Looted from Italy and now in a major Spanish museum?

Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum may have bought trafficked items

Suspiciously similar? On top are Polaroids seized in the Geneva store of convicted antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici, and on the bottom are images of antiquities purchased by the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid in 1999 from their catalogue

ROME. Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum, founded in 1867, may have acquired 22 antiquities that were illegally excavated and exported from Italy. Research suggests that the objects may have passed through the hands of antiquities dealers Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina. Medici was discovered with a store full of antiquities, photographs (many of them Polaroids without any scientific method) and documents, in Geneva in 1995, while Becchina was identified as the owner of three warehouses in Basel in 2001, allegedly containing thousands of suspicious artefacts and photographs, along with an archive of files on clients, shipping documents, invoices and bank statements. Medici was finally found guilty in 2009 in Rome of trafficking in antiquities (he is appealing: he initially received ten years in prison, reduced by two on first appeal, and a €10m fine payable to the state as compensation for damage to Italy’s cultural heritage), while the trial of Becchina is now beginning. He denies charges of trafficking in illegally excavated antiquities.

The history

One of the consequences of the virulent grande razzia (“great raid”) of antiquities across Italy that began in the early 1970s (involving at least one million illegally excavated objects introduced to the market and often sold abroad, ten thousand investigations, and the ransacking of tens of thousands of archaeological sites), is the dispersal of illegally excavated artefacts around the world, where they have become rootless, reduced to mere pieces of furniture, dumb objects no longer able to connect us with the ancient world from where they originated. Such a dispersal was inevitable in a business that has a rather different way of operating than archaeology (although in certain cases it was at least done in good faith, on the part of the buyers, if not on the part of the dealers): the “traffickers” laundered their spoils in exactly the same way that the mafia launders its “narco dollars”. They would make use of the major auction houses, usually in London, sometimes employing aliases but often under their own names or through their own companies, and sell objects of deeply suspect provenance. These they would occasionally buy back themselves, thus giving the objects a far less suspicious history, and meaning that the sellers had then effectively dictated their worth.

Consequently these antiquities, wrenched from the past, ended up all over the place. The American museums in particular almost fell over each other to get their hands on the most attractive ones, often knowingly buying objects of shadowy provenance, from unscrupulous dealers or middlemen acting on behalf of the tombaroli (tomb robbers) and excavators. However, a number of highly respected historic institutions also got caught up in the archaeological “black market” trap, institutions which in all likelihood had no idea where the amphorae, vases, kantharoi and kylikes they were buying came from. In these cases, they were certainly not doing anything illegal; but such activities raise an ethical question. Is it right, or moral, for museums (places established to conserve and exhibit objects, but also to educate and promote culture) to display artefacts plundered after the 1970 Unesco Convention, (on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) rather than, as in centuries past, during wars and conquests? What type of “culture” are these museums exhibiting, promoting and teaching: the culture of clandestine excavations and fraud?

Buying the objects

The objects in question were bought by the Madrid museum in 1999, as part of a major collection of 181 ancient artefacts from the Etruscan period, Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and Spain, spanning the fifth century BC to the fifth century AD. The museum (founded during the reign of Isabella II, with three floors of antiquities housed in the same building as the Royal Library and over one million pieces from the prehistoric period onwards in its 39 rooms), paid $12m to the 82-year-old collector and entrepreneur José Luis Várez Fisa for the collection. Fisa, included in ARTnews’ annual list of the world’s top 200 collectors in 2009, also owns paintings by Goya and Velázquez, and was a patron of the Prado museum until he resigned following the decision to transfer Picasso’s most famous painting, Guernica, to the Centro Reina Sofía. The archaeological museum’s then director, Miguel Angel Elvira Barba, said in 1999: “We have taken an enormous step forward both in terms of quality and quantity; [this] collection now puts us among the ranks of the greatest museums in Europe and the US.”

The investigation

The collection was exhibited in autumn 2003, accompanied by a 500-page catalogue. In 2006, the Italian archaeologist Daniela Rizzo from the Villa Giulia in Rome and document expert Maurizio Pellegrini, both of whom have assisted Prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri in the case against Giacomo Medici, came across the catalogue. They have been working on a database of tens of thousands of objects that they believe were secretly and illegally excavated from Italy, and put up for sale from the 1970s onwards, many of which have been traced back to the confiscated archives belonging to Medici and Becchina. They have spent so many hours poring over these images that they are now able to almost instantly identify them and, in only a few days, were able to match items from the catalogue with pictures seized in the police raids.

They believe that 22 of the artefacts in the Madrid museum’s 2003 catalogue also appear in Medici’s and Becchina’s confiscated photos (comparison above). 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.

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. His gallery has “sold more than 30,000 masterpieces to major museums in the US and Europe”, according to its website and boasts “the largest selection of antique objects in the world”. 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.)

