Tag Archives: illicit antiquities

Chasing Aphrodite at Google: Jason Felch on the Illicit Antiquities Trade and WikiLoot

Google's pet T-Rex, Stan, is on the prowl at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.

On February 10th, Jason visited the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA to talk about Chasing Aphrodite and to solicit help with a new initiative, WikiLoot.

The talk was part of the Authors@Google program, and was organized by Jason’s old friend Steve Meaney, who works in marketing there. (Thanks, Steve!) Also attending were several people from the archaeology department at nearby Stanford University.

The hour-long talk gives an overview of the role of the Getty Museum and other American museums in the illicit antiquities trade. At minute 49 the talk turns to WikiLoot, an effort to harness technology to expose the illicit trade. A Q&A follows.

The Cleveland List: 21 objects Turkey wants Cleveland Museum of Art to Return

UPDATE: Steven Litt at the Cleveland Plain Dealer has published an update on the Cleveland case here, saying the case “could shake the foundations of encyclopedic museums.” The Cleveland Museum was first contacted by Turkey in 2008, and took two years to respond before refusing to allow testing on the contested objects or provide information about their provenance, Litt reports.

We noted with interest that several of the questioned objects were acquired under former Cleveland antiquities curator Arielle Kozloff, who worked closely with the Getty’s Marion True to exhibit the Fleischman Collection, went on to work for the Merrin Gallery, and now describes herself as “a private consultant and lecturer for museums and private collectors.” In this video, Kozloff expresses her admiration for former Cleveland director Sherman Lee, saying, “As soon as the glimpse of a question arose about [a contested painting], he went right after it to find the truth and made sure that the truth came out.” Times have changed at the Cleveland.

UPDATE II: David Gill notes that Kozloff has suggested previously that one of the museum’s contested bronzes came from Bubon, Turkey and was looted in the 1960s  – a claim she has now backed away from. And Paul Barford has some additional thoughts here.

On Saturday, Jason revealed in the Los Angeles Times that the government of Turkey is seeking the return of dozens of allegedly looted antiquities from American museums, including 21 objects from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

We’ve posted a complete list of the Cleveland objects below. They range from 14th Century BC Hittite objects through the Greek and Roman period and up to Ottoman period tiles and ceramic work.

The Emperor as Philosopher, probably Marcus Aurelius (reigned AD 161-180)(CMA 1986.5)

The most prominent piece is likely this bronze Roman statue believed to represent Marcus Aurelius, which Cleveland acquired in 1986. On its website, the museum describes its origin as “Turkey, Bubon(?) (in Lycia.)” It is unclear how the bronze got from Bubon to Cleveland, and whether the object was granted an export permit, as required since the passage of Turkey’s 1906 cultural patrimony law. The Cleveland Museum of Art declined to answer questions about Turkey’s claim.

As David Gill has noted, a series of monumental bronze statues were taken from the sebasteion, or imperial cult room, of Bubon. A similar bronze depicting Lucius Verus is in the collection of Shelby White.

In the coming days, we’ll be posting details on the requested objects at the Getty and Dumbarton Oaks. We already posted the list of contested objects at the Met  here.

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!

Almagia Objects Traced to Boston MFA, San Antonio Museum, Indiana University.

We’ve heard back from more museums about objects they acquired from Edoardo Almagia, the Italian dealer at the center of an investigation into the illicit antiquities trade.

As we’ve reported previously, the Met and Princeton University museums have recently returned more than 200 Almagia objects and fragments to Italy, some of which may be used as evidence in the criminal trial of Almagia and Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett. Italian investigators have also traced the dealer’s objects to the Dallas Museum of Art, and we found one at the Getty.

We can now provide details about Almagia objects at three more American museums.

BOSTON MUSEUM OF FINE ART

The Boston Museum of Fine Art has ten objects tied to Almagia, nine of which were impasto vases acquired in 1995 as donations from Jonathan Kagan, a prominent investment manager. Prior to Almagia, the objects were “said to have been purchased in Basel.” An old Swiss collection there, no doubt. A decade before donating the Almagia objects to the Met, Kagan was reportedly behind the sale of the Elmali Treasure, a vast hoard of ancient coins allegedly looted from Turkey.

