Showing posts with label Italian Ministry of Culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Italian Ministry of Culture. Show all posts

July 28, 2011

Art Crime Writer Fabio Isman on "The Biggest Looting: an awful story that will never end" and his latest book "Il predatori dell’arte perduta: il saccheggio dell'archeologia in Italia"

Fabio Isman (Photo by Urska Charney)
by Jessica Graham Nielsen, ARCA Intern

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.

July 19, 2010

"The Bulldog" Makes a Case for the Return of the "Getty Bronze"

The "Getty Bronze"
Last weekend at the 2010 ARCA conference, Italian state attorney Maurizio Fiorilli offered his thoughts on the ongoing dispute between Italy and the Getty over the disposition of this  ancient Greek bronze, often called the "Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth".  Fiorilli has been nicknamed "Il Bulldog" by the Italian press for his quiet persistence in securing the return of illegally exported and illegally excavated cultural objects from a number of American museums, including a number of objects acquired in recent decades from the Getty.

One object which the Italians did not secure was this bronze, which is the subject of a seizure proceeding in Italy.  I've posted below four videos which find Fiorilli making a reasoned legal case for the return of the bronze.  An Italian court in February ordered the return of this object, however difficulty will arise when Italy attempts to convince a U.S. court to enforce the order.  The Getty has appealed the Italian decision, but the legal proceedings are important not only for the direct result, but for the shift in public perception which the Getty will have to navigate.  Surely the Getty does not relish the idea of a long protracted public debate over the disposition of this bronze.  The story of this bronze presents an interesting case.  Though it was certainly illegally exported from Italy, it cannot be considered a "looted" object in my view. 

The bronze was found by Italian fishermen somewhere in the Adriatic in the 1960's.  I wrote a long summary of the story of the bronze back in 2007.  To summarize, the statue was found by fisherman in the Adriatic in 1964, smuggled out of Italy, and eventually purchased by the Getty in 1977.  The bronze was discussed a great deal in the very public battle between Italy and the Getty over other looted objects in recent years.  Yet there was a lack of direct evidence linking the Getty to any wrongdoing in the acquisition.  Criminal proceedings were brought against some of the fishermen and handlers of the statue in Italy in 1968.  Left with little concrete evidence to secure a conviction, the fishermen were acquitted.  Yet as Fiorilli argued, these proceedings were made difficult because the actual statue had been smuggled abroad, and Italian prosecutors were unable to meet their burden.

I'll let Fiorilli make his case in the videos below, and apologies for the low sound levels.  Fiorilli spoke beautiful English, but chose to make his case in Italian, with the help of a translator. 

Cross-posted at

January 19, 2010

Crackdown on Culture Crime: Italy’s Proud Carabinieri Art Squad

by Judith Harris

ROME –The message: it works! Italy’s campaign to crack down on thefts of its treasures of art and archaeology has borne fruit, and the proof is in the statistics in the year-end report, released January 14 in Rome by General Giovanni Nistri, head of Italy’s crack Carabinieri art squad. Cultural heritage thefts were down by 14.5 percent in 2009 over the previous year. In addition, some 60,000 looted artifacts—from ancient to modern paintings, preciously inlaid Baroque furniture, archaeological artifacts, fine items of church d├ęcor and rare books—were recovered during 2009 for a total estimated value of almost $240 million. During the three-year period 2007-09 all crime has decreased, with thefts of cultural heritage dropping from 1,031 in 2008 to 882 in 2009.

Two of the most important recovered items—a Roman-era fresco painting hacked out of a wall and a precious black-figure decorated ceremonial Greek pot with handles (krater)—stolen from Italy but turned up recently at the auction house of Christie’s in New York.

Most recently the campaign to protect the nation’s cultural heritage has showcased the ongoing trial in Rome of two Americans, former Getty Museum curator Marion True and the elderly Paris-based dealer Robert Hecht. As a result of this highly publicized trial, the Getty Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Cleveland Art Museum have all returned items which the Italians demonstrated were looted from its territory. This three-pronged effort to throttle clandestine looting and sales involved the successful coordination with the Culture Heritage Ministry, the Carabinieri, and prosecutors and magistrates.

