Tag Archives: Loot

Scoop: Turkey asks Getty, Met, Cleveland and Dumbarton Oaks to Return Dozens of Antiquities

In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, Jason reports on Turkey’s bid to repatriate dozens of allegedly looted antiquities in American museums.

The requests include 10 objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum; 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 21 objects at the Cleveland Musuem of Art; and the Sion Treasure at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks.

Below we’ve provided the complete article. In the coming days, we’ll be providing additional details on the objects sought at each of the museums.

Turkey asks U.S. museums for return of antiquities

The Getty and the New York Met are among the U.S. institutions the Turkish government has contacted over artifacts it believes were smuggled out of the country.

By Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times

8:48 PM PDT, March 30, 2012The government of Turkey is asking American museums to return dozens of artifacts that were allegedly looted from the country’s archaeological sites, opening a new front in the search for antiquities smuggled out of their original countries through an illicit trade.

The J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Cleveland Museum of Art and Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection are among the institutions that the Turkish government has contacted, officials say.

Turkey believes the antiquities were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country after the passage of a 1906 law that gave the state ownership of antiquities in the ground.

Inspired by the success of its Mediterranean neighbors Italy and Greece, Turkey is taking a more aggressive stance toward its claims, many of which were first made decades ago.

“Turkey is not trying to start a fight,” said Murat Suslu, Turkey’s director general for cultural heritage and museums. “We are trying to develop … cooperation and we hope these museums will also understand our point of view.”

Turkey is presenting the museums with supporting evidence and has threatened to halt all loans of art to those institutions until they respond to the claims. Loans have already been denied to the Met, a Turkish official said.

American museums’ antiquities collections have been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years as evidence emerged of their ties to an illicit trade in artifacts found in archaeological sites around the world.

Confronted with that evidence, the Getty, the Met, the Cleveland, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Princeton University Art Museum returned more than 100 looted objects to Italy and Greece, changed their acquisition policies and formed collaboration agreements that allow for loans to replace acquisitions of suspect material.

But new evidence continues to emerge, underscoring that the scope of the problem is far wider. In January, Italy announced that it had recovered an additional 200 objects and fragments from the Met and Princeton after they were tied to an ongoing criminal investigation of Italian antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia and Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett.

None of the museums facing requests from Turkey would release a list of the contested objects in their collections, but The Times obtained a partial list from Turkish officials of what the country is asking for. Judging from publicly available records, most of the objects were acquired by the museums since the 1960s and have little or no documented ownership history before that, suggesting they could have come from illicit excavations.

Statue of a Muse. From Cremna, Turkey, circa 200 AD. (JPGM 94.AA.22)

The 10 Getty objects sought by Turkey were acquired from dealers, auction houses or collectors for more than $1 million between 1968 and 1994 and include four marble muses now on display in the Getty Villa’s Basilica gallery. According to ownership histories provided by the Getty in accordance with its reformed antiquities policy, several originated with Elie Borowski or Nicolas Koutoulakis, two antiquities dealers known to have ties to the illicit trade.

The Getty’s talks with Turkey began in the 1990s, government officials said, and gained steam under the directorship of interim museum director David Bomford, who left the Getty in February.

“We expect those discussions to continue and while they do, we will not be getting into specifics,” said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

The 18 contested objects at the Met are all from the private collection of Norbert Schimmel, a longtime Met trustee who died in 1990. The museum acquired the Schimmel collection in 1989, and several of the contested objects are now highlights of the museum’s Ancient Near East Galleries.

A Hittite gold pendant of a goddess with a child, circa 1400 BCE from Central Anatolia. (MMA 1989.281.12)

Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met, initially denied the museum had received a request for specific objects. He later acknowledged in a statement that Turkey had requested information about the 18 objects in September, adding that the museum is “in the process of providing” that information. Turkish officials say the Met’s only response has been to write a letter to the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

At Dumbarton Oaks inWashington, D.C., ancient silver plates and other decorative objects known as the Sion Treasure are among the items Turkey is seeking to recover. The treasure was reportedly found in the early 1960s in an ancient burial mound in Kumluca, Turkey. It was acquired by the museum in 1966 from a private collector who bought them that same year from George Zakos, an antiquities dealer with documented ties to the illicit trade.

Paten with Cross, from the Sion Treasure. (BZ.1963.36.3)

Turkey has been asking for the return of the treasure since 1968, hoping to reunite the objects with the rest of the treasure, which is in a museum in Antalya, on Turkey’s southwest coast.