Boston 1991.534

The tenth Almagia object at the Boston MFA is a lovely Roman bust of an old man made of Carraran marble from northwest Italy. The museum purchased the bust directly from Almagia in 1991. It has no documented ownership history.

Details of all the Almagia objects in Boston can be found in the MFA’s release here.

In a statement, museum spokeswoman Amelia Kantrovitz said, “Since 2000, the provenance of these objects–like virtually all objects in the Museum’s collection–has been available at mfa.org. There have been no recent discussions with Italy or Mr. Almagià about these works. The MFA’s relationship with Italy over the last 5 years has led to important loans, several of which are on view in the current exhibition ‘Aphrodite and the Gods of Love.’”

None of the 13 objects returned by Boston in 2006 came from Almagia, Kantrovitz added, though the bust shown above was among the objects discussed during negotiations.

SAN ANTONIO MUSEUM OF ART

The San Antonio Museum of Art purchased two Greek vases from Almagia in the 1980s. The first (above) is a red-figure Oinoche depicting Dionysos and a satyr attributed to the Florence Painter.

The second vase (right) is a red-figure Attic plate depicting the head of a man. As for its provenance, the museum could only say it is “said to be from Barbarano Romano,” an Etruscan necropolis in Viterbo, Italy. (You can view a panoramic image of the tombs here.)

The museum also has 54 vase fragments — also said to be from Barbarano Romano — that were purchased from Almagia in 1986 by a local attorney, Gilbert Denman Jr., who donated them to SAMA the same year.

Carlos Picon, curator of antiquities at the Met

None of the antiquities have a documented ownership history. All were acquired under then-curator Carlos Picon, the current antiquities curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As David Gill has noted, Picon also knew Giacomo Medici and has described being touched by the generosity of the convicted antiquities trafficker. It will be interesting to know more about the relationship between Picon and Almagia as the Italian investigation unfolds.

SAMA director Katie Luber said in a statement that the museum reached out to Italian authorities about the Almagia objects on February 17th, two weeks after first being contacted by us. It has not yet heard back.

INDIANA UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUM

The museum Indiana University acquired two objects from Almagia in 1986. Mark Land, a museum spokesman, said in an email, “IU Art Museum has not been contacted by Italian authorities regarding Mr. Almagia nor has the museum been asked to return any objects associated with Mr. Almagia. The museum has had no discussions with Mr. Almagia about the objects in question.”

Land did not have details about the objects’ ownership histories but he did provide images:

A South Italian stemless kylix, 3rd century BC (UI 86-48-2)

An Apulian trozella (urn), ca. 5th-4th century BC (UI 86-48-1)

PRINCETON UPDATE: STILL STONEWALLING

Meanwhile, Princeton University is refusing to respond to questions about its own ties to Almagia, perhaps because the museum’s antiquities curator Michael Padgett remains the subject of a criminal investigation for his ties to the dealer. Since the University released a vague statement on January 25th, we have sent several follow-up requests for additional information. University spokesman Martin Mbugua has failed to respond to any of them — odd behavior for an educational institution.

Below are the questions I send to Martin on January 27th. Perhaps some of our readers will have better luck than I getting answers. Should you care to try, his email is mmbugua@Princeton.edu

Thank you for the link, Martin.

Unfortunately the release was not very helpful. It did not state the reason for the returns and did not answer my questions about the objects. I shall try again:

Can you please provide images and the ownership history for each of the returned objects?

Also, please provide a copy of the internal investigation that apparently led to the decision.

Can you clarify the release’s statement that Princeton had good title to the objects it returned? If Princeton had title, that would indicate the objects had not been illegally exported from their country of origin. If that is the case, why would the university return them?

Finally, are there additional objects in Princeton’s collection that were donated or purchased from Almagia that have not been returned? If so, please provide a list of them with information about their ownership histories.

You referred me to investigators for an update on the Padgett investigation. I have contacted them. Given that Padgett is an employee of the university, I have a few questions that only the university can answer:

– is the University paying for Dr. Padgett’s defense?

– The Met indicated it returned objects so they could be used as evidence in a possible criminal trial. Were the Princeton returns sent back for the same purpose?

