Tag Archives: Timothy Potts

Chasing Aphrodite 2012: The Year in Review


Happy New Year from Chasing Aphrodite.

It’s been a year and a half since our book was published, and during that time the hunt for looted antiquities at the world’s museums has gone global. Over the past 12 months we’ve revealed new information about objects looted from Turkey, Cambodia, India, Latin America, Italy and beyond. Visitors from 150 different countries came to read our weekly posts. (Those interested in a daily feed of relevant links and commentary should like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.) Our focus here is on scoops, and over the past year we broke several significant stories about the illicit trade, some of which led to the return of looted antiquities to the countries from which they were stolen.

Here are some highlights:

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

The year started with a bang in January with the arrest Arnold Peter Weiss, a prominent Rhode Island surgeon and collector of ancient coins who was arrested at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for felony possession of allegedly ancient coins that had been recently looted from Sicily. Our scoop a few days later revealed that Weiss had told a confidential informant that he knew he was dealing in looted coins:  “There’s no paperwork, I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago,” he said, according to the criminal complaint. We later traced Weiss’ donations to RISD and Harvard University Art Museums; revealed his business partner’s connection to the Getty; exposed the role of federal investigators in the case; and covered his guilty plea to selling what turned out to be clever fakes.

Princeton antiquities curator Michael PadgettAlmagia Returns: In January we also wrote about American museums returning a new wave of looted antiquities to Italy after the objects were tied to the criminal investigation of Italian antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia. The Met returned more than 40 vase fragments from the private collection of its former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. The Princeton Museum returned 160 objects and fragments, and stonewalled questions from the press about those returns. (The museum’s curator Michael Padgett, above, has been named as a target of the investigation.) In February we began tracking objects museums had acquired from Almagia and found several at the Dallas Museum of Art. We also traced Almagia objects to the Boston MFA, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Indiana University Art Museum and the Getty Museum. David Gill identified one additional Almagia object at the Tampa Museum. The Dallas Museum announced in December that five of the objects we had questioned would been returned to Italy.

Orpheus Mosaic

Orpheus Mosaic

Turkey’s claims: In March, we broke the news that Turkey was seeking the return of dozens of allegedly looted antiquities from American museums. We also listed the specific objects being sought at those museums, including: 10 objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum; 18 objects from the Schimmel Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 21 objects at the Cleveland Musuem of Art; and the Sion Treasure at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks. Since then, the Dallas Museum of Art has already agreed to return a looted mosaic to Turkey, and Bowling Green State University has signalled its intention to do the same. Negotiations with the other institutions are on-going, and we expect to have an update soon.

Koh Ker wrestlerCambodia vs. Sotheby’s — The Battle for Koh Ker. In April, we began following the legal battle between the US government and Sotheby’s over a 10th century Khmer statue allegedly looted from a temple complex deep in the Cambodian jungle. Government prosecutors, suing on behalf of Cambodia, alleged that Sotheby’s knew the statue was looted and and withheld the information from potential buyers, as well as government investigators. The auction house has denied those claims. Damning internal emails, however, revealed Sotheby’s knowledge about the statue’s suspect origins and the likely controversy its sale would cause. Also named in the case is a companion statue now at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, whose feet remain in situ in Cambodia. The man at the center of the case is Douglas Latchford, a British collector/dealer based in Bangkok whose name has been linked with sever pieces of suspect Khmer antiquities. In recent months we’ve traced Latchford’s objects to the Denver Museum of Art, the Kimbell Museum and the Met. The outcome of the case could prove an important precedent for legal claims against looted antiquities in the United States.

James-CunoJim Cuno’s shakeup at the Getty: In May, the board of the J. Paul Getty Trust hired James Cuno to lead the organization. It was an odd choice — The Getty was still recovering from a devastating international scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, and had enacted a new acquisition policy that respected foreign ownership laws. Cuno had long been a vocal critic of those laws and advocate for the type of unfettered collecting that had gotten the Getty into trouble. One of Cuno’s first moves was the elimination of 34 positions at the Getty Museum, including two respected veterans and 12 professional gallery teachers who were replaced by volunteer docents. We broke the news, published Cuno’s memo to staff and covered the fallout. We also wrote about his decision to hire Timothy Potts, another advocate of unfettered collecting, and raised questions about Pott’s acquisition of a 5th century BC Greek cup at his previous post, the Kimbell Art Museum. In response to our questions, the Kimbell announced they would post the vase on the AAMD’s registry of ancient objects with unclear ownership histories. They never did.