Twenty-one objects are being sought from the Cleveland Museum, which Turkish officials say has not responded to their inquiries. A museum spokeswoman declined to comment or release a list of contested objects.

Turkey has long sought the return of objects taken illegally from its borders, with occasional success.

Most famously, the country’s government fought a six-year legal battle with the Met for the return of the Lydian Hoard, a collection of goods looted from a burial mound in western Turkey. (It, too, had passed through the hands of Zakos.) The Met agreed to return the objects in 1993 after evidence emerged that museum officials had been aware of the material’s illicit origins and sought to hide it. To the chagrin of Turkish authorities, soon after its return a key piece of the treasure was stolen from the local museum to which it was returned.

CMA 1942.204

A similar battle played out between Turkey and the Boston MFA over the Roman statue Weary Herakles. Turkey requested the statue’s return in the 1990s after finding its bottom half in an excavation in Perge. The MFA had purchased the top half in 1981 jointly with New York collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White. The MFA’s piece has been known to fit the bottom half in Turkey since 1992, but the museum only returned it last September as part of a broader cultural cooperation agreement.

In hopes of avoiding such protracted disputes, Turkey adopted a more aggressive stance in 2010, barring loans to institutions harboring contested objects. The Art Newspaper reported earlier this month that two British museums have recently been denied loans.

“It’s part of a broader shift in the government saying, ‘culture matters to us,'” said Christina Luke, a lecturer in archaeology at Boston University. While working in Turkey over the last decade, Luke has seen Turkey make major investments in regional cultural sites, efforts to educate children about the value of their heritage and attempts to clarify and strengthen the country’s cultural policies.

“Turkey is offended because of having insincere responses to her claims,” said Turkish official Suslu. “Turkey has been fighting against illicit trafficking of cultural objects since the Late Ottoman Period. Many ways were tried during the past years but they were not sufficient.”

jason.felch@latimes.com

Looted Antiquities at the Walters Art Museum?

In anticipation of our event at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore on Sat, Oct 29th at 2pm, we took a look at the museum’s wonderful collection of ancient art. It appears to have dozens of objects purchased from dealers with ties to the black market.

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

Most prominent of those dealers is Robert Hecht, a 92 year-old Baltimore native and heir to the Hecht department store chain. Hecht is currently on trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted antiquities over his nearly six decades as a prominent dealer based in Paris and New York. He has been well-known for trafficking in looted antiquities since 1972, when he sold the Metropolitan Museum of Art its famous Euphronios krater, which was returned to Italy. In his handwritten memoir, seized by Italian authorities in 2001, Hecht recounts a long career of buying looted objects from Italian middlemen and selling them to American museums.

Among the more than a dozen pieces at the Walters purchased from Hecht is this griffin “protome,” which the Walters bought directly from the dealer in 1999. It is said to be Greek from 640 BC.

In his memoir, Hecht describes buying griffin protomes from his “faithful purveyor” Giacomo Medici, the Italian dealer who has been convicted of being a key middleman in Italy’s illicit antiquities trade. It’s not clear if the Walters’ protome is among those Hecht mentioned.

We asked Gary Vikan, museum director since 1994, about the protome and other Hecht objects in the collection.

“Most of the Hecht stuff goes back a long way,” Vikan said in an email. “The protome came from an old collection, said Bob [Hecht], and our file does not reveal the name, and the curator on hand at the time cannot fill in the name with her memory. The purchase was consistent with the AAMD code of ethics as it then existed, and Bob Hecht did not carry the baggage then that he does now.”

We’re fond of Vikan, but we find his answer on this one a bit troubling. After all, it was Vikan who a decade before the griffon acquisition had testified as a “due diligence” expert in the Peg Goldberg case involving looted Cypriot mosaics. In the case, Vikan said Goldberg had ignored “sirens blaring and red flags waving” — clear signs of looting when she purchased the mosaics. This appears to be what Vikan did in 1999 when approving the acquisition of the griffon from Hecht. The object has no documented ownership history beyond Hecht, who was known since the 1970s to invent bogus stories claiming that recently looted objects came from “old collections.”

Hecht was also the source of several remarkable Byzantine floor tiles at the Walters, including this one depicting Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch, which was purchased from Hecht in 1950s. According to the Walters’ website, Hecht acquired them directly from a man in Turkey.

