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Murky World of Antiquities Trade

Three men once dominated the hugely profitable commerce in ancient art. Records detail elaborate schemes they allegedly used to sell looted goods.

December 28, 2005|Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch | Times Staff Writers

One was an Italian who got his start peddling trinkets on the streets of Rome. Another was an American expatriate who could close a deal for a Greek vase in six languages. The third was a flashy British dealer whose eye for ancient art dazzled the world's wealthiest clients.

For 40 years, these men dominated the trade in Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. Italian authorities say they were also "promoters and organizers" of a network that spirited looted art out of the Mediterranean and into display cases of leading museums and private collections worldwide.

For 10 years, the Italians have focused on the trio -- largely unknown outside their niche market -- as they have built a criminal case that eventually ensnared one of the men's biggest customers, Marion True, until this fall the curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Court records detailing that investigation, along with internal Getty documents and rare interviews with all three dealers, provide a clear look at the inner workings of a $4-billion-a-year illicit trade that floods the antiquities market.

The men -- Giacomo Medici, Robert E. Hecht Jr. and Robin Symes -- acquired items that had been illegally removed from Italian tombs and used fake ownership histories, rigged auctions and relied on frontmen to sell the objects with a veneer of legitimacy, according to the records and interviews.

Much of the classical ancient art sold in recent decades is believed to have passed through their hands. Italians say they have traced more than a hundred looted artifacts handled by the dealers to the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a dozen other major museums and private collections in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Medici was convicted last year of trafficking in looted art, and described in his sentencing documents as being the mastermind of Italy's trade in looted antiquities. Hecht, an American now on trial with True in Rome, is accused of being Medici's partner and middleman.

Symes, a Briton, is identified in court records as the trio's frontman to high-end clients. Italian authorities say they plan to bring charges against him next year.

Italian prosecutors argue that Medici, Hecht and Symes controlled enough of the trade to drive up prices, in part by selling to each other at auction and sharing the inflated profits when objects were resold.

The prosecutors allege that True conspired with them to acquire illegally excavated artifacts for the Getty. Museum officials have said they never knowingly bought looted artworks. True's attorneys maintain that she is innocent, but say some of the art she acquired may have been looted without her knowing.

In lengthy interviews, each dealer boasted of his role in the antiquities trade but denied trafficking in looted art and scoffed at the notion of a conspiracy.

"That's ridiculous," said Hecht over lunch near his New York apartment. "I bought from Medici, and other people bought from Medici too. I sold a couple objects to Robin Symes. So what?"

"We're all basically competitors," he added.

Today, in part because of the Italian investigation, all three have fallen from prominence.

Symes is bankrupt and was recently released from a London prison, where he served seven months for an unrelated offense. Hecht continues to sell but is on trial in Rome and busy preparing his defense. Medici's business was taken over by competitors during his investigation and trial.


The Wholesaler

Though he claims no blood link to the famous Renaissance dynasty of art patrons, Medici doesn't shy away from the comparison.

"I've never found out if I'm related, but I feel duty-bound to defend this family's name," he said.

At 67, he does so with the vigor of youth.

During an interview in the lobby of a Rome hotel, the dealer spoke unflaggingly about the injustices of the Italian judiciary, sweat pouring from his brow as his hands sketched his defense in the air.

Italian prosecutors described Medici in court documents as a criminal mastermind who managed "a constant flow" of illegally excavated antiquities that were then "smuggled and distributed among the museums and collectors around the world."

"Everyone knew that Giacomo Medici was the boss of the bosses," Pietro Casasanta, a self-described tomb raider, told Italian authorities during their investigation. "Medici was head of the whole trafficking operation. He was like a commander in chief both in Italy and abroad."

The foot soldiers in the underground antiquities trade are tombaroli like Casasanta, who specialized in excavating Roman temples across northern Italy. The tombaroli fan out at night and use shovels, backhoes, even radar, to excavate the tombs that honeycomb Italy's countryside.

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