Tag Archives: Giacomo Medici

The Danish Connection: Holding on to Loot at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotech of Copenhagen

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It is easy to forget that American museums were not the only ones caught in Italy’s investigation of the illicit antiquities trade.

The Getty, the Met, the Boston MFA, the Cleveland Museum and Princeton received most of the attention for being linked to the network supplied by antiquities trafficker Giacamo Medici. But Medici objects were also traced to museums and collectors in Germany, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Australia, Japan.

Today, eighteen years since the raid on Medici’s warehouse, at least one European museum is still refusing to return clearly looted material: the Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.

Camilla Stockmann, an arts journalist at the Danish daily Politiken, has followed the story since 2006 and recently wrote me with an update: despite years of negotiations, the Copenhagen museum and Italy have still not reached an agreement.

What makes the Glyptotek’s foot-dragging particularly striking is the quality of evidence supporting Italy’s claims. Medici’s criminal sentence identified several objects in the museum that are shown in Polaroids seized in Medici’s warehouse: a terracotta relief depicting a chariot race; an acroterion (roof ornament) depicting a winged sphinx; and terracotta reliefs that comprise a pair of mounted warriors.

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Then there is the tomb of an Etruscan prince from the Sabine Hills outside Rome, show above. It includes the Prince’s shield, weapons, banqueting equipment and bronze incense burners. Most striking are the remains of a horse-drawn carriage. “From Etruria and Latium, which stretched south west of the River Tiber, only a limited number of similar tombs are known,” the museum boasts in its display text.

The tomb in question, archaeologists have concluded, is in the Colle del Forno necropolis. It was looted shortly before being discovered by Italian archaeologists in 1970. “Fortunately the tomb raiders didn’t do a thorough job,” Italian archaeologist Daniela Rizzo testified in Medici’s trial. Additional material from the tomb was recovered and is now on display in the archaeological museum of Fara in Sabine, waiting to be reunited with the objects in Copenhagen.

Hecht’s memoir recounts purchasing the entire set from Medici for $67,000 and selling it to the Copenhagen museum for $1.2 million Swiss francs, or about $240,000.

Finally, there are the Glyptotek’s Etruscan antefixes depicting Maenad and Silenus. They bear an uncanny resemblance to the one the Getty Museum acquired in 1996 and put on the cover of the its antiquities catalog before returning it to Italy. The Getty acquired its antefix from the Fleischmans, who purchased it from the Hunt Collection, which was largely composed of material from Medici.

Are the antefixes related? Pictures tell the story: on the left if the Getty’s, returned to Italy in 2007. On the right is one of the Copenhagen antefix, which remain at the Glyptotek.

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And here are the Polaroids seized from Medici’s warehouse showing the antefixes soon after emerging from the ground:

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Further evidence about the Glyptotek’s role in the illicit trade comes from Medici’s principal connection to the art market, American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht.

Mogens Gjødesen, the museum’s director from 1970 to 1978, was tight with Hecht, a frequent visitor to the museum. In in his handwritten memoir, Hecht describes sharing pickled herring and drinking akvavit with Gjødesen and his wife on several occasions.  “A former curator told me that he (Hecht) was called the ironmonger amongst the employees since he always showed up with a plastic bag with artefacts that he wanted to sell,” says Stockmann.

A 1970 letter from Hecht to Mogens Gjødesen discusses sending "the children" to Copenhagen.

A 1970 letter from Hecht to Mogens Gjødesen discusses sending “the children” to Copenhagen.

Indeed, Hecht’s handwritten memoir reveals that when he first obtained the famous Euphronios krater from Medici, he offered it first to Gjødesen, who unsuccessfully “tried to get a Danish shipman to buy it for the Glypt.”

The journal also reveals that Hecht appears to have sold the Glyptotek illicitly exported silver figures from Greece: “After my wife’s departure I went to Greece and was shown a magnificent group of geometric AE figurina* (now in coppenhagen). (*Helmeted nude rider, 2) This group was appreciated by the Carlsberg Foundation & was acquired by the Glypotech within a few months. This group has both an artistic + a cultural interest. A helmeted mounted horseman, 2 horses back to back, the upper half of a youth, a potter at work, a miniature helmet, et. Al. The patina is smooth, pea green.”

