Tag Archives: art crime

Off to Amelia: Chasing Aphrodite Honored at Art Crime Conference

We’re off to Amelia, Italy this week for the 4th annual conference of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA).

The program includes talks by some of the leading experts on the illicit antiquities trade, including Italian journalist Fabio Isman discussing the latest developments and Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri on the use of international law to combat the trade.

There will also be panels on the display of contested antiquities at museums, strategies for combatting the illicit trade, a review of recent legal cases and a panel on forgeries and fraud.

On Saturday, Chasing Aphrodite will be honored with the Vallombroso Award for Art Crime Research. Jason will be accepting the award and discussing his latest initiative to combat the illicit trade, WikiLoot. It will be an opportunity to talk about the potential for the project, as well as the concerns some have expressed.

We’ll take good notes and will report back from Amelia soon. Ciao!

Hecht Trial Ends With No Verdict, Medici Conviction Affirmed

American art dealer Robert Hecht, 86, center, is approached by reporters as he leaves a Rome court for a break Friday Jan. 13, 2006

The criminal trial of Robert E. Hecht ended this week with no verdict, while Giacomo Medici’s conviction for trafficking looted antiquities was upheld last month by Italy’s high court.

Here is Jason’s story in the Los Angeles Times:

The trial of Robert E. Hecht Jr., the alleged mastermind of an international black market in ancient art, ended with no verdict this week when a three-judge panel in Rome found the time allotted for the trial had expired.

Hecht, a 92-year-old Baltimore native now confined to bed at his home in Paris, has cut a wide swath through the art world since the 1950s, supplying museums and collectors around the world with some of the finest examples of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan art.

“I have no idea of where an object was excavated,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday. “It could have been excavated 100 years ago, it could have been excavated an hour ago.”

Throughout that colorful career, Hecht has been dogged by allegations that his wares had been recently looted from archaeological sites and smuggled out of their homeland. It was a claim he never directly denied while maintaining his innocence of the Italian charges, which focused on an alleged conspiracy among dealers he considers rivals.

The ruling brings an ambiguous end to a sweeping investigation that traced relics looted from tombs in Italy through a network of smugglers, dealers and private collectors before appearing on display at museums in the United States, Europe and beyond.

The criminal case stemming from that investigation has dragged through Italian courts since 2005 and focused on Hecht and two co-defendants: Marion True, the former Getty antiquities curator, and Italian dealer Giacomo Medici.

True’s trial ended without a verdict in October 2010 when the statute of limitations on her charges expired. Medici, who opted for a fast-track trial, was convicted in 2004, a verdict upheld last month by Italy’s highest court, which imposed an eight-year prison sentence and a 10-million-Euro fine, the largest in Italian history for such a case.

Paolo Ferri, the original prosecutor in the case, expressed exasperation with the Italian legal system, which he said made it impossible to conclude the complex cases in the time allotted. In Italy, months can pass between hearing dates in criminal cases — there were only about 18 hearings in the Hecht case over the six years, Ferri said.

Ferri dismissed critics, mostly in the United States, who suggest that he had purposefully stretched out the cases because he lacked the evidence to convict.

“There is plenty of evidence,” Ferri said, citing as an example Hecht’s own handwritten memoir, in which the dealer detailed his long career buying ancient art from Medici and other suppliers whom Hecht described as “clandestine diggers.” An organizational chart seized from a middleman in the illicit trade showed Hecht’s name at the top of a pyramid of suspected looters and smugglers.

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

Evidence gathered during the investigation was compelling enough to convince American museums to voluntarily return more than 100 masterpieces of ancient art in their collections after they were linked to Hecht, Medici and other dealers. In 2007, the J. Paul Getty Museum offered to return 40 objects to Italy, including its prized statue of Aphrodite.

Confronted with evidence of their own role in an international black market, American museums also adopted strict new acquisition standards designed to prevent the purchase of recently looted antiquities, the excavation of which results in the destruction of archaeological sites around the world.

Still, the failure to bring the Hecht case to a verdict suggests Italy — whose national police force is widely considered a leader in policing archaeological sites — is still lacking a strong deterrent against further looting, a fact that Ferri acknowledged.

“The truth is the Italian legal system is out of order,” said Ferri, who retired in 2010.

As for Hecht, he said he holds no hard feelings about the arduous trial, which did not require him to attend hearings. In a voice weakened by age, he cited a favorite biblical passage:

“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Hard not to feel like Bob is having the last laugh here. But he didn’t sound well when we spoke, and his wife Elizabeth told me he was happy to have this done before he goes.

Robert Hecht poses in front of the famous looted Greek vase he sold the museum in 1972 for $1 million.

Beacon Award for Chasing Aphrodite authors

We’re honored to announce our work has been recognized with a Beacon Award from Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), the non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage worldwide.

