It is time major US museums stopped the illicit collecting of antiquities: the trials and the consequences

Following trials of Giacomo Medici, Robert Hecht, and Marion True


If 2005/2006 is to be seen as a watershed in the history of collecting antiquities, it will be owed largely to the remarkable trial now taking place in Rome (see p.5). Armed with a dealer’s archive of documents and photographs, the Italian magistrate Paolo Ferri has tenaciously prosecuted three defendants, two of whom are long-standing dealers in antiquities. The deep involvement of Giacomo Medici and Robert Hecht in the illegal trade is beyond any doubt. The third defendant, Marion True, is different: a museum curator who appears to have bought extensively from the first two, but who also at a certain point in her career succeeded in persuading her rich and powerful museum to withdraw from the illegal market.

As a result of the trial, structural changes are finally taking place in the antiquities market, but it is still too early to determine just how much celebration is in order. The J. Paul Getty Museum has yet to define its course after the resignation of True as curator of antiquities and the appointment of Michael Brand as director. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York appears to be driving hard bargains in Rome, entering the new era only with reluctance; and other museums are lying low. After the Unesco Convention in 1970, no one should be ignorant of the market-driven pillaging of archaeological sites, but up to now most major museums and collectors have paid little heed to the problem. None of the great collecting museums in the US has followed the example of the British Museum in publishing and disseminating a written policy that rejects in clear language the acquisition by purchase or gift of recently looted art. And there is still a real risk that the unrestrained collecting habit will spread to the museums and collectors of Africa and Asia.

The J. Paul Getty Museum remains even now the only major collecting institution in the US to have given up acquiring illegal antiquities—those that have recently been pillaged from archaeological sites, which actually make up most of the material on the market (the truth of this last statement is demonstrated in Simon Mackenzie’s excellent Going, going, gone: regulating the market in illegal antiquities, a revealing analysis of the inner workings of the market. The publication of Mackenzie’s book is another milestone in this watershed year).

It is the indictment against True, more than the two dealers, that has made the legal proceedings taking place in Rome so important. For the first time a “country of origin” has brought suit against a major acquiring institution in a “market country”. The trial of Marion True, for that is really what the event should be called, places a scholar and museum administrator in the dock for the first time. That Dr Ferri’s target should also be someone who attempted to cleanse her institution does raise ethical questions. Why has Dr Ferri not aimed at those administrators who have conspicuously continued up to the present to build collections at the expense of Italy? What, for instance, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art willing to tell us about the provenance of the huge and remarkable fragmentary black figure krater attributed to the vase painter Lydos, now on view? Presumably Dr Ferri has not brought suit against a curator of the Metropolitan because he has more evidence against Marion True. Yet it is in New York, Boston, and Cleveland that basic policy changes are most needed.

We can hope that museums in the US, but also their counterparts in Europe, Asia, and Australia, turn decisively away from the illegal trade, adopting written policies as rigorous as that of the British Museum. In the US there are already clear signs that administrators and boards of trustees have taken note of what has been happening in Italy. Reports both from Rome and New York now suggest that the Metropolitan Museum of Art will repatriate the great red-figure krater depicting the death of Sarpedon—painted by Euphronios—and the treasure of 15 gilt silver vessels pillaged in the early 1980s at Morgantina, Sicily. To maintain its image of respect for legality and for scientific knowledge, the Metropolitan Museum of Art should not further delay the return of these works and other works claimed by Italy, haggling over “loans of commensurate value”, or insisting on impractical sharing arrangements. At a certain point museums must recognise that the claims of justice are both legal and moral, and that when the mistakes of history can be corrected there is an obligation to do so.

The Sicilian treasure is remarkable because we know the name of its last owner in antiquity, a citizen of Morgantina called Eupolemos who in a time of great crisis buried the silver in the basement of a house, probably his own. It was the end of the Second Punic War, Morgantina had sided with Carthage, and the city was about to be captured by a Roman army. It seems certain that Eupolemos, along with most of the rest of the population, did not survive the conflict, for neither he nor anyone else returned to recover the many possessions of value that had been buried in 211 BC, and that have made Morgantina today the prey of clandestine looters equipped with metal detectors. Return of the silver to Sicily will satisfy modern legal claims, but it will also allow us to recognise publicly for the first time the claims of the past: those of the Syracusan artists who made these remarkable and unique works, and even those of the individuals, like Eupolemos, who owned them. The Morgantina silver gives new meaning to the idea of provenance.

Repatriation of works like these has been dramatised by Dr Ferri’s indictments, but it is only part of the picture. Returning works to the countries of origin implies recognition of the legitimacy of their claims, and it will be important now to build on the museums’ new awareness, working internationally for the universal adoption of strong acquisitions policies. This watershed year is not so much a moment of success as a point of departure for the future.

The writer is vice president for professional responsibilities, the Archaeological Institute of America; professor of art history, University of Virginia, and director of excavations at Morgantina, Sicily

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘It is time major US museums stopped illicit collecting'