Tag Archives: antiquities

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?”

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Arnold Peter Weiss’ 46 donations to RISD Museum of Art

The Rhode Island School of Design has provided a complete list of donations made by former museum chairman Arnold Peter Weiss, the Providence doctor and collector of ancient coins who was arrested in New York last month for possession of a coin he allegedly knew had been recently looted in Sicily. (See our earlier stories here, here and here.)

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

Weiss donated 46 objects to the museum between 1997 and 2010, according to museum spokeswoman Donna Desrochers. Sixteen of those donations were ancient coins. We’ve posted the complete list of the Weiss donations, with images, here.

Below are the ownership histories for the ancient coins, with select images:

Six Lycian staters, 1997.42.1-6 cf. L. Mildenberg, “Mithrapata und Perikles,” Atti, Congresso Internazionale di Numismatica, Roma 11-16 Settembre 1961 (Rome 1965), 24, pl. 4; N. Olçay and O. Mørkholm, “The Coin Hoard from Podalia,” Numismatic Chronicle, 1971, nos. 26, 27, 414-418.

Stater of Locris Opuntia, 2001.81.1 ex CNG private purchase, 1999; ex US dealer; ex Edward Gans Collection, 1940s-50s

RISD 2001.81.2

Tetradrachm of Amphipolis, 2001.81.2 CNG Mail Bid Sale 49, 19 March 1999, lot 158 ex California collection, early 1970s-1990; ex English collection, 1940s

Decadrachm of Syracuse, 2001.81.3; ex CNG direct purchase; ex Zurich auction, late 1990s; ex Swiss collection, early 1900s

Tetradrachm of Amphipolis, 2007.89.1
ex Gemini III, 9 January 2007, lot 88; ex LHS Numismatik, auction 95, 25 October 2005, lot 559; ex MMAG auction XIX, 5-6 June 1959, lot 372; ex Charles Gillet Collection, Lausanne

RISD.2007.89.2

Stater of unknown Ionian mint, 2007.89.2
ex NFA auction XVIII, 1987, lot 95 ex von Hoffmann Collection; cf. Price, “A Field in Western Thrace” (Coin Hoards 2, no. 1, 1976)

Tetradrachm of Thebes, 2008.60.1
ex CNG Triton IX, BCD Boiotia Collection, 10 January 2006, lot 439; ex BCD Collection; ex MMAG XXII 1961 auction, lot 467

Tetradrachm of Rhodes, 2008.60.2
ex CNG Triton IX, 10 January 2006, lot 966; ex CNG Mail Catalogue Sale 63, 21 May 2003, lot 557; ex Leu private purchase, 2001; ex Marmaris hoard 1970/71 (ICGH 1209)

RISD 2010.56.1

Persian daric, 2008.60.3
ex CNG private purchase, 2005
ex Edward Gans, 1964, lot 78

Bronze 2-litrae of Syracuse, 2008.60.4
ex Gorny and Mosch, auction 156, 6 March 2007, lot 1139
ex Gorny and Mosch, auction 107, 2 April 2001, lot 75
ex Moretti Collection, Basel, 1920s

Tetradrachm of Naxos, 2010.56.1
ex Leu private sale, 2010; ex Leu, 1980s; cf. Ludwig Grabow, Rostock, 9 July 1930, lot 196

RISD 2010.56.2

Stater of Mysia, 2010. 56.2
ex Jean Vinchon Numismatique, 2007; ex Bank Leu Numismatique AG, 1969; ex Charles Gillet, Lausanne, 1952

Stater of Mysia, 2010.56.3
ex Herren Collection; ex Ready (in commerce), 1929; ex Gulbenkian Collection, 1920s

Another donation of interest, not an ancient coin, is this:

Etruscan bronze relief, 2002.114.2
ex Denyse Berend Collection, Paris and Geneva, early 1960s; ex Cahn, Basel

RISD 2002.114.2

“Cahn” is likely Herb Cahn, the Classical numismatist and antiquities dealer who was investigated by Italian authorities for participating in the illicit trade, as recounted by Robert Hecht in his unpublished memoir.

Take away? Many of the coins appear to have ownership histories going back several decades. Others are vague (“ex-California collection”) or are linked to dealers whose names come up in the Italian investigation (Cahn; Bank Leu; NFA = Bruce McNall). We leave it to our more informed readers to draw their own conclusions about these donations, and welcome your thoughts in the comments field below. We are curious if Dr. Weiss took tax write-offs for these donations, and if so how the donations were valued.

We’re grateful to RISD for their transparency on this matter, and wish other universities would take a similar stance.

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.

Chasing Aphrodite in Washington DC: 1/23 @ Steptoe, 1/24 at National Press Club

We’re off to Washington DC for two great events. If you’re in the area, please join us for back-to-back evenings of lively discussion about the state of American museums and the black market in looted art.

Reminder: Both events require an RSVP via the links below. 

January 23: 6:30 pm at Steptoe and Johnson

The Society for the Preservation of Greek Heritage and the American Friends of the Acropolis Museum will host Jason for an evening lecture and book signing at the lawfirm Steptoe and Johnson.