– Has the University investigated the allegations against Dr. Padgett? If so, what conclusion was reached?

I understand that on-going investigations are sensitive matters. My experience is that transparency in these matters is the best way to demonstrate good faith to the public.

Robert E. Hecht Jr., leading antiquities dealer over five decades, dead at 92.

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

Robert E. Hecht Jr. 1919 - 2012

Bob Hecht died quietly at home in Paris at about noon on Wednesday, according to his wife Elizabeth. He was 92 years old. Here’s my obituary in the LA Times.

When Robert E. Hecht Jr. arrived at the loading platform of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the fall of 1972, he was carrying a large wooden box and was escorted by an armed guard.

Inside the box was perhaps the finest Greek vase to survive antiquity, a masterpiece that would soon be making headlines around the world.

The Met had agreed to pay a record $1 million for the ancient work. Hecht said it had been in the private collection of a certain Lebanese gentleman.

But when Met director Thomas Hoving heard the story, he scoffed: “I bet he doesn’t exist.”

Indeed, as Hecht later revealed in his unpublished memoir, he had just bought the vase from “loyal suppliers” who had dug it up from ancient tombs outside Rome and smuggled it out of Italy.

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

The ensuing controversy over the so-called Euphronios krater marked a turning point in the art world, opening the public’s eyes to the shady side of museums. It also solidified Hecht’s reputation as the preeminent dealer of classical antiquities, driving him underground — but not out of business.

He became a legendary but mysterious figure, one whose passion for ancient art overcame any questions about the destruction wrought by its illicit origins.

That career ended Wednesday, when Hecht died at his home in Paris at age 92.

His death comes less than three weeks after the ambiguous end of his criminal trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted antiquities. Since the 1990s, Hecht had been at the center of an Italian investigation that traced objects looted from tombs in Italy through a network of smugglers, dealers and private collectors to museums across the United States, Europe and beyond.

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

Hecht was accused of being a key player in that illicit trade, along with his alleged co-conspirators, former J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True and Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. Medici, who supplied Hecht with the Met’s famous vase after buying it from looters, was convicted in 2004. The trial of Hecht and True began in 2005, but the statute of limitations expired before the court could reach a verdict for either.

In a phone interview after his trial ended, Hecht sounded frail but characteristically coy about the source of his remarkable inventory of ancient vases, statues and frescoes, which now reside in museums around the globe.

“I have no idea of where an object was excavated,” he said. “It could have been excavated 100 years ago; it could have been excavated an hour ago.”

Hecht was born in Baltimore in 1919, heir to the Washington, D.C.-area department store chain that bore his family name. He served in the Navy Reserve in World War II, then accepted a scholarship to study classics and archaeology at the American Academy in Rome.

It was there that he began buying ancient art. At the time, ancient artifacts were sold openly to tourists in the city’s piazzas. But Hecht soon learned that his passion carried risks.

In 1962, he was barred from reentering Turkey after being accused of trying to smuggle out ancient coins. Not long after, he was accused in Italy of trafficking in looted antiquities. Italy’s highest court eventually exonerated him for lack of evidence.

That case was still working through Italy’s legal system when Hecht was offered the Euphronios krater by Medici, who had grown up near the Etruscan necropolis where the vase was illegally excavated.

The deal cemented Hecht’s relationship with Medici, whom he describes in his memoir as “a faithful purveyor” who “rose early each morning [and] toured the villages … visiting all the clandestine diggers.”

The ensuing scandal forced Hecht to relocate to Paris and do business through a series of front men, one of whom was a precocious ancient coin dealer named Bruce McNall.

“He was like a father,” said McNall, who first met Hecht in 1970 while buying ancient coins at an auction in Basel. “He was one of the most fascinating characters I’ve met in my life — a man of mystery, a genius, a family man.”

Soon after meeting, McNall and Hecht became partners, and according to McNall began selling recently looted antiquities to museums and collectors out of McNall’s Rodeo Drive storefront gallery. They also created an elaborate tax fraud scheme with former Getty antiquities curator Jiri Frel, arranging for Hollywood figures to donate looted antiquities to the Getty in exchange for inflated tax write-offs.

