Anatomy of plunder: Maurice Tempelsman finds himself at the centre of a scandal over illegally excavated antiquities

Jackie’s companion targeted for buying $1 million of hot Greek body parts


New York

The Italian government is preparing a case which charges the diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman, the former companion of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with purchasing Greek antiquities which were excavated clandestinely in Sicily in the late 1970s and exported illegally.

The objects in question are two marble heads, three feet, and three hands, from 500 BC statues of Demeter and Persephone that were unearthed in Morgantina by thieves in 1979 and then transported to Switzerland, where the London dealer Robin Symes bought them from the thieves’ representative.

Mr Tempelsman purchased the objects from Mr Symes in 1980 for $1 million. Neither Mr Tempelsman nor Mr Symes would comment on the case, but Mr Tempelsman has rebuffed an official Italian request for the objects’ return.

The Italian magistrate in Sicily, who has prepared much of the evidence in the case, doubts that Mr Tempelsman knowingly bought the plundered acroliths, but he has traced the objects back to the ground where they were excavated, thanks to witnesses and to information provided by the ringleader of the clandestini, who has been convicted of looting at the site.

After the sale of the objects to Mr Tempelsman, the heads, hands, and feet resurfaced at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu in a 1988 exhibition. The Italians claimed them at that time, but the Getty returned the pieces to the “private collector” who had loaned them. An Interpol investigation into the works following the Italians’ claim led no further.

So far, little mention of the case has been made in the Italian press. The charges came to light in early April in the Boston Globe, which monitors affairs of the Kennedy family closely and has also taken an interest in the illegal trader in antiquities. The newspaper reported that following Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s death from cancer in 1994, schoolchildren from Aidone near the site of the looting sent letters of condolence to the diamond dealer, president of Leon Tempelsman and Co., pleading with him to honour Mrs Onassis’s memory by returning the acroliths to their place of origin. Mr Tempelsman is not known to be a prominent collector.

In the Tempelsman case, the Italians have sought to exploit a proven strategy: to present a public figure (with an aversion to litigation and a reputation to protect) with persuasive documented evidence that the objects in question were acquired after a theft. Recently, Italian officials prevailed after tracing a seventeenth-century ceremonial shield, the Targa Ovata, to the collection of Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and heir to a huge cosmetics fortune. The work was looted in 1945 from a Naples museum where it was on loan from the Museo Civico di Bologna, probably by an American soldier. Mr Lauder returned the object, although he would not disclose where he had bought it, Italian officials said.

The case of the Morgantina acroliths comes to light just as the Italians are preparing to recover another of their works of art, “The bath of Bathsheba” by the late Mannerist painter Jacopo Zucchi. That work will be returned to Italy in the summer after the closing of the exhibition “Caravaggio and his Italian followers from the collections of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Roma” at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. The picture was stolen from the Italian embassy in Berlin at the end of World War II and acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1965.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Anatomy of plunder'