Felicity Nicholson, head of antiquities at Sotheby’s in London, is reported to have told Prosecutor Ferri that Medici had been her main client at antiquities auctions and that he would sell objects under two aliases and buy them back in person. In the Medici depository in Geneva, dozens of objects carried the Sotheby’s label. A photo of a vase is accompanied by a note by Robert Hecht, handwritten in red with lots of exclamation marks: “The amphora sent to Sotheby’s is not the one that was bought!” But if Medici was highly active in London, he was also doing good business in New York. Between 1991 and 1995 his dummy company, Editions Services, bought 135 lots at Sotheby’s auctions. The London branch alone supplied the Italian judges with three substantial volumes of documentation detailing its relationship with Medici (and this was still described as “incomplete” at his sentencing). As of 1997, Sotheby’s ceased holding antiquities sales in London.

The “trafficking” link

Other artefacts in Madrid were unpublished until the 2003 catalogue. Becchina’s archive contains photographs of both sides of an Oriental-style Italic Amphora with a Wounded Deer from the seventh century BC, height 52cm, whose dimensions are clearly important enough to note down. The Madrid catalogue, showing a similar object, says of its provenance that “the location is unknown, making it difficult to ascribe it to a specific Italic workshop”. A negative from Medici’s confiscated archive depicts an Etruscan Oinochoe from 600BC: the Madrid catalogue of a similar piece says that the “provenance is Cerveteri”, but also that it was acquired “from the Swiss antiquarian market”. It was first published in Munzen und Medaillen.

Another Attic Amphora with Black Figures Preparing to Set Off in Chariots of around 520BC, attributed to the Priam Painter, was published in December 1997 in a Sotheby’s New York catalogue. However, Pellegrini says that three Polaroids from the Medici archive show the same object before restoration and covered in concretions, suggesting that it had only recently been excavated. Pellegrini also says it “appeared” in another portfolio, confiscated from a villa in the Cyclades belonging to the former art dealer Robin Symes, by the Greek police during their investigations into alleged looting.

Medici also had two photos of another, unpublished, object, a large Amphora with Black Figures Depicting Herakles Fighting the Amazons from the late sixth century BC, measuring almost half a metre in height, and attributed by the museum to the Antimenes Painter. The photos in Medici’s possession show it still in fragments. Two more of Medici’s negatives show both sides of an Amphora with Black Figures Depicting Herakles Fighting Triton from 530BC, which probably belonged to the same set of grave goods. The object was sold at Sotheby’s New York on 22 May 1989.

Who is to blame?

It is important to note that 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. It also the case that the widespread trafficking in illegally excavated antiquities since the 1970s until very recently (despite the 1970 Unesco Convention designed to curb the illicit trade) has meant that objects have inadvertently entered private and museum collections (although higher standards of due diligence over provenance-checking among museums are now the norm). Meanwhile, requests to the Madrid museum from The Art Newspaper to comment on these allegations remained unanswered at time of publication.

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.

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19 Aug 10
20:57 CET


It's common practise by spanish museums to buy and keep looted or stolen art. Compare with the stolen 800 years old swedish reliquary from Ullanger that ended up in Madrid some years later (Museo de Artes Decorativas). The spanish state knows it was stolen, but refuse to return it.

17 Jul 10
19:59 CET


An excellent piece that educates us all about the many crimes inherent in antiquities trafficking, including destroyed archaeological evidence, object laundering, auction fraud, and the receipt of looted property. Keep up the good work reporting these issues.

17 Jul 10
19:59 CET


Fabio Isman has conducted some thorough research that reveals the collecting histories for some of the antiquities in Madrid. This raises key questions about how a major European museum, supported by state funds, could buy "toxic antiquities" in 1999 without conducting thorough "due diligence". Remember that the acquisition was AFTER the raids on the Geneva Freeport and the revelations about the London auction-market. The key remaining issue is this: when will Madrid open negotiations with Italy to return all (or a representative selection) of the disputed items?

16 Jul 10
18:42 CET


An excellent article, well researched and even better written. It's time that the museums and institutions who have illegally excavated items in their collections are made to answer for their acquirement and return them to the proper countries of origin. Articles like these only help to speed up that process. Keep up the great work

14 Jul 10
15:58 CET


In Fabio Isman's article on the Greek vases in Madrid's National Archaeoloical Museum he erroneously writes that Royal-Athena Galleries' website states that we have “sold more than 30,000 masterpieces to major museums in the US and Europe”. This is an extreme exaggeration. It actually states that "Over the past 50 years we have sold more than 600 works of ancient art to many of the country's leading museums..." While we have sold more than 30,000 antiquities, just a few hundred can claim to be "masterpieces". Also, we assure you that we conduct a very ethical business and pay particular attention to the provenance of our objects. At the time in question we had acquired nearly all of the nine vases mentioned at major auction sales in London. At that time we certainly assumed that they came from legitimate sources. Otherwise we would not have published them in our annual catalogues which were distributed worldwide, including many sent to Italian officials and scholars.

13 Jul 10
15:58 CET


really interesting article

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