By Lynda Albertson, ARCA 's CEO
Waking this morning and checking the news bureaus I came across the January 26th New York Times editorial piece The Great Giveback by Hugh Eakin.
Before proceeding further, let me state that despite the almost 2,000 words of commentary by the senior editor of the New York Review of Books of his personal opinion as to what the motives are in countries like Italy in seeking restitution of their looted art, Eakin doesn’t seem to be talking thoughtfully with anyone in Rome at the present time. If he is, he certainly isn’t attentive to what people closely involved in these cases are saying.
Having just spent last Thursday, January 24th at the round table symposium at the Villa Giulia hosted by Alfonsina Russo, Superintendent Archaeologist for Southern Etruria, in reviewing the work conducted in these contentious cases over the last 15+ years I can assure you that extortion is not, nor has it ever been, a nefarious motive in seeking the return of Italy’s looted antiquities.
Italy’s motive, if it can be summed-up in a simple statement, is to preserve and protect the country’s antiquities for all its generations and in doing so, by recording objects in their discovered contexts, expanding upon our knowledge of the ancient world.
While not as intimately informed about the impetuses for reinstatement of looted art in Greece or Turkey, I think I can speak fairly knowledgeably that like Italy, their objectives are not to strip foreign museums bare of their collections but to protect what is legally defined as theirs. While at times it can seem prosecutorial, these countries, like Italy, seek to right past wrongs, intentionally malicious or not, and to uphold current international law. Ancillary to that is to examine preventative measures so that the illicit trade in antiquities doesn’t merely shift to alternate buying markets.
Last Thursday’s meeting in Rome was a chance for people directly involved in the Italian looting cases of which Mr. Eakin speaks to see how far their country has come in working for the return of works of art stolen or exported illegally. Knowing that as recently as 3 weeks ago a tomborolo in Vulci, Alberto Sorbera, from Montalto di Castro, suffocated while looting an Etruscan tomb, they are faced with daily evidence which starkly highlights that the country has a long way to go in eliminating its looting problem.
The Villa Giulia meeting was a solemn one. Thursday’s talks started with an introduction by the Director General for Antiquities Luigi Malnati, who spoke of the continuing difficulties Italy has in terms of manpower and financial potency in securing cultural heritage sites, especially those in remote areas. His exact words were “Senza il controllo del territorio, non si fa nulla”.
Italy’s law enforcement also spoke. I listened to the thoughtful words of retired General Roberto Conforti, former Commander of the Carabinieri TPC (Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale) who spoke about the early days of the TPC. He explained how Italy’s Ministry of Culture trained officers on the intricacies of the art world and how, during his tenure, the collaborative efforts of judges, consultants and museum personnel culminated in much of what we know today of the illegal trade dealings of the principal suppliers involved in these US and foreign museum related cases.
Major Massimiliano Quagliarella, Head of Operations Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection and Major Massimo Rossi, Commander of the Cultural Heritage Protection Group of the Guardia di Finanza each spoke about current and ongoing investigations involving recent incidents of plundered art. Their statistics emphasized that despite growing public awareness, international focus from the archeaological world and cooperation between nations and museums in requesting the return of pillaged objects, the number of looting sites throughout Italian territories are still significant. Their statistics and images of recent looting served to highlight that the problem with trafficking is ongoing, even if current buyers do not appear to be museum heads.
Maurizio Fiorilli, Attorney General of the State; Guglielmo Muntoni, President of the Court of Review of Rome; and Paolo Giorgio Ferri, former magistrate for the Getty and Met cases and now a judicial advisor to the Directorate General for Antiquities, also spoke of the complexity of Italy’s antiquities trafficking problem. Fiorilli voiced his opinion that it is necessary for Italy to apply not just judicial pressure, but political pressure as well if Italy is to uphold seizure orders such as the one for The Getty Bronze. This statue known in Italy as l’Atleta di Fano, the signature piece of The Getty's embattled antiquities collection, was, according to Italian court records, illegally exported before the museum purchased it for $4 million in 1976.
Muntoni spoke about the horror investigators felt when viewing the hundreds of polaroid photos Tomboroli took of Italy’s looted artwork, seen broken and stuffed into the trunks of cars with dirt still clinging to them. He also mentioned his personal disappointment that professional archaeologists and museum curators used U.S. tax laws to inflate the value of donated objects in a rush to have wealthy patrons collude with them to add to their collections.
Paolo Girogio Ferri listened to me thoughtfully as I talked about the continued need to find compromises that neither destroy US museum reputations nor allow them to indefinitely delay the return of objects they know should be returned. We discussed the lock system of illicit trafficking, and how at the end of the day antiquities should be perceived not just as cultural heritage but as merchandise, and that as long as there are buyers and unprotected territories with objects the buyer wants, looting will continue to represent a problem for safeguarding Italy’s cultural patrimony.
Italian journalists Fabio Isman and Cecilia Todeschini spoke first-hand about current looting cases and the tireless archaeologists in small regional museums who try their best, despite limited funding, to protect what they can. Daily though, these front-line soldiers take photos of their battle scarred regions as evidence that Italy’s battle against the theft of antiquities has not been won.
Isman highlighted the facts surrounding a very recent article he published in Il Messagero, I predatori dell'arte perduta:due leoni alla corte del Getty, where he brought Italy’s attention to two 1912 archive photographs from the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) taken of the front of the Palazzo Spaventa in Pretùro near Aquila. The photos show two lions, originating from the ancient Sabine city of Amiternum, which flank an entrance to the building as sentinels. The fact that they are there is not surprising. This area of the Abruzzo and surrounding territory are known to have been an important zone where Roman funerary lions were carved. What is puzzling is when they were removed and how and when they were trafficked out of Italy.
What we do know though is where they are at present. Acquired by The Getty in 1958 through some of the same trafficking channels made famous by the more public cases Mr. Eakin has written about, the two statues languish in the museum’s storage. Not even on display, the Getty's records attribute the lions' provenance to an old Parisian collection and place their origins as Asia Minor.
The topics of these speakers at Thursday’s symposium are just a selection of some of the vocal Italian voices heard at the Villa Giulia this past week. Their focus is not strong-arm tactic or hostile threat but an honest effort on the part of those involved and who have spent thousands of hours pouring over more than 70,000 pages of evidence to locate the currently-known 1500 trafficked pieces at 40 identified museums.
Trophy hunting? I think not. I think Italy is trying to find the head of the snake when so far it had only just started to uncover its tail.