Antiquities and Archaeology
“Clandestine excavation is a crime that is hard to prove”
Former public prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri on the scourge of looting
By Fabio Isman. News, Issue 220, January 2011
Published online: 05 January 2011
Following our normal editorial policy, former prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri was not able to see Marion True’s comments on her trial until the article’s publication in our January print edition. However, as the trial was winding down last summer (and as he stepped down as a judge to work on the problem of stolen antiquities with Italy’s ministry of culture), he gave an interview to our sister paper, Il Giornale dell’ Arte, on his motivations. This is an extract from that interview.
GDA: What was your first investigation into illegal excavations?
PGF: It was in 1994, with the then sergeant of the carabinieri department for cultural heritage, Vito Barra, now in charge of security at the Vatican Museums. We believed that a statue stolen at Villa Torlonia had been put up for auction at Sotheby’s. So we travelled to London [but made no progress]. Five months later, Sotheby’s sent me the names of two companies: Edition Services and Xoilan Trading. Edition Services is a company owned by Giacomo Medici, until now the only important “art robber” to have been convicted in Italy [Medici is currently appealing]. Xoilan Trading is one of the various names of [companies connected to] the art dealer Robin Symes. But at the time we didn’t know this. Faced with two Panamanian companies, Barra was on the verge of giving up. “No one’s going to tell us anything,” he said. Shortly afterwards, I met Daniela Rizzo, an archaeologist of the monuments office for southern Etruria. Together with Maurizio Pellegrini, from the museum of Villa Giulia, she was to play a crucial role in my work.
GDA: How much do we know about the plundering of antiquities in Italy, which began in 1970 and went on for at least 35 years?
PGF: I think we are aware of about 30% of what has taken place. The few restitutions that have proved possible are largely symbolic: they concern perhaps 3% of the finds from clandestine excavations which have appeared on the antiquities market. It is true that this subject is not widely discussed in Italy: more attention is devoted to the issue at an international level, partly due to the ethical issues involved. I am sure that [Sandro] Bondi, the culture minister, was aware of this when he set up the office which he asked me to join.
GDA: What does your post “expert in international relations and recovery of works of art” mean exactly?
PGF: When we found the photographic portfolios in the warehouses belonging to the likes of Medici in Geneva. [Medici’s warehouse was raided in 1995. In 2004 he was sentenced to ten years in jail, reduced to eight on appeal for smuggling, handling stolen goods and conspiracy, but he remains free pending a final appeal.] Even the renowned archaeologists who I appointed as experts were sceptical of the authenticity of the works, or were unwilling to believe they had passed through his hands [because he was considered a reputable dealer]. Now we know that 99% of the photographed finds are authentic. And we have a database of at least 200,000 objects that come from clandestine excavations and ended up on the black market. This is why it is vital to work with the areas most affected by clandestine excavations. It is also necessary to continue negotiations with museums that have made purchases of these finds.
GDA: Unesco is a key player?
PGF: The UN conference in 2000 in Palermo on transactional crimes indicated crime related to cultural heritage often ensured high profits. There are some signs of links between art dealers and organised crime and also with terrorism. I know that there are people at Unesco who are thinking of updating Convention 14711 of 1970, ideally by setting up teams in individual states which are specialised in this kind of crime.
The problem is that investigations don’t have much sense if they are restricted to single countries. Around a year ago, in Geneva, I searched the warehouse of a dealer. It contained about 15,000 antiquities, of which roughly 3,000 came from Italy. But far more were of Chinese origin, and a fair number came from Greece. Owing to current legislation, I was not able to notify either the Chinese or Greek authorities—and in five or six years those objects will almost certainly have gone elsewhere. Meanwhile, as Italy has increased its efforts to combat trade in illegal antiquities, the situation in, for example, Bulgaria has seriously deteriorated. If organised crime experiences difficulties in one country, it tries to make up for it in areas where there is interesting material to be excavated and marketed.
GDA: Would it also be advisable to unify the legislation of different countries?
PGF: Definitely, but this is an even more delicate issue which is unlikely to be resolved for a long time. Here too, a single case can shed light on a thousand discrepancies. Take the case of a sarcophagus stolen from the church of St Saba in Rome, sold at auction by Medici using another name, and bought by a Japanese collector.
We carried out an investigation, and asked for its restitution. The Japanese response was to send a plaster cast to Italy. Even at the beginning of our investigations, we encountered considerable difficulties with Switzerland which viewed these as tax crimes, so they were reluctant to offer us assistance. And it is still difficult, despite the positive legislative reforms that have been made, partly due to the important political and diplomatic efforts made by Italy, to prove that a crime has been committed and therefore enable the restitution of the finds, whether in Switzerland or in Great Britain.
GDA: But even in Italy the legislation in this field is not entirely adequate, is it?
PGF: Clandestine excavation is a crime that is hard to prove and hard to combat; until the object is put on display, it is not even clear that the crime has been committed. Italian legislation is extremely lenient: it is easier to end up in prison for stealing a pair of jeans than it is to go to jail for stealing an ancient vase. The sentences are so light that they don’t discourage anyone: almost everything ends up being statute-barred. Bulgaria has better laws than ours. The legislation in Iraq is also useful: detaining objects excavated after 1995 and not delivering them to the police is a serious crime; the law is simple, effective and hard to contest. Decontextualisation is equivalent to permanent damage. The crime from which it stems—clandestine excavation—should also be made permanent.
Nowadays, the “robbers” can keep illegally excavated objects in a bank for five years before the crime is statute-barred. A commission of experts was set up to reform Italian legislation but it has vanished without trace and its work has not continued.
GDA: Which antiquities have proved most difficult to retrieve and which ones still need to be tracked down?
PGF: Coins come to mind: the first antiquities that are found using a metal detector, they are often of crucial importance for dating an archaeological site or a tomb.
Archaeology is full of small dismembered treasures; we find ancient coins set in jewels found in the most elegant shops and signed by the most famous designers. I believe the Post Office even used to sell them and they are incredibly easy to export.
Underwater sites also need greater protection. Another thing that comes to mind are the two photos seized in our [various] raids: an urn that the Metropolitan Museum [in New York] was on the verge of purchasing, and a sarcophagus weighing half a ton of which only a Polaroid photo survives. However, at Cerveteri the Carabinieri and archaeologists have recovered a fragment which, after analysis, demonstrated its authenticity.
I would also like to know more about hundreds of silver table furnishings excavated in Pompeii which, according to some sources, ended up in the hands of Medici in 1990: the treasure was broken up and there are people who have described it. But don’t tempt me to reveal all my secret dreams, because I could go on forever.
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