Another man who regularly supplied the Walters was Nicolas Koutoulakis, a prominent dealer who owned the Paris gallery Segredakis. His named appears in the “org chart” of the illicit antiquities trade found by Italian police in the 1990s with a direct link to Hecht.

Greek drinking cup purchased from Nicolas Koutoulakis.

Many of the Hecht and Koutoulakis objects in question — though not the griffons — were purchased by the Walters before 1970, the date of the UNESCO accord on cultural patrimony which most museums and archaeologists today accept as bright ethical line. But if the Hecht and Koutoulakis objects were looted from Italy or Greece, as is reasonable to suspect, they could be considered stolen property under US law, and the Walters would not hold clear title to them.

The Walters’ policy suggests that the museum will proactively investigate such objects: “If the Museum, as a result of its continuing research, gains information that establishes another party’s right to ownership of a work, the Museum will bring this information to the attention of the party, and if the case warrants, initiate the return of the work to that party, as has been done in the past.”

When we asked Vikan what he thought should be done with such objects, his answer was somewhat glib: “Put ‘em out there!” We applaud the Waters for its transparency with provenance information — many museums do not post an object’s ownership history online. But in our view, putting suspect antiquities on display is not the same as a proactive investigation or notification of Italian or Greek authorities.

There’s no easy answer for how to handle the thousands of suspect objects still in American museum collections today. But waiting for Italian authorities to knock on your door has not always worked out well for other museums.

We look forward to exploring these issues with Gary and former Getty antiquities curator Arthur Houghton on Sat at 2pm.

The Becchina Dossier: A New Window into the Illicit Trade

Italian culture reporter Fabio Isman has an important story in the current issue of the Art Newspaper [no link available yet] about Gianfranco Becchina, the retired Sicilian antiquities dealer who now faces trial in Rome for conspiracy to traffic in looted art.

Sicilian dealer Gianfranco Becchina gives the authors a tour of his renovated pallazzo in Castelvetrano, Sicily.

While reporting our book, Italian authorities told us that Becchina’s role in the illicit antiquities trade may have exceeded that of his now notorious rival, Giacomo Medici, who was convicted in 2004 in the biggest looting case in Italian history. Becchina, now 72 and retired from the trade in his native Sicily, is appealing a February 2011 conviction for illegal dealing and has denied pending conspiracy charges, Isman writes.

Becchina is perhaps best known as the dealer who sold the Getty its famous fake marble kouros. (See Chaps 4 and 5 of Chasing Aphrodite.) But that was just one sale in a 30-year career that Becchina meticulously archived in 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents. The archive was seized by Swiss authorities in 2001, along with 6,315 antiquities and 8,000 photographs of objects, many of which appeared recently excavated, Isman reveals. The dossier shared with Italian investigators, who needed two months just to digitally photograph it.

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

Today, the Becchina Dossier forms the center of Italy’s continuing investigation of the international trade in looted antiquities, which began in 1995 with the seizure of a similar cache  of records and Polaroids belonging to Medici. 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.

Becchina has previously admitted to providing objects to the Getty, the Boston MFA, the Met and museums at Yale, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Washington, as well as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and museums in Japan. The archives reveal an even broader reach, Isman reports, including “the clandestine investigation of a million artifacts and police investigations into the affairs of 10,000 people.”

Among those tied to Becchina are the Toledo Museum of Art, the Miho Museum in Japan, the Lourve in Paris, the Merrin Gallery in New York, collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White and a large cast of middle men and looters familiar to those who have studied the illicit trade.

Italian investigators Maurizio Pellegrini and Daniella Rizzo have been combing the Becchina Dossier for several years.

Italian investigators Daniella Rizzo and Maurizio Pellegrini have had the painstaking task of combing through the dossier since its seizure, matching objects described there to known collections. Their work continues today. Isman’s revealing story is the first of what will likely be several uncovering the contents of the Becchina Dossier.

We too have reviewed the Becchina Dossier and will write more about it in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for that and stories about Becchina, who the authors visited in 2006 while reporting on the book.

SAFE interview with co-author Ralph Frammolino

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

Listen to it here:   SAFE podcast

Interview with Madeleine Brand on KPCC

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

The Madeleine Brand Show on Chasing Aphrodite

Five Tips for Finding Loot at Your Local Museum

Jason and Ralph will be speaking Friday, June 10 in Orlando at IRE, the annual gathering of investigative reporters. Our topic is how to find loot at your local museum.

