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April 8, 2022

What about the well known looted vases in the Altes Museum in Berlin?

Left: Medici Archive Polaroid with fragments of the Crater of Persephone,
attributed to the Painter of the Underworld,
Right: 4th century BCE crater as seen at the Altes Museum, Berlin

Tonight there was an interesting plot twist to this year's formal demand by the Public Prosecutor's Offices of Rome and Foggia, who in late January 2022 issued two confiscation decrees, the first from the Gip of Foggia, and the second from the Gip of Rome, Alessandro Arturi, at the request of the Procura del Tribunale Capitolino. These European confiscation orders were sent with an international rogatory request through the Directorate General for International Affairs and Judicial Cooperation of the Ministry of Justice asking for the return of 21 ornate South Italian artefacts currently on exhibition in Germany.   Tonight, at 20:30 CET, on RAI tg24  Spotlight, journalists, archaeologists, curators, and carabinieri officers discuss these artefacts' murky origins.  All the while the viewing audience got to see the overly simplified foot-dragging reticence of the management at the Altes Museum in Berlin towards Italy's determination to prove the illicit nature of these pieces, and to get these objects back.  

Many of the spectacular contested artefacts, date to the 4th century BCE and fall into distinct workshop groups, giving us a rich opportunity to examine how the peoples native to southern Italy used Greek myth to comprehend death and the afterlife in their funerary customs.  Some of the Apulian vessels share stylistic markings which demonstrate that they likely were created by the same attributed "hands", leading Italian experts to strongly believe that the artefacts may have been derived from a singular burial grouping.  

The artisans represented include the Group of Copenhagen 4223, the Varrese painter, the Darius painter, and the Underworld painter.  All of the artefacts had at one point been broken into fragments before being carefully restored and sold on to Wolf Dieter Heilmayer between 1983 and 1984, then at the Berlin archaeological museum located in West Germany.  The German museum director purchased these artefacts via Christoph Leon for 3 million German marks, under the pretext that they had been purportedly part of a historic collection belonging to a Basel family named the Cramers. 

In reality, the red figure vases are believed by the Italian authorities to have been looted, having once adorned a large chamber tomb, likely near Taranto, the coastal city and production centre in southern Italy from c. 430 - c. 300 BCE where many of these vases originate.  The single tomb grouping is something that Martin Maischberger, Deputy Director of the Collection of Classical Antiquities of the National Museums in Berlin contested during his interview, saying that most massive volute-kraters are found in pairs, not in groupings of seven, (three alone attributed to the Darius painter) like those purchased with the fictitious Cramer provenance bought by the museum director's predecessors.  

Strikingly, the German director doesn't take into consideration the wealth of material found at other sites in the Southern half of Italy, sites like Ruvo and the richness of its own tomb-groups or other impressive object groupings from the tombs at Gravina and Rutigliano in Peucetia, where contacts with both Greece and Etruscan painters clearly demonstrate tombs proportionately rich in burial goods. 

While not all the artefacts in the Berlin Tomb group appear in photographs in the now famous Medici Archive, four of them are, and point clearly towards the illicit nature of these finds.  

In this case, in three different groupings of Polaroids, specifically:
  • one grouping of fifteen photographs, 
  • one grouping of six photographs,
  • and one grouping of two photographs. 
All three sets of images depict artefacts now in the Altes Museum in various stages of restoration, the most important of which is the exceptional krater by the Darius Painter.

Giacomo Medici archive photos of looted artefacts
presently on display at the Altes Museum

While not all of the Apulian artefacts have a "smoking gun" looter photo, the names attached to this transaction are the same, and have been problematic in the past. 

The former head of archaeology at Geneva Museum, Jacques Chamay had previously announced that his research had begun after he had examined a fragment of one of the vases in the Cramer family’s old library, though in tonight's program, reached by phone, he had nothing to say. 

Discounting the judicially soft, but diplomatically polite, cultural diplomacy negotiations as "informal", which up until January had been the preferred approach of the Carabinieri and the Procura of Foggia,  Dr. Maischberger at the Altes Museum remarked that the European confiscation request was the first time the museum had been formally asked to give back the vases.  In this instance, it seems the museum decided the Italian's less stick, more carrot approach meant they weren't serious or that a decision could be avoided?  In either case, asking nicely didn't incentivise or compel the museum's management towards restitution because only 4 of the disputed artefacts have definitive proof of looting photos seized from Giacomo Medici's storage facility on the fourth floor of the Ports Francs & Entrepôts de Genève, specifically Corridor 17, Room 23, on the 13th of September 1995.   

Giacomo Medici at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

During the Italian Spotlight news broadcast, Italians also heard from someone at the heart of Italy's illicit art market and the original holder of the Medici Polaroids, Giacomo Medici himself. 

Interviewed on camera for the first time, by investigative journalist Raffaella Cosentino, the former antiquities dealer seemed both soundly arrogant and at times cagy, admitting little even under direct questioning.  He avoided answering tough questions and instead preferred to underscore that he had served his time and paid his fines.  He also reminded his interviewer that in some instances the judicial process did not prove conclusively he had committed certain crimes.  

While Medici matter of factly talked about the seven boxes of photographs returned to him at the closure of his court case, he skipped over the fact that these images  represent the massive corpus of some 4000 artefacts that he handled during his years as an antiquities dealer.  He also failed to mention that he cultivated contacts among Italy's impoverished tombaroli, other wealthy corrupt dealers, Museum directors and conservators, who all turned a blind eye to the less than pristine origins of his wares.  Instead he preferred to mention loopholes or that he sold his antiquities of Switzerland, because Italy had rules against selling objects illicitly excavated. 

For what it is worth, and as a reminder, on 13 December 2004 Giacomo Medici was charged with receiving stolen goods, illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic via the Tribunal of Rome. The judge found that more than 95% of Medici’s antiquities—both those found in his Geneva warehouse as well as those depicted in the 4,000 seized photographs— were looted from Italy. Therefore, concerning the 3,800 antiquities recovered from the Geneva warehouse, the judge ordered the confiscation of approximately 3,400. Of the 400 that were not confiscated, 258 were returned to Switzerland: 179 because they had been looted in Greece, from sites on Paros, Crete, and the mainland (and, therefore, not subject to Italian law), and 79 because they were not authentic (and, therefore, were not the subject of the criminal investigation). For fewer than 150 of the 3,800 hundred antiquities—3.9% of his collection—did Medici provide any prior provenance.

On 15 July 2009 the Italian Appellate Court affirmed Medici's convictions for receiving stolen goods and conspiracy relating to the illicit trafficking of antiquities.  The affirmed a sentence of eight years of imprisonment alongside a €10 million fine, while the final count, for trafficking, was eliminated due to the expiry of the statute of limitations. 

Despite appealing the Appellate Court's ruling via Italy's Court of Cassation, on 7 December 2011 Giacomo Medici's final appeal was rejected.   Born in 1938 and already a senior citizen by that point, he was allowed to serve his judicial punishment primarily on house arrest at his villa in Santa Marinella, shortened by time off for good behaviour. 

By:  Lynda Albertson