PS1_TL.2009.20The Bourne Collection: Also in May, we featured a guest post by Roger Atwood on the Walter’s newly acquired collection of unprovenanced Pre-Colombian Art. Atwood described the “long and checkered history” of the Borne collection, which is sprinkled with fakes and at least one piece suspected of having been looted from Sipan, Peru.

subhash kapoorSubhash Kapoor Case: In July we began writing about the investigation of Subhash Kapoor, the New York based antiquities dealer specializing in Indian antiquities and temple idols. After federal agents raided his New York warehouse, we  identified more than 240 objects acquired from him in museums around the world. In December, federal investigators announced they had seized some $150 million in antiquities from him and consider Kapoor “one of the most prolific commodities smuggler in the world.” The case is on-going.

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.

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: Finally, this year we announced our plans to crowd-source the study of the black market in looted antiquities. We’re still in the development phase of the project — raising money, building partnerships and considering the structure of the site. But WikiLoot, as we’re calling the project for now, has already attracted substantial interest and media attention from the Guardian, the Economist, CNN, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and others. This spring we’ll be developing a prototype of the site and reaching out to more potential partners. Stay tuned for updates.

Thanks for reading. Our best wishes for 2013, and we hope you will join the hunt!

LA Times: “Antiquities issue rears head with Getty leaders Potts, Cuno in place”

Here is Jason’s article from Saturday’s LA Times on Timothy Potts’ views on the antiquities issues:

Over the last five years, the J. Paul Getty Museum has earned a reputation as a leading reformer on a topic that has embroiled American museums in scandal for the past decade: the acquisition of recently looted antiquities.

After evidence of the museum’s longtime participation in the illicit trade was uncovered by Italian and Greek investigators, the Getty agreed to return 49 of its most prized pieces of ancient art, cultivated collaborative relationships with those countries and adopted a strict acquisition policy, setting a standard that has been adopted by museums across the country.

But come September, when Timothy Potts starts as director of the Getty Museum with Getty Trust CEO James Cuno as his boss, the institution will be led by two men who opposed the adoption of some of those reforms.

Cuno has denounced repatriation claims of looted antiquities as “nationalistic” and argued against placing limits on museum purchases of objects with an uncertain origin. Potts, whose appointment Cuno announced this week, has echoed some of those views. He played a central role in establishing lenient acquisition standards for American museums — which were eventually abandoned — as a member of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, which sets ethical guidelines for art museums.

A highly respected museum director and Oxford-trained archaeologist, Potts was well positioned to wrestle with the looting issue. From 1983 to 1989, he was co-director of the University of Sydney’s excavations in Pella, Jordan. Later at Oxford, he conducted research in Iraq, and was among the most outspoken museum directors to decry the looting there in 2003.

Participants in the museum directors’ group deliberating new ethical standards in 2004 recall Potts as intelligent, persuasive and open to hearing others’ arguments. But the positions he advocated often put him at odds with advocates of reform and with fellow archaeologists, who criticized the willingness of museums to purchase objects whose murky ownership histories suggested they were likely the result of looting.

Potts also had brushes with the issue as director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, where he was director from 1998 to 2007.

In late 2000, Potts approved the acquisition of a rare Sumerian statuette for $2.7 million. The 15-inch alabaster figure was an ancient masterpiece from the cradle of civilization, the region Potts had specialized in while studying at Oxford. It was to be an important contribution to the Kimbell’s small but highly regarded collection.

But shortly after the statue arrived at the museum, court records show that Potts took the unusual step of returning it to the dealer and asking for a full refund.

Publicly, Potts said that he wanted to free up money for other acquisitions. But he later testified that he had learned the dealer — Hicham Aboutaam, owner of the New York City antiquities gallery Phoenix Ancient Art — was under investigation by the IRS, and decided against buying from him.

