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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Finders Keepers: Looted Italian Art

Updated: Aug 27, 2022

A label in a museum. What does it tell you? Perhaps the artist, if known, the title, maybe a date, country of origin, and the medium. Each artwork has a story. How did it arrive at the museum, who bought it and when, and where did it come from? If the art is ancient, there’s a chance it arrived at the museum through illegal means.


Art has been plundered since there was war, greed, and the desire to covet thy neighbor’s goods. Romans took everything they could lay their hands on, as spoils of conquest. The Nazis stole a lot of art, some of which was sold to museums, some repatriated, and some never to have been seen again. American museums in particular were good at buying looted art. The Getty Villa Museum in California acquired a large and impressive collection of ancient art, much of which was obtained through shady dealers or via a tax scheme to advantage the rich by donating mediocre items, then re-valuing these items at hugely inflated prices. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also had a dubious history of acquiring ancient art from looters and their dealers.


Looting art requires a few ingredients: greed, lack of ethics, unlawful diggers, middle men, unscrupulous buyers, and an unaware public. Besides American museums, the Louvre in Paris, and major British museums bought a lot of highly suspicious ancient art, also known as antiquities. One aspect that makes the art suspect is the missing or fabricated provenance of previous owners. Other questionable practices are the sudden appearance of a rare piece with an ambiguous findspot. The mafia was involved in an art cartel of illicit art sold to American museums, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Italy successfully cracked down on looting, but it still continues in South America, Africa, and other counties. After the invasion of Iraq and fall of Saddam Hussein, artifacts from looted museums suddenly appeared for sale in many countries.


Etruscan Jewelry, early fifth century BCE, tomb from Vulci, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access. Gold, glass, and rock crystal.
Detail of Etruscan Jewelry, early fifth century BCE, tomb from Vulci, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access. Gold, glass, and rock crystal.

What’s the harm? So, what if there’s a statue of a goddess in an American museum illegally obtained from Italy? Looted artifacts and art displaced from their country of origin are cultural orphans. Separated from their homelands, the context and rich surrounding history is lost. A statue from a temple is now only a single statue, not part of a temple complex that can tell us much about culture, society, religion, and history. These orphaned objects may be valuable and beautiful, and collected by people who treasure them, but there is much knowledge to be gained by studying the original site. Without archeologists studying complex sites we probably wouldn’t know the Vikings reached America, the Mexicans cultivated corn, or the Etruscans traded with much of Europe, the Mediterranean, and Near East.


Italians became increasingly irritated that American museums were continuously buying illegal art from their country. Knowingly. Italy has leveraged cultural property laws to re-home their art. However, there’s another side to the coin. Some argue that increased cooperation through international lending of objects is more in spirit with cultural exchange than lawsuits and prosecution to return art to the country of origin.


More traditional and old-school museum professionals think of their institutions as visual encyclopedias, allowing for exposure to different cultures and promoting education and curiosity. Keeping art only in the country of origin is nationalistic. Countries like Italy have so much art it is often is placed in storage instead of exhibiting it. A few museums feel repatriation is narrow minded and stifles the cultural flow of objects and ideas. They see art as free trade, whoever finds it, can sell it. Who owns culture and history? Borders and rulers morph and change. If the Etruscans owned Greek vases from trade and the vases were illicitly sold to an American museum, should they be repatriated to Greece or Italy?

Museums have important educational functions, however, educating the public on the provenance of their objects has not been their forte. With museum websites now frequently making their collections open access, or available online, they are faced with a conundrum of explaining how some art got there. The Musée du Louvre took bold steps in making a half a million objects in their collections open access in early 2021. During World War II the Louvre obtained nearly 14,000 art works in a hot market, fueled by the confiscation of Jewish art. In addition, there is art obtained by illegal looting, and colonial acquisitions from the occupation of Tunisia, Algeria, and other African counties. The Louvre has dedicated increased resources and research into the provenance of their collections, in an effort to inform and restitute. It’s a case of an effort that is too little too late, but I commend them for transparency.