The advent of the Internet has both helped and hindered the illicit traffic. Specialized and general-interest web sites frequently sell looted items, but at the same time the Carabinieri-created website showing illustrations of stolen artifacts has been a successful tool. An example is the Pompeian fresco which had been stored for decades in a museum warehouse. No one knew when it was removed from storage, but in 1997 it was declared missing, and, thanks to the Internet, was found at Christie’s before it could be stolen.

One disappointing setback: a father-so team Lebanese art restorers working in Switzerland, known as the Burki, were implicated with Robert Hecht. Some 500 archaeological items were seized from them but bureaucratic delays with justice officials in Switzerland meant that the statute of limitations ran out, and all the artifacts had to be returned to them. At present, according to the Carabinieri, of the 500 items, only 137 remain in the Burki possession.

Archaeological theft is particularly important because by definition the looted items have no provenance certification, as would be required for selling, say, master works by Renaissance artists. For this reason independent experts like Prof. Noah Charney estimate archaeological thefts to amount to about three-quarters of the total. To address this, the Carabinieri now patrol the territory in helicopters and low-flying airplanes, which allow them to see, literally, the clandestine digs that would otherwise be invisible. As a result, on two sites looters were caught red-handed, and four arrests made.

Put another way, both supply side and the demand side are under attack. Stolen archaeological items are harder to sell because collectors are frightened, and the more skillful sleuthing means that the number of known clandestine excavations has fallen by a stunning 76% in just one year as a result.

Perhaps as a result, the number of counterfeit objects—“and particularly works of modern art,” said General Nistri—seized has risen enormously, by 427 percent in just one year. The problem remains, obviously, and especially in Central Italy (Lazio, Campania Regions), Tuscany and Lombardy.

State-owned museums are better protected today than in the past, as the statistics also show. Museum thefts are down by 29% across the board. Relatively few take place in the larger museums, whereas the smaller, city-owned (and hence less protected by high-tech security) museums account for half of all museum thefts.

Thefts from private collections, religious institutions of all kinds and historic archives remain a major concern. Church thefts dropped by almost 12% over 2008, but that year had seen a small boom in looting, and thefts from religious institutions of all kinds still account for 44.5% of the total. The relatively large number of archival materials recovered suggests that combatting this type of theft remains a priority.

May 15, 2009

Carabinieri Celebrate 40 Years Fighting Art Crime

To celebrate 40 years of success against art crime, the Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage and Italian Ministry of Culture has planned a series of major exhibitions, in Naples, Florence, and Rome, throughout 2009. 

Established in 1969, the Carabinieri Comando per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale was the world’s first dedicated art squad, established in response to a rash of thefts on the part of Organized Crime throughout the 1960s, culminating in the 1969 theft of Madonna’s Nativity from the chapel of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. The Caravaggio, thought to have been stolen by the Sicilian Mafia, is still number one on the list of world’s most wanted stolen art. 

The Carabinieri are far and away the largest and most effective art police force in the world, with over three-hundred full-time agents. They also have much more to deal with, as Italy has nearly ten times as many art crimes reported per year than any other country. The Italian government has been one of the only governments to take art crime as seriously as the crime warrants, and to dedicate sufficient resources to the art police. Most countries have no dedicated art police, and those that do tend to be under-funded and receive insufficient support from their governments.

Exhibitions of recovered masterpieces will be held at the Palazzo Reale in Naples, the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, and the Galleria Palatina in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. An exhibition catalogue, entitled “L’Arma per l’Arte,” will also be published. Reviews of the catalogue and exhibitions will appear in the Fall 2009 issue of The Journal of Art Crime. 

ARCA is proud to support Italy and the Carabinieri, and would like to congratulate founding trustee Col. Giovanni Pastore of the Carabinieri for his efforts throughout his career. ARCA is also pleased to award Gen. Giovanni Nistri of the Carabinieri, with the 2009 ARCA Award for Lifetime Achievement in Defence of Art. The 2009 ARCA ArtGuard Award for Art Protection & Security will be presented to former Italian Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli, at the awards ceremony at ARCA’s conference this July 11 in Amelia.