Soon, though, Potts changed his mind about doing business with Aboutaam. After receiving repayment for the Sumerian statuette in November 2001, Potts moved to acquire a $4-million Roman torso he had admired on an earlier visit to Aboutaam’s gallery on East 66th Street in Manhattan.

Five days after the Kimbell board approved the purchase, the museum received a federal grand jury subpoena for museum records related to Aboutaam.

Aboutaam had been targeted in a sweeping investigation of the illicit antiquities trade. Several months earlier, Italian investigators had raided the dealer’s Swiss warehouse and seized dozens of antiquities. (All were later returned.)

The Kimbell abruptly abandoned the acquisition of the torso, sparking two breach of contract lawsuits by Aboutaam.

When asked about the two abandoned acquisitions this week by The Times, Potts and the Kimbell declined to comment. But in 2002, Potts told Art & Auction magazine that he had decided to pursue the Roman torso after learning the IRS investigation of Aboutaam was “benign.”

The lawsuits were ultimately dismissed. Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 and charged by U.S. authorities with smuggling a looted antiquity from Iran and making a false customs declaration. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $5,000 fine.

While the Kimbell controversy was still unfolding, Potts played a prominent role in formulating a policy on how American museums should handle questions about ancient art with unclear ownership histories.

As a member of a task force of museums directors between 2002 and 2004, Potts allied himself with Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who opposed putting limits on collectors and museums. Potts and De Montebello eventually championed a 2004 policy that allowed museums to collect ancient art as long as they could demonstrate it had been out of its country of origin for a decade.

The position struck some on the task force as effectively sanctioning the acquisition of looted antiquities. And it proved out of step with the times when, a year later, Getty antiquities curator Marion True was indicted by Italy for trafficking in looted antiquities, some of which had been acquired under a Getty policy that was stricter than the one Potts and De Montebello supported.

Soon, the antiquities controversy grew into a full-fledged scandal, with Italy and Greece demanding the return of some of the most prized objects in American museum collections. American museums have since returned more than 200 looted objects to Italy and Greece, valued at up to $1 billion.

Potts first met Cuno while chairing a 2006 AAMD task force on loans of archaeological material. Cuno had recently taken the reins of the Art Institute of Chicago and, like De Montebello, was an outspoken critic of attempts to limit the collecting of antiquities. Cuno and Potts became like-minded allies in the heat of a growing controversy.

The policy resulting from the 2006 task force allowed museums to accept loans of objects even if their ownership histories were clouded “because of their rarity, historical importance and aesthetic merit.” Potts told the New York Times that the focus on the role of museums and collectors in fostering the destruction of archaeological sites was “misplaced.”

By 2008, the policies Potts had advocated were replaced with a stricter one that required objects to have an ownership history dating back to 1970. It emulated the position of the Getty Museum, which had been hardest hit by the antiquities controversy.

Asked how he felt about operating under a policy he had opposed, Potts said in an email Thursday that he “completely respects the Getty’s antiquity policy,” which he called “increasingly the national standard.”

“I have persistently emphasized the need to do more to protect sites and contexts on the ground before the looting takes place,” he said, adding, “Perhaps the nearest thing to a certainty is that whatever policy we have in place today will be seen to have been flawed in the future.”

Potts and Cuno have signaled that their priority will be to build the Getty’s collection in new directions and shift attention back to the Getty Villa, where the museum’s antiquities collection is displayed.

Might the Getty expand its antiquities collection into ancient Near Eastern art, the area of Potts’ specialty? Cuno said in an interview Thursday that he “couldn’t rule it out.”

That could put the Getty back in business with Hicham Aboutaam, who, despite his past legal worries, continues to be a leading dealer of antiquities.

In an interview this week, Aboutaam praised the selection of Potts, and said he held no grudges from the past lawsuits. “It’s rare to find a museum director with such a sophisticated eye for quality,” he said.

He has similar words of praise for Cuno, who as director of the Art Institute acquired antiquities from Aboutaam as recently as 2009. That same year, Aboutaam voluntarily returned 251 antiquities to Italy, valued at $2.7 million, conceding they were likely the product of illicit excavations.

With Cuno and Potts in charge, the dealer couldn’t help but wonder: “Do you think the Getty will now buy more?”