The Story of a Vase

An unusual label caught my eye in Rome’s Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia (National Etruscan Museum). I’ve never seen a label like this before. The setting is a lovely villa complex which Michelangelo acted as a design adviser for Pope Julius III. Villa Giulia is a little visited treasure with a comprehensive collection of Etruscan figurines, vases, jewelry, and terracotta burial vessels. A large amphora with a standing youth painted in red on a black background has a caption stating it was returned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of repatriation to “draw the visitors’ attention to the irremediable damages” caused by illegal excavations. I wanted to know the story behind that label.


Berlin Painter, Red-figured Attic Amphora from Vulci, 490 BCE, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome. Photo, Gerriann Brower.  The standing youth on this side of the vase is listening to a male playing the cithara on the other side of the vase.
Berlin Painter, Red-figured Attic Amphora from Vulci, 490 BCE, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome. Photo, Gerriann Brower.The standing youth on this side of the vase is listening to a male playing the cithara on the other side of the vase.


The amphora was decorated by an un-named Greek artist referred to as the Berlin painter, not because he came from Germany, but because of a large vase in a Berlin museum. The style of that vase became recognized as the Berlin painter, as he pioneered red figure painting on black backgrounds starting about 505 BCE. His work has a characteristic meander pattern on the bottom which the figure stands. He is considered a classic vase painter with exquisitely rendered human bodies. About 400 or so vases are attributed to him or his workshop. He lived in Athens and although many of his vases have been found there, more have been found in central Italy, home to the Etruscans. The Etruscans traded extensively back and forth with the Greeks and the Greeks had trading posts in Italy. One of the primary Etruscan communities was Vulci, north of Rome. Most of these vases were found in Etruscan tombs. The buried their people in style, equipping them with household and precious items to transition them to the afterlife. Some tombs were painted with pleasant scenes of hunting, fishing, and banqueting, a popular way to celebrate the deceased.


Unfortunately, these Etruscan tombs have been looted for hundreds of years. Looting started about 1830 and has never stopped. It all starts with the tombaroli, the local tomb robbers. They know the land and history. Initially, they raided tombs and kept the objects in their homes, gave them as gifts, and mostly kept it local. Later, a more systemized and organized looting unearthed treasure troves of goods, most of which never ended up in Italian homes or museums, but in foreign museums or private collections. In one area of central Italy out of 550 tombs examined 400 had been ransacked. Etruscan vases, like the one the Berlin painter made, are considered the crème della crème.


Etruscan tombs at Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri, 7th-6th century BCE, photo Allan T. Kohl, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Etruscan tombs at Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri, 7th-6th century BCE, photo Allan T. Kohl, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Tomb of the Reliefs, late 4th or early 3rd century BCE, Necropolis of Banditaccia, Cerveteri, photo Jeffrey Becker, Smarthistory, CC BY-SA 2.0. A rock cut tomb with painted stucco reliefs of armor, in a dining room. Equipped for burial for several dozen family members.
Tomb of the Reliefs, late 4th or early 3rd century BCE, Necropolis of Banditaccia, Cerveteri, photo Jeffrey Becker, Smarthistory, CC BY-SA 2.0. An underground rock cut tomb with painted stucco reliefs of armor, in a dining room. Equipped for burial for several dozen family members.

The Italian Art Squad

Countless rare antiquities unearthed in Italy have been bought up by rich American and European museums and collectors. A rough estimate is 1.5 million illegal antiquities were dug up from 1970 to the mid-2000s. These items appeared as if they had fallen from the sky into a dealer’s possession or privately changed hands, when in reality, everyone should have known they were smuggled. The Italians were getting exasperated, particularly with British and American museums buying and proudly displaying illicitly obtained art.

The Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC), otherwise known as the art squad, was created in 1969 to derail and prosecute criminal activity. It has long been illegal to smuggle art out of Italy, but enforcement was weak. Italian laws are clear that objects of cultural importance are owned by Italy, whether they are above ground, underground, or in the water. Currently, there are over 300 art squad police in Italy and their emblem tells you they mean business - a fire breathing dragon whose outstretches its wings in front of the Pantheon. About half a million objects have been discovered and recovered by the Carabinieri, part of the state police.

