Cultural policy Antiquities and Archaeology Italy

Justice is slow, but Italy has not given up the fight

The ministry is now looking at ‘cryptic provenances’ such as ‘Swiss private collection, 1980s’

General Giovanni Nistri of the carabinieri art squad with one of 60,000 items recovered in 2009

The collapse of the case against Marion True has been taken by some, especially in the US, as an indication that Italy is keen for a rapprochement with American museums that collect antiquities without cast-iron provenance. But I do not believe that this is the case.

The case against True was dismissed in October 2010 because it ran out of time. Some have speculated that this was a deliberate ploy by the Italian authorities to drag the curator through the courts knowing that a conviction was unlikely. This is strenuously denied by Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the public prosecutor who initiated a series of spectacular trials of the “raiders of the lost art”. He says there has been no real crackdown, no “sacrificial victim”. He insists that when he began the trials of True, the art dealer Robert Hecht and the antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, the time limit for prosecutions was up to 22 years, depending on the crime—but the implementation of judicial reform, the so-called “Cirielli law” introduced by the Berlusconi government in 2005, slashed this period drastically.

Ferri is justifiably annoyed at some of the US allegations. He says he brought True, Hecht and Medici to trial (all of whom deny the charges) because “of all those under investigation—and I questioned more than 2,500—True had made the most recent acquisitions. Moreover, the Getty was the biggest buyer: [it spent] seven times more than the Metropolitan Museum. But, above all, there was a huge amount of evidence against True, Hecht and Medici.”

While the case against True was dismissed because of the statute of limitations, and Hecht’s case is now running out of time, Medici was found guilty on two counts. “The ten years for conspiracy and receiving stolen goods [that Medici was originally sentenced to] were reduced to eight on appeal only because, thanks to the Cirielli law, the charge of illegal exporting was time-barred,” says Ferri. “[Medici] was also ordered—and this was something new—to pay an interim fine of €10m to the state for damage to the nation’s historical and artistic heritage.”

Medici’s final appeal is before the Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome (the court of last resort in Italy), which is due to give its final verdict on 5 December.

The True-Hecht-Medici trial is by no means the only one. Many other people have also been tried (although many have ended up with light sentences, or had their cases time-barred). But if there was something of a lull in the battle against the tombaroli (tomb robbers) and the dealers in illicit objects during Sandro Bondi’s tenure as the Italian minister of culture, the issue is gaining momentum again under his successor Giancarlo Galan. Stricter attention is already being paid to the major auction houses: several times the minister has made the connection between artefacts for sale and photographs of them—still covered in mud or still in pieces prior to restoration—found with the traffickers.

Ferri says that the ministry is now looking carefully at “cryptic provenances” such as “Swiss private collection, 1980s” or “English, after 1975” with a view to introducing new legislation.

In a recent case concerning 15th-century illuminated manuscripts stolen from Naples, exported in 1974 and returned by Sotheby’s after a long campaign led by state attorney Maurizio Fiorilli, a judicial document went as far as to propose the “revocation of the police authorisation necessary for holding auctions” in Italy. The fact the manuscripts were returned (with compensation for the bidder who had acquired them at auction) obviated this extreme measure. There may have been a hiatus, but Italy has certainly not given up the battle.

That the wheels of justice in Italy grind far too slowly is well known, all the more so in cases with international implications. It also remains difficult in Italy to secure a conviction for the trafficking or illegal excavation of cultural assets, at least until the current legislation is reformed, as Galan has said he intends to do.

It is also worth noting that one of the first things that Ferri has done, since his transfer to the ministry of culture, has been to sharpen its focus on tracking stolen antiquities. The carabinieri are discovering the location of hundreds of antiquities, dug up illegally throughout the country and smuggled abroad from 1970 onwards. Many are in the possession of 40 or more major museums.

“Our intention is not just to get them back but to put a stop to trafficking,” says Ferri, “and I think we are having a degree of success: many museums and countries have changed their rules and regulations. It is not a question of property, but of morality. If the role of museums is to educate, they cannot possibly hang on to illegal artefacts.”

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