CONSERVATION CAN BEGIN AT HOME!

We are grateful to Professor Colin Renfrew, who is currently on fieldwork in Greece, for taking the time to send the following reflections in observance of our 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.

Colin Renfrew, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, received his PhD from Cambridge University writing his thesis on Neolithic and Bronze Age Cultures of the Cyclades and their external relations. After receiving his degree in 1965, he joined the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology of the University of Sheffield. In 1972, he became Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton. He took up the position of Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University in 1981. In 1990, he was appointed Director of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. He directed excavations at Sitagroi and Phylakopi in Greece and Quanterness in Orkney. He has been a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for England, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, the Ancient Monuments and Advisory Committee of the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, and the Managing Council for the British School at Athens. He is the author of numerous books including Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (2000) and received the 2009 SAFE Beacon Award.


It is difficult to prevent the looting of the cultural heritage in faraway places. But you can help prevent looting, and undermine the traffic in illicit antiquities, by ensuring that your local museum (and local private collectors) have a clear and published ethical acquisitions code — and that they stick to it!

If museums did not buy or accept gifts of “unprovenanced”  — i.e.  usually looted — antiquities, collectors would not buy them.

Some museums (such as the British Museum, and more recently the Getty Museum) now have a published acquisitions code which determines that they will NOT acquire (by purchase, loan or gift) antiquities which have appeared on the market after 1970, the year of the relevant UNESCO
Convention (unless their existence prior to that date is securely documented by contemporary publication). This means such museums no longer give support to the illicit trade by acquiring possibly looted antiquities. It is massively important that the Getty took that admirable step a few years ago, and their acquisitions are now promptly published, so that the world can see what is going on.

Does your local museum have an ethics code of that kind? Does it publish all its acquisitions, and their background – i.e. that they were known before 1970 (and could thus not be looted AFTER that date)? Does it have any exhibits on loan which do NOT conform? As a citizen you are entitled to know the answer to that question. So ask, and demand a clear answer.

The (American) Association of Art Museum Directors has a website where museums can publish any acquisitions they wish to make which do not strictly conform with the 1970 Rule. Why do they need this? Ask your local museum where they stand on this issue. Exercise a little citizen power to highlight the grey areas of museum practice: they ultimately give comfort to the illicit trade.

—Colin Renfrew

"We have to support better policing of the sites", says the new Getty Museum Director. What does he have in mind?

Lee Rosenbaum has a disturbingly revealing Q and A with Timothy Potts on the new Getty Museum director’s views on antiquities collecting policy. I happen to agree with Potts that even with the 1970 rule now being adhered to by American museums, “there is still a huge amount of ongoing looting and this issue is not being addressed.” I also agree that

The only way to address it is on the ground in the source countries. We have to support better policing of the sites, better understanding by the local communities of the importance of the archaeological heritage, particularly to them. And it’s only through these programs that we’re really going to tackle the core problem, which is the illicit excavation that’s still going on and the huge urban projects, dam building, and so on.

But what would it mean to “support better policing of the sites”?

(For the full post, go to The Punching Bag.)

"Chasing Aphrodite" Fall Book Tour comes to NYC

The 2011 SAFE Beacon Award Winners are busy traveling the East Coast this fall discussing their book, Chasing Aphrodite. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to meet Jason Felch this October in New York City.

Lecture and Book Signing
October 24, 6 pm
Silver Center Room 300
Washington Square East
New York University

“Jason Felch will give a presentation about his non-fiction book Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, which details how the J. Paul Getty Museum became the epicenter of an unprecedented scandal over the acquisition of looted Greek and Roman antiquities by their Los Angeles Times coverage of the controversy, including stories revealing how the Getty, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and other leading institutions patronized a black market awash in illicit objects. The revelations forced American museums to return more than 100 of their finest antiquities-valued at nearly a billion dollars-to Italy and Greece. Their new book lays bare the roots of the scandal with fly-on-the-wall accounts gleaned from hundreds of additional interviews and internal Getty documents spanning four decades. Their presentation-which includes slides of the key characters and looted objects-will touch on the origins of the scandal, the efforts of senior Getty officials to continue buying looted artifacts while appearing ethical, and the tragic consequences the strategy brought to the museum’s collection and its highly regarded antiquities curator, Marion True. The presentation will also address how the scandal has ushered in a new era of cooperation between Italy and American museums through cultural loans.”

For information about the Fall Book Tour visit the Chasing Aphrodite website.

Getty to return two antiquities to Greece

Source: Hellenic Ministry of Culture

The J. Paul Getty Museum has agreed to return two antiquities to Greece. Both were acquired during the 1970s. Two fragments of a funerary relief have long been known to fit a third fragment in the Kanellopoulos Collection in Athens. The reunification of this monument would justify this return. It should be noted that the source for the fragments was Nikolas Koutoulakis whose name appears in the infamous organigram cited in The Medici Conspiracy. The source of the Athens fragment has not been given.

Source: Hellenic Ministry of Culture

The more intriguing return is the religious calendar from Thorikos in southern Attica that was acquired in 1979 [Getty]. This appears to have been seen in Greece by David F. Ogden, a student at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (1959-61). Ogden was conducting research in the area of Thorikos. The cutting on the block suggested that it had been used in a later building, perhaps a Late Antique Christian basilica.

The usual benchmark for acquisitions is 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention. So why has the Getty decided to return an inscription that appears to have been known some time before? When did the inscription leave Greece? What is the full collecting history?