In 1970 UNESCO issued an official statement protocol on art and cultural crimes ratified by 190 nations in an effort to bring attention to worldwide cultural plunder. This helped shift the status of illicit art from whispers among museum colleagues, to public visibility. Change was in the air, except for some American museums who continued to require little or no documented provenance prior to purchase.

General Roberto Conforti took charge of the art squad in 1992 and changed a rag tag bunch of investigators into an effective unit. He supplied the means for funding, sting operations, forensic accounting, contact tracing of owners (often fabricated), hiring archeologists, bringing criminal charges, and eventually trials. Conforti was not much interested in policing the tombaroli, instead going after the upper middle men and the museums. His experience prosecuting the Mafia in southern Italy provided a successful strategy. Another key prosecutor was Paolo Ferri, who joined the art squad in 1995. His previous work on domestic terrorism and international crime proved essential, as did his skill in deposing witnesses. Conforti and Ferri proved to be a formidable team.

Conforti and Ferri knew a lot was being looted, and they were closing in on some individuals, but didn’t know exactly the chain of command. Sometimes cases take a turn at unexpected moments. The art squad were investigating Pasquale Camera, a middle man for the tombaroli. Camera was a corrupt captain in the finance and customs police, the Guardia di Finanza. One day in August, 1995, he lost control of his car, flipped it over, and died at the scene. A search of his car and subsequent search of his house revealed dozens of Polaroid photos of illegal art. Illicit brokers took Polaroids so as not to arouse suspicion with developing film. The Polaroids were used for marketing to show potential clients the goods. The art often had dirt and was freshly excavated or in transit.


As a bonus, police found a simple sheet of paper in his dresser. It was an organizational diagram with a flow chart of who’s who in looting. They learned there was a big base of tombaroli in southern Italy and two main Italian suppliers, one of which was Giacomo Medici. Robert Hecht’s name was written in large letters. He was an American who acted as the main dealer to U.S. and European museums via Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and other art houses. Marion True at the Getty and Philippe de Montebello at the Met purchased many pieces from Medici and Hecht.

The Berlin painter vase was one of thousands of artworks that passed through Medici's hands. These men were bold, confident, and had egos to match. Medici would often take photos of himself next to the looted art in the museums which purchased them, like a proud parent.

Medici’s world came crashing down when the Carabinieri raided his Swiss warehouse in 1995 and then again in 1997. The Geneva Switzerland Free Port was a convenient place to store contraband. It is a huge industrial storage facility with rows of buildings near the airport. Originally built for grain, now art, diamonds, wine, and other valuable goods are stored or pass through. The Swiss customs officers didn’t inspect the warehouses. The Free Port served as ideal storage and place to meet prospective buyers. It was relatively easy to drive art from Italy to the warehouse, about ten hours from Rome to Geneva.

It took some doing to convince the Swiss to allow the raids. Switzerland had no laws against art trafficking and its archeological heritage is scant. It wasn’t their problem and they were neutral. Medici wasn’t the only one with a warehouse for looted art. The Swiss would only allow the police to take notes on the first visit. Ferri and the archaeologists that visited the warehouse were appalled at what they found. The evidence was so damning that they were allowed to take evidence on the second visit. The warehouse contained the motherload of looted art and evidence.


The police found Medici’s storage facility had 3,800 artworks, photographs of nearly 5,000 other objects, and 35,000 sheets of paper documenting his front companies, false provenances, and details on which objects were intended for which museum or dealer. Polaroids were taken when the objects were unearthed, dirty, and sometimes in pieces. Next they were photographed when put back together, then sold to a Medici front, or other dealer, and finally on to a museum, or a rich collector. Sometimes large statues or detached frescoes were purposefully broken into pieces in order to facilitate fitting them into the car trunk, suitcase, or to transport objects in separate trips. The police even found detached frescoes broken neatly into laptop sized pieces, ready for “restoration” prior to sale.

Italy placed additional pressure on U.S. museums by making a 1999 appeal to the State Department for tighter controls on imports on anything from the eighth century BCE to the fourth century CE. At the end of the hearings, Italy won out, despite the pleadings from dealers and some curators. Marion True’s testimony oddly enough made a difference, agreeing with the Italian request. Archaeologists testifying from plundered sites in Italy led credence to the request.