“I found him to be without question the most knowledgeable person I’d met in the business, much more of an academic than a dealer,” said McNall, who went on to produce Hollywood films and buy the Los Angeles Kings hockey team before going to jail on unrelated bank fraud charges.

Among Hecht’s top clients was the J. Paul Getty Museum, which was aggressively building its collection of ancient art in the 1980s and ’90s. In a deposition, True said Hecht could be “charming, very, very intelligent, but he could also turn, be very hostile, very sarcastic, very sinister.”

It was Hecht’s ties to the Getty that landed him on trial with True in Rome. In addition to Hecht’s memoir, which was seized in 2001, investigators found correspondence in which the two appeared to openly discuss the illicit origin of objects the Getty was buying.

Confronted with the evidence, the Getty and other leading American museums agreed to return more than 100 antiquities to Italy, including dozens that came through Hecht. Among them was the Met’s Euphronios krater, which was returned to Italy in 2008.

Ultimately, Italian prosecutors could not win a criminal conviction in the case before the allotted time elapsed.

“He was not able to be proven guilty, so he was innocent,” Hecht’s wife, Elizabeth, said Wednesday.

In addition to his wife, Hecht is survived by his daughters Daphne Hecht Howat of Paris, Andrea Hecht of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Donatella Hecht of Westchester, N.Y.

Please feel free to share your memories of him in the comments below.

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 Met’s Von Bothmer Collection May Be Evidence In Princeton Criminal Case

Former Met antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer

The dozens of vase fragments that the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned  to Italy last month came from the private collection of its former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. They were sent to Italy to be used as evidence in the possible criminal trial of antiquties dealer Edouardo Almagia, a Met spokeswoman said.

Von Bothmer acquired his massive personal collection of ancient vase fragments — as many as 15,000 in all – outside of his official duties at the Met, a practice generally frowned upon in museums because it creates a conflict of interest for curators. When von Bothmer died in October 2009, he bequeathed the collection to the Met, which accepted the donation “with the express approval of the Italian Ministry of Culture,” said Met spokeswoman Elise Topalian.

Dietrich von Bothmer

The massive study collection, which has not yet been accessioned or cataloged, includes Greek, Etruscan, and South Italian pottery. “The overwhelming majority of pieces date from the sixth through the fourth century B.C. The core of the collection consists of black-figure and red-figure fragments representing a wide range of Athenian vase-painters and potters as well as of subjects,” Topalian said in an email. “The size of the study collection is such that the accessioning/cataloguing process will be complicated  and lengthy.  The end result will be a database that can be used as a shared resource for research, publication, and display.”

With his photographic memory, von Bothmer had a remarkable talent for spotting fragments missing from Greek vases in collections all around the world, and would often donate his fragments to make those vases more whole. But Italian investigators took a different view of his activities: many of the vase fragments were the product of illicit excavations, they believe, and von Bothmer’s donations seeded the American market with loot.

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

As former Getty antiquities curator Marion True described in a 2001 deposition, once a museum had several pieces of an important vase, antiquities dealers would charge increasingly higher prices for the remaining fragments, in effect extorting museums. In that same deposition, True confided that von Bothmer had shown her the precise location where the museum’s prized vase, the Euphronios krater, had been looted in Italy.

Von Bothmer was a client of Almagia for many years, Topalian said. The fragments von Bothmer obtained from the dealer were returned to Italy “to serve as evidence in the investigation and possible trial of Edoardo Almagia.”

Princeton Museum antiquities curator Michael Padgett

Almagia is the antiquities dealer and donor to the Princeton University Art Museum who, along with Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett, is under investigation by Italian authorities for trafficking in looted antiquities. As we reported earlier, the Princeton museum also returned 160 objects and fragments to Italy last month, several of which have been linked to Almagia.

The returns from the Met and Princeton are the first signs of recent activity in the Italian investigation of Padgett and Almagia, which has been going on since at least 2006, when Almagia’s New York apartment was raided by US Customs officials. They may be used as evidence in another criminal case like that of Marion True, which ended in 2010 with no verdict when the statute of limitations expired.

