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Madrid: Indifference is not an option

Archaeologist Paul Barford has drawn my attention to a story in the Art Newspaper (Fabio Isman, "Looted from Italy and now in a major Spanish museum? Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum may have bought trafficked items", The Art Newspaper July 13, 2010). It is reported that 22 objects in Madrid's Museo Arqueologico Nacional can be traced back to Giacomo Medici or Gianfranco Becchina. The objects have been identified by images seized in Geneva and Basel.

It seems that the 22 pieces were acquired as part of a collection of 181 ancient objects purchased for $12 m in 1999 from collector José Luis Várez Fisa. The story about their identification is one that repeats itself from other museums, private collections, and dealers:
A few of them show objects still covered in mud—suggesting they had been recently (and illegally) unearthed—while others show the pieces in fragments, before the dealers sent them to be professionally restored. One object, an Apulian Bell Krater from 330BC that was later sold by Sotheby’s, appeared in a picture belonging to Medici that appears to have been taken in the Zurich workshop of the art restorers Fritz and Harry Bürki, a father-and-son team to whom leading antiquities dealer Robert Hecht (whose separate trial in Rome relating to the illicit trade is likely to end without a verdict because it has run out of time) sent works for restoration.
It appears that some pieces had passed through the Royal-Athena Galleries and other dealers:
Some of the objects in the Madrid catalogue have been published before, including in the German review Munzen und Medaillen, whose late owner was a close friend of Becchina, or by the leading New York antiquarian, Jerome Eisenberg, of the Royal-Athena Galleries. ... Nine of the Madrid artefacts were first published by Eisenberg between 1993 and 1997, in volumes of the gallery’s Art of the Ancient World. (Eisenberg counters that all the objects in his catalogues between 1988 and 2005 were checked by the Italian police, and that all—apart from eight objects that he voluntarily returned to Italy in 2007—were cleared by them.)
It should be noted that some of these items surfaced prior to the raids on Medici's premises in the Geneva Freeport in which the polaroids were seized. (For the 8 returned items see here.)

The article is keen to stress:
... there is no evidence of any dealing between José Luis Várez Fisa and Becchina or Medici, despite the large amount of paperwork seized from the pair, or that Fisa was aware of any problems in the provenance of the objects he acquired.
However the implications are clear:
Nevertheless the case demonstrates how easily all too many recent private collections were formed, and how some of the world’s most important museums (and not only those who knowingly connived to buy objects directly from the “traffickers”), bought antiquities that had been completely decontextualised from their past, with origins were at best extremely obscure. Will the Italian state try to reclaim at least some of the more important artefacts taken from under its soil? And, now that the National Archaeological Museum of Madrid knows all about the illicit provenance of many of its artefacts, will it pretend that nothing has happened? Indifference, surely, is not an option.
I have looked in the Beazley Archive database. One of the pieces illustrated in the article (with Medici Polaroid) appears there:

  • a. Madrid 1999.99.53. Collecting history: New York private collection; Sotheby-Parke-Bernet, New York 17 December 1997, lot 96. Publ. Bonet, P.C. (ed.), La coleccion Varez Fisa en el Museo Arqueologico Nacional, Septembre-Novembre 2003 (Madrid, 2003): 173-175, no. 57.


22 objects appear in the Beazley database (though not all appear to be linked to the 22 identified by the Italian authorities). I note that several of the pieces from the general collection surfaced in Sotheby's London in December 1982, May 1988, July 1994, and New York in June 1996; it should be stressed that these need not have been ex-Medici or ex-Becchina. At least one of the pieces had passed through the Graham Geddes collection, and another through Galerie Nefer in Zurich (see Galerie Nefer's link to returned objects). Others were purchased in 1997, just two years before the collection was sold.

It seems that the curatorial staff of the Museo Arqueologico Nacional have declined to comment. However it would be sensible for them to negotiate the return of the controversial pieces and follow in the line of other distinguished North American museums. The story is a good reminder of the toxic nature of the antiquities that passed through the hands of certain dealers.


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