The Danish Stonewall

When confronted with this evidence, the Glyptotek initially denied any acquisitions from Medici or his associates after 1970. As evidence emerged that contradicted that, their position shifted. Stockmann says:

“Until 2007 The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek denied any wrongdoing but after substantial politic pressure the museum sent documents about the items bought from Medici and Hecht during the 1970s to Italy. In 2007 Italy asked for a great number of items returned. Since 2008, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the Italian Ministry of Culture have tried to reach an agreement.”

In 2009, the New York Times reported that those negotiations had bogged down. While most American museums had managed to reach agreements with Italy on contested material, Italy’s top negotiator said the Glyptotek “had taken a very different attitude.”

Recently talks have restarted, Stockmann told me. Both sides agree that all items related to the tomb of the Etruscan Prince should be returned to Italy in exchange for comparable loans. But the terracotta antefixes have “been the subject of a conflict.” In particular, Italy objects to language in a draft agreement on cultural cooperation that would prevent it from bringing further claims in the future.

Usually, stonewalling is a good sign that problems go far deeper. So I’ve looked into our archives to see what else I could find.

Gjødesen and the Getty Forgeries

As it happens, Gjødesen was a visiting scholar at the Getty Museum in 1978 and 1978, just as his directorship at the Glyptotek was coming to an end. While at the Getty, he had the opportunity to weigh in on two important acquisitions being considered by the museum.

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The first was an archaic relief showing a Greek soldier binding the head of a fellow warrior. The Getty’s crooked antiquities curator Jiri Frel dubbed it The Death of a Hero. Several experts were dubious about the authenticity of the relief, noting the execution of details like the closed eye seemed off for the Archaic period. At $2.3 million dollars, it was not a decision to be made lightly.

Gjødesen’s opinion helped sway the board, Getty records show. In a letter to Frel dated December 14, 1978, he wrote:

From time to time it happens that a discovery is made which elaborates, extends or totally changes our conception of Greek art. This has happened once again. I am, of course, referring to the archaic Attic relief, dating from about 525 B.C. which you have determinedly tracked down during the past years and are now in a position to submit to the Board of Trustees of the J. Paul Getty Museum with a view to its acquisition.

You have asked my opinion. To put it bluntly, the relief is a sublime masterpiece of incredible subtlety, sentiment and expressiveness, a work of grace, intimacy and poetry, with a surprising touch of realism. It needs no letter of recommendation.

He added a key detail to clinch the objects’ authenticity:

So far the master remains anonymous, though not unknown to us, for in 1958 a relief, obviously by the same hand although of a different but for the time equally unexpected theme, was unearthed at Anavysos in Attica and brought to the Athens National Museum.

He concluded:

It is a miracle that this piece of sculpture was produced and is preserved. It is an even greater miracle that it is available. The opportunity should not be missed; it is unlikely to return. I cross my fingers for you and for the museum.

The Getty acquired the piece for $2.3 million in 1979. There are indications that Frel received a substantial kickback in the deal. Soon after, experts from around the world condemned the relief as a crude fake. The carving was incorrect, particularly the heads and hands, noted Brunhilde Ridgeway. The fragmentary image was impossible to reconstruct in a credible way, and no funerary relief of the Archaic period was known to have the same proportions.

In the 1980s, the Getty declared it a fake and returned it to the dealer.

url-1It was not the only fake whose praises Gjødesen sang while at the Getty. Soon after the archaic relief was acquired, a head attributed to the legendary master Skopas was offered to the Getty. It had been “in a private French collection since the 1830s” and considered “one of the most important pieces of ancient art in the United States,” Frel claimed.

Gjødesen was among the scholars who lent support to Frel’s claims. The Skopas head was later established to be a modern forgery.

Was Gjødesen fooled? Or was he, like Frel, part of a scheme whose depths we have not fully plumbed? And when will the Copenhagen museum come clean?

The Getty’s Looted Amber: A Window into the Museum’s Deepening Dilemma

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In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I have a story about Getty Museum’s efforts to find the true origins of its massive antiquities collection.

Here’s how the story starts:

In the wake of a scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum is trying to verify the ownership histories of 45,000 antiquities and publish the results in the museum’s online collections database.

The study, part of the museum’s efforts to be more transparent about the origins of ancient art in its collection, began last summer, said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

“In this effort, and in all our work, when we identify objects that warrant further discussion and research, we conduct the necessary research to determine whether an item should be returned,” Hartwig said in a statement to The Times.

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The review is likely to reveal that problems in the Getty’s collection go far deeper than the nearly 50 looted objects returned since 2007according to Getty records and interviews with antiquity dealers and former museum officials.

