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Raiders of the lost art

May 08, 2006|Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini | PETER WATSON and CECILIA TODESCHINI are co-authors of "The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities -- From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums."

SINCE LAST November, two well-heeled Americans have been on trial in Rome. Marion True, a former curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and Robert E. Hecht Jr., an American art dealer living in Paris, are facing charges of conspiring to bring looted and smuggled antiquities out of Italy and into the United States.

During that time, and well before any judgment will be reached, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has begun returning looted objects to Italian ownership, and the Getty is negotiating similar action.

Some museum professionals are complaining that the Italians (not to mention the Greeks) have suddenly become very aggressive in pursuit of what they see as their property, and are using the trial -- and the threat of more to come -- as leverage to pry objects out of (mainly American) museums.

But if the Italians are aggressive, it is only because they now have evidence in abundance to prove what many archeologists have been arguing for more than 30 years: The vast majority of classical antiquities that are sold at auction at Bonhams, Christie's and Sotheby's; that make up most of the collections formed in the U.S. and elsewhere since World War II; that grace the world's major museums; and that are traded on Madison Avenue, Bond Street and Quai Voltaire, are smuggled loot.

The True/Hecht trial is the culmination of events that began with a raid on Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici's warehouse in Geneva in 1995. That, combined with documents from Sotheby's, resulted in his conviction in December 2004, a prison sentence of 10 years and a fine of $12 million, though he is free pending his appeal.

Four thousand objects were seized in just this one warehouse, together with 35,000 documents and 3,600 photographs relating to 7,000 antiquities in all. Based on this evidence, Italian experts calculated that 50 important tombs had been looted. By comparison, a successful archeologist can expect to find two important tombs in an entire career.

In the course of the looting, some of the damage done by the tombaroli, or tomb robbers, was shocking. Entire walls taken from a villa near Pompeii were found in the warehouse. Color photographs seized in the raid proved that these walls had been hacked to pieces -- reduced to laptop-size chunks -- for ease of smuggling.

IF TOMBAROLI and middlemen are guilty of desecrating the world's cultural heritage, so are those on the buying end of the looters' deals. By its actions at least, the Metropolitan's administration has recently come to acknowledge this.

One object that the Met has returned to Italian ownership is the Euphronios krater. The vase, purchased by the Met from Hecht in 1972, was the first antiquity to sell for $1 million. That sale created the contemporary boom in the antiquities market and made possible the recent opportunities for career tomb raiders.

Thirty years ago, rumors swirled that the vase was likely looted. The Italian government demanded its return, only to be told by the Met that the evidence of looting was inconclusive. Even now, the Met's director claims -- improbably -- that the museum acted in ignorance when it purchased the vase.

A journal seized from Hecht shows that he paid Medici the equivalent of about $350,000 for the krater, not so very different from the value put on the vase by other museum professionals and by Sotheby's at the time the acquisition was announced. There is no doubt that the price the Met paid was well over the market value of the vase.

An editorial in the newsletter of the Assn. for Field Archeology said at the time: "As long as acquisition at any price is to be the credo of our major collections, they will fail to serve the cause of knowledge and serve only to incite resentment and encourage crime."

It would be going too far to blame the Metropolitan Museum for all of Hecht's and Medici's actions, let alone for what True may have done on behalf of the Getty. But there is a real sense that in overpaying for the krater, the museum helped establish the climate in which dishonest dealers could thrive. We have been told that a number of tombaroli in Italy "went crazy" when they heard the price that had been paid for the krater, and that they redoubled their efforts to search out whatever loot they could find.

Although the Met may have started the rot, it is a former Getty curator who is now in the dock. With this in mind, we believe that there is a fitting way to end this set of unfortunate events.

Because the Met has agreed to return objects to Italy, and the Getty (and other museums) are expected to follow suit, the Italians have already won the argument.

Therefore we believe that if True were to stop fighting her case and cooperate with the Italians by telling them all she knows from her years of acquiring antiquities, a deal would be possible, and that would be preferable to continuing a degrading court spectacle in Rome.

Whatever True's involvement, she would perform a public service. The Italians are likely to discover new information that would help them and others stem the illicit trade in antiquities, and the art world can move on.

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