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.