In a Jan 20 press release, Italy’s Carabinieri art squad described the seizure of “copious documentation with photographic material pertaining to sales and loans made ​​by [Almagia].” Using those documents, Italian investigators say they have traced works from Almagia to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Cleveland Museum of Artthe Dallas Museum of Artthe San Antonio Museum of Art; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Tampa Museum of Art; the Indiana University Art Museum, according to the New York Times.

NOTE: Princeton and the Met gave different figures for the number of objects returned than those cited earlier in the week by Italian authorities. Princeton said it returned “six works,” while the Italian release described 160 objects and fragments coming from the museum. The Met said it had sent back “20 fragments (or groups of fragments)” while Italy put the number at 40. The numbers likely reflect different ways of tallying incomplete objects and efforts on all sides to spin the significance of the returns.

SPEAKING OF SPIN: Princeton University has released a statement about the returns. The statement calls the returns evidence of “the museum’s history of successfully resolving ownership claims for works of art in its collections.” Another reading: they’re evidence that the museum — after revising its acquisition policy in 2006 and returning eight antiquities in 2007 — has still not resolved questions about its possession of looted antiquities.

The release says the returns to Italy were initiated by the University after “an internal University analysis related to several items in the museum’s collections.” That analysis has not been released publicly and Princeton is silent about the link to the on-going investigation of Almagia and Padgett, the museum’s antiquities curator. Our request for additional information has not been answered. We hope Princeton will be more forthcoming in the future.

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.

Arnold Peter Weiss’ Coin Partner and The Getty Connection

A surprising detail emerged while we were reading about Nomos AG, the Swiss coin dealership whose principal, Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss, was arrested on January 3 for felony possession of an ancient coin allegedly looted recently in Sicily.

One of Weiss’ partners in Nomos is Eric McFadden, a senior director of Classical Numismatic Group, one of the world’s leading dealers in ancient coins. McFadden has an impressive resume — he received degrees in Classics from Pomona College and Oxford University before getting a law degree from Harvard University.

But here’s the detail that caught our eye, described in a 2008 profile of McFadden in Pomona College Magazine:

“McFadden began his career in the coin world in the summer of 1977, after graduating from Pomona College with a degree in classics. He volunteered to work on the coin collection of the then fledgling Getty Museum in Malibu. There, he learned that it’s virtually impossible for a new museum to build an outstanding collection of ancient statuary or ceramics, because the finest quality items are not available at any price. However, it is entirely possible for a well-funded museum to collect first-rate ancient coins, which are still regularly sold in the marketplace.”

At the Getty in 1977, McFadden would have been working under Jiri Frel, the rogue Czech antiquities curator who ran the department until he was chased out of town in 1984 amid a tax fraud investigation by the IRS.

As readers of Chasing Aphrodite know, Frel was charming, brilliant and deeply corrupt. A confidential Getty damage assessment later found that Frel had falsified provenances for recently looted antiquities, given inflated attributions to objects in the collection and recommended the purchase of several multi-million dollar fakes in exchange for kickbacks from dealers. (The assistant curator who exposed Frel went on to become a prominent name in the numismatic world as well: Arthur Houghton III, president of the American Numismatic Society from 1994-1999 and currently a lifetime trustee.)

McFadden’s work at the Getty is likely where he met Bruce McNall, the cherubic ancient coin dealer who ran Numismatic Fine Arts, the Beverly Hills gallery on Rodeo Drive. McNall had opened NFA in 1971 and built it into the world’s leading ancient coin dealership, eventually branching out into Classical antiquities (Summa Gallery) with the help of his silent partner, the antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht Jr. Hecht had been selling recently looted antiquities since the 1950s, and his network of loyal suppliers reached deep into tombs across the Mediterranean.

As we recount in Chapter Two of Chasing Aphrodite, it was this crooked triumvirate — Hecht the supplier, McNall the salesman, and Frel the curator — that cooked up one of the largest tax fraud schemes in American museum history. Thousands of recently looted antiquities and coins were donated to the Getty Museum by Hollywood elites looking for a tax dodge. In exchange for donating objects they often never saw, they got tax write-offs at inflated values thanks to appraisals forged by Frel.