In announcing the 2011 award, SAFE cited the authors “for educating the public about how museum practices affect the preservation of cultural heritage. As investigative reporters at the Los Angeles Times, their dedication to uncovering the truth was essential in breaking open the case with the J. Paul Getty Museum. Through their recent book and continued effort to raise awareness online, many will learn, some for the first time, about the devastating effects of the illicit antiquities trade.”

SAFE will be presenting the award at a dinner in New York City on October 28th. You can find details on this and our other upcoming East Coast appearances here.

We’d also like to congratulate the 2012 Beacon Award Winner David Gill, the mind behind Looting Matters and soon to be Head of Humanities and Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk. We’ve followed David’s important research closely over the years and his blog is must-read for those interested in the illicit antiquities trade.

Podcast: Chasing Aphrodite at the Commonwealth Club

 

 

The Commonwealth Club has posted a podcast from Jason’s July 12 appearance.

The hour-long conversation with host Anne W. Smith, chair of the Club’s Art Forum, touched on a wide range of issues including the origins of the Getty scandal, political pressure we faced while covering it for the LA Times, and lessons to be learned for non-profits and arts organizations. The lively audience of about 60 had great questions.

You can listen to the podcast here.

 

 

SAFE interview with co-author Ralph Frammolino

SAFE, the New York nonprofit focused on protecting cultural heritage, has posted its interview with Ralph Frammolino, who gives the behind the scene story of the Getty antiquities scandal and how Chasing Aphrodite came to be.

Listen to it here:   SAFE podcast

Interview with Madeleine Brand on KPCC

Jason’s interview with KPCC’s Madeleine Brand aired this morning. Madeleine loved the book, saying it “read like an international thriller.” You can listen to the podcast here:

The Madeleine Brand Show on Chasing Aphrodite

Editor’s Choice: “It’s impossible not to become engaged…”

The Christian Science Monitor has named Chasing Aphrodite an “Editor’s Choice.” Their review says:

“Felch and Frammolino are serious men, investigative reporters at the top of their games, who very intelligently lay out all the issues at stake here, and you’d probably do best to read this one sitting up straight.

But like all of the titles above, “Chasing Aphrodite” is blessed with the odd allure that marks the world of art itself – a world that Felch and Frammolino describe as “glamorous but not pretty.”

Low-down thugs rub elbows with terrifyingly erudite curators and ridiculously wealthy collectors, all of them almost helplessly attracted to a handful of the most beautiful objects in the world. Museum staffs with more PhDs per capita than you’ll find at MIT create “spiteful environment[s]” in which a sense of entitlement runs wild and trips to Paris on the Concorde are viewed as a basic right. And then there are the earnest investigators – Italian, in this case – driven by a deep-seated conviction that what’s theirs is theirs and that when it comes to the finest of antiquities “such loveliness belongs at home.”

Felch and Frammolino researched their topic for five years, doing countless interviews and enjoying access to confidential Getty files. The result is a book so tightly nailed down that when they describe a meeting you sometimes learn who sat where and what the weather was like that day.

That’s not to say that it’s not a page turner. As a reader it’s impossible not to become engaged with characters like True, who started life in blue-collar Massachusetts but eventually landed – thanks to morally questionable intervention on the part of some wealthy friends of the Getty – a Greek villa of her own.

It’s a world that’s as distant from most of us as the Peloponnesian War – and yet as close as the museum that you visited last week.”

Read the full review here.

Review and Interview with ARCA

The Association for Research into Crimes against Art has posted a great review of Chasing Aphrodite and an interview with Jason about the recent return of the Getty goddess.

Q: How did you feel, being so close to this story, seeing “Aphrodite” being returned to her homeland? Did you understand more about the statute by visiting the area she came from?

A terracotta Persephone on display in the same gallery as the goddess. Many experts now believe the Getty goddess is not Aphrodite.

Jason: We were thrilled to be able to attend the inauguration of the Getty goddess in her new home in Aidone, Sicily. For both Ralph and me, the trip — which coincided with the release of Chasing Aphrodite – really brought a feeling of closure to our own “chase,” which began more than six years ago. Seeing the goddess — can’t really call her Aphrodite anymore — in Sicily brought up some bittersweet feelings. The archaeological museum there sees about 17,000 visitors a year, far fewer than the 400,000 than visit the Getty Villa. Sicilian officials are hoping the goddess’ return will change that, but certainly fewer people will see her now, and LA has lost an important masterpiece. That said, it was VERY powerful to see the statue in her new context, a stone’s throw from Morgantina, the Greek ruins from where she was looted in the late 1970s. Surrounded by eerily similar figures depicting the fertility goddesses Persephone and Demeter, the statue takes on a startling new meaning.

If you don’t know it, ARCA is an interdisciplinary research group on issues of art crime. In addition to publishing the biannual peer-reviewed Journal of Art Crime they host conferences and publish a good blog here.