It’s a problem acknowledged by all. There is no room to store them—the piles of antiquities recovered in both legal and illegal excavations in Italy. There is simply too much. “We ought to dump the excess,” said Angelo Bottini, superintendent of antiquities for the region of Tuscany, at a recent conference on the theft of antiquities and works of art.
The conference was organized by General Roberto Conforti, commandant of the paramilitary carabinieri charged with protecting Italy’s cultural patrimony. Conforti is Italy’s chief cop for the recovery of illicitly excavated antiquities. I asked him about Bottini’s suggestion that we dump the excess. “He isn’t talking rubbish,” he replied.
The obvious implication is that the excess should be sold—unless you can find someone to give it to. Our Rome correspondent Judith Harris spoke with Pompeii archaeologist Salvatore Ciro Nappo, who described the cases and cases of small pieces of painted wall fragments—stored in boxes for decades—that the museum has no room or use for. “They could be sold as souvenirs,” he said.
Although fully acknowledging the problem, Conforti stopped short of approving the sale of antiquities, no matter that there seemed to be no other solution to the problem. His job is to protect Italy’s archaeological riches. “I have to speak as protector of our national heritage,” he said.
Giuseppe Proietti, director general of the Ministry for Cultural Properties and Activities and a professor at the University of Rome, used the same language. “Would you 030give away your heritage?” he asked me.
I have heard this argument before. A number of directors and former directors of antiquities of Mediterranean and Near Eastern countries have told me off the record that they favor selling artifacts of which there are hundreds and often thousands of duplicates—like pots and oil lamps. Such sales would help to stop illegal digging by reducing the demand for the illegal stuff: Who would want an illegally excavated artifact that has no provenance and might be a fake, when the real thing could be bought having an authenticated provenance and a government certificate of authenticity? Yet these antiquities directors are fearful of coming out and publicly promoting the sale of artifacts because they would be accused of selling their heritage.
For the same reason, archaeologists, too, are fearful. In addition, they worry about being accused of unethical behavior by their professional organizations.a
In the five years from 1996 to 2000, Conforti recovered over 95,000 objects. What happens to them? They are returned to the appropriate regional superintendent of antiquities; some are displayed in Italy’s 3,500 museums, but most must be stored, since there is so little room. Conforti simply throws up his hands. “You could sell them—or you could give them to museums abroad,” he said. From his tone of voice, the “could” meant not that he was advocating selling the storerooms but that getting rid of the excess, by sale or gift, was something he would consider. “A different point of view could be useful,” he said. Proietti agreed: “Hearing different points of view is important.” There are also advantages to having Italy’s archaeological riches displayed in museums around the world. As Conforti pointed out, “Culture can be an ambassador for peace; that is how we come to understand other civilizations.”
The problem of illegal excavations is getting worse, not better, Conforti said. Nevertheless, he feels that his department is adequately funded. I suggested that his department was a failure, considering that it is adequately funded and the problem is getting worse. He blamed inadequate laws. Getting caught excavating illicitly “is like getting a parking ticket,” he said.
I suggested that illicit diggers should be put in jail. “No,” he quickly and firmly 031replied. “That is too harsh.” But the current penalties are not sufficient to dissuade the thousands of people in Italy engaged in tomb robbing and other forms of illegal recovery of antiquities. He specifically mentioned hobbyists and professionals who use metal detectors to find ancient coins and then use these initial finds to locate larger archaeological sites. All the authorities do when they catch someone illegally using a metