deal of contention, mainly between dealers and archaeologists.

The image here is of the new $275 million restoration of the Getty Villa in Malibu, which houses Etruscan, Greek, and Roman antiquities (including many of the objects Italy wants returned). It was patterned after the first-century Roman Villa dei Papiri, which was covered after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and recently redesigned by Jorge Silvetti. I don’t think anyone can argue that this new renovated Villa is not a fantastic venue to exhibit these works. However, does Italy have a stronger claim to them, especially when some of the most valuable antiquities seem very likely to have been looted? The archaeological context surrounding these objects may have told us a great deal. However that contextual information is now lost forever.

Dr. Lorenzo Zucca highlights an interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Review of Books, which helps shed some light on the dispute. The Getty, established in 1953 by J. Paul Getty is one the wealthiest art institution on the planet, boasting assets of $9 billion. In the 1980’s, the Getty pursued a very aggressive antiquities acquisition policy. This has led to the indictment and trial of Marion True, a respected curator of Greek and Roman Art. Italy certainly aims to make an example out of true, and the dealer who is also on trial, Robert Hecht. The California attorney general has also recently concluded an investigation.

It is hard to predict the possible outcome of the negotiations between Italy and the Getty. Italian authorities are certainly elevating the rhetoric in an attempt to shame the Getty into repatriating many of its works. We can debate whether these objects belong in Italy or in Malibu until we are blue in the face. The fact remains, though, that wherever these pieces are, people will come to visit them.

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

Getty Trial Resumes in Italy


The New York Times devoted a short brief on the so-called Getty trial wednesday. After a long summer hiatus, the trial of former Getty Museum curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht continued Wednesday in Rome, with the testimony of Fausto Guarnieri, who once worked for Italy’s art-theft squad. The statue is only on e of the objects at issue in the prosecution of True and Hecht, who are accused of dealing in stolen artifacts. A 1939 Italian law vests title to all unearthed antiquities in the State.

The statue of Aphrodite, pictured here, was purchased for $18 million by the Getty in 1988. It dates from the 5th century BC, near a Greek settlement in Sicily known as Venere di Morgantina. Italian authorities were alerted in 1986 by rival looters, who were angry that the statue had been sold too cheaply. Guarnieri testified that 20 years ago tomb robbers led him to a site in Sicily where the statue had been unearthed.

The trial is a tremendous black eye for the Getty, as the sculpture is a centerpiece of the museum’s antiquities collection in Malibu. True’s defense counsel are arguing that the sale of the statue was met with little official interest by Italian authorities in 1988 when the sale took place. Apparently, the statue was not on the official list of stolen objects when the Getty made official inquiries at the time of the sale. It would have been difficult though, as there was no record of what the statue actually looked like. Prosecutors are relying on scientific data which points to the statue’s origin in Morgantina.

This trial will of course be watched very closely by museums all over the world with Italian antiquities. Though I failed to grasp it when I posted comments about the decision by the Museum of Fine arts in Boston’s decision to return 13 antiquities to Italy, the True prosecution may have been at least part of the impetus behind the decision. Also, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently returned 21 pieces to Italy.

I’m not sure what this prosecution means for the illicit trade. Certainly, it seems likely that museums will be far more careful when they acquire Italian antiquities. However, it seems likely that the looters will continue their work, they just will sell to dealers and individuals rather than museums. Is the public good being served by having these objects in the hands of an individual rather than a museum? Perhaps not; but however nefarious we might believe the actions of True and Hecht were in this case, wasn’t there a tremendous value in allowing the public to view these objects? Its the same kind of argument that Greece and the British Museum have been fighting over for centuries in relation to the Parthenon Sculptures/Elgin Marbles. There are no clear answers. However, the Parthenon Sculptures have been resting in London for centuries now, while the Italian antiquites are a fairly recent acquisition by the Getty. Conversely, the archaeological context was lost when the statue was unearthed twenty years ago. However, was there anything in that soil record about Greek civilization that we don’t already know? We can’t be sure. At the very least, the idea of a museum acquiring a very valuable object which had been looted strikes me as distasteful. It certainly reveals a troubling part of museum acquisition which I suspect the vast majority of visitors are unaware of.

What is certain, is that Italian authorities are pursuing an aggressive policy of pursuing antiquities found/looted/unearthed within its borders. This will likely diminish the prices which sellers of certain questionable objects can expect to receive for their finds in the short-term. But it might increase the price which may be paid for objects with a clean provenance. An unintended consequence may be the decrease in opportunities for visitors and residents California, Boston, and New York to see these examples of Greek and Roman culture.

Perhaps the way forward is an increase in travelling exhibitions, but there are financial, logistical and other drawbacks to that remedy as well. The one thing all parties involved in this prosecution, and the wider debate can certainly agree on, is that these are extremely valuable and beautiful objects.

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