Italy’s Financial Police Recognized for Cultural Heritage Protection

Those responsible for protecting Italy’s cultural heritage have once again been given center stage in Rome this summer – this time in the form of an exhibition honoring the efforts of the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s Financial Police.

The celebratory exhibit, entitled “Dal sepolcro al museo. Storie di saccheggi e recuperi” (“From the grave to the museum. Stories of pillage and recoveries”) will be housed in the Vittoriano complex at Piazza Venezia through 12 September 2010. The Sala Gipsoteca has been filled with remarkable pieces recovered by the Guardia di Finanza’s Division for the Protection of Archaeological Patrimony.

The exhibit includes numerous treasures which were put at serious risk by looters but recovered before leaving Italy. Perhaps the highlight of the exhibit is a 1.55 x 1.60 meter marble relief of Mithras killing a bull, originally from the archaeological park at Veio and recovered by the Guardia di Finanza in March 2009 just before its intended export to Asia through a channel in the United Arab Emirates. The piece was then brought to the Villa Giulia in Rome and the scheme resulted in four prosecutions in Italy.

The Guardia di Finanza’s Division for the Protection of Archaeological Patrimony, though perhaps not as well-known as the National Police’s Art Squad (Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela Patrimonio Culturale), is a key player in the prevention of illicit trafficking of cultural material because of its role in enforcing tax law, which is inevitably disobeyed in illicit export.

Statistics given at the exhibition state that, in 2008-2009, recoveries by the Guardia di Finanza included 11,258 archaeological pieces and 416 paintings. 136,783 forgeries were confiscated and 294 people were charged with criminal violations, a 50% increase from the previous 2-year period.

Just last year, Castel Sant’Angelo hosted a similar exhibition celebrating the 40th birthday of the Carabinieri’s Division for Cultural Heritage Protection.

Italy’s support for the law enforcement bodies that combat the illicit antiquities trade is commendable. SAFE would like to recognize individuals in U.S. law enforcement who have dedicated themselves towards the protection of cultural heritage. To celebrate their success, this year’s SAFE Beacon Awards will be given to Robert E. Goldman, David Hall, James E. McAndrew, and Robert K. Wittman. With these selections, SAFE aims to honor the defenders of the laws that protect our cultural heritage.

Italy’s Art Squad Celebrates 40 Years of Success

On 3 May 1969, the Carabinieri (Italian National Police) instituted a 16-member unit within the Ministry of Public Education with the purpose of protecting cultural heritage. Predating the UNESCO 1970 treaty by a year, Italy became an early leader in the protection of cultural heritage and has since dedicated unprecedented effort to keeping Italy’s myriad artistic treasures safe.

40 years later, Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo is host to the exhibition “L’Arma per l’Arte – Antologia di Meraviglie,” or “Armed Forces for Art: Anthology of Wonders,” which highlights the growth and success of the now-called Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela Patrimonio Culturale – or division for the protection of cultural patrimony – by telling the stories of embattled masterpieces that have been looted, stolen, trafficked, or otherwise put at risk, and finally, through the investigative and legal efforts of the TPC, have made a homecoming back in Italy.

The show is organized into three sections: works recovered from abroad by means of legal action, works recovered from abroad by means of letters of request and cooperation, and works recovered within the Republic of Italy. The pieces range from paintings, spirited away from unprotected churches or museums in the Italian countryside and smuggled far from their homes, to ancient pieces that ended up in prominent foreign collections after being taken in illegal digs by tombaroli (tomb raiders) and smuggled out of Italy after the UNESCO treaty of 1970. Each piece on display has a narrative of the theft and recovery, highlighting the often long and complicated process of tracking down a painting after it disappears into thin air, or finding an artifact that was never even known to exist before being dug up by a tombarolo.

The exhibit also features a tour of the Carabinieri TPC’s online resources, where visitors can research a database of over 12,500 stolen works of art and also find advice about what to do in case of a discovered object of suspicious provenance or clandestine dig.

The most famous piece on display is the Sarpedon krater attributed to Euphronios, which was returned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008 after some 35 years out of Italy. Other notable works include paintings by Raphael, Bellini and Van Gogh, and a marble statue of Hadrian’s wife Sabina, which the Boston Museum of Fine Arts agreed to return in 2006.

“L’Arma per L’Arte 1969-2009″ continues through 30 January 2010, at Castel Sant’Angelo, in Rome.

Lawrence Rothfield and "The Rape of Mesopotamia"

In April 2003, like many of us, Lawrence Rothfield watched with great concern as news accounts detailed the pillage of Iraq’s National Museum. Since then, the looting of sites around Iraq has not ceased, and Rothfield, as co-founder and former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, has been working on an extensive inquiry into how such wholesale thievery and destruction was allowed to occur.

In his resulting work, The Rape of Mesopotamia (University of Chicago Press, 2009), Rothfield reconstructs the planning failures – originating at the highest levels of the U.S. government – that led to the invading forces’ utter indifference to the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage from looters. Widespread incompetence and miscommunication enabled a tragedy that continues even today, despite widespread public outrage. Bringing his story into the present, Rothfield argues that the international community has yet to learn the lessons of Iraq – and that what happened there is liable to be repeated in future conflicts. The Rape of Mesopotamia is a powerful, infuriating chronicle of the disastrous conjunction of military adventure and cultural destruction.

Rothfield was recently featured in the article “Iraq War’s cultural costs as seen through a Chicago prism” by Julia Keller in The Chicago Tribune, where Rothfield reveals that one of the reasons that spurred him to write this authoritative account was its many connections to the city of Chicago.

The Rape of Mesopotamia is essential reading for all concerned with the future of our past, and is now available from the SAFE Store.

Yale’s Own Indiana Jones Story

Indiana Jones is back- bullwhip, fedora, and all… “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is at a theater near you and is bringing a nearly century-old Cultural Property dispute back into the spotlight.

In the fourth installment of the swashbuckling archaeologist’s (using the term loosely) adventures, Hollywood takes us to the Yale University campus… as even today the university continues its real life role in the efforts to resolve a dispute with the Peruvian government regarding thousands of artifacts excavated at Machu Picchu. Yale’s own adventurer-archaeologist Hiram Bingham III (who is thought to have inspired the Indiana Jones character) rediscovered a much-forgotten Machu Picchu in 1911, and brought thousands of artifacts home to Yale’s collection. Just last year, in a landmark decision, Yale and Peru agreed on a plan for repatriation, including co-sponsorship of a traveling exhibition and a new museum in Cuzco, Peru.

Recently, inspired by the release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” NPR’s Tom Ashbrook hosted an “On Point” radio broadcast on the story. Featured interviewees are:

The broadcast is fascinating for Indy buffs and Cultural Property enthusiasts alike. The agreement reached last year between Yale and Peru was a landmark, and hopefully will be an example for future negotiations between source countries and institutions in the future. As you’re watching Harrison Ford bullwhip his way through ancient sites in the theater, take a moment to appreciate the strides taken in this story to ensure that Cultural Heritage is available to all.