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

Robert Hecht

Nomos’ McFadden worked for McNall during those years, first during his summer breaks at Oxford, then for another three years after completing his degree. In an interview this week, McNall recalled McFadden as “a knowledgeable, nerdy kind of guy,” which was helpful. “You don’t want to be looking like a slick car sales man selling ancient art,” McNall said.

McNall said that it was common knowledge that many of the coins he was getting in those days had been recently — and therefore illegally — excavated. “Fresh” coins were were more attractive to buyers. “Any time you find something brand new, it’s sexier,” he said. “Otherwise it’s been around, it’s been seen, and maybe there’s a reason someone else hasn’t bought it…Nobody wants some old broad that’s been around on the town for too long.”

Ironically, McNall thinks that may explain the case of Arnold-Peter Weiss, who was allegedly recorded by a confidential informant bragging that he knew the 4th century BC silver tetradrachm from Katane he was selling was “a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago” in Italy. Such talk is common in the coin trade, said McNall, but “90% of the time it’s just a sales tool.” McNall also finds to be credible the rumor circulating in the coin world that one or more of the coins Weiss was offering for sale may have been fakes.

McNall, who no longer trades coins but still follows the market,  sees parallels to today’s coin market and that of the late 1970s, when he pitched ancient coins as safe harbor in a troubled economy. Investors “have gotten burned in supposedly safe sources, and they’ve gone back to things like coins. If your other investments hit the fan, you’ve always got these things, which have found a market for the last 2000 years.”

In time, authorities caught up with the triumvirate. McNall got out of the coin business after declaring bankruptcy and spending four years in federal prison for bank fraud. Frel left the country in 1984 amid an IRS investigation into the donation scheme, and died in 2006.  Robert Hecht, 92, has been was on trial in Italy since 2005 for trafficking in looted antiquities until Jan 16th, when his trial ended with no verdict.

Eric McFadden was never, to our knowledge, accused of a crime. He left NFA in the mid-1980s for Harvard Law School, and practiced in Los Angeles for several years before returning to the coin trade and joining CNG in 1990. He apparently maintained his ties to Bob Hecht. Over the years, CNG has sold several ancient coins tied to Hecht, including its 2008 sale of Hecht’s collection of Byzantine coins.

Most recently, McFadden has been a vocal opponent of import restrictions on ancient coins, submitting statements to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in opposition of restrictions for Greece and Bulgaria, calling them “unworkable, ineffective, and ultimately counterproductive.”

In his letter arguing against restrictions for Greek coins, McFadden wrote,” “…there is no simple way of determining either where or when a coin might have been found before being moved from its find spot.” The Weiss case, which appears to rely on the testimony of an informant, may test that theory.

We’ve reached out to Nomos and McFadden, who lives in London,  for comment and will post any response here.

ALSO: Attorney Rick St. Hilaire has posted a helpful update on the legal case of Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection; U.S. Department of State; Assistant Secretary of State, Educational and Cultural Affairs.

ALSO: David Gill at Looting Matters notes that Nomos AG is a member of  the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) which “has apparently paid $100,000 over the last two years for lobbying services in the US.”

The Best of Chasing Aphrodite 2011

Happy New Year!

We want to share our profound thanks for the 24,000 visits we’ve had since we launched this site with the release of Chasing Aphrodite last May. You’ve helped make the book a success while shining a light on art world shenanigans. Thank you for reading.

We’ve got many more revelations in store for you in 2012. If you’d like to keep receiving updates, be sure to subscribe via the box on the top right. You can also follow our more frequent comments on the latest news by liking our Facebook page or following us on Twitter.

We hope to see some of you at our upcoming events, which include talks at the National Press Club in DC on January 24th and Google and UCLA in February. You can get details and find our other event listings here.

Without further ado, here are your favorite posts of 2011:

1. An Exchange with Hugh Eakin at The New York Review of Books

Our exchange with Hugh Eakin in The New York Review of Books caught a lot of attention last year. We found the review flattering in several places, but also curiously littered with contradictions. Here is Hugh’s June  review, and our response. An abbreviated version of the exchange was printed in the NYROB’s August issue here.