It was a combination of careful documentation, media pressure, the photographs, and negotiations with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that resulted in the Berlin painter’s vase return to the Villa Giulia. The Carabinieri and Italian Culture Ministry quietly negotiated with the Met for return of six items in 2006, one of which was a group of sixteen silver pieces. The Met was reluctant but finally gave in, although they maintained the items were acquired in good faith. They took a higher road than the Getty, but were just as complicit in purchasing stolen art.


The Hot Pot

Possibly the most contentious unlawful art the Met purchased was the Euphronios krater. This large vessel was used to mix water and wine and could hold about twelve gallons. The quality is outstanding and it is signed by the Greek artist, Euphronios, and the potter Euxitheos, which is exceedingly rare. It is the only intact extant vase out of the twenty-seven documented that Euphronios painted. The krater’s home was the Met from 1972-2008. Soon after it was acquired, it became known as the hot pot as details leaked about its value, how it arrived at the Met, and how much the Met paid. No discussion of criminally acquired Italian art is complete without mention of the Euphronios krater.


Euphronios Krater, Death of Sarpedon, c. 515 BCE, Archeological Museum of Cerveteri, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Euphronios Krater, Death of Sarpedon, c. 515 BCE, Archeological Museum of Cerveteri, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Suspicions grew about the krater as time went on. How could something relatively large (18” x 21”) and heavy suddenly appear on the market, and in such great shape? Euphronios painted this krater about 515 BCE with one side depicting the Trojan war and the other Athenian youths readying themselves for battle. The side depicted here shows Sarpedon, son of Zeus, as he dies on the battlefield with winged deities Sleep and Death appearing to carry him away. There is a delicacy in the figures along with a highly decorative bands above and below the scenes. Its pristine preservation can be credited with the approximately 2500 years spent underground in an Etruscan tomb. The findspot is close to Cerveteri, about twenty-five miles northwest of Rome.


With the help of investigative reporting from the New York Times, questions began about the sale and history. The sudden appearance of the krater surprised the artworld. The Italians were on alert and as part of their wide-ranging investigations the true story of the Euphronios krater came to light. It was looted in 1971 and purchased by Medici for $88,000 in about 1972. He smuggled it to Switzerland and sold it to Robert Hecht, for $350,000. Hecht was the front man who sold it to the Met for $1 million. That was an enormous sum in 1972 for art, equivalent to about $6 million in 2021. These transactions occurred quickly from the tombaroli digging it up to the Met sale. Something so significant would be sold quickly and for a high price. Evidently the tombaroli were quite annoyed at the price increase and what the Met paid.

Hecht received a ten percent commission off the Met sale. Additionally, he fabricated a provenance that the krater was obtained from a Lebanese individual, but when that person was contacted, it became apparent there was a significant difference in the size of the vase the Lebanese had allegedly owned. It couldn’t have been the Euphronios krater. Lebanon was not the primary market for Greek vases. The Met initially refused to disclose Hecht as the dealer under pretense of wanting to protect their sources. Rumors pointed to a less than ethical transaction and Hecht’s name was revealed.

Hecht was not some low life criminal hack. He was highly educated at the American Academy in Rome, where he began his career buying and selling ancient art. His side gig was gambling, drinking, and bullying. He was known as Mr. Percentage for the cut he took from sales he wasn’t even directly involved in. He was both feared and revered. Medici’s nickname for him was “Bo” and Medici wrote his nickname on Polaroids of art he thought would be a good match. Hecht had an outsized reputation in the art world. He also had a terrible temper and had a tendency towards vindictiveness.

Hecht was under investigation for illicit art transactions between Medici, the Getty, and the Met. In 2001 his Paris apartment was raided by French and Italian police. They found ample evidence in his handwritten memoir which confirmed the krater purchase from Medici and his sale to the Met. The eighty-page memoir left out nothing about his connections, and not in a complimentary manner. Both Medici and Hecht seemed proud of their accomplishments and not particularly phased by the trail of documentation they left behind. Hecht reveled in accounts of outsmarting custom’s officers, the American judicial system, American museums, and private collectors. For Ferri and Conforti, the handwritten memoir turned confession was the icing on the cake.


