The latest hearing in the trial of the former Getty antiquities curator, Marion True, who is charged with conspiring to receive illegally excavated antiquities, took place in Rome on 29 March. It was almost entirely devoted to the testimony of UK journalist Peter Watson, author of the 1997 book Sotheby’s: Inside Story. The publication of the book and the screening of a related documentary on British television led to the closure of Sotheby’s antiquities department in London.
According to Mr Watson, Giacomo Medici, a dealer who was found guilty by an Italian court in 2004 of selling looted antiquities and sentenced to ten years in prison, (he remains free pending appeal) was the intermediary for the sale of Italian antiquities to Sotheby’s, as was the London antiquities dealer Robin Symes. The Geneva-based dealer Christian Boursaud was named as a frontman for Mr Medici.
Mr Watson’s investigations into Sotheby’s illicit trade in antiquities began in 1989 when he was handed documents from a former employee, James Hodges. This paperwork named Mr Boursaud and Mr Symes, respectively of Hydra Gallery and Xoilan Trader Inc.
The latter company, an off-shore firm used by Mr Symes, shared a Geneva address (7 Avenue Krieg) with two of Mr Medici’s companies, the Hydra Gallery and Edition Services.
Mr Watson also obtained documents from the Papadimitriou family archives connected to Mr Symes’s business activities [the late Christo Michailidis, a member of the Papadimitriou family, was Mr Symes’s business partner]. The court heard how an investigation into Mr Symes’s business activities as part of a case brought against him by the Papadimitriou family led to the discovery of 33 warehouses used for storing antiquities.
The court also heard of a two-part “loan” (first $360,000 and later $40,000) made by Mr Michailidis to Ms True to buy a villa in Paros, Greece. The loan was never repaid (see left).
The court then heard evidence regarding an ancient marble bust for which Mr Symes issued two invoices in the names of Xoilan Trader and Robin Symes Ltd respectively. The court heard details of Mr Symes’s links with the Getty and Ms True, and with Sotheby’s and the head of its now defunct London antiquities department, Felicity Nicholson.
An unsigned hand-written note dated July 1998, found by Mr Watson in the Symes archive, was then shown to the court. This related to a fifth-century BC Greek sculpture, known as the Morgantina Venus which was bought by the Getty for $9m. The note states that the statue “probably” comes from Southern Italy or Sicily. [Italy is claiming the statue from the museum. To date, the Getty has said it has no evidence suggesting the work came from Italy]. Mr Symes was once again named as the go-between with the Getty. Mr Watson told the court he had seen the sculpture in a polaroid found in Mr Symes’s archive. In this picture, the statue was still covered in dirt as if freshly excavated. It was also missing its head [several scholars believe the statue’s head does not match the body].
The next hearing took place on 7 April when Salvatore Morando, a sergeant with the Carabinieri, completed his testimony. The prosecution argued that there was
a “conspiracy” between Mr Symes, Mr Medici, co-defendant Robert Hecht, the Lebanese brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam [who run galleries in New York and Geneva] and the Sicilian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina who, the court heard, dominated the Swiss trade in illicit antiquities in the 80s and 90s.
The court was shown another hand-written note dated March 1986 relating to the Morgantina Venus. This is signed by a leather goods shop owner, Renzo Canavesi, and it claims that he sold the fifth-century BC Greek marble statue, to Mr Symes for $400,000. It also states that it was acquired by his family in 1939 [just before a new law on the protection of the cultural heritage came into force in Italy.] The next hearing is scheduled for 26 April.