Showing posts with label archives. Show all posts
Showing posts with label archives. Show all posts

July 16, 2014

Talking Looted Antiquities and Becchina archive over espresso with Christos Tsirogiannis, ARCA's 2014 Writer-in-Residence, at Amelia's Bar Leonardi

The patio of Bar Leonardi in Amelia
By Catherine Schofield Sezgin, 
 ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

One of the benefits of holding the ARCA postgraduate program each summer in the Umbrian town of Amelia is Bar Leonardi, an establishment that offers drinks on a patio fit for either sun or shade, with a great view of the Porta Romana and a view of everyone entering or leaving town. It has comfortable tables where ARCA's 2014 Writer-in-Residence Christos Tsirogiannis and I parked ourselves one morning after this year's Amelia Conference to discuss the the context and scope of the work he does in identifying suspected looted antiquities that have re-surfaced in galleries, sales catalogues, and museum exhibits after 1970 (This post is an edited summary of our discussion).

Christos is the Greek forensic archaeologist that investigative reporter Nikolas Zirganos mentions in the 2007 version of The Medici Conspiracy (Peter Watson & Cecilia Todeschini); he accompanied Greek police on the raids of the home of Marion True on the island of Paros in March 2006 and the estate of Michaelides - Papadimitriou on the island of Schinousa in April 2006 (“Operation Eclipse”).

There Greek police found Polaroid photos, professional photographs and documents that have led investigators in Greece and Italy to recover numerous objects from American museums and auction houses. This was achieved by tracing the objects from the inventory of dealers suspected of selling ancient objects illegally dug out of Etruscan, Greek and Roman tombs and archaeological sites, as defined by UNESCO’s 1970 convention, signed by almost 200 countries agreeing that such activity should not be condoned by legitimate art dealers or museums.

The Becchina archive was confiscated by the Italian and Swiss authorities in Basel in 2000 and 2002, Although you do not have a digital copy of the archives, you are given access to them by those who have the digital copies, whenever you want to search. Why have you not published these images so that anyone in the world with access to the database can join in the recovery efforts to return looted antiquities?

Christos Tsirogiannis: One thing that is important to understand is that these three archives (Medici, Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides) containing Polaroids, photographs and receipts, were obtained by the Greek and Italian states. Therefore, this material belongs to those countries and aids them in prosecuting these cases and in recovering objects from museums and auction houses. They are not my property and, thus, it is not my right to publish them.

Secondly, it is possible that if these archives (Medici, Becchina, Symes) were published online, then those people who have the objects – either in their homes or in the basements of museums – may want to avoid being accused of purchasing stolen antiquities and would either sell those items to collectors who do not care about their collecting history – or possibly destroy those objects to avoid confiscation or arrests.

The photographic evidence shows dirty or broken objects dug out of the ground. We do not know where most of these objects are. I have matched, so far, about 850 objects depicted in about 1,800 images, of objects thought to have been illegally sold, and thousands more have yet to be located. These photographs are the starting point of the research. When the objects show up in an exhibition or a sale, we can collect any information published with that object and try to describe how these networks of illicit antiquities operated on the market. But if the people who have the objects today realize that their objects have been identified as stolen, they may hide those objects and we will have no further information.

The most important objective is to tell the story of how these pieces were looted and entered into private collections and museums who must have known or suspected they were looted, smuggled or stolen.

How did people become aware that even after UNESCO’s 1970 Convention for the protection of cultural property, antiquities continued to be illicitly sold?

CT: Chippindale and Gill wrote in 1993 an important paper that pointed out that 90% of the known Cycladic figures in collections around the world had no recorded history prior to 1970 and thus one could infer that they had been freshly dug out of the ground or were fakes. Then in 2000, Chippindale and Gill demonstrated that most ancient objects in the most well-known private collections had no collecting history prior to 1970. A few years later, Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini published The Medici Conspiracy, which told how Italian and Greek police had uncovered a criminal network involved in digging up ancient objects from Italy and Greece, laundering them in Switzerland and through auction houses, mainly in London, and then selling them to collectors and museums throughout the world. The Medici Conspiracy was followed by Sharon Waxman’s Loot, Vernon Silver’s The Lost Chalice, and Felch and Frammolino’s Chasing Aphrodite, which showed a pattern of purchasing ancient objects that had weak or nonexistent collecting histories – a cover up for looted antiquities.