Hundreds of objects still in the collection were acquired with false ownership histories aimed at disguising their origins in the illicit antiquities trade, records and interviews show.

The depth of its problem was underscored in November, when the Getty published a catalog of 56 carved ambers, objects that the ancient Greeks and Etruscans used in amulets for the magical properties they were believed to possess.

At first look, “Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum” represents the museum at its finest — decades of scholarship published online in an illustrated catalog that engages the public in a rarely studied artifact of the ancient world.

But records — including internal Getty files — show that the ambers were almost certainly looted from tombs in northern Italy.

medici mugThe relics passed through the smuggling network of Giacomo Medici, who has been convicted in Italy of trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. Once in the United States, they were donated to the Getty as part of a tax fraud scheme that nearly brought the institution to its knees in the 1980s.

The catalog is silent on this history, which a Getty spokesman says the museum was not aware of at the time, but it does acknowledge the consequences. Because nothing is known of the context in which the ambers were found, little can be definitively concluded about their meaning to their ancient owners.

“Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts?” writes Faya Causey, author of the catalog. “Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part.”

The ambers capture the dilemma that the Getty faces today. Having largely abandoned the purchase of ancient art, it is using its unparalleled resources to restore meaning to objects whose history it had a hand in destroying.

You can read the full LA Times story here.

The Getty’s Study Collection

This is not the first time questions have been raised about the Getty’s study collection, the tens of thousands of artifacts in the museum’s collection deemed not worthy of display but held in storage for scholarly study.

In the 1990s, hundreds of pottery sherds and votive fragments in the collection were linked to a looted archaeological site in Francavilla Maritima. Under Marion True’s leadership, the Getty conducted an exhaustive scholarly study of the material, then returned it to Italy. 

Last year, the Getty quietly returned 150 marble fragments in the collection (88.AA.140 – 88.AA.144) to Italy after evidence emerged that they joined objects found in the same looted tombs of Ascoli Satriano that produced  the Getty’s Griffins and statue of Apollo, which were returned to Italy in 2007. The objects and fragments were acquired in the 1980s from London dealer Robin Symes.

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Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig described the voluntary returns as the result of cooperative research with Italian archaeologists:

In his letter to Director General Luigi Malnati last January, Jim Cuno said, “The Getty acquired these objects as a gift in 1988, in the hope that they would be preserved and studied and eventually reconnected with other fragments of the same objects.  Happily, careful scholarship has led to that result.  Working with colleagues in Italy, Getty curators have determined that the fragments in our possession are very likely to match with vessels from Ascoli Satriano.  It is our hope that the fragments can be examined to ascertain their pertinence, and rejoined to these vessels.” Dr. Malnati invited [Getty antiquities curator] Claire Lyons to join a committee formed as a research collaboration to examine the pieces.

01293001But the Getty’s problems are not confined to the study collection, as was demonstrated last week when the Getty announced it would return a terracotta head of Hades to Sicily. It will be reunited with the statue’s body, which was found at the archaeological site of Morgantina — the same source of the Getty’s looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned in 2010.

These returns are a reminder of the Getty’s crooked collecting practices, but they also offer some reason for hope. Each return has contributed to important new insights about archaeological sites that were despoiled by looters. The process of joint investigation and return has helped re-create some of the lost context — something Lord Colin Renfrew once described as “Post-disjunctive forensic re-contextualisation.”

Expect to see more if it in the year ahead. As noted in Saturday’s story, a large part of the Getty’s study collection was acquired in bulk donations in the 1970s and 1980s via the looting and tax fraud scheme we describe in Chapter 2 of Chasing Aprhodite. Records show that much of it passed through the smuggling networks of Medici, Hecht, Symes and Becchina, suggesting it will likely end up back in Italy sooner or later.  

The ambers are the latest tip to surface of a very large iceberg. As David Gill noted in November, “the scale of the problem for the Getty is massive.”

Dallas Museum of Art Returns Orpheus Mosaic, Five Other Looted Treasures in Announcing New Art Loans Initiative

Orpheus Mosaic

The Dallas Museum of Art has agreed to return six looted antiquities from its collection and announced a broad new initiative to exchange expertise and artwork with cultural institutions around the world.

“The problems of illegal excavation and the illicit import of cultural property require the consideration of new models of cooperation among institutions,” the museum said in a release announcing the initiative, dubbed the Dallas Museum of Art Exchange Program, or DMX.