Details: 6:30 pm at 1330 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC. RSVP by sending an email to: classic.heritage@verizon.net


January 24th: The National Press Club.

Jason (in person) and Ralph (via phone) will speak about Chasing Aphrodite, the press and transparency at American museums with former Getty antiquities curator Arthur Houghton and Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Museum of Art. Our moderator will be James Grimaldi, investigative reporter at the Washington Post. Q&A and book signing to follow. (We’ll be done in time for you to watch POTUS give the State of the Union address at 9pm.)

Details:  6pm at The National Press Club. 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor. Open to the public, $5 dollars for non-members. Tickets and details available here.

Los Angeles Readers: In you’re in Los Angeles on Monday, Jan 23, be sure to check out Getty CEO Jim Cuno’s talk at the Petersen Automotive Museum. He’ll be defending museums against those who say they are the trophy cases of imperialism and promoting his new book, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum. Details here.

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.”

Arnold-Peter Weiss and the Rhode Island School of Design

*UPDATED: See below for additional information from RISD and Harvard Art Museums.

Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss, the Rhode Island coin collector arrested Jan. 3 for felony possession of an ancient coin that authorities say he knew was recently looted from Sicily, has deep ties to the Rhode Island School of Design. He is a former trustee of the university and currently serves as former* chairman of the board of the university’s museum, to which he has donated several objects.

According to the criminal complaint against Weiss, he told a confidential informant wearing a wire that he knew where the coin “was dug up two years ago.” Weiss is innocent until proven guilty, and his lawyer has not responded to two requests for comment. If the allegations hold up in court, its appears to be a fresh example of the alarming link between the black market in looted antiquities and (apparently) respectable collectors and museums that we detail in Chasing Aphrodite.

By participating in the illicit antiquities trade, museums and collectors betray  their professed educational mission and encourage the destruction of context that happens as objects are looted and laundered through the black market.

Weiss appears to understand the importance of context in ancient art. In September 2010, when RISD reinterpreted and reinstalled its gallery of ancient, medieval and early Renaissance art, Weiss and his wife, Dr. Yvonne Weiss, a pediatrician in Barrington, RI, were major sponsors of the renovation.

“As a collector of ancient coins,” Dr. Weiss said in a press release from RISD, “my hope for this gallery—and for the entire reinstallation of the Radeke Building—is to provide visitors of all ages with context for understanding these fascinating and beautiful objects.”

The museum describes its collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art as “one of the finest collections of any university museum in the country,” and contains about seven hundred ancient coins spanning more than 1500 years. Among the collection highlights on the museum’s website are several recent acquisitions. Collecting histories are not provided for most objects.

In 2010, Weiss donated a silver Greek tetradrachm, ca. 460 BCE from Naxos. The obverse is shown here. Details and the reverse, showing Silenos holding a kantharos, can be found on the museum’s website here.

A similar coin is listed here on the website of Nomos AG, the Swiss coin dealership that Weiss launched around 2007. The Nomos coin is said to be from the Randazzo (Sicily) Hoard of 1980 and is described as “one of the greatest and best known of all 5th century Greek coins.” It sold at auction recentlyfor  775,000 CHF, well over the 400,000 CHF estimate. Weiss’ partners at Nomos are Victor England and Eric McFadden of the Classical Numismatics Group and Alan Walker, who has a doctorate in Classical Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Note: The Syracuse Decadrachm previously listed here was not a donation by Dr. Weiss but an acquisition made by the museum in 1940, according to RISD director of marketing Donna Desrochers. 

Another Weiss donation to RISD is a Flemish oil painting by artist Hendrik van Steenwyck, ca. 1550-1603. Details can be found here.

We’ve contacted the museum’s curator of ancient art, Gina Borromeo, to request additional details about these objects and any others Weiss may have donated.

We’ve sent a similar request to the Harvard Art Museums, where Weiss’ bio says he is was on the collecting committee until this month. The collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, in particular, has an impressive collection of ancient coins.

We’ll post answers here when we get them.

*Harvard UPDATE: Jennifer Aubin, the Harvard Art Museums public relations manager, provided the following information: “Dr. Peter Weiss was a member of our Collections Committee, an advisory group, from 2006–2012. We have no objects in our collections donated by or purchased from Dr. Weiss.” The Harvard Art Museums did acquire two coins through Weiss’ firm Nomos AG in 2009, both of which appear to have a long provenance. The first, a Drachm of Argos dating to 370-350 BC, can be traced back to an 1886 auction. The second, a fragment of a dekadrachm of Athens dated to 470 BC – 460 BC,  is seen in a 1968 edition of Revue Numismatique. (No images are available.) In addition, a gold wreath was loaned for exhibition by Drs. Yvonne and Arnold-Peter Weiss to the Harvard Art Museums from 2008–2010. No additional information was provided about the wreath.