2. The Secret FBI File: J. Edgar Hoover vs. J. Paul Getty

Was J. Paul Getty a Nazi collaborator? That is the provocative question that J. Edgar Hoover asked in 1940, when the FBI opened a secret investigation into J. Paul Getty’s possible ties to the Nazi regime. While reporting Chasing Aphrodite, we obtained Getty’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. We posted the annotated file online and pulled out highlights of the investigation.

3. Getty Museum Returns Two Objects to Greece, Signs Collaboration Deal

In 2011, American museums continued to return looted antiquities to their country of origin, and the Getty Museum was no exception. In September, the Getty agreed to return two objects to Greece and formalized a broad cultural agreement that will lead to loans, joint research and other collaboration with the art-rich Hellenic Republic. The agreement mirrors similar deals struck with Italy and Sicily in the wake of a negotiated settlement to claims the Getty had for years purchased ancient art looted from those countries.

4. The Becchina Dossier: A New Window into the Illicit Trade

The conviction of Italian dealer Giacamo Medici set off the whirlwind of controversy detailed in the final chapters of Chasing Aphrodite. But Medici was just the opening move of the Italian investigation of the illicit antiquities trade. In 2001, Italian authorities raided the warehouse of Medici’s main rival, Gianfranco Becchina, seizing 13,000 documents, 6,315 antiquities and 8,000 photographs of objects, many of which appeared recently excavated.  Today, it is the Becchina Dossier that forms the center of Italy’s continuing investigation of the international trade in looted antiquities. Like the Medici files, the Becchina Dossier provides a striking record of the illicit trade, showing the path of thousands of looted objects from tombs across the Mediterranean to the display cases of leading museums around the world. Stay tuned as we’ll be making public more details from the Becchina case in 2012.

5. Chasing Persephone?

When the Getty’s statue of Aphrodite was returned to Italy in May, we were there to tell the story. In this report for the LA Times, Jason described how new theories about the goddess are being considered now that she’s back home. Who is the goddess? Does her slightly awkward marble head really belong atop the massive limestone body? Where precisely was she found? And what can she tell us about the ancient Greek colonists who worshiped her some 2,400 years ago? The fact that so little is known about the marble and limestone statue — one of the few surviving sculptures from the apex of Western art — illustrates the lasting harm brought by looting and the trade in illicit antiquities.

6. Jiri Frel: Scholar, Refugee, Curator…Spy?

In the early 1980s, the antiquities department at the J. Paul Getty Museum was a hotbed of whispered political intrigue. Rumors swirled that the department’s Czech curator, Jiri Frel, was a Communist spy. And many believed the deputy curator, former State Department official Arthur Houghton, was a CIA plant tasked with keeping an eye on Frel’s activities. Frel’s once-classified FBI file, obtained by the authors under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the US Government asked similar questions about Frel in 1971, when an investigation was conducted into his “possible intelligence connections.”

7. The Getty Fights to Keep its Bronze

A week after sending its statue of Aphrodite back to Italy, the Getty was fighting to keep another ancient masterpiece: its priceless bronze statue of an athlete, whose 1964 discovery by Italian fisherman is featured in the opening chapter of Chasing Aphrodite. Here’s our report on the latest in the fight for the Getty  bronze.

8. Houghton on The McClain Doctrine and Crimes of Knowledge

Did American museum officials violate US laws when buying looted antiquities? We attempt to answer that hypothetical using internal Getty memos written by former curator Arthur Houghton, who spelled out the risk of violating the National Stolen Property Act when buying objects with unclear provenance.

9. The Truth about Marion True

When archaeologist Malcolm Bell reviewed Chasing Aphrodite in The Wall Street Journal in July, he largely agreed with our premise — that  American museums fueled the destruction of knowledge by acquiring looted antiquities and using what Bell calls a “fabric of lies” to obscure their complicity in an illicit trade. But Bell’s review took an odd turn when he recommended that former Getty antiquities curator Marion True, who was fired after we revealed her blatant conflicts of interest, be hired “for a major museum position.” We respond.

10. Looted Antiquities at American Museums: An On-Going Crime

For those who might be tempted to think the issues raised in Chasing Aphrodite are behind us, we discuss a recent law review article that argues that continued possession of unprovenanced antiquities (ie most of those in American collections) could be an on-going crime under US law.