A photo of Medici smiling contentedly next to the Met krater was found later by police. In 2006 the Met reached an agreement with Italy to return the krater and the Italians graciously let the Met display it until 2008. During those two years on display an additional label was installed: “Lent by the Republic of Italy”. It was returned to the National Archaeological Museum of Cerveteri, a small museum that couldn’t be more different from the Met on Fifth Avenue. The area surrounding Cerveteri has numerous Etruscan tombs, about 1,000 alone in the Necropolis of Banditaccia. Some tombs were a tumulus type above ground and some cut into rock about one story below ground. They are large and easy pickings for tombaroli. Medici is said to rise early in the morning when in Italy and make the rounds to his various tombaroli contacts to see if their night excavations yielded any goods.


Giacomo Medici next to the Euphronios Krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo, NPR.
Giacomo Medici next to the Euphronios Krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo, NPR

Paolo Ferri, receiving a 2011 Association for Research into Crimes Against Art Award, photo, Urska Charney.
Paolo Ferri, receiving a 2011 Association for Research into Crimes Against Art Award, photo, Urska Charney.

The Story of a Fallen Doe

In 1985 the Getty purchased this along with two other objects for $10.2 million from diamond tycoon Maurice Tempelsman. (If his name might sound familiar, he was the long-term partner of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.) Medici told the Getty outright he had purchased the griffins from looters. Police found a Polaroid during the raids with the griffins in a car trunk, in pieces. The sculpture was full of dirt laying on top of Italian newspapers, and in the process of being illegally transported.


Two Griffins Attacking a Fallen Doe, marble and pigment, southern Italy, 325-300 BCE. Formerly in the Getty Museum, re-patriated to Italy and now in the Ascoli Satriano museum, near Foggia in southern Italy. Wikimedia Commons, Photo, Marshall Astor, CC BY-SA 2.0
Two Griffins Attacking a Fallen Doe, marble and pigment, southern Italy, 325-300 BCE. Formerly in the Getty Museum, re-patriated to Italy and now in the Ascoli Satriano museum, near Foggia in southern Italy. Wikimedia Commons, Photo, Marshall Astor, CC BY-SA 2.0

This is a remarkable piece, carved out of a single marble block, with traces of blue paint and red for the spilled blood. It is unique and unlike most ancient museum pieces. A griffin is a mythological creature with the hindquarters of a lion, and forequarters of an eagle. It is found in Greek, Eastern, Roman, and Western medieval art. The poor doe can’t stand a chance against two of these fearsome creatures. There are lots of Greek and Roman vases in museums, but very few sculptures as dramatic as this. The griffins were part of a trove of valuable objects found in a Macedonian grave, discovered by tombaroli in the 1970s, about thirteen miles from the museum to which they were eventually returned. Medici was the go-between with the looters and the buyers.

Getty was in a class by itself, clearly the richest museum in the world, due to the oil magnate John Paul Getty, who died in 1976 and left most of his estate to the museum. The Getty was charged up to acquire as many high-quality pieces as possible to make their mark in the museum world. By 2006 the Getty had over 44,000 antiquities. Marion True was the curator and befriended many a private collector and middle men who either collected or dealt in looted art. There is no way she could not have known where the objects came from, especially since she started at the Getty in 1982, and witnessed how the Getty and other museums had operated in acquiring antiquities.

How a highly educated archaeologist with a PhD from Harvard could have lost her way ethically and morally, in a bold desire to acquire as much quality ancient art as possible, is beyond me. She was empowered by the Getty administration and board. The Getty had laid the groundwork for illicit acquisitions long before her tenure. While acquiring looted art she frequently spoke at museum administrator conferences about the importance of avoiding illicit art trafficking, which was exactly what she was doing. Until her downfall, she was held in high regard for speaking up for provenance research prior to purchasing. The hypocrisy was notable – reformer in public, laundering art as a practice.

Medici purchased the griffins and other art from the tomb in the mid-1970s directly from looters, and then sold pieces off, some to Robert Hecht, and the griffins via another dealer to Tempelsman. A tombarolo, on his deathbed, confessed to the Carabinieri his misdeeds, the original site of the tomb, and pieces looted. Under investigation, the other dealers confirmed the tombarolo’s confession. Medici also confirmed the findspot, and sales record. There is even a photo of Medici posed in front of the griffins on display at the Getty.