Harvard UPDATE #2: In response to a follow up question about Weiss’ resignation “in 2012”, Aubin says Weiss resigned from the collections committee on January 9, 2012 — six days after his arrest.

*RISD UPDATE: Donna Desrochers, the director of marketing at RISD’s art museum, noted that Weiss’ online bio is out of date: His term as chairman of the board ended last June, and he no longer sits on the museum’s board. In addition, the Syracuse Decadrachm we listed above was not donated by Dr. Weiss. We’ve corrected the post according, and look forward to additional information from RISD.

ALSO:  Paul Barford at his Portable Antiquities Collecting blog reports an unconfirmed rumor on coin discussion groups that Interpol arrest warrants may have been issued for an American dealer and two Italian dealers. He has additional thoughts and information here, here and here.

ALSO: David Gill at Looting Matters digs up this quote from Weiss from a 2002 NYT story: “They [ancient coins] have good rates of return — not as good as when we were riding the Internet bubble, but the coin market hasn’t burst.”

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

Looted Antiquities at American Museums: An On-Going Crime, law professor argues

In January 2008, more than one hundred federal agents raided four Southern California museums. They seized scores of Southeast Asian antiquities that investigators said had been looted and illegally smuggled into Los Angeles before being donated at inflated values to the museums.

Since then, nothing much has happened in the case. But one legal expert is warning that the case represents a ticking time bomb for American museums, whose antiquities collections are still filled with looted antiquities.

If the raids result in convictions, the legal fallout could be devastating, argues Stephen K. Urice, a University of Miami law professor and one of the country’s foremost legal minds on cultural property.

Stephen K. Urice

“Continued possession of virtually all unprovenanced antiquities in public museums within the court’s jurisdiction would suddenly become actionable under the [National Stolen Property Act], and museums would be obligated to divest themselves of those collections promptly,” Urice writes. “Failure to do so would expose the antiquities to civil seizure and forfeiture proceedings, and the museums’ board and staff members to criminal liability.”

This doomsday scenario comes not from the alarmist fringes in the debate over antiquities but an avowed centrist. Urice is a former museum director with a PhD in archaeology, and was the founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s cultural law program. He has earned respect from archaeologists and museums alike for his dispassionate, middle-of-the-road analyses of museum policies and cultural property statutes.

That’s why Urice’s 39-page article in the Summer 2010 issue of the New Mexico Law Review is so striking. His analysis, now bubbling up in cultural circles, is too involved to present in full here. But in essence, it predicts a doomsday scenario based on a little noticed wrinkle in the NSPA, the key U.S. criminal law in antiquities looting cases.

LACMA Director Michael Govan asks federal agents to let him into the museum on the morning of the raid

In the 1977 McClain case, in which five Texas dealers were convicted of smuggling looted Mexican artifacts, prosecutors successfully asserted the antiquities were “stolen property” under US law if they were exported illegally from a foreign country with an enforced cultural property law that gives the government rightful owner of such artifacts. (According to the UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws, 180 countries have passed one or more such statutes ).

Urice reasons that this interpretation is easily extended to most museum antiquities collections, where the bulk of objects could be considered contraband because they lack provenance (ownership history) and valid export licenses.

Museums have believed that the statute of limitations would protect them from such claims. But Urice notes that a 1986 change in the NSPA added possession of such objects as a crime. Since possession is an on-going act, Urice writes, “even in situations where the museum had taken possession of an antiquity decades ago, there would be no statute of limitations defense.”

This hasn’t come up in past antiquities cases since prosecutors went after collectors or dealers. The Southern California raids, however, specifically targeted museums, which under McClain arguably possess stolen property. Urice argues that a successful conviction in the case would trigger a chain reaction, forcing other museums in the court district (such as the Getty) to disgorge their unprovenanced artifacts or have their officers face criminal indictment.

In Urice’s view, this is an unacceptable – and unintended — outcome of the law that would strip American museums of an important teaching tool. What to do?

Urice suggests several remedies. Among them is a law exempting museums from the potential fallout of Southern California case and other antiquities claims under the NSPA. A second one is to replace the NSPA with a new law with input from archaeologists and collectors — a likely bitter and tortuous process.

One question not addressed in the article: Are Urice’s warnings a present-day reality? After all, federal courts in New York and Texas have both found the McClain Doctrine to be the ruling precedent, making possession of looted antiquities an on-going federal crime. In order to seize the objects, the government would only need to establish probable cause that the objects were illegally exported — the burden would be on the museum to prove legal export, something that can’t be done for most antiquities. All that’s missing is a US Attorney interested in making such a bold case.

Whatever the answer, Urice’s article makes clear the legal struggle over looted antiquities did not end with the Getty scandal.

If the Southern California case moves forward, the worse may be yet to come.

HOT DOC: Urice on Unprovenanced Antiquities and the National Stolen Property Act

Our coverage of the January 2008 museum raids:

Raids Suggest A Deeper Network of Looted Antiquities

Federal Probe of Stolen Art Goes National

Roxanna Brown: A Passion for Art, a Perilous Pursuit (3-part series)