BONUS: Finding Loot at Your Local Museum

Marion True once told her museum colleagues: “Experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely — if not certain — that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.” In that same spirit, we gave fellow investigative reporters from around the world a few tips on how to find looted antiquities at their local art museum during the June meeting of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

In 2011, we put that advice to work with revelations about objects in several museum collections. Our New Year’s resolution: to do much more of the same in 2012!

Hot Doc: A Damage Assessment at the Getty Finds Forgery, Fraud and Fabricated Histories

The true cost of looting has always been hard to measure: how does one account for what is lost? Perhaps this is why some — Americans in particular, it seems — tend to think of looting as a victimless crime.

In truth, looting has many victims — the artifacts lost or damaged during the act itself; the defaced monuments and pockmarked archaeological sites left in its wake. Then there is the more pernicious effect of plunder and the black market it fuels — the corruption of our knowledge about the past.

Jiri Frel with The Getty Bronze

This is what the Getty Museum confronted in 1984, after the hasty departure of its charming and crooked antiquities curator Jiri Frel. In his decade at the Getty, Frel had used any means necessary to build the museum’s antiquities collection into one worthy of the Getty’s wealth. In 1984, when his criminal activity was discovered amidst an IRS investigation, he abruptly left the country, leaving colleagues at the museum to clean up the mess.

John Walsh, Getty Museum Director

A confidential June 1984 memo from acting antiquities curator Arthur Houghton to museum director John Walsh was an early attempt to account for the damage done by Frel’s collecting practices. We’ve posted it below as part of our Hot Docs series, a effort to publish some of the key confidential files we used while reporting Chasing Aphrodite.

Arthur Houghton III

“Changes or additions to the central files registry should be recorded for many of the objects in the antiquities collection,” Houghton noted with characteristic understatement. “The scope of the problem is quite large and involved a number of areas.”

Among the problems Houghton reported:

Falsified provenance: Many of the ownership histories of objects in the collection were “mythical.” Frel and his trusted dealers had made a parlor game of inventing bogus European collections like “Esterhauzy” to cover the fact that the objects being purchased were fresh from an illicit dig.

Bogus attributions: Frel had often gussied up the attribution of objects to make them more palatable to the public or the Getty’s own acquisition committee. Roman copies were listed as Greek originals; a 3rd century BC sculpture became the only surviving piece by a Greek master.

The Getty bought the kouros in 1985 for $10 million. Today it is believed to be fake.

Forgeries: Frel had bought several multi-million dollar fakes, either because he was fooled or (more likely) in exchange for a cut of the purchase price. The most famous is the nearly $10 million Getty Kouros, still on display today at the Getty Villa. As Houghton noted, “Several [fakes] are of major importance and involve very high values and the Museum’s reputation.”

Then there were the lies that mostly hurt the Getty: Frel had convinced the museum to dramatically overpay for objects, with some of the money likely coming back to him in kickbacks. He had inflated valuations of objects as part of a tax fraud scheme and invented phony donors — many still honored on Getty display placards– who he used to launder objects coming into the collection.

The Getty bought his sculpture in 1979, believing it was a head of Achilles by Skopas, a famous Greek sculptor. Subsequent research showed that it was a modern forgery.

In time, some of the most egregious distortions were corrected. The Getty kouros today is awkwardly labeled “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery,” and several other fakes were taken off display. But in many more cases, Houghton noted the damage to the historical record was irreversible. “Much of the suspected provenance and acquisition (including donation) information is fragmentary; and while many records can be corrected in time and with reasonably diligent attention, it will not be possible with reasonable discretion to probe into the true provenance or acquisition history or many objects in the collection.”

The truth, in other words, was lost.

Today, similar distortions  and fabrications litter the antiquities collections of America’s great museums, which are tax-exempt because their public mission is education. In doing business with the black market, museums have betrayed that mission and filled their shelves with what amount to beautiful lies.

HOT DOC: June 1984 confidential memo from Arthur Houghton to John Walsh.

Article: “An Art World Detective Story: The Getty’s Head of Achilles” Suzanne Muchnic, LA Times, 11/3/88