The effort was announced Monday while signing an agreement with Turkey, the museum’s first partner, for the return of the Orpheus Mosaic, a Roman mosaic floor looted near Edessa (today’s Sanliurfa) and acquired at a Christies auction by the DMA in 1999.

Microsoft Word - Orpheus mosaic in situ.docxIn explaining the return, the museum cited compelling new evidence presented by Turkish investigators about the mosaic’s illicit origins: “Two newly recovered in situ photos of the mosaic showing it being removed by the smugglers. The photographs also show the full work with its decorative borders intact, prior to it being removed from the ground. The photographs were printed by a local photo shop in Sanliurfa and are currently evidence in a criminal investigation being carried out by the Sanliurfa Head Prosecutor in order to identify everyone involved in the crime.” The image shows the mosaic with a border that was likely removed by looters, the museum notes, adding, ” The canister visible in the lower right contains a Turkish brand of glue, which looters–not archaeologists–would have used to make repairs.”

Notably, the Dallas museum initiated the return of the mosaic instead of waiting for it to be identified by Turkish authorities, who have been on a campaign to repatriate looted antiquities. Soon after Maxwell Anderson started as director in January, he asked the museum’s antiquities curators to identify objects with troubling ownership histories. The mosaic was found to be nearly identical to several published on a website of Turkey of looted objects. Anderson told the Dallas Morning News:

the last thing he wanted was “to be the recipient of a claim by Turkey and be unprepared, seeing all of that evidence. So, I wrote to the embassy, saying if you have any information about this mosaic, please let us know. I didn’t have any specific information, but it seemed circumstantially that it was very likely that it was removed from that site.” Turkish officials came forward with the photograph of the mosaic, “which is all you need to know,” Anderson said.

In addition to the Orpheus mosaic, the Dallas museum agreed to return five antiquities to Italy in response to law enforcement requests. All five  Two of those objects were first questioned by us in a Jan. 11 email to the museum inquiring about links between the DMA and the illicit trade, including antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia. After our inquiry, the DMA contacted Italy and has now agreed to return them.

UPDATE: In February, we requested provenance information for 15 of the DMA’s recent acquisitions, including the five pieces returned this week, that we selected at random. They helpfully provided the list we posted here. We asked yesterday on Twitter whether other objects on that list might also be returned — several come from dealers who have also been implicated in the illicit trade. A museum spokeswoman now tells us: “Italian and Greek authorities have reviewed  our collections records, including the works you refer to in your recent post, and have advanced no other claims.” Of course, some of the material on the list, such as the Cycladic figurine, likely came from other countries.

The objects going back to Italy — and the DMA’s explanation for their return — offer a helpful who’s who of the illicit antiquities trade.

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Two Etruscan shields with the head of Acheloos (Etruscan 6th Century BC)

Volute Krater (Pulian, 4th Century BC). 

As we noted in February, both were purchased from  antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagià in 1998.  The museum describes Almagià as “a former New York antiquities dealer…currently named in a criminal case for conspiracy to commit the illegal export and smuggling of cultural property pending before the Public Prosecutor of Rome. Almagià has been under investigation since at least 2006, when U.S. Customs officials raided his New York apartment, confiscating photographs, documents, and archaeological material. He was also the subject of a New York Times story in 2010 that revealed he and Michael Padgett, former antiquities curator at the Princeton University Art Museum, were the focus of an investigation of the illegal export and laundering of Italian archaeological objects. The Italian government named Almagià in the criminal case for having ‘sold, donated, or lent’ nearly two dozen works looted from Italian sites to the Princeton Museum. Roughly twenty other objects are listed in the case as having been obtained illegally by Almagià and sold to other American institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, including this pair of shields.” UPDATE: The DMA incorrectly referred to Padgett as the former antiquities curator at Princeton. The Princeton Museum confirms he remains on staff there, and the DMA has corrected is post.

dma_507363As evidence that the statue and krater were looted, the museum cited “photographs provided that were seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials” and “archival evidence seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, including records of sales and correspondence currently serving as evidence in the criminal investigation and court case.”

Dallas now joins the Met and Princeton in returning objects linked to the dealer. (We’ve written about those returns here and here.) Will the other museums we’ve identified with Almagia material — including the Getty, the Boston MFA, San Antonio Museum of Art, Indiana University — now be motivated to do the same?

dma_507366A Red Figure krater (Apulia, 4th Century BC) acquired by DMA at Sotheby’s in 1996.