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.

Cheat Sheet on Timothy Potts, New Director of the Getty Museum

Timothy Potts

On Feb 14th, Getty CEO James Cuno announced to staff that Timothy Potts had been named as the new director of the Getty Museum, the wealthiest art museum in the world. He will start in September.

Potts comes with an impressive provenance. He was trained as an archaeologist at the University of Sydney and Oxford, where he received his doctorate in Near Eastern art and archeaology. He dug for several years at Pella in Jordan, where he was co-director. And after a stint at Lehman Brothers, Potts directed the National Gallery of Victoria (1994 – 1998), the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth Texas (1998 – 2007) and most recently the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Despite his background in field archaeology, Potts has more recently held some controversial views on the collecting of unprovenanced antiquities. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:

As director of the Kimbell, Potts helps build the antiquities collection of the Ft. Worth museum, which has an acquisition budget on par with the Getty Museum. Among his acquisitions are some with questionable provenance, such as this Greek cup by the Douris Painter, which the Kimbell bought in 2000. The cup can be traced back to 1977 and Elie Borowski, an antiquities dealer (now deceased) known have trafficked in recently looted objects.

In 2003, Potts was outspoken about the looting in Iraq. He appeared on Charlie Rose Show with Philippe de Montebello here.

James Cuno

In 2004, Potts was a key player in the deliberations over the AAMD’s revised antiquities collecting policies, which you can find here. The policy allowed museums to collect unprovenanced (and likely looted) antiquities if they had documentation going back 10 years. It was a controversial position that would be modified a few years later amidst the antiquities scandal we write about in Chasing Aphrodite.

In 2006, Potts chaired a taskforce for the AAMD that devised new guidelines for accepting loans of antiquities. The policy stated:

Archaeological material and works of ancient art for which provenance information is incomplete or unobtainable may deserve to be publicly displayed, conserved, studied, and published because of their rarity, historical importance and aesthetic merit…

Many saw it as a loophole that allowed museums to continue displaying looted antiquities. Potts defended the policy in an interview with the New York Times:

“If [the ancient art] goes on view with other like objects, then scholars get to see it and study it; the public gets to come; the claimant, if there is one, gets to know where it is and file a claim,” said Timothy Potts, the director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the chairman of the task force that drew up the guidelines. “Who has lost in this process?” Some museum directors argue that the current wave of antiquities claims against museums and collectors actually resulted from active efforts by museums to display the works and publish articles about them.

For Mr. Potts, an archaeologist by training, the recent attention to the role of collectors and museums in fostering the destruction of archaeological sites is misplaced. The real issue, he argued, is insufficient incentives in countries like Italy and Greece for discoverers of objects to report their finds.

“So much of the pressure is focusing on the wrong end of the chain,” he said. “I think there should be much more done to stop the looting at its source.”

Later that year, Potts and Cuno organized a public symposium to address the controversy over museums and the illicit antiquities trade.  Many of the leading voices in the heated debate participated. The goal was “to explore how museums have, and can responsibly continue to, protect, interpret and exhibit archaeological material and works of ancient art.”

May 2007: Potts was interviewed on NPR about looting and the illicit antiquities trade. He said:

“There were empires, there was war, there was booty taken. To the victor went the spoils, and the museums of the world still represent the dispositions of some of those historical events. We are now living in this different world, and we are requiring more provenance history, and if we think it was recently excavated, we’re just not going to buy it.”

In Jan 2010, Potts gave a tour of the renovated antiquities galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Video and story here.

Dr Potts said: “The Fitzwilliam’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities is of international significance, so I’m delighted that we now have a superbly redesigned space in which to display it to its full potential.

“This new presentation, which is based on recent research and conservation work, will offer many fresh insights, not only to new visitors, but also to those familiar with the collection.”

In Feb 2010, Potts and de Montebello were among several experts who advised the Leon Levy Foundation about an effort to publish “the trove of unpublished information from important ancient world sites excavated under ‘partage’ agreements.”

Given their pro-collecting positions in a museum world that has largely turned in a different direction, it will be interesting to see how Cuno and Potts decide to deploy the Getty’s wealth in the coming years.