Fabio Isman, a celebrated investigative journalist in Rome, who contributes to The Art Newspaper and writes regular columns for Il Messaggero and Arte e Dossier, took part in ARCA’s International Conference in the Study of Art Crime, in Amelia, Italy, July 9. Through an English-speaking interpreter, Mr. Isman talked passionately about the immense scope of illegal excavations, the illicit trade in Italian antiquities, and the yet unpunished main characters in a drama of tomb robbers, dealers, antiquities collectors, auction houses and the world’s major museums.
In his presentation, which he called: “The Biggest Looting: an awful story that will never end,” he shared pictures and information he found while researching his book, Il predatori dell’arte perduta: il saccheggio dell'archeologia in Italia (Raiders of the Lost Art: the Looting of Archaeology in Italy), which is the first written on the subject in Italian. He described his book as following Peter Watson’s fundamental work in The Medici Conspiracy, thanked him, and added that the depth of the issue has not been discovered until recently.
I will talk of a phenomenon: one million antiquities shipped from Italian soil from 1970 on, the most important [of which] was sold to the world’s greatest museums and big collectors…I wrote it because Italy is a great source of antiquities and I realized that few [here] are aware…
He went on to describe a story of 10,000 people, involved in the systematic looting and sale of one million illicit objects sold to 36 museums and 12 private collectors through specialist dealers from 1970 to 2004 in a business that is still ongoing – items having just come up at auction a few months ago.
Isman traced the beginning of the Grande Razzia to the Metropolitan Museum’s purchase of the illegally excavated Euphronius Krater for $1,000,000 in 1972, which made the market and established a record for an ancient object. As the market hungered for more objects, it was fed by looter/dealers Giacomo Medici and his secret depositories discovered in Geneva in 1995; four rooms filled with vases and recently excavated objects and 4,000 polaroid pictures of artifacts, some of which were already in major museum’s collections, and Gianfranco Becchina’s four warehouses discovered in Basel in 2001 containing more than $6 billion worth of antiquities. He referred to these men and other nefarious characters as “murderers of antiquities” who had scattered important objects around the world, leaving them out of context and thus “destroyed.” He underscored his words with images of a villa excavated in an unknown location at Pompei, its frescoes buried yet still intact, and those same frescoes cut into pieces so that they could be taken to Medici’s storehouses.
Isman thanked the State, and particularly Prosecutor Ferri and the Carabinieri (which increased from 16 personnel to 300 during that period) for helping to curb the flood of antiquities leaving Italy and helping many find their way back home. But he lamented that “no police dog is at the airport sniffing for ancient vases and [that] one-third of the people in prison have something to do with drugs and not one [of them is there] for illegal art.”
Mr. Isman has published 24 books, 18 of which are dedicated to art and culture in Italy.