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Several Museums May Possess Looted Art

Italian prosecutors use photos seized from a convicted trafficker of stolen antiquities to identify dozens of suspect objects.

November 08, 2005|Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writers

Italian authorities have identified more than 100 allegedly looted antiquities at six leading museums in the United States as well as galleries, private collections and museums in Europe and Asia.

According to Italian court records, prosecutors have used a trove of captured Polaroid photographs to trace objects to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Toledo Museum of Art and Princeton University Art Museum, in addition to the J. Paul Getty Museum and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Polaroids, seized in a 1995 raid at the warehouse of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, show antiquities in pieces, encrusted with dirt and unrestored -- proof, the Italians say, that they had been excavated recently, and therefore illegally. Medici was convicted last year in Rome of trafficking in looted art.

The photographs formed the core of Italy's case against Medici and will be used in this month's trial of his two co-defendants, American art dealer Robert E. Hecht Jr. and former J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True.

The Italians have charged True with conspiracy to traffic in illicit Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities after matching 42 pieces shown in the Polaroids to items at the Getty. They are demanding that the antiquities be returned.

They have traced seven objects to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art using photographs and demanded the return of an eighth, the 2,500-year-old Euphronios Krater, one of the museum's most prized antiquities, after gathering new documentary evidence about its origin.

Although the Getty remains the focus of the Italian criminal prosecution, prosecutors said they could use the Polaroids as leverage in negotiations with other museums for the return of objects or as evidence in possible criminal prosecutions or civil actions.

The Italian case against True -- believed to be the first American museum official targeted for prosecution by a foreign government -- has focused attention on antiquities trafficking and renewed debate among museum officials about the ethics of acquiring objects without documented ownership history, or provenance.

Faced with photographic evidence, it also has museums rethinking how best to respond to demands from foreign governments for the return of allegedly stolen items.

Several American museum directors and legal experts said last week in interviews that the Italian case could prove to be a turning point for both the acquisition and return of antiquities.

A 1939 Italian law prohibited the unauthorized removal of antiquities from the country, meaning that any object dug up from tombs or ruins since then and sold without government permission has been illegally excavated and exported.

Although Italy, Greece and other countries have for years sought the return of allegedly looted objects, few of their claims have been supported by as much evidence as the Italians have now amassed, the museum officials said.

Timothy Rub, director of the Cincinnati's Art Museum, said after a meeting of the American Assn. of Museum Directors last week in San Francisco that the Italian case is "a watershed in terms of the public perception" of museums' acquisition practices.

Melissa Rosengard, executive director of the Western Museums Assn., added: "It's a time for soul-searching" by museums.

True's indictment unnerved many museum officials because she had for years been widely regarded as an ethical leader on antiquities issues. Her sudden resignation last month after revelations that she had bought a Greek vacation home with help from an antiquities dealer also troubled many in the field.

Ironically, it was True who, before her indictment, helped the Italians trace the objects depicted in the Polaroids, records show.

True was shown the Polaroids during a 2001 deposition taken in Los Angeles by the Italians. Prosecutor Paolo Ferri asked her at one point for help finding "the most important and beautiful pieces" depicted.

"If there is anything here at the Getty or in the other museums or at dealers that you may have seen, or even at private collections, if you could give us any information, we would certainly be grateful," Ferri told True.

True cooperated, identifying more than three dozen objects in 13 museums and seven galleries and private collections.

Using True's guidance, as well as the museums' own published catalogs of antiquities in their collections, the Italians said they have matched objects shown in the Polaroids to museums in Denmark, Germany, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

The Times has obtained copies of more than 1,000 of the photographs. Previously, they had been posted on the website of the Italian police unit that tracks illicit antiquities.

Italian officials said that more than 30 antiquities shown in the photos are now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which houses a large collection of Greek and Roman art.

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