A Calxy Krater (Campagnia, 4th Century BC) acquired from the vases form Ward and Co. around 2005, said to be from a “Swiss private collection.” 

Both vases have been linked to Gianfranco Becchina, who the museum describes as “a Sicilian antiquities dealer who has been convicted in Italy of dealing in stolen antiquities. Becchina started dealing in antiquities from his premises in Basel, Switzerland, in the 1970s and is said to have sold to several major museums, sometimes through Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in London. In May 2002, the Carabinieri, in collaboration with the Swiss police, raided his storage facilities in Basel, recovering thousands of objects in various stages of restorations, photographs of artifacts, and other documents.”

dma_507370“The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art have both returned material to Italy that was acquired from Becchina and subsequently shown to have been illegally exported.”

“In April 2012 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized two works from Christie’s New York auction house that were associated with the investigation of Becchina. According to the Carabinieri, Gianfranco Becchina has been identified as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage, and all property that has been shown to have been illicitly trafficked by Becchina is subject to confiscation.”

You can find a list of our previous posts mentioning Becchina here.

dma_507364Etruscan head of an Antefix. Said to be from Henri Jacques of Geneva. Purchased from Robin Symes in about 1999.

A photograph linked this antefix to Giacomo Medici, who the museum describes as “a former antiquities dealer based in Rome, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland, who was found guilty of receiving stolen goods, illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic by the Italian government and sentenced to ten years in prison and a €10 million fine. In 1995 the Carabinieri, in concert with Swiss police, raided Medici’s storage space in Geneva, which contained thousands of objects, photographs (including many Polaroids), and documents relating to his business practices and connections. The Cleveland Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art have all returned objects that were acquired via Giacomo Medici. Along with Gianfranco Becchina, he has been identified by the Carabinieri as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage.”

Robin Symes, the dealer form whom the DMA purchased the objects, has also been linked to the illicit trade, the museum notes. “Symes is also accused of playing a pivotal role in the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, have already returned several objects acquired through Symes. He is known to have commercial relations with dealer Giacomo Medici, who was the ultimate source of the artifacts that would subsequently be sold through dealers or auction houses. Prior to the Medici conviction, Robin Symes had been involved in a civil court case, and in January 2005 he was sentenced to two years in prison for contempt of court for not fully disclosing his assets.”

You can find our other posts mentioning Symes here.

We’ll have more on the significance of the returns and the DMA’s new loans initiative in a future post.

The Getty List: 10 Objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum that Turkey Says Were Looted

Among the dozens of allegedly looted antiquities that the government of Turkey is asking American museums to return are ten objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD. From Cremna, Turkey. Purchased in 1994 for $550,000 from Varya and Hans Cohn, Los Angeles. The Cohn’s acquired the object from Elie Borowsky (Basel) in ’68. (JPGM 94.AA.22)

The Getty declined to provide a list of the objects in question, as did the Met, the Cleveland Museum and Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks. We obtained a list from Turkish authorities and asked the Getty to provide the collecting history for those objects.

Unlike those other museums, the Getty is obligated by its 2006 acquisition policy to provide the public with provenance information about objects in the collection. Thanks to that policy, we now know something about how the contested objects came to the Getty.

The most prominent are four marble Muses now on display in the Getty Villa’s Basilica Room. All four appear to come from Cremna, Turkey and were first acquired by antiquities dealer Elie Borowski sometime before 1968, the Getty records show.

Borowski, who died in 2003, had ties to the illicit antiquities trade. His name appears in Robert Hecht’s memoir as a client of convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici; it also appears on a handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities in 2001. Former Getty antiquities curator Marion True told Italian authorities that Borowski had also been a client of Gianfranco Becchina, the Sicilian antiquities dealer (also named on the org chart) who is on trial in Italy.

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD. From Asia Minor. Purchased for $10,137 from Elie Borowsky in ’71; Borowsky already owned in 1968 (JPGM 71.AA.461)

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD, from Cremna, Turkey. Purchased for $9,185 in 1968 from Sotheby’s London, November 26, 1968. lot no. 173. (JPGM 68.AA.21)

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD, from Cremna, Turkey. Purchased in 1968 for $13,122 at Sotheby’s London, November 26, 1968. lot no. 173. (JPGM 68.AA.22)


Several other Getty objects sought by Turkey came through another dealer connected to the illicit trade: Nicolas Koutoulakis, now deceased owner of the Paris gallery Segredakis. Koutoulaksi also appears in the org chart and last September, the Getty returned to Greece fragments of a grave stone it had acquired from Koutoulakis after scholars concluded they adjoined an object now in a Greek museum.