You don’t have to be an investigative reporter to find looted antiquities. Museums around the country are home to ancient art of questionable origins. As 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.” (p. 190 of Chasing Aphrodite)

So, in that spirit, here are five things to look for at your local museum:

1. The Usual Suspects:For decades, the market in Classical antiquities

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

was controlled by a handful of shady dealers who operated much like a cartel. They were competitors, but cooperated as necessary to get the highest price for their wares. Look for their names in the ownership histories of ancient art: Robert Hecht, Frieda Tchakos, Fritz Burki, Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, Christo Michaelidis.

2. Read the Labels: Many museums are frustratingly vague about an object’s origins. In the language displayed next to a piece of ancient art, you’ll find see something like “said to be from” this or that country or region. The question to ask is: who said? The answer is often dealers, middlemen and even looters. Curators often sought out this important information from their market sources, but kept it vague to hide an object’s illicit origins.

3. Accession numbers: Most museum objects are identified by an accession number, the inventory number given to an object when it enters the collection. Every museum uses a different code for their acquisitions, but they usually contain the date of acquisition. For example, the Getty’s statue of Aphrodite was 88.AA.76. “88” is for 1988, the year the Getty acquired the statue. “AA” is the Getty’s code for ancient statues. “76” tells you its the 76th acquisition of the year. This can be key information. For example, if you know the year an object was acquired, you can figure out the standards and policies that were in place at the time.

4. Scrutinize the donors. Museums have been getting in trouble for donations for decades. Donations of art are tax deductible, and have often been a means for tax fraud at museums. Museums have also used donors to launder recently looted art. (See Chap 2: A Perfect Scheme) Some museums have lower standards when it comes to objects donated to the museum.

5. Ask for answers: Once you see an object the sparks your curiosity, ask the museum for answers about the object’s provenance, or ownership history. Most museums should (reluctantly) provide you with what they know. If they claim to have no information, ask them why they felt it was safe to purchase. The AAMD has guidelines for museum transparency on these issues. Is your museums following them?

In our view, not all looted antiquities need be returned to the country from which they were stolen. (The Getty, for example, returned only a fraction of the hundreds of objects in their collection its former curator would consider “almost certainly looted.”) But museums should be asked to come clean about their collecting practices.

Joining us on Friday’s panel will be Lee Rosenbaum of CultureGrrl fame, and James Grimaldi, the WaPo’s lead reporter on the Smithsonian’s shenannigans.

VOA on the illicit antiquities trade

VOA's On the Line

Voice of America’s international TV program “On the Line” interviewed Jason Felch about the international trade in illicit antiquities.

You can watch the program here. (The antiquities segment starts at 11:30, about half way through the show.)

New York Review of Books: “An important book”

The New York Review of Books has just published a lengthy write-up of Chasing Aphrodite, calling it “an important book…about money, art and power.”

The author, Hugh Eakin, has covered the antiquities issue over the years for the New York Times and others. In December 2007, he wrote a lengthy profile of Marion True for the New Yorker (that curiously failed to ask some key tough questions.)

Chasing Persephone?

In Sunday’s LA Times, Jason has an article on his recent trip to Aidone, Sicily, where the return of the Getty’s goddess has revived a debate about her true identity: Aphrodite, or Persephone?

The vista of central Sicily from the ruins of Morgantina, where the statue of Aphrodite was illegally excavated in the late 1970s.

“In ancient times, central Sicily was the bread basket of the Western world. Fields of rolling wheat and wildflowers, groves of olive and pomegranate and citrus — even today, fertility seems to spring from the volcanic soils surrounding Mt. Etna as if by divine inspiration.

It was here on the shores of Lake Pergusa that ancient sources say Persephone, the goddess of fertility, was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. She was forced to return there for three months every year, the Greek explanation for the barren months of winter.

Ancient sources say it was while picking flowers along the banks of this lake, a short drive from Morgantina, that Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld.

When Greek colonists settled the region some 2,500 years ago, they built cult sanctuaries to Persephone and her mother, Demeter. The ruins of Morgantina, the major Greek settlement built here, brim with terra-cotta and stone icons of the two deities.

It seems a fitting new home for the J. Paul Getty Museum’s famous cult statue of a goddess, which many experts now believe represents Persephone, not Aphrodite, as she has long been known.

