The Italian Antiquities Trial – a Brief Review


During the summer of 2005, a trial began in Italy with the goal of deciding the guilt or innocence of Marion True along with Robert Hecht, Jr in conspiracy to traffic in illegal antiquities. The trial is still underway in Rome and has certainly fulfilled the 2 year prediction some gave. The result is that several museums have already returned antiquities of illicit origin to their countries of origin, pariticuarly Italy and Greece.

True, the former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Hecht, the descendent of the department store mogul, didn’t begin their portions of the trial until Wednesday, November 16, 2005. Hecht was implicated following the 2004 conviction of Giacomo Medici, an Italian art dealer found to be responsible for one of the most sophisticated and extensive illicit antiquities smuggling rings in the world.

Throughout the 1980s, Giacomo Medici probably sold more antiquities at Sotheby’s than any other single owner. Over the years, thousands of objects from Medici had passed through the London salesroom and millions of pounds had changed hands. None of the antiquities had any provenance because all were illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy (Watson & Todeschini, p. 27 ).

True resigned from her position, recently filled by Karol Wight, in October 2005 under the fire of criticism with regard to her handling of acquisitions that had questionable origins. As she and Hecht began the trial in November 2006, Italy was demanding the return of 52 artifacts that were deemed to be stolen or looted and in the possession of the Getty. While Italy was also in negotiation with other museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talks with the Getty were the most difficult. The Getty initially only agreed to return 26 out of the 52 artifacts and the point of most contention seemed to surround the fate of a bronze statue, known as the Statue of a Victorious Youth, snagged in the nets of an Italian fishing trawler of the Adriatic coast of Italy in 1964.

In December of 2006, however, The Getty returned several antiquities to Greece, including a funerary wreath, a kore, and a grave marker with a marble votive. And it was in this month that Marion True sends a letter to the Getty reflecting her bitterness of the museum board’s treatment of her in the media. She accuses the Getty of using her as the fall guy for a practice of antiquities acquisition that was the board’s own responsibility.

By March, however, the Italian court gets to hear the contents of a 1992 letter that True wrote to the Getty board in which she informed them that the wreath mentioned above was “too dangerous for us to get involved with.” On the surface, it would seem that her intentions are pure, but Swiss antiquities dealer, Christoph Leon, stated that she advised the board to go ahead with the purchase the following year for $1.15 million. Leon is also on trial.

One of the interesting developments of the antiquities trial in Italy is the attention that has been spotlighted on the role of the collector as well as the museum in the antiquities trade. Indeed, without these entities, there would simply be no market for illicit antiquities. In June of 2007, the Italian court turned its attention to the American antiquities collectors who have collections that include objects looted from Italy as well as other countries. An Italian archaeologist, Daniela Rizzo, named Texas oilmen Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, both of whom liquidated their collections along with other assets after loosing their fortunes. Others were also mentioned, including Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, the art philanthropists who once loaned True $400,000 allegedly repaid at around the time the Fleischmans sold part of their collection to the Getty for $20 million.

Its worth noting that 90 percent of the art collections in American art museums are the result of private donation. The collectors aren’t simply being altruistic, the donations result in tax deductions equal to the current market value of the object being donated -often far beyond the price they paid for it. And museums struggling for funds are all-too-eager to accept these donations to increase their presence, particularly when the antiquities are top-rate. About a dozen of the 52 artifacts that Italy wanted returned was donated by the Fleischmans.

Most recently, while the trial of Marion True and Robert Hecht continues, the Getty has agreed to return some 40 artifacts to Italy, including red and black figured craters and kylixs and amphorae, statues and bronzes. They’re even returning the Cult Statue of a Goddess. Most of the artifacts are destined to be transferred in the next several months, but the Cult Statue of a Goddess will remain on display until 2010 at the Getty Villa. The agreements that have been arrived at are important. Even though the artifacts are illicit in origin, they do serve to represent a cultural heritage and cultural ties between nations is extremely important in the field of archaeology.

The fates of Marion True, Robert Hecht and the Victorious Youth remain to be seen. Italy and the Getty agreed to “defer discussions” of the disputed bronze “until the outcome of the ongoing legal proceedings which are now underway in Pesaro, Italy.”

Related Sources

Watson, Peter; Todeschini, Cecilia (2006) The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy ‘s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Great Museums. New York: Public Affairs

The Getty (2007). Italian Ministry of Culture and J. Paul Getty Trust Reach Agreement. Press Release.

Povoledo, Elisaetta (2006). Italy Expresses Dismay with Getty’s Stand on Disputed Art. The New York Times, 11/24/06, E,1.

Higgins, Charlotte (2006). Getty returns disputed works to Greece: Antiquities may have been exported illegally: Museum tightens policies on provenance of objects. The Guardian, 12/13/06, pg. 5.