Portrait of a Man. (73.AB.8) Purchased in 1973 for  $125,326  from Nicolas Koutoulakis

Bronze bust. (71.AB.458) Purchased in 1971 for $90,000 from Nicolas Koutoulakis.

Bronze foot from “Bubon, Turkey, Asia” (72.AB.103) acquired from Nicolas Koutoulakis. (See the Cleveland bronze from Bubon here.)

Bronze bed (82.AC.94) purchased for $150,000 from Nicolas Koutoulakis; Koutoulakis purchased from Gilette’s estate; Joseph Gilette of Lausanne, ca 1936.

The final two Getty objects come from a private dealer and an auction house:

Roman Eagle (72.AB.151) purchased in 1972 for $200,000 from French & Company.

Bronze bust of Lucius Veres  (73.AB.100) purchased in 1973 for $37,701 from Spink & Son, London.

When asked for comment about Turkey’s request, Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig said, “We are in dialogue with officials from the Turkish Ministry of Culture regarding some objects in our collection. We expect those discussions to continue and while they do, we will not be getting into specifics.”

Introducing WikiLoot: Your Chance to Fight the Illicit Antiquities Trade

[UPDATE: Our WikiLoot proposal has sparked a great conversation about the project. Thanks for all the comments submitted below and on the application, which you can find here. Collaboration is at the heart of this project, so we've created an open group in Facebook where people can continue to exchange ideas about the potential (and pitfalls) of WikiLoot. Join the conversation here.]

Today we’re pleased to announce — and to seek your help with — an exciting new project we’ve been tinkering with in private for some time. We’re calling it WikiLoot.

The idea behind WikiLoot is simple:

1. Create an open source web platform, or wiki, for the publication and analysis of a unique archive of primary source records and photographs documenting the illicit trade in looted antiquities.

2. Use social media and other tools to engage a broad network of contributors — experts, journalists, researchers, dilettantes and curious citizens — to collaborate in the analysis of that material.

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

The inspiration for WikiLoot is the vast amount of documentation seized by European investigators over the past two decades during investigations of the illicit trade in Classical antiquities smuggled (primarily) out of Greece and Italy. The business records, journals, correspondence and photographs seized from looters and middlemen during those investigations comprise a unique record of the black market.

Much of that documentation remains tangled in legal cases that are likely to end inconclusively, like that of former Getty antiquities curator Marion True and dealer Robert Hecht. Despite remarkable investigative work by authorities in Italy and Greece, only the trial of Italian dealer Giacomo Medici reached a verdict.

This Polaroid seized from the warehouse of dealer Giacomo Medici shows the Getty Museum's Statue of Apollo shortly after it was looted from a tomb in Southern Italy.

WikiLoot will make these records and photographs publicly available on the web and will enlist collaborators around the world to tag and analyze them. As with Wikipedia, participants will be given credit for their contributions. Ultimately, we hope to create the world’s most authoritative dataset of a black market whose size and reach is still poorly understood. (Estimates of the illicit antiquities trade range from $200 million a year to $10 billion dollars a year.)

The project is still embryonic — we’re consulting with open-source techies on the best way to structure the wiki; with lawyers about the legal issues involved; and with social media experts on on how to engage the broader public in the effort. We’re also considering concerns about the effect this release of information will have on existing collections and the still-thriving market for antiquities with unclear ownership histories.

Today we’re taking an important step toward launching WikiLoot with our application for a Knight Foundation News Challenge Grant. And we need your help.

Challenge Grants reward innovative uses of new media to solve problems and inform the public. The theme of this round of grants is “networks.” Here’s how the folks at Knight explain what they’re looking for: “The Internet, and the mini-computers in our pockets, enable us to connect with one another, friends and strangers, in new ways. Witness the roles of networks in the formation, coverage and discussion of recent events such as the rise of the Tea Party, flash mobs, the Arab Spring, last summer’s UK riots and the Occupy movement. We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools – that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon.”

For WikiLoot, our network is YOU — the growing number of interconnected people around the world concerned about the illicit antiquities trade and looking to do something about it. We’re relying on your input to shape the project and, once launched, contribute to it with your knowledge.