The Getty goddess in her new home in the archaeological museum in Aidone, Sicily.

Since the Getty’s controversial purchase of the statue in 1988 for $18 million, painstaking investigations by police, curators, academics, journalists, attorneys and private investigators have pieced together the statue’s journey from an illicit excavation in Morgantina in the late 1970s to the Getty Museum.

The Getty returned the goddess to Italy this spring, and a new exhibition showing the statue and other repatriated antiquities from a private American collector and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was inaugurated here last week.

The archaeological museum in Aidone, Sicily

The goddess’ new home is a 17th century Capuchin monastery that now serves as the archaeological museum in Aidone, a hilltop village of about 6,000 residents. The cozy museum, which holds up to 150 visitors at a time, contains the most important objects discovered in the nearby ruins of Morgantina.

During its 22 years at the Getty Museum, the statue was virtually ignored by scholars, thanks largely to the aura of controversy that surrounded it. But as the scandal recedes, new, deeper mysteries about her are finally coming to the fore.

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 worshipped 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. As the goddess was smuggled through the black market, she was stripped of her meaning and rendered a mute object of beauty.

The one thing scholars agree upon is her importance. The goddess’ clinging, windblown drapery is a clear reference to Phidias, the Greek master who a few decades earlier carved the figures that adorned the Parthenon in Greece — many of which now reside in the British Museum.

“It’s one of the very few examples we have from the high Classical period,” said Katerina Greco, a Sicilian archaeological official and leading expert in Greek art who wrote one of the few studies of the statue. “There is nothing like it in Italy.”

Today, central Sicily is an underdeveloped backwater of Europe. Just 17,000 visitors currently see the archaeological museum in Aidone where the statue now sits. At the Getty, about 400,000 saw her every year.

Residents here hope that the statue’s return marks the beginning of a new chapter, one focused on economic development and a deeper understanding of the goddess’ identity and significance.

“The statue didn’t exist by herself, she was made for a specific place and a particular purpose,” said Flavia Zisa, president of Mediterranean archaeology at the University of Kore in nearby Enna.

Most experts today agree the goddess most likely does not represent Aphrodite, as former Getty antiquities curator Marion True surmised when she proposed the statue for acquisition. But because some key fragments are missing from the goddess, scholars remain divided.

Greco has argued that the goddess represents Demeter, noting her matronly build and the remains of a veil covering her hair, a feature most often identified with older women in Greek times. In a forthcoming study, New York University professor Clemente Marconi will expand on his argument that the goddess is Persephone.

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

In an acknowledgement of the changing views of the statue’s identity, Sicilian officials have re-branded the statue as the “goddess” of Morgantina and abandoned earlier references to Venus, the Roman name for Aphrodite.

More definitive answers to the mysteries of the goddess may rest with the looters who dug her up. If the statue’s exact excavation spot were known, archaeologists could re-excavate the area and build a better understanding of her purpose.

But omerta — the Sicilian oath of silence — has long kept that key piece of information a secret. Whispers in Aidone tell of two shepherd brothers who found the statue on the eastern flank of Morgantina where a sanctuary to Demeter and Persephone has been found.

“It is time for them to speak,” said Silvio Raffiotta, a local prosecutor who investigated the statue’s looting in the 1990s. “Now there is no risk.”

LA Times: Aphrodite Goes Home

Co-author Jason Felch has a story in Wednesday’s LA Times on the statue of Aphrodite’s return to Sicily. It contains a few scoops from the book on what convinced the Getty board to return the prized statue. Hint: it involves damning photos and the Mafia.

“The J. Paul Getty Museum’s iconic statue of Aphrodite was quietly escorted back to Sicily by Italian police last week, ending a decades-long dispute over an object whose craftsmanship, importance and controversial origins have been likened to the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum.

The 7-foot tall, 1,300-pound statue of limestone and marble was painstakingly taken off display at the Getty Villa and disassembled in December. Last week, it was locked in shipping crates with an Italian diplomatic seal and loaded aboard an Alitalia flight to Rome, where it arrived on Thursday. From there it traveled with an armed police escort by ship and truck to the small hilltop town of Aidone, Sicily, where it arrived Saturday to waiting crowds.

It was just outside this town, in the ruins of the ancient Greek colony of Morgantina, that authorities say the cult goddess lay buried for centuries before it was illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy.”

Find the full story here.