Colin Renfrew on unprovenanced antiquities: challenges, scandals and responsibilities

In less than 18 minutes, Professor Colin Renfrew covers a lot of ground and an array of issues in the 2008 video “The issue of unprovenanced antiquities” here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). It’s a summary of the issues SAFE addresses, well worth viewing.

Beginning with how he came around to take a “purist position” against publishing unprovenanced material, Renfrew recalls founding the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre with Neil Brodie, the scandal at Sotheby’s and Peter Watson‘s investigations, the UNESCO Convention, and Britain’s implementation of The Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences Act in 2003.

Critical of collectors of antiquities without context, Renfrew also admonishes a number of museums which “are quite disgraceful and lead the world in purchasing antiquities without provenance…in effect, indirectly, they’re supporting and financing the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage.” They include the Metropolitan Museum of Art*, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago. He points out the J. Paul Getty Museum for acquiring looted objects against his objections “but they didn’t want to be told that at that time.” This refers to the scandal in the recent book Chasing Aphrodite. Although, he adds, “the Getty has now I think, learned from experience and now has an acceptable acquisitions policy…”

The video ends with the Sevso Treasure scandal as well as the problem of the incantation bowls.

Thank you, Web of Stories, for sharing these informative videos with us on SAFE’s Colin Renfrew Facebook page. We look forward to highlighting some other videos in upcoming posts.

*A year after the video was taped in 2008, upon receiving confirmation about the Met’s adherence to AAMD guidelines Renfrew congratulated the Museum for making progress at SAFE’s New York City lecture “Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: A Time for Clarity”. The confirmation arrived 2 weeks before the lecture.

"She is the property of Italy…and they have every right in the world to put her in that museum. It feels right to have her there."

Senta German interviews Ralph Frammolino, co-author with Jason Felch of the recently published Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum in the latest installment of SAFE podcasts. Professor German had recently reviewed the book on SAFECORNER. The topic has also been discussed here. In this clip, Frammolino recalls the ceremony unveiling the statue’s recent return to Aidone and describes how the Italian people react to cultural patrimony. “There is a connectivity to the earth, to the ground to the civilizations that were there.” The full podcast can be heard here.

Photo: SAFE

Aphrodite of the Muckrakers

Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum is the story of how the J. P. Getty Museum has collected Greek and Roman antiquities since its inception in 1953, told from the inside out. The authors, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, both reporters from the Los Angeles Times (Frammolino has since moved on), have assembled an extraordinary array of sources with which they tell a story the Getty wants no one to know: how the museum knowingly purchased looted and fake antiquities, misled foreign governments in their attempts to reclaim stolen property, laundered stolen antiquities through an illegal tax scheme and adopted extraordinarily conservative acquisitions policies while at the same time actively buying from the illicit antiquities market. It is a story of the astounding mismanagement of opportunities, resources, human capital and global reputation. Put one way, it is confirmation of the worst many suspected about curatorial caprice and institutional duplicity. Put another way, if you’re interested in issues surrounding the illicit antiquities trade, collectors and the Classical world, you can’t put the book down.

First of all, it is the materials with which this story has been put together that are significant. In the Notes section at the end of the book, Felch and Frammolino describe these:

The backbone of this account is a trove of thousands of pages of confidential Getty records provided by half of dozen key sources at various levels of the institution. They include a confidential institutional history of the Getty as narrated by two generations of its leaders; a complete list of art purchased by the museum from 1954 to 2004, with the price paid for each piece; the private correspondence and contemporaneous handwritten notes of several top Getty officials; museum files on the contested antiquities and suspect dealers; and records detailing several internal investigations conducted over the years by various teams of Getty lawyers (319).

These were compiled, acquired and collected over the several years Felch and Frammolino worked the Getty Museum beat for the LA Times, for which they were finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Chasing Aphrodite thus is the conclusion of their efforts on the case and reflects the authors’ depth of knowledge and considerable analytical skill.

Felch and Frammolino begin at the beginning, with the foundation of the Getty and it is an unexpected story. The John Paul Getty Museum, unlike other major American collecting institutions which include a considerable amount of antiquities, was founded by one individual and with the sole purpose of affording this one man a tax write off. Its domestic peer institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, all begun in the decade of the 1870s, were founded directly in association with an educational institution or explicitly aimed at public consumption in the nineteenth century tradition of civic education. Unlike these quasi-academic institutions, the Getty, from its beginning, was run not by scholars of art, those with experience administering cultural institutions or people familiar with non-profit work. Rather, from its inception, the Getty was run by businessmen, mostly from Wall Street and the energy industries. Indeed, John Paul Getty himself ran the museum until his death in 1976, at which point it was overseen by a board he had stacked with his accountant, a Getty Oil executive, Harold Berg, Getty Oil’s outside attorney, his two sons Ronald and Gordon and his Italian art advisor, Frederico Zeri. To say that the culture of for-profit, big-game, arrogant corporate leadership pervaded the museum for it first decades would be an understatement. This management style, as the authors illustrate, fostered, among other things, extravagant acquisitions regardless of the liability of such and ineffectual curatorial oversight.

Indeed, the corporate and decidedly un-academic flavor of the Getty was heightened after the death of its founder through the reorganization of the Getty museum into the Getty Trust, an umbrella organization for the museum but also other arts-related institutions. Who was hand-picked for the development of this bold new vision? The just retired chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (not a body known for its work in the arts), Harold M. Williams. Under Williams, Jiri Frel served as the first curator of antiquities, hired away from the Greek and Roman department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Frel was academic enough, for sure, having studied at the Sorbonne and taught at Charles University in his native Czechoslovakia as well as Princeton University. But, as Felch and Frammolino describe, Frel’s knowledge of ancient art was far outweighed by his breathtaking corruption.

