The Medici Conspiracy: the Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities - Museums Association

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The Medici Conspiracy: the Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities

This book is a timely reminder of the role that museums play in buying looted antiquities and the need for something to be done to stop the trade, says Jane Morris
Jane Morris
Will this year go down as a watershed in the long-running story of the illicit antiquities trade? As far as museums are concerned, the answer may well be yes, thanks in part to the extraordinary trial under way in Rome.

Armed with an immense archive of documents and photographs - the result of years of investigation by the Italian antiquities police - magistrate Paolo Ferri is currently prosecuting three defendants, two of them long-standing dealers in antiquities, including the once-respectable veteran dealer Robert Hecht. But it is the presence of the third defendant that is probably most interesting to everyone working in museums: the former Getty head of antiquities, Marion True.

True is facing allegations that she knowingly purchased looted antiquities on behalf of the Getty Museum (allegations that she and the museum firmly deny). In The Medici Conspiracy, journalist Peter Watson and researcher Cecilia Todeschini, tell the story that forms the backdrop to the trial - while making a powerful case for more rigorous measures to stop the illicit trade.

They explain the way one network of illicit trade developed, from the tombaroli (the Italian word for looters, meaning 'tomb robbers'), through antiquities dealers of varying degrees of dubiousness, to high-profile collectors and museums. What makes this story fascinating is the apparent ease with which Italian loot has, apparently, made it into some of the World's Greatest Museums as the title puts it.

Watson starts the story in 1972 on Fifth Avenue in New York with the announcement by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) that it had purchased a sensational Greek krater. The piece was believed to have been made in the sixth century BC by the potter Euxitheos and decorated by the painter Euphronios.

The museum bought what subsequently became known as the Euphronios Krater for the then startling price of $1m - from the dealer Robert Hecht. Shortly after, disputes about the krater - its value and very soon its provenance - began to emerge.

But the central figure in the story is not a museum curator, but the dealer Giacomo Medici. Police finds in 1995 of more than 4,000 antiquities and boxes of polaroids of thousands more stored in a Geneva warehouse led to the trial of Medici in 2005, and the downfall of a network of dealers and tombaroli. Medici was found guilty and fined Euros10m, although he is still free while the case is appealed.

As Watson and Todeschini, detective-like, follow and interview police, tombaroli, dealers, academics and curators, a fascinating and shocking picture emerges. The tale is told at a rattling pace, so despite the weight of its research, it is an engrossing read.

The main story of Medici aside, Watson's argument that collectors are the main stimulus for the illicit trade is no surprise given his position as a research associate at the University of Cambridge's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. This institute has been one of the main forces encouraging UK museums to stop buying antiquities without reliable provenances, even as 'museums of last resort'. In 2000, the institute together with the Museums Association, published guidelines for museums on stopping any involvement. This was then taken up by a department for culture working party, which led to changes in the law in 2003.

But if British museums have been rapidly cleaning up their acts, their counterparts in the US seem anything but willing to do likewise. So far, the biggest have refused to adopt similar guidelines, despite pressure from the Archaeological Institute of America. Many argue that although museums should not purchase items that are likely to be looted, there should not be a blanket ban on items without findspots, for example. This matters not only because the US is the largest 'market country' for antiquities in the world, but because it is likely that museums emerging in China, the Far East and India may well follow suit, despite the fact that these countries are also major sources of looted material.

The Medici Conspiracy covers a rare case of a source country with the resources and structures to tackle looting. The Italian government now has its eyes on a whole series of objects held in US museums, which it claims are looted. These include 42 pieces at the Getty Museum, and 11 in the Fleischman collection acquired by a combination of purchase and gift in 1996. The Italian government is also interested in objects at the MMA, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Cleveland Museum of Art, Toledo Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Princeton University Art Museum. Many of the pieces are believed to have passed through the hands of Robert Hecht.

So far, the MMA is the only museum to have responded with the surprising announcement in February that it will return the Euphronios Krater and 19 other disputed pieces to Italy. The krater is now believed to have been looted from the Etruscan site of Cerveteri, while some of the other pieces are thought to have been stolen from Morgantina in Sicily.

Where this leaves the Marion True trial is unclear. But what is certain is that the surrounding publicity is starting to alert the US public, which traditionally puts high levels of trust in museums. It was only a few months ago that students at New York University protested at a $200m donation to the university by collector Shelby White partly because of question marks over the provenance of items in her collection. This book is, if nothing else, a powerful reminder of why these issues matter - and is surely another nail in the coffin of unprovenanced museum collecting.

Jane Morris writes about museums and galleries and is a judge of the European Museum of the Year Award

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