Monday, July 20, 2009

Giacomo Medici: scapegoat or first in a series?

Giacomo Medici's appeal against his conviction for his part in what has become known as the "Medici Conspiracy" has failed. This suggests that Italian courts are taking a firm position over the issue of cultural property. The commercial looting of archaeological sites across Italy has yielded hundreds of thousands of objects; and that has been at a cost, the destruction of unexcavated archaeological sites. And we are all losers if we have cosmopolitan values.

Medici's warehouse in the Geneva Freeport contained not only antiquities but also photographic evidence of previous transactions. And it was those photographs that have helped the Italian government to identify recently looted pieces that had been acquired by various international museums and private collections.

But was Medici alone?

We know of at least one Sicilian dealer whose warehouses in Basel have been raided and the objects returned to Italy.

What about those in Switzerland who are known to have handled the recently surfaced objects? What about the specialised conservator? (His name appears as a vendor with at least one North American museum.)

What about those who identified objects apparently while they were still in Switzerland? It appears that some of the figure-decorated pottery was being attributed to (anonymous) "painters" by scholars before the objects were offered for auction.

What about the staff of auction houses who appear to have known about the trail of the objects through Switzerland? The fact that a major auction-house shut down its antiquities department in London suggests that there was an acceptance that something less than acceptable had been taking place.

What about the independent dealers who were handling high value objects? The names of two appear time and again in the objects returned to both Italy and Greece.

Then what about the curatorial staff of museums that were buying these new objects? What did they think was going on? And let us not forget the senior staff members and trustees of those museums who should have been protecting the good name of their institutions.

What about private collectors who were happily buying recently surfaced antiquities?

This web of dealers, collectors and museum staff all had their part to play in the "Medici Conspiracy" (see also D.W.J. Gill and C. Chippindale, "The illicit antiquities scandal: what it has done to classical archaeology collections," American Journal of Archaeology 111 [2007] 571-74 [AJA]). And this is why museums that have returned material to Italy need to make a full disclosure of the collecting histories of the objects. At least three major museums in North America have chosen to keep this information private. Why? Is it not a matter of public interest for them to disclose the sources for those objects? Did they buy them directly from dealers? Did they buy them at auction? Were they donated by private collectors? Lack of transparency will merely prolong the agony as the information is likely to come out at some stage.

Should Medici be singled out as the only example of wrong-doing?

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