To start, we need your support for our Challenge Grant proposal. One of the key things considered by judges is public engagement with the proposed idea. The best way to show this is for you to “like” our proposal or add a comment on how you think it could help — or be improved. (You may need to sign in with a Tumblr or other social media account.)

Show your support by liking or commenting on our WikiLoot proposal, which is posted on Knight’s Tumblr page here

We’re also eager to tap your expertise — or curiosity — during this development stage of WikiLoot. What features would help engage a broad audience in the analysis of this material? What concerns do you have about its release? Who else should we be reaching out to or partnering with? What can you contribute?

To that end, we’ll be making WikiLoot a new tab at the top of ChasingAprhodite.com. That’s where you can submit public comments, suggestions or rants. We’ll update it with new information as things develop. If you’d like to contact us privately, do so via email: chasingaphrodite@gmail.com

Thanks for your interest and support. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on WikiLoot!

Kimbell Art Museum Responds To Questions About Ancient Cup Acquired Under Timothy Potts

Timothy Potts

The Kimbell Art Museum has decided to list one of its prized possessions — a Greek cup acquired in 2000 under then-director Timothy Potts — on a public registry of ancient art with unclear origins.

The move comes after Jason raised questions about the cup while reporting an article for Saturday’s LA Times on Potts’ role in the controversies involving American museums and the looted antiquities trade discussed in Chasing Aphrodite. This week Potts was named as the next director of the Getty Museum.

The cup in question is from the 5th century BC and was masterfully painted by the Greek artist known as the Douris Painter. The Kimbell describes it as “one of the finest surviving vases of the early Classical period.” The scene on the cup depicts the death of Pentheus, a mythical king of Thebes, being torn limb from limb by a group of drunken followers of Dionysus.

The museum lists the cup’s ownership history as follows: (Elie Borowski [1913-2003]) by 1977; sold to a Japanese oil company, probably late 1980s; (sale, Christie’s, New York, June 12, 2000, no. 81); purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 2000.

As David Gill noted in his review of James Cuno’s book Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities, the vase was published by Robert Guy in “Glimpses of Excellence: A Selection of Greek Vases and Bronzes from the Elie Borowski Collection” (Toronto Royal Ontario Museum) and highlighted in an interview with Potts for Apollo Magazine (vol. 166,October 1,2007).

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

The earliest documented owner of the cup, Elie Borowski, has been linked to the illicit trade by Italian and Greek investigators. His name appears  in Robert Hecht’s memoir as a client of convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici and on a handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities in 2001 (on right). Marion True told Italian authorities that Borowski had also been a client of Gianfranco Becchina, the Sicilian antiquities dealer (also named on the chart) who is now on trial in Italy.

In correspondence with Potts and the Kimbell, we asked why they were confident the cup was not the product of an illicit excavation after 1970.

Kimbell spokeswoman Jessica Brandrup initially said: “The Museum has not been contacted by the Italian or the Greek government in regards to works in the Museum’s permanent collection. The purchase of the Greek vase was legitimate and remains a highlight in the Kimbell’s permanent collection.”

Potts said via email, “We did due diligence on the object and were confident that it fell within the AAMD and other U.S. guidelines then in force.” (Worth noting: Four years after the acquisition of the cup, Potts played a central and somewhat controversial role in re-writing those AAMD guidelines, as we note in Saturday’s LA Times story.)

When we pushed the Kimbell for additional information about the cup, we received this statement:

“When the Douris cup was purchased at auction in 2000, the Kimbell Art Museum, like most US museums, held antiquities to the standard of the US 1983 ratification of the 1970 UNESCO treaty.

We believe that the piece can be documented as being outside its country of finding before 1983. Subsequent to its purchase, the AAMD recommended in 2008 that museums apply the 1970 standard instead.

We don’t have information on the cup’s whereabouts between 1970 and 1977, as is evident in the provenance described on our website. To further comply with the AAMD recommendations, we will post it on the AAMD Registry of New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art.

Thank you for calling this discrepancy to our attention.”

The AAMD object registry was created in 2008, when American museum directors decided the 2004 policy championed by Potts and others was not adequate. As described on AAMD’s website, the 2008 changes sought “to affirm more clearly and tangibly its members’ commitment to helping protect and preserve archaeological resources worldwide, and to strengthen the principles and standards used in making decisions regarding the acquisition of archeological materials and ancient art.”