Despite the publication of these books, is it common knowledge that criminals extract ancient objects from tombs and archaeological sites and then sell those same objects through the art market to collectors and museums? Three decades ago the Getty Villa displayed Greek and Roman objects without explaining how such objects got to Malibu, California. And today many museums display objects that have appeared in their collections after 1970 or are on loan anonymously in the last year or two but provide no other information as to how these objects made it to the museums in Pasadena or Chicago or New York. Is this part of your work, to create a consciousness in viewers to ask such questions while they are admiring the pottery of the Greeks or the bronze figurines of the Etruscans?

CT: It is everyone’s responsibility to inform the people about the wrongdoings that are still on-going in the antiquities market and, subsequently in the antiquities collections of the most well-known private and state museums. Then, an informed visitor will have the ability to understand why an institution fails to provide basic information on the collecting history of the antiquities on exhibition.

Christos, what has happened in the pursuit of criminal charges against antiquities dealers Robin Symes and Giacomo Medici?

CT: Medici has been convicted of conspiring to sell looted antiquities and ordered to pay a 10 million- Euro fine – although he was sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment, according to the Italian law he will serve no time in jail in Italy because he is over 70 years old.

As for Robin Symes, the Greek government has issued an international warrant for his arrest, but the British authorities have not been able to locate Symes. The Italian government is also preparing a case against Symes.

November 24, 2013

Robert M. Edsel's Talk at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Launched "Saving Italy" and the Archives Program

by Tanya K. Lervik

Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis Best-selling author, Robert M. Edsel addressed a packed audience in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium this week. The event on November 19th publicized the launch of his newest book, Saving Italy, which celebrates the achievements of two members of the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program.

Deane Keller and Fred Hartt risked their lives and put academic careers at Yale on hold to join the race to save Italy's masterpieces. As they traveled with Allied troops, their original mission working to minimize damage and stabilizing threatened works evolved as the scope of Nazi looting became clear. Many priceless artworks from the great museums of Naples and Florence were unceremoniously bundled off with the retreating German forces and used as a pawn by General Karl Wolff, commander of the SS forces in Italy. Without Hitler's knowledge, Wolff secretly negotiated the Nazi surrender with American OSS spymaster, Allen Dulles. Meanwhile, the "Monuments Men" worked tirelessly to retrieve the hostage art and prepare for its eventual triumphant return.

Edsel also spoke about his other efforts to increase public awareness of the legacy of the Monuments Men. The recently publicized discovery of the Gurlitt hoard in Munich highlights the fact that many lost artworks may still be discovered. Edsel hopes that the February 7th film release of "The Monuments Men" which dramatizes his first book will inspire people to consider the importance of preserving art and culture in times of war, and possibly to look more deeply into the history of objects they may have inherited. 

The combined star power of a cast including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, and John Goodman promises to shine a powerful light on the issue. Edsel hopes to focus that raised interest through his Monuments Men Foundation by asking the public to approach the foundation with tips and questions about objects they may have at home. He pointed out that many of the larger lost artworks are likely to be either lost or to have been confiscated by the retreating Soviet Army, so his aim is to concentrate on smaller, more portable items that may lie the obscurity of personal collections. In this way, Edsel hopes to expand efforts to repatriate looted art. 

Related links: 

See a brief documentary on the wartime exploits of the Monuments Men:

Watch the trailer for the upcoming film version of Edsel’s book: 

View archived Monuments Men documents from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art:

Watch Robert Edsel speak about "Saving Italy" on Book TV:

February 12, 2009

The Aggressive Streak in Libraries

Of all the recent positive trends in the book crime arena, maybe none is more heartening than this: libraries are getting aggressive.

Libraries and archives have always taken their role as victim seriously. But most often this meant background work: heroic cataloguing efforts to find out what was missing or research into the value of the stolen items to estimate recovery cost or testimony at trial concerning access gained by the thief. This work was usually done quietly, and at the behest of the prosecution.

That has changed in a big way, and the British Library seems to be the vanguard. (Which may simply be a result of necessity. No other institution has been more profligately and publicly looted by thieves in the past decade.)