The art squad made the connection to the Getty from the Polaroids found in their raid of his warehouse. The Carabinieri identified forty-two objects the Getty had which were clearly looted. That’s just scratching the surface. Marion True had acquired most of them for the Getty. The police honed in on Medici, True, and Hecht.


Negotiations to return the contested objects the Getty held went on for years. Museum officials were steadfast in their denials that the art was illegally obtained. They claimed it was their right to buy what they wanted, from whomever. If they didn’t buy art on the market, someone else would. The Italians won out, with careful documented research, and frankly, irrefutable evidence. August 1, 2007 was a joyful day for Italy and the small town where the griffins and other objects were returned.

The Getty returned the objects after a prolonged trial which convicted Giacomo Medici of trafficking in 2004, indicting Marion True in 2005 and Robert Hecht. Medici served ten years in prison, plus a ten million Euro fine. True, although made somewhat a scapegoat for all the US art crimes, endured a trial in Italy until the statute of limitations ran out in 2010. Her punishment was resigning her job in 2005 and enduring her trial while being hounded by Italian paparazzi. Hecht was convicted but didn’t serve time in Italy due to his advanced age. True was the only American curator to be charged with the crime of trafficking stolen antiquities. She didn’t help herself by repeatedly lying to U.S. attorneys and the Carabinieri about her contacts with Medici and other dealers. Her story changed frequently under deposition and she was all to willing to dish the dirt on the Met or other museums in order to evade prosecution.


The Italian art squad never intended to round up American museum employees and lock them away in Italian jails. They wanted to transform how museums purchased art. Other museums such as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Toledo Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts returned items after a few months of negotiations and without much fanfare. The Getty drew a line in the sand and lawyered up.

The end result was a shift in the museum world. A new generation of curators and museum directors embraced a different way of thinking about acquisitions, one that was legal, and more ethical. The new guard effectively overruled the old guard status quo who viewed looted art as part of a free market. There are a few holdouts, but for the most part, today’s curators would not be complicit in purchasing known looted art.


Museums continue to question what their role and mission is in the twenty-first century. Is the goal to acquire objects and display them or to shift to a contextual story telling of culture and peoples? Is the quantity and quality of acquisitions the objective or should museums focus on lending and sharing art?

Investigative reporting also played a role in shifting public opinion and raising consciousness of how art is acquired. LA Times reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino exposed the dark side of the art world in their book Chasing Aphrodite. A team of LA Times reporters pulled back the curtain on the Getty’s administration, general mis-management, and mis-use of funds as a non-profit, including the complicity of the board. It’s a stark contrast to the stunning physical location and beauty of the Getty Villa. The vast campus is a reproduction of a Roman villa complete with amphitheater, four different Mediterranean gardens, and replica of a Pompeiian fountain.

Getty Villa Past and Present

Plainclothes Carabinieri arrived at the Getty beginning in 2007 to accompany forty-two artworks back to Italy. One day the art was there, the next not. The griffins used to surprise visitors exiting an elevator, and now it was on its way back to Italy. Over the course of thirty years the Getty paid about $40 million for the looted art they ended up returning. The Getty never really made a proper mea culpa. They just rearranged the galleries after the items were packaged up when the museum was closed.

The amount of art they currently own from very suspect dealers is astounding. I give them credit for publishing a searchable provenance for most objects on their website . Unless one knows the characters involved in illicit art or how to read a provenance, the search results seem harmless. A provenance search for “Robert Hecht” has 75 artworks in Getty holdings. The Royal Athena Galleries (in New York, now closed) often acted as an antiquities dealer for stolen art. The Getty currently owns 835 objects from the Royal Athena Galleries, most of which list no provenance and were acquired in 1970s-1980s. Perhaps it is not surprising that James Cuno, the current CEO and President of the J. Paul Getty Trust, called out the Italian Carabinieri and the Italian ideals of cultural patrimony as political and as a way to exert power and limiting objects to a single nation.


