Antiquities and Archaeology
Has peace broken out after the trial of Marion True?
Some in the US museum world take the view that the Italian authorities should take advantage of the apparent truce
By Mauro Lucentini. Comment, Issue 229, November 2011
Published online: 17 November 2011
It has been just over a year since the end of the trial in Rome against Marion True, the former Getty curator, for conspiracy to receive illegally excavated antiquities, and more than a year since someone at the public prosecutor’s office in Rome leaked to the New York Times details of the preliminary proceedings against Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art at Princeton University Art Museum, and the formerly New York-based Italian antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagià (see p16).
Since then, however, in contrast to the almost daily battles once waged by the Italian authorities in the US, not so much as a ripple has broken the waters of their relationship with US museums. Does this mean that the Italian assault strategy is being reconsidered and softened?
While many hope so here in the US, this is not the view of Almagià’s defence lawyer in Rome, Carlo Giacchetti, who says there “might be thousands” of reasons for this cessation in hostilities and that he can’t detect any change of heart on the part of the investigating officers.
The mere possibility that the threat of court action could linger for months or years over the heads of Padgett and Almagià, without any possible charges being explained to them, is seen in the US not only as proof of the legendary slowness of the Italian justice system, but also as a demonstration of undue obfuscation.
Some in the US museum world take the view that the Italian authorities should take advantage of the apparent truce not to prepare a new campaign of restitution requests, but to re-examine, with regard to foreign as well as internal affairs, legal processes and methodologies that in the US seem irreconcilable with the constitution of a free nation and even with democracy itself.
This squares with the view of Jason Felch, one of the two Los Angeles Times investigative journalists (the other being Ralph Frammolino), who documented behind-the-scenes goings on at the True trial and who subsequently, with the bestseller Chasing Aphrodite, brought the details of the trial to the attention of a global public.
“This is a critical moment for both parties,” Felch says. “The coming years will determine whether the spirit of co-operation that now prevails might amount not simply to an armistice, but all-out peace. The Italians must resist the temptation to continue with their iron-fist approach which, in the end, will cost them the public support in the US they have enjoyed until now.”
As for the US museums, Felch thinks that they have learned their lesson, and that from now on they will operate with greater transparency and in a spirit of collaboration.
A similar opinion is expressed by Michael Conforti, the director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, who praised the agreements reached between Italy and museums such as the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the long-term loan of Italian objects. “My hope is that the punitive mentality of the past, with episodes resulting above all from a difference in values, does not come to cloud the new optimistic and positive atmosphere that has been created,” he says. At the Met, a curator who insisted on remaining anonymous says: “When relationships between countries are fostered by curators, it works well; rather less well when the lawyers get involved.”
Everyone is hailing the exceptional success and mutual benefit of the agreements for the long-term display of Italian artefacts in US museums, even if there are those who maintain that Italian officialdom is yet to be persuaded of the need to abandon the mentality of accumulating and hoarding art objects as an end in itself, in favour of allowing a much freer circulation of Italian cultural heritage throughout the world. “They have to understand that art is Italy’s best ambassador,” says Ralph Frammolino. “I went to see at the Metropolitan the five or six pieces that Italy has given on long-term loan. Fine, but there should have been 20 pieces, and the Met would have been happy to devote a separate room to them.”
The principal cases that the Italian government is keeping open once again involve the Getty, over the bronze known in the US as the Victorious Youth (and in Italy as the Atleta di Fano); Princeton University Art Museum over a number of Etruscan pieces; and the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio over an Etruscan jug or kalpis. All three cases go back around ten years or more: ripe, perhaps, for a time limit to be imposed on them, though possibly not “Marion True” style, after a five-year-long trial and a career destroyed (that the time limit was applied while the trial was under way is a particular peculiarity that made an unfavourable impression on the Americans).
It is the Princeton case that is now the main focus of attention, on account of the high profile of Michael Padgett, a curator known in the art world for his expertise and integrity and to whom several other senior figures in US cultural life, including the former director of the Met, Philippe de Montebello, have lent their support.
Neither Princeton University, with which the museum is affiliated, nor the museum itself, are taking a stand, given that the Italian action is ad personas—against Padgett in person. But the prevailing mood might be inferred from the publication in Alumni Weekly, the magazine of former Princeton students (among whose number is the 59-year-old Almagià, Padgett’s Italian fellow suspect), of a three-page interview in July with Almagià himself, in which he unleashed a tirade against the whole Italian system. “They have criminalised and destroyed the antiquities market,” he said, later telling me that Italian politicians and prosecutors are abusing their power, anti-democratic and violating the most basic property rights. “You are immediately equated with a criminal nowadays by being a collector,” Almagià declared. “American museums allow themselves to be dictated to and blackmailed; […] they must fight back, making clear that in America one operates out of respect for freedom.”
The writer is an Italian author and journalist based in New York
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