Why Can’t the Public see the Medici Polaroids

The Euphronios Krater, which passed through Medici

I’ll offer my best guess, and invite any comments below.  First, a little background.  In 1995 authorities seized a number of looted antiquities and photographs from the freeport warehouse of Giacomo Medici.  The investigtion was chronicled in Peter Watson’s The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities–From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums. These photographs continue to play a role when antiquities are auctioned, particularly when auctioned objects correspond to these photographs.  They are released intermittently.  Francesco Rutelli discussed a few of them at the ARCA Conference in July of 2009

 David Gill calls these antiquities “toxic” and cautions dealers and auction houses to perform “ultra-rigorous due diligence searches” when these objects correspond to the Medici polaroids. Mark Durney has confirmed with the Art Loss Register that the Medici archive is registered on its database, but “it only has half of the total number of photographs that were said to have been seized from Medici’s warehouse”.  Mark then asks how many pictures (and more importantly how many discrete objects were photographed): “Were there in fact 4,000 photographs recovered from Medici’s warehouse?”  So we have a rough estimate of some 14,000 images, only some of which may have been included in the Art Loss Register.  Mark asks:

Why have the estimated 14,000 photographs seized from various Swiss warehouses not yet been made available to the public? Clearly, one of Interpol’s intentions when it opened its database to the public in August 2009 was to increase the public’s awareness of a fast-growing problem. Full and open disclosure of significant photographic evidence related to looting and the illicit antiquities trade, such as the Medici archive, would be in the interests of preserving cultural heritage. Only then will we be able to publicly examine the realities and challenges inherent in that goal.

So many of these photographs have not been publicly released. Some may not even have been given to the ALR.  Why not?  I’ll offer my best guess.  Because if there is a publicly available, search-able database of these Medici images, then there is a limited effect to the images.  They can only be used to limit the sale of objects which were actually looted and photographed.  By reserving and holding on to the images, the authorities now have a kind of  “penumbra” to impact the market for the antiquities which have been photographed, but also any object which might plausibly have passed through Medici’s warehouse. 

But this causes its own problems.  There are not really any negative consequences when an auction house puts an object up for sale and then is asked to withdraw it.  There may be some negative publicity, but surely this must be factored into the cost of auctioning these objects.  What a mess of a market. 

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

2 thoughts on “Why Can’t the Public see the Medici Polaroids”

  1. Derek,
    I agree with you that not all of the objects are definitively “illicit” hence why a portion (i.e. the illicit objects) of the photos have been released. Certainly, it is ingenious on law enforcement’s part and quite timely that the other so called Polaroids (and those associated with Symes) leak out when there are antiquities auctions at the major houses. Ultimately, is this the best way to approach the problem, or are there other solutions in which all stakeholders involved (i.e. the public, academics, law enforcement, dealers) can be more proactive and collaborative in their respective efforts to reduce looting and the illicit trade?

  2. Derek- Judged on David Gill’s blog, the public may not have access to the images, but academics hostile to collecting might– all for the greater good as someone in the Italian Cultural Ministry may believe at least.


    Peter Tompa

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