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.
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.
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.”
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 Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the San Antonio Museum of Art; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Tampa Museum of Art; the Indiana University Art Museum, 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.