Felch, Jason; Frammolino, R. (2006). Getty lets her tak fall, ex-curator says; The trust’s silence in the art looting case is taken as sign of her guilt, Marion True asserts. Los Angeles Times, 12/29/06, Home Edition, B, 1.

Ancient Chinese Tombs Destroyed for Modern Consumerism

That’s right: IKEA is branching out to south China and ancient tombs that date as far back as 1800 years are bulldozed for modern home furnishings -Swedish style.

“The tops of some of the tombs were chopped off by bulldozers, disclosing some green bricks,” it said, citing a witness. “The situation of another tomb was even more miserable, because it was dug from the centre by an excavator, leaving only part of the coffin hanging on the mud wall.”

The tombs were described as being built of green bricks embroidered with ornate lotus patterns.

Though not well enforced, Chinese laws allow for the fines of up to $65,000 to be imposed upon those that destroy cultural resources such as this. No doubt the workers were oblivious to the ancient site and were proceeding with a government approved and popular construction project, so fines are probably not likely. Still, it’s a shame there aren’t better CRM practices in place.

A spokesman for IKEA was not immediately available for comment.

No shit.

The Last Foragers of Tanzania – A Farewell to the Hadza?

Chris O’Brien at Northstate Science has a gut-wrenching post on the plight of the Hadza of northern Tanzania. Their very existence is threatened by wealth, ignorance, and a complete lack of compassion by the government that should be responsible stewards of the cultural diversity of its citizens.

Instead, the Tanzanian government is coming to an agreement with the United Arab Emirates to lease the land they live on as a private hunting ground for the UAE Royal family. This would make the Hadza trespassers on their own land, the land they’ve subsisted on successfully for thousands of years.

Chris provides references an MSNBC story that begins with “[o]ne of the last remaining tribes of hunter-gatherers on the planet is on the verge of vanishing into the modern world.” The story goes on to quote Tanzanian officials who refer to the Hadza as “backward” and implied that they would benefit from being forced to “modernize.” But the story is fair to the Hazabe in that it gives them their props:

While they have through 50,000 years survived the coming of agriculture, metal, guns, diseases, missionaries, poachers, anthropologists, students, gawking journalists, corrugated steel houses and encroaching pastoral tribes who often impersonate them for tourist money, the resilient Hadzabe, who still make fire with sticks, fear that the safari deal will be their undoing.

And:

The Hadzabe are believed to be the second-oldest people on Earth, and they still hunt and gather as a way of life, if occasionally before audiences of khaki-covered tourists, who flock to northern Tanzania by the thousands.

It’s a shame that such a noble and successful culture is looked down upon by the “modern” world that views them as quaint or as a curiosity at best, as “backward” and as an in-the-way annoyance at worst. The fact that their success has outdone that of any modern culture is all but ignored.

I can’t recommend Chris’ post enough, Hadza Tribal Lands Being Confiscated By Arab Royal Family. He isn’t just regurgitating the news like I am here, Chris is sharing his personal experiences having lived and worked among the Hazabe during the 1990s. Chris puts a personal touch on their plight, bringing individuals within the tribe to life as real people, not just a news story about a few people far, far away. Reading his post puts the Hazda closer to home and, while they may be on the other side of the globe, the neighbor of my neighbor must be mine as well.

What can we do?
Write. Pass the word.
Send emails to the UAE embassy as well as the Tanzanian embassy. Post on our blogs. If you don’t have a blog, send links to the story and Chris’ post to friends. And click on the link below to Digg the story by clicking underneath the yellow ranking to vote Chris’ story up. If it gets digged enough, it’ll rise to the top of the page and get noticed. Diggs snowball, they’re slow at first, but the votes increase exponentially, so don’t think your vote doesn’t count if the votes are still low.

Digg Chris’ Post here
Northstate Science
Afarensis I
Afarensis II
Anthropolgoy.net
/Anthropology.net II
The MSNBC.com story
Remote Central
Schmoo on the Run
Indigenous Peoples of Africa

Visit these links, read the posts, drop comments. Get the word out. I’ll try to update this list with new links as I come across them. Please leave them in the comments below if you’re so inclined!

Loch Ness to become World Heritage Site


Nessie Fans take notice! The Loch Ness, about 37 km from Inverness, Scotland may be destined to become a World Heritage Site.

the UK’s largest body of fresh water and one of the deepest at 754ft, which makes it a vital site for scientists, as well as monster hunters and tourists. Its largely undisturbed mud-beds are a source of important historical, geological and environmental data, giving clues to such phenomena as the formation of the Great Glen.

The application will need to be made to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, before it can be considered, listing it with 162 other sites like The Grand Canyon, the Galapogos Islands, and The Great Barrier Reef.

Loch Ness has some some significant peers to compare with should it be accepted by UNESCO.

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