Getty Villa, Los Angeles, California, Pixabay.
Getty Villa, Los Angeles, California, Pixabay, open access.

Postscript

Hecht died in 2012. True is alive and lives in Paris with her husband. She denies any wrongdoing. Medici completed his prison sentence and still among the living. In 2018 the Getty Villa reinstalled its massive ancient art collection and has since implemented ethical and appropriate acquisition procedures. The museum used to be called the "Museum of the Tombaroli" by the art dealers. The Getty website is a gold standard of transparency and searchable provenance. However, the museum and website offer no explanation for its acquisition history or how the art arrived at the Villa. A teachable opportunity lost.

Paolo Ferri died in 2020 at age 72. He served forty-five years as a judge and prosecutor. After forty-two years in the Carabinieri, Roberto Conforti retired in 2002. He passed away in 2017.


How to read a provenance

Provenance is a history of ownership. Many European paintings have a long and detailed provenance, but old objects rarely have a complete provenance. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any large gaps of time between owners, and the ownership should be feasible, based on historical precedence. For example, the English traveled to Italy on the Grand Tour and frequently purchased art, so the provenance of a painting that was transported to England is logical. For antiquities it is another matter.

Provenance is listed in chronological order, starting with the earliest known owner, to the present. A semicolon indicates the art was passed directly from one entity to another. A period indicates a direct transfer did not occur or is not known to have occurred. If an artwork is not known to be a direct transfer or not, assume it was not direct.

The Carnegie Museum of Art has established four different levels of provenance in their guidelines, with one being the least complete and four the most comprehensive, with detailed information on each transaction. Gaps in provenance doesn’t mean the art was looted or stolen. Records may be scant for European dealers who are no longer in business or families with spotty archival records.

Some museums have different provenance writing guidelines. More European museums have undertaken specialized provenance research for artwork obtained during World War II (1939-45) as it may have been seized from Jewish owners.


Spotting questionable provenance in antiquities:

  • Provenance consists of only a few recent owners or galleries.

  • The object was acquired in the 1960s-2010s.

  • A Swiss dealer or gallery is listed as an owner mid to late twentieth century prior to the museum’s acquisition.

  • The findspot is unknown or vague, i.e. southern Italy, made in Greece, or said to be from Italy.

  • Prior owners or galleries are known to have dealt in looted antiquities.


What do these three provenance examples tell you?

Each artwork has a screenshot of the provenance taken from the museum's website.

Bowl with Symposium Scene, c. 530 BCE, probably by the Painter of the Louvre, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, open access. There are twelve men and one woman around the bowl, with one man and one woman pounding something in a large vessel.
Bowl with Symposium Scene, c. 530 BCE, probably by the Painter of the Louvre, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, open access. There are twelve men and one woman around the bowl, with one man and one woman pounding something in a large vessel.


Set of Etruscan Jewelry, early fifth century BCE, tomb from Vulci, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access. Gold, glass, and rock crystal.
Set of Etruscan Jewelry, early fifth century BCE, tomb from Vulci, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access. Gold, glass, and rock crystal.


Plaque from Etruscan Tomb, c. 470 BCE, painted terracotta. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, open access. 43 x 20”. Woman playing the lyre.
Plaque from Etruscan Tomb, c. 470 BCE, painted terracotta. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, open access. 43 x 20”. Woman playing the lyre.

Sources:

Atwood, Roger. Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World. St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

Becker, Jeffrey A. “Tomb of the Reliefs,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015.


Bowman, Blythe Proulx. “Archaeological Site Looting in ‘Glocal’ Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 117, no. 1, 2013, 111-125.


Brodie, Neil, et al., editors. Trade in Illicit Antiquities: The Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2001.

Cuno, James. “Culture War: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 93, no. 6, 2014, pp. 119–129.


Felch, Jason and Ralph Frammolino. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Greenland, Fiona. Ruling Culture: Art Police, Tomb Robbers, and the Rise of Cultural Power in Italy. The University of Chicago Press, 2021.

Kennedy, Randy and Hugh Eakin. “Met Sending Vase to Italy, Ending 30-Year Dispute.” New York Times, February 2, 2006.


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