In November, the BL filed a civil suit seeking roughly $500,000 in damages from (now jailed) thief/billionaire Farhad Hakimzadeh. The amount approximates what the BL feels the thief stole from them over the course of his years of crime. The suit, which came near the end of the criminal process, might either be an effort to recoup costs from a very rich man or to express displeasure at what looked to be a disappointing criminal sentence.

If it’s the latter, this is getting to be a trend for the BL. And a good one, at that. A couple of years ago, the British Library demonstrated this aggressive streak toward map thief E. Forbes Smiley.

In the American federal system, it’s fairly easy to predict a criminal sentence once a thief has pleaded guilty – the sentencing judge has very little latitude. So when it became clear to the BL that Smiley was not going to be adequately punished for his crimes against them, they offered their own opinion on the matter to the judge.

Hiring former United States Attorney Robert Goldman, an expert at prosecuting art crimes, the BL (through Goldman) submitted their own sentencing memorandum to the judge in the Smiley case. Goldman, using the knowledge of the sentencing procedures he had employed so successfully as a prosecutor, claimed that Smiley deserved more punishment than he was likely going to get.

The BL filing ultimately had very little impact on the Smiley sentence, but it did put the prosecution in the strange position of having to sing the praises of Smiley – to justify its comparatively lenient stance – while at the same time supporting its own sentencing recommendations (which weren’t really that lenient) against the Smiley defense.

So the prosecution, thanks to Goldman and the BL, sometimes came off sounding like the defense in their portrait of Smiley:

In providing credible information regarding those to whom he sold maps, the defendant saved the Government considerable effort and expense in its potential investigation of others, and saved those individuals from potential unwarranted reputational, financial and emotional injury.


During the past year since the time of his initial arrest by local authorities, the defendant approached the effort at recreating his thefts with substantial diligence, pouring [sic] over lists, reviewing microfiche or other images where applicable and otherwise trying to recreate his years of map collecting and thefts. This defendant arrived at the proffers prepared, answered questions directly, acknowledged when his recollection was fuzzy and qualified answer in a reasonable way. From any perspective the defendant has taken tremendous steps toward addressing the wrongs he committed.

It made for a strange pre-sentencing atmosphere, to say the least. Thanks to the work of the prosecution, Smiley ultimately received a substantial sentence: a stiff jail term of three and a half years (which he will serve the lot of; there’s no time off for good behavior in the American federal system) and nearly $2 million for restitution.

While this was less punishment than the BL hoped, the action certainly put thieves – and everyone else – on notice that the library was not going to take these crimes sitting down.

And the British Library isn’t the only cultural heritage institution acting this way.

The Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Virginia, filed a 2007 civil suit against its former Director of Archives, Lester Weber, in advance of a criminal case being filed against him. The criminal investigation (which ultimately led to a very satisfactory four year jail term for the thief) was proceeding slowly against Weber, and he had been walking free for six months. So the MM took matters into its own hands and filed the suit in local court.

While the Mariners’ Museum may have been frustrated with the pace of prosecution, Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, was frustrated with the absence of prosecution of serial book thief, and former employee, David Breithaupt. In the years following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, federal criminal prosecution in the United States was not overly concerned with book crimes. So, taking the initiative, Kenyon filed a federal civil suit against Breithaupt. The college won the civil case at a jury trial and was awarded a substantial judgment – which, of course, Breithaupt had no ability to pay. A federal criminal case followed the civil trial, and Breithaupt later spent a year in federal prison for his thefts.

So cultural heritage institutions have recently proven that civil cases can be successful before, after or in lieu of state prosecution of the crimes. And whether these suits are filed with a legitimate expectation of a cash award or merely so that the institution can do something, they send the same message: we do not take theft of our materials lightly.

In each of these cases, the prosecution should be applauded for its efforts in putting the thieves in jail. But criminal filings are not mutually exclusive of civil suits. Our cultural heritage institutions ought not shy away from their own actions.

In light of Mark’s piece (below) on the relative merits of “certainty” versus “severity” in punishment, we might one day have enough evidence to debate the impact of the deterrent effect of criminal and civil cases in tandem versus simply criminal prosecutions.