During Frel’s eleven year tenure at the Getty he instigated a massive tax fraud scheme which was hatched together with the antiquities dealer Bruce McNall, whose silent partner and supplier was Robert Hecht (currently under indictment in Italy for conspiracy to traffic stolen antiquities). The scheme would run like this: those on McNall’s rich and famous client list interested in tax deductions would “buy” an antiquity from McNall, supplied by Hecht. The buyer would then turn around and donate the piece to the Getty at a greatly inflated value, thanks to the appraisals of Frel’s friend Jerome Eisenberg, owner of Royal Athena Gallery. The Getty received a steady stream of smaller antiquities to “round out” the collection, pieces which the board would likely not have approved for purchase (as they were desirous of larger and more impressive acquisition) and the donors received a tax write off. The numbers on this scheme are staggering; for four years, over one hundred donors gave six thousand antiquities to the J. Paul Getty Museum, the wealthiest museum in the world, at a value of $14.7 million dollars (36).

A win/win; a victimless crime. No harm, no foul. No doubt this is how Frel figured it. But there is harm here, and plenty of it. Never mind good old-fashioned tax fraud, which bilks the US government and puts a greater tax burden on those who actually pay taxes. The harm here is in the source of these antiquities. Hecht, as illustrated in Peter Watson and Cecellia Todeschini’s The Medici Conspiracy and evidenced by his indictment, was supplied by tombaroli. Six thousand small pieces over four years are no doubt the yield of tens of thousands of plundered tombs and villas, illegally dug trenches and holes. What was lost to “fund” this tax scheme and the “rounding out” of the Getty’s collection? We will never know.

One wonders what Frel’s intentions really were with this scheme. The authors argue that Frel’s interest was scholarly, and to grow a study collection for the museum. Yet, when Frel is asked to leave in 1984 after the tax scheme and other equally radical improprieties are revealed to upper management, the authors report that some 800 objects were found with little or no documentation (55). As part of his scheme, Frel would regularly falsify the ownership histories of the “donated” objects, which corrupted the academic record. If Frel’s aims at the Getty were scholarly, how can this be accounted for? The authors attribute Frel’s behavior to his status as a political refugee from the Eastern block (26). This may or may not be true but certainly his dishonesty and vice found a unique level of tolerance (or willful ignorance) within the particularly corporate management environment of the Getty.

But, corporate style, poor oversight and shenanigans in the antiquities department didn’t end with Frel. Harold Williams’ retirement from the Getty Trust in 1998 brought in Barry Munitz as President and CEO. Indeed, Munitz has an academic background, a PhD in comparative literature from Princeton but, instead of teaching or research, he almost immediately began working in university administration, becoming chancellor of the University of Houston’s Main Campus at a sage 35 years old. He then left academia for real estate and forestry speculation as well as serving as chairman of the Texas Savings and Loan Association. The Texas Savings and Loan Association was seized by federal regulators in 1988, the fifth largest bank failure in American history at the time. From there Munitz had moved on to Chancellor of the California State University system, the largest higher education system in the country. In this position, Munitz was one of the most influential leaders in employing a for-profit model to higher education, viewing students as customers. When Munitz replaced Williams as the head of the Getty Trust, its valuation was $4.3 billion. Interestingly, not long after his appointment he settled his savings and loan suit and, stemming from the charges of enriching himself with improper and excessive compensation and irresponsible allocation of assets on junk bonds and loss real estate, he was barred from working at a bank or similar business for three years. As the Felch and Frammolino point out, curiously, this did not bar him from directing one of the largest public trusts in the world.

It was under Munitz that Marion True flourished as curator of antiquities and it was her exploits which occupy much of Chasing Aphrodite. True has left an indelible mark on the Getty Villa, the stand-alone collection of antiquities of the Getty Museum; three quarters of the materials on display were acquired under her era. Indeed, True emerges as a genuinely fascinating character in the book, from her working-class, grasping mid-western beginnings to her schizophrenic behavior at the Getty during which she simultaneously championed the rights of source countries to fight the illicit antiquities trade, crafting a uniquely conservative museum acquisitions policy while at the same time actively buying looted antiquities from notorious dealers like Hecht and Medici. There are at least a couple of ways to understand how this was tolerated. One is yet again an example of the sort of corporate hands-off, or just plain incompetent, management style that allowed a tax scheme such as Frel’s to thrive. The other is more nefarious, which is that this behavior was known and condoned.

As Felch and Frammolino describe, True was hired at the Getty by Frel as an assistant in the antiquities department, not yet having finished her Harvard PhD. Before the Getty, True had not only worked for a corrupt Newburyport art dealer Steven Straw, but engaged in an unsuccessful and badly ended business venture with Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine, two of London’s most prominent antiquities dealers. But, with Frel’s departure from the Getty in 1985, True’s star soon rose, being promoted to associate antiquities curator. It was at this point that the Getty experienced its first public scandal involving an antiquities purchase, that of an Archaic Greek Kouros statue.

The story of the Getty Kouros is well known but what Felch and Frammolino add is the inside dope. We learn how Federico Zeri vocally denounced the Kouros a fake and within the institution there was a vigorous debate about its purchase. As a part of this debate, the authors’ research reveals that the curators and managers at the Getty were well aware of the illicit nature of many antiquities on the market. It is made clear from internal documents that Arthur Houghton, associate antiquities curator, had warned Getty management about the questionable origins of the Kouros, a purchase Frel had initiated and for which he provided forged provenance documents.