The AAMD’s object registry lists recent acquisitions of ancient art whose ownership histories cannot be traced back to 1970, the date of the UNESCO anti-looting treaty. The goal is “to make information about such objects freely available to students, teachers, visitors, source countries, officials, as well as possible claimants.”

The registry also contains 10 objects acquired by the Chicago Institute of Art, many of then under director James Cuno, who is now Getty Trust CEO.

New Wave of Returns: Hundreds of Looted Antiquities Recovered from the Met, Princeton and Others

On Jan 20, the Italian art squad announced the return of more than 200 antiquities from US museums, companies, collectors and dealers — all the product of illegal excavation or theft.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned forty pieces belonging to a deceased private collector who has been identified as the museum’s former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. Von Bothmer was known to have a large private collection of vase fragments and was fond of reuniting these fragments with vases in known collections. Fabio Isman reports that several of the returned fragments match vases already returned by American museums, including the Getty’s Onesimos kylix, which was potted by the famous Euphronios.

Question: What of the rest of the von Bothmer collection and his considerable personal archive, which no doubt contains a fascinating history of the illicit antiquities trade over the past 50 years? Is it, as this return suggests, in the possession of the Met, and will its contents be made public?

Princeton University Art Museum returned 170 objects and fragments, including: an askos-shaped talus; two statues of women, including one playing a tambourine and the other a lyre; a white pithos with red figures representing animals;  and 166 fragments from vases and architectural elements. The returns appear to be related to the investigation of Edoardo Almagià, the Princeton alum and antiquities dealer who, along with Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett, are targets of an investigation by Italian authorities.

The release states [via Google translation] that the objects “were identified in previous surveys conducted by the [Carabinieri] of the possessions of an Italian-American citizen, resident of New York, who has been the subject of the seizure of numerous archaeological finds, in New York and Rome, and copious documentation with photographic material pertaining to sales and loans made ​​by him.” These seized documents have allowed investigators to trace looted antiquities to prestigious American museums like the Met and Princeton, the release says, adding that the Carabinieri “have thus established, irrefutably, the origin of the objects from illicit excavations made ​​in Italy.” Works from Almagia have also been traced to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the San Antonio Museum of Art; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Tampa Museum of Art; the Indiana University Art Museum, The New York Times has reported.

Question: It appears we can now add the Almagia Archive to the trove of documents, photographs and objects that Italian investigators have seized from antiquities dealers Robin Symes, Robert Hecht, Gianfranco Becchina and Giacomo Medici. Given that only Medici has been convicted in Italian court, will these archives, which provide an unprecedented record of the illicit trade, ever be released publicly by Italian authorities?

Princeton and the Met have not yet acknowledged the returns. We’ll post details when they do. In response to a previous request for information, Princeton Museum spokeswoman Cass Cliatt took pains to distance the museum from the Padgett/Almagia case: “The[re] were not and have not ever been any allegations against the University related to the current investigation, and the Italian authorities at no point contacted the University about the current investigation. Great care should be taken about implying a connection.” It is not clear how a criminal investigation into the museum’s curator and a major donor (and alum) have nothing to do with the museum, and these returns only raise further questions. We’ve asked Cliatt for more information and will post it here when it comes.

Other returns announced in the release:

Humana, a Fortune 100 health insurance provider, returned two statues that had graced the lobby of its Louisville headquarters. The first, a second century sculpture depicting the goddess Fortuna, was stolen in October 1986 from an opera house in Rome. The second, a first century marble statue, was illegally excavated in Lazio, Italy and has been linked to the convicted antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici. The release says Humana acquired the statues in 1984 from a New York Gallery and cooperated fully with Italian investigators.

A New York antiquities dealer has returned a bronze statue known as the Venus of St. John Perareto, which was stolen from a museum in Rimini in 1962. UPDATE: Jerome Eisenberg of Royal-Athena Gallery in New York confirms that he is the dealer. In an email, he said he bought the small Venus from an unnamed dealer in Freiburg, Germany in 1982 and was offering it for $22,500.

An ancient parchment stolen from Bari was identified and returned with the help of FBI officials in Chicago. And bronze grave goods from the first century were returned “a genuine gesture of respect for the Italian people” by contemporary artist Edward Giobbi, who had inherited them from his father.

Hat-Tip: David Gill at Looting Matters first brought the returns to our attention.

ALSO: Fabio Isman has a story on the returns in Il Messagero.

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.