Indeed, the documentation Chasing Aphrodite presents regarding just how much curators, general counsel, the museum director and CEO of the Getty trust knew about antiquities purchases is one of the most significant aspects of the book. For instance, the authors reveal that during the internal machinations over the purchase of the Kouros, CEO Williams complained to John Walsh, the director of the museum, that “much of the conversation [regarding the liability of purchasing the Kouros] is to the effect that 90% of the objects on the market are presumed to have recently come out of Italy or Greece.” (58) Moreover, Houghton, in conversation with Getty attorney Bruce Bevan (quoted in Houghton’s notes) stated “the reality is that 95% of the antiquities on the market have been found in the last three years.” (61) The Kouros was purchased in 1985 for $7million.

Another example of the knowledge insiders at the Getty had about the illicit antiquities market shown in the book is when, in 1985, Maurice Tempelsman, an art collector, sold eleven of his best pieces from his antiquities collection to the Getty for $16 million, including a spectacular marble group depicting two griffins ripping into a fallen doe, complete with ancient paint still visible. Because of the importance of this and two other pieces, the Getty commissioned Cornelius Vermeule of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to write a study of them to accompany their debut at the museum. In the piece Vermeule argued that the stylistic similarity of the three objects indicated that they were from the same workshop. Being the case that these objects were bought from the market and no information as to their archaeological provenience existed, this was an argument made purely on visual examination. Houghton contacted Medici, from whom Tempelsman originally bought the pieces, to ask what he knew about where they came from. What he gets back from Medici, which he documents in an internal Getty memo, in part refutes Vermeule’s professional opinion but, amazingly, documents the dirty story of the looting of the pieces. “Medici said that he had purchased all three from Italian looters in 1975 or 1976. Two of the objects had indeed been found in the same tomb (which add strength to a same-workshop theory), in some ruins just outside Taranto, a thriving center of art in ancient times. The griffins had been found in the ruins of a villa some 150 to 200 meters away.” (66)

And as another example, among the evidence sized in the Giacomo Medici trial, prosecutor Paolo Ferri finds a letter True had written to Medici asking for information about a group of Greek olpae the Getty had bought from him. Apparently an assistant curator was writing a PhD dissertation on the pieces and True wanted to know where they were from. Medici had written back with helpful details, informing True that the pieces had been found in Monte Abatone , a necropolis in Cerveteri, even describing the tomb itself and offered her other objects that had been found there (212).

These three examples illustrate that those at all levels at the Getty knew that the antiquities they were acquiring were looted. As the authors state in a footnote (331), “from as early as April 1984,….American museum officials were well aware that they were buying recently looted objects, a charge they vehemently deny to this day.”

The story above involving Marion True and her inquiry to Medici about the olpae is one of many which serve to show the duplicity of her character. What is compelling about True isn’t so much the sad story of an individual who knowingly did what she knew was illegal, immoral and harmful to her profession in order to further herself personally; indeed, this is an old story. What is compelling is that this duplicity, ironically, help forge some of the strictest acquisition policies of any US museum.

True and her care for the Getty’s antiquities collection policies began in 1986 when Robin Symes, notorious antiquities dealer, offered her a spectacular, slightly larger than life-sized, extremely rare, limestone and marble acrolith sculpture representing Aphrodite. A sculpture of such type, size and quality would have been known if had been discovered either in the distant past or more recently in legal excavation. It was still encrusted with soil and had fresh breaks which divided it into three equal parts, a classic smuggler’s trick. The sculpture was clearly looted but True was determined to have it despite the recent Kouros scandal. As the Getty’s acquisition policy stood, the purchase of suspect objects was prohibited; it obliged the museum to abide by US and international laws and required inquires with presumed source countries. The director of the Getty Museum, Walsh, who was bent on acquisitions regardless of the law or loss of knowledge, sought to adopt more liberal guidelines, especially those which would accommodate the purchase of the Aphrodite. A new policy, approved by the Getty board in 1987, crafted by Walsh, True and Getty counsel Bevan was trumpeted by True in internal documents as going “beyond what is demanded by the law….and abid[ing] by the highest possible ethical standards.”(91). It in fact made ignoring antiquities laws museum policy; it put the burden of proof on the dealers who offered the pieces for sale and made necessary inquiries to source countries only if there was evidence of looting of such object that the Getty wanted to buy. The first requirement was a joke, given how those at the Getty knew that the dealers from whom they bought antiquities were highly immoral and the second requirement was toothless as most source countries do not have the resources to prevent or even be fully informed about what pieces are being looted and taken across their borders. The Aphrodite would be purchased and the museum would effectively institutionalize its ability to acquire any antiquity it wanted.

Indeed, this would seem to support the notion that True was keen to collect and had little problem with depleting the cultural resources of source countries. However, Felch and Frammolino then describe a curious course of events. True and her associate curator, John Papadopolous, were contacted by an Italian archaeologist working at the site of Francavilla Maritima, who told them that several objects donated under Frel and his tax write-off scams had almost certainly been looted from an area of the site. Papadopolous, working in the archives, established that the pieces had been purchased by Frel with full knowledge that they had been looted from that exact site. The Italian authorities were notified and the Getty laboriously documented the pieces before they were returned. True’s efforts to make right the wrong of her predecessor Frel, won her glowing comments from the Italian Carabinieri and fame for her boldness and forward thinking. Where is True’s acquisitive nature here? How did she square this return with the purchase of the Aphrodite?

Not even ten years later, in 1995, True and Papadopoulos proposed a new and truly stringent acquisition policy for the Getty, far more stringent than any other American museum. No object could be acquired by the Getty, by purchase or donation, which lacked documented ownership prior to the year of the adoption of the policy. But, only the next year, in 1996, the Getty agreed to accept a gift of most of the impressive Fleischman collection of antiquities, many of which were of highly questionable origins. The Getty itself had published the collection (in hopeful anticipation of receiving it later) in 1994 and this was offered by True as sufficient to meet the requirements of the new acquisition policy. Despite this double-dealing, True continued to tout the Getty’s new policy widely. At a 1998 conference at Rutgers University on art, antiquity and the law, she signed a resolution calling for long-term loans of ancient art from source countries and declared she was looking forward to a new era of the “sharing of cultural properties rather than their exploitation as commodities.” Six months later, she appeared at a National Arts Journalism Program event at Columbia University, at which she expressed “serious reservations” about the curatorial activities of museums that kept buying “simply to put material in the basement.” (164)

With this all behind her, in March of 2002, True proposed the purchase of a half life-sized, 3rd century bronze figure of Poseidon. Although it appeared to meet the new 1995 strict Getty acquisition policy (it had been known of since the late 1970’s and its ownership history was clear since then), it was being offered for sale by Robin Symes. As Felch and Frammolino’s sources show, this fact sent up alarm bells in the deputy director’s office and with further investigation by Colby in the General Counsel’s office it was discovered that the import paperwork on the statue had been forged and that in the late 1970’s the piece had been the subject of a major controversy after the Carabinieri told the British media that the statue had been found in the Bay of Naples and smuggled out of Italy. That True could have trusted Symes is unbelievable and that she would have been ignorant of the questionable background of the piece is unbelievable as well. As Ludovic de Walden, an outside counsel hired by the Getty to vet the proposed purchase of the piece is quoted as saying, True would have had to be “insane” to propose buying the Poseidon (221) – that is to say insane given what she had been saying all over the place about how above-board the Getty’s acquisitions would now be.

But, the downfall of Marion True had already begun and was intimately connected to the Italian investigation into the Giacomo Medici illicit antiquities cordata explain?, best described in The Medici Conspiracy. To make a long story short, during the course of the investigation two spectacular pieces of evidence were uncovered. The first is a written organizational chart, an organogram, which illustrated the supply and demand structure of Medici’s market. At the top of the chart, chief among the demand-side players, was listed the J. Paul Getty Museum. The other spectacular piece of evidence was a stash of Polaroids of hundreds of objects freshly looted, several which ended up in American public and private collections, including the Getty. The Getty became a focal point of two separate prosecutions, not only against the museum per se, but against Marion True herself.

The inside perspective which Felch and Frammolino provide on the Italian case against True shows a few things. One is that, indeed, as True has alleged (most recently in LA Times in January, the Getty was more than willing to throw her under the bus despite her years of obsequious service. Already in January of 2001, an internal memo from Getty counsel Richard Martin advised Getty CEO Munitz that True might have to suffer as collateral damage in the fight with the Italians. Then in early 2002, Frieda Tchacos, a long-time antiquities dealer, was arrested on a warrant for her involvement in an Italian looting case. In Ferri’s interrogation of her, she confirmed suspicions that True had helped build the Fleischman collection with the intention of eventually receiving it at the Getty. This gave Ferri enough for conspiracy charges against True and would become central to the Italian case against her. In late 2002 the Frederick Schultz case ends in a conviction on one felony count of violating the National Stolen Property Act for trafficking in illicit Egyptian antiquities in the US. This sent out shock waves and Felch and Frammolino describe a confidential meeting among the directors of select American museums (the MMA, Cleveland, Chicago and the Getty) at which it was determined that the requests and legal actions from source countries were a genuine problem. The conclusions of the meeting were only made more urgent for the Getty as at the end of 2003, the Medici trial began, featuring much damning evidence involving the institution. In December of 2004 Medici was found guilty of trafficking stolen Italian antiquities (a decision which was upheld on appeal in 2009) and Marion True was next in the crosshairs of the Italian court.

Judge Guglielmo Muntoni, who had presided over the Medici trial, was assigned to the preliminary hearing of the True case. The authors’ interviews with Muntoni reveal that he had sympathy with True, believing that she wanted to change things in American museums but her job required her to acquire looted antiquities. Be that as it may, Muntoni saw his way clear in April of 2005 to hand down an indictment ordering True to stand trial.

Back Stateside, the investigations and secretly leaked documents upon which Chasing Aphrodite are based began to be revealed in a string of articles in the LA Times and, at the end of 2005, the most damning revelation about True hit the presses: she had accepted a personal loan from the antiquities dealer Christos Michaelides and repaid that with another personal loan, this from the Fleischmans, both people from whom the Getty has purchased antiquities. This was the final straw which led the Getty board to ask for True’s resignation. (266) The balance of Chasing Aphrodite follows the shuttle diplomacy between the Getty and Italy, instigated in January 2006 by the new CEO Michael Brand, which results in an agreement in August of 2007 for the return of forty objects, including the Aphrodite acrolith. The removal from the Getty Villa galleries of the materials returned to Italy marks the close of Chasing Aphrodite. As the authors briefly note, in November of 2010 the case against the former Getty antiquities curator was dropped due to the statue of limitations on the case having been reached. This was an expected outcome; it was understood that the indictment was enough, to send a message to American museums. As reported on a New York Times blog at the time, Ferri was quoted as saying that the trial had worked as a signal to museums; with the trial, he said, “Italy showed that it wanted to break with past practices.” True was collateral damage, indeed.

Felch and Frammolino, at the very end of their Epilogue, look back at the era of Marion True at the Getty and surmise that it is a thing of the past; that the fall of Marion True has forged “a peace between collectors and archaeologists, museums and source countries.” (312) This is a desirable sentiment and indeed a fine way to end a book the likes of which they have so aptly written. It is, unfortunately, not particularly true. One need merely browse through, for instance, the postings on David Gill’s blog Looting Matters to see the activities of institutions such as the Mougins Museum of Classical Art in France, the Miho Museum in Japan, the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, Spain, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, or the Princeton University Art Museum to ascertain that there is little peace. And, these examples include only works of art from the ancient Classical world. Indeed, there is also little peace between the museums and collectors all over the world who are quietly amassing collections of African, Southeast Asian, Far Eastern and South and Central American art and the pillaged and often indigent and politically unstable regions from which these objects come.

If only a peace could be forged without an end to the demand side of the illicit antiquities trade. But, it cannot; as long as there is a robust demand for antiquities they will be looted. As long as any archaeological site is violated, historical monument is compromised or museum is broken into in order to feed the demand for the purchase of antiquities regardless of the loss of knowledge, we all, as inheritors of the earth’s (not just the Classical world’s) cultural heritage, must strive to bring this filthy, dark, destructive market to public attention. Chasing Aphrodite is a work in this vein and this author is grateful for it.

Time ran out in the case against Marion True


As previously reported here the trial against Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum ended on Wednesday, October 13. After five years, the True case, which would set a precedent for the prosecution of a museum curator for knowingly acquiring looted artifacts, ended on the grounds that the statute of limitations has expired.

As quoted in the New York Times, Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said that True “sacrificed herself on behalf of other museum directors in America,” while Paolo Ferri, the now-retired prosecutor for the case, was quoted as saying “the trial had served as a signal to museums that buying objects without provenance had to end.” For more about this and other cases related to museum acquisitions, please visit SAFE’s web site here.

Will the high visibility of this case alter museum acquisition practices? This much is certain: the case against the plunder of cultural heritage continues and has no statute of limitations.

Photo: Steve Pyke in The New Yorker

Charges against True and Hecht to be dropped

Sources close to the case have confirmed that Marion True’s and Bob Hecht’s conspiracy trial in Rome will not end by October 2010. At that time, further prosecution will be barred by a statute of limitations; the case will be dismissed and charges dropped.

How will this development affect museum acquisitions? Read about the case in The Medici Conspiracy, winner of SAFE’s 2006 Beacon Award.

"Illicit Antiquities: Scandal of Our Age" – Dr. Christopher Chippindale at the Australian National University

Recently, I was fortunate enough to witness a special guest lecture by Dr. Christopher Chippindale that took place as part of the Centre for Archaeological Research’s annual lecture series, in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University, Canberra, my current affiliation. Dr. Chippindale has long been affiliated with Cambridge University, specifically with the McDonald Institute of Archaeological Research, and also serves as curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In addition to his robust research on antiquities smuggling, he is also prominent in the field of northern Australian rock art archaeology. I will discuss the content of this guest lecture below, as his insights are profound, current, and worth wide dissemination.

The presentation centred around three pertinent, but general, questions: What is the current situation regarding worldwide acquisition of antiquities by museums, especially Classical antiquities? Why is the situation the way it is? What are museums doing to help or hinder their part in it? At its heart, he argues, the modern antiquities trade revolves around the boost to one’s appearance of wealth, prestige, status, and power that the ownership and display of antiquities is deemed to convey, especially amongst the collecting and dealing ‘elite.’ Underpinning this stance is what Chippindale has dubbed the “Connoisseur’s view,” defined as the idea that things (objects) have intrinsic merit and can reflect ‘cultural universals,’ or ‘eternal values,’ as tangible to the ancient people who made the object as to any living person today. Holding this view would then lend the collection of antiquities much “sophistication.” This can be directly contrasted to the “Archaeologist’s View,” which defines artifacts as sources of information in context first and foremost, “worthy of celebration and care.”

Connoisseurs and collectors might view, for example, a rare piece of gold jewelry from the Bush Barrow site in Wiltshire, England (the first ‘case study’ example discussed…bought for 5,000 pounds), as “inspiring,” with the “enjoyment” they feel from it being enhanced if specific details are known, but holding aesthetic appreciation as paramount. Those taking the archaeologist’s view, on the other hand, can acknowledge that, while some meaningful information is inherent in the object itself, it is outweighed by contextual details, and is greatly diminished without them. Context, then, is what prevents one from viewing ancient (or historic) artifacts through the lens of “ordinary daily experience,” i.e. as just another object, even if an artifact holds clear aesthetic appeal due to intricate details of its design. As a summation of this introductory portion of the talk, he states that “these attitudes are not opposed, but the loss of context leaves the connoisseur’s view intact, but ‘wrecks’ the archaeologist’s view.” To Chippindale, this exposes the fundamental self-centredness of the connoisseurs view from its inception, but especially after, World War II, when looting and modern, global, collecting really began to flourish. As he then goes on to show, the misconceptions of connoisseurs and the demand they create continues to profoundly affect the Classical archaeological world.

The case of the “Lansdowne Herakles” serves as a good lead-in example. A Roman copy of the Greek original, it was first discovered in 1791, and came to London in 1792 (into the hands of a British aristocratic family who were later reduced to penury). In 1951, it was purchased by Getty as one of the future Getty Museum’s first acquisitions. Today, Greece has export bans in place that would have prevented this, as do Turkey and Italy, two other prime source countries for Classical loot. “95% of artifacts on the market today just “surface,” with no known provenience” Dr. Chippindale reported. Because it is much more difficult to openly sell stolen art (for example, of the 59 known paintings by the German Impressionist Albrecht Altdorfer, all but one are owned by museums and securely loaned under partage agreements), collectors have been turning to easily transportable small items; both recent and ancient, especially since the 1980s when looting increased world-wide.

Two archetypal examples from the Classical world were provided to illustrate this crisis; Cycladic figurines and south Italian ceramics. Cycladic figurines comprise a corpus of small, stone figurines primarily used as grave goods in pre-Roman cemeteries throughout the Cyclades Islands, although two major non-mortuary sources are known (chief amongst them is the site of Karos, which produced a collection of fragments known as the “Karos Horde”). Very few exist in early 20th century collections, but their stylistic influence on certain European sculptural traditions from 1950-present has resulted in very high demand, with only looting and increasingly fanciful forgeries in “reclining” positions (as opposed to authentic standing postures) left to fill the demand. It is unknown to what extent this looting has damaged the Cyclades overall archaeological record, but of the 1,369 artifacts assessed for provenance history in Gill and Chippindale (2000), only 39 were traceable…the rest just “surfaced” during the 1980s or 1990s! Two recent sales via Christie’s Auction House as late as December, 2009, illustrated this alarming point. A Cycladic figurine sold for $122,500, while a Romano-British bronze ‘fibula’ sold for even more. Neither had provenance listings more specific than a “Japanese private collection,” or “Anonymous sale.” When dealing with or tracking what Chippindale termed “toxic” antiquities (with sources and markets all over the world these days), it is important to pay attention to the phrase “said to be.” A common explanation offered by those found guilty of trading in loot, reading between the lines can prove crucial to subsequent investigations. Said “by whom, to whom, under what circumstances, and with what intentions?”

In the case of the recent looting and smuggling of the ornate red on black pottery of southern Italy, one specific instance was highlighted. What later became known as the “Medici affair” involved the illicit trading of one Giacomo Medici who, through his warehouse in Geneva, was able to legally ship thousands of artifacts, in direct collaboration with numerous museums, galleries, and dealers, until his arrest and trial in 2004. This case mirrors in many ways the more recent “Symes affair,” in which the 17,000+ pieces of art and looted antiquities amassed by Robert Symes and Christo Michaelides while in business together are now being dispersed or sold off with minimal acknowledgment of provenance. It is by now well known that these pieces only appeared on the market en masse in the late 20th century, and that Swiss law’s “good faith” statutes have made it an exceptionally easy country to smuggle from, even with changes that bring Switzerland into minimal compliance with the UNESCO 1970 convention. What surprised me in this portion of the talk was the display of an “organigram” that clearly indicated how wide the conspiratorial net stretched. With the artifacts, immense photographic archive, and organigram recovered from the warehouse, the smuggling ring was busted, but this case remains one of the best examples of the “power, deference, and rule of seniority” that underpin so much international antiquities crime (see also e.g. Bowman 2008).

The natures and global distributions of two other large collections discussed; namely the ‘Barakat Gallery,’ and ‘Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Berge’ collections, would suggest similar histories. The Yves Saint Laurant contains fourteen artifacts, but only one has an acquisition history pre-1914, Most post-date 1970, two come directly from the now-defunct Symes collection, and none state archaeological context. The 7,000+ antiquities in the Barakat collection (mostly housed in the United Arab Emirates palace, Abu Dhabi, London and Dubai) span the globe in their source countries, but the majority of artifacts come from the Middle East, said to be (there’s that phrase again) from locations whose place names can be tied to Biblical stories. What is the likelihood that stated provenance matches real provenance? Very slim, according to Dr. Chippindale, who is in the process of archiving and researching it. While this work continues, the gallery continues its worldwide sale of worldwide plunder.

Of course, fakes are something that archaeologists and unscrupulous dealers and curators both have to deal with. The most famous case mentioned during the lecture is that of the “Kouros” figure housed at the Getty (see image above left). Although it represents a ‘surfaced’ find, it came with supposedly authentic documents (until discovery of a listed postal code on a form placing the Kouros in Switzerland in 1951-long before postal codes existed in Switzerland, called the entire case history into question). Furthermore, it appears “neither Athenian or Corinthian” in its typology and design motifs. While authenticity remains “undecided,” but highly suspect, it continues to stand in the Getti Villa, further testimony to the embarrassing curatorship of Marion True.

What really surprised me in this lecture, however, was the lengths of deception that some curators were willing to go to display new Classic (Attic) Greek “vases” to the public. Making clear the fact that “there remain no large stockpiles of authentic Classical antiquities available for the market and museums, outside of forgeries and newly looted pieces,” he then provides case studies of museums, mostly in the US, receiving nearly untraceable “gifts” of ceramic sherds, freshly broken from several different vessels both old and new, then reassembled as cleanly as possible into a new, whole “vase!”. Where does this demand come from? In regards to southern Italian ceramics, I learned that it can be partially explained by the thorough, if unfortunately short-sighted, work of Dr. A.D. Trendall (1909-1995), who, by conflating these ceramics with Classical Greek “vases,” gave them the extra significance needed for them to replace gold and silver objects as worthy heirlooms. Although Trendall was known for respecting the intrinsic value of the ceramics in their archaeological context, and for providing order to their classification, his attaching of aesthetic and cash values to them in his published works certainly helped to create a market fed by looting.

I will conclude this post with a citing of what has become known (somewhat in jest) as “Chippindale’s Law”: “Whenever one takes an interest in anything to do with illicit antiquities, reality is always worse that what was expected” (pers. comm., February 2010). The loss of archaeological data when skeletons and their larger burial contexts are destroyed in the search for artifacts to sell, something that prehistorians in most areas of the world will encounter first hand eventually, is just one example of the compounding of this problem. For those of us working as practicing archaeologists or physical anthropologists, the loss of this information, above and beyond the damage to the landscape and those broken artifacts left behind, drives the looting problem home. From the lecture itself, and one-on-one discussion afterwards, I could walk away with the following take home messages. For archaeologists, we must urgently continue, and in fact ‘step up,’ our “watch dog” roles in this crisis; we who discover, analyse, and disseminate new archaeological knowledge about humanity’s collective past through our training. Activists in general must continue to find ways to take the “hip” and “chic” (if you will) out of antiquities collecting. Easier said than done, but only further education will continue to make a dent. Finally, and most succinctly, the lecture closed thusly: “We must continue to learn from the past, not consume it.” Sage advice indeed.

Looted, trafficked, and sold – "Nostoi" gives artifacts a homecoming welcome

Meet 74 cultural treasures that were ripped from their places of origin, without regard for their archaeological or cultural significance, and sent on an illicit journey: sold to private collectors and prestigious museums as mere art objects, before, finally, being recovered and returned home. These are the 74 objects that make up the exhibition “Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces,” currently on display at the Palazzo Poli in Rome. The exhibit features items previously held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Getty Museum, and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among others. It is designed as a homecoming celebration for artifacts that were looted from Italy, but, following many long legal battles, have been returned from the institutions and individuals that had acquired them illicitly.

SAFE is pleased to see such a landmark exhibit on display, and is proud to offer our own SAFE Tours in both Italian and English of “Nostoi”: our first international SAFE Tours ever. Our tours are led by two experts on Italian art and cultural heritage: Stefano Alessandrini, who has served as an expert witness on several of the court cases surrounding the objects on display in “Nostoi,” and Laura Flusche, an art history professor with an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge on Italian art and history. Both will lead an incredible, one-of-a-kind tour that is not to be missed. However, space is limited, so reservations must be made in advance here.

While the objects on display in the “Nostoi” exhibit represent success stories of looted and recovered artifacts, the tale is bittersweet. These items have been returned to their home country after they were taken illicitly, but most of the knowledge they contained-invaluable knowledge about the past that can only be attained through proper archaeological excavation-is lost forever. At the end of the day, while the object’s return represents the success of legal institutions and international cooperation, the information each object contained was far more valuable than the object as an object alone. Even more knowledge will be lost if action is not taken against looting. And though these 74 pieces have come home, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of thousands of antiquities worldwide that have been looted from their homelands have yet to be recovered, or even located.

Perhaps most importantly, will this exhibition help spur a change in attitudes towards the illicit antiquities trade? Museums, art dealers, and auction houses can make a tremendous difference by taking a stand against the black market in antiquities, and the rampant looting that feeds it. Whether they will remains to be seen.

Photos: Andrea D’Achille

Link Between the White-Levy and Fleischman Collections

One of the pieces handed over to Italy by Shelby White last week was a fragment from a Roman wall-painting. Two other fragments from the same room were once owned by Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman; one was returned to Italy from the Getty in 2007 and the other remains in Malibu. For the complete story see Looting Matters.

The arrangement of the fragments has been created by David Gill and is intended to give an impression of the original design. It is not an accurate reconstruction though the fragments are at the same approximate scale.

Looking beyond 2007

In early November 2006 I gave a seminar to our university research group on the return of Italian antiquities from Boston. The news was just breaking about the Getty agreement – the list included many of the museum’s ‘Masterpieces’.

Then ten months later the Getty’s list has become much longer. The analysis of collectors, dealers and galleries is changing by the week – and it sometimes feels as if it is by the day.

But what lies ahead?

1. Museum returns
The raid in the Geneva Freeport brought to light thousands of Polaroids showing antiquities which appeared to have been looted from Italy in recent years. We have yet to pass the milestone of the first hundred antiquities identified and returned.

2. Private collections
The Geneva Polaroids have identified objects in North American private collections. Some had already passed into public collections (e.g. the Fleischman Collection at the Getty). Private collectors are now in a quandry. They can hardly donate their objects to a museum which would then find itself facing a formal request from a foreign government. What should they do?

3. Scale of the market
There needs to be some detailed work of the scale of the problem. What is the value of the market in antiquities? How many pieces come from “secure” collections? How many pieces have a known find-spot?

4. Intellectual consequences
We need to be worried about looting because their are intellectual consequences for the study of material culture. Knowledge is being lost and it can never be retrieved.

5. Public opinion
There needs to be engagement with those who care about cultural heritage. And this is where this blog should help. Ask your questions. Give us feedback. Urge us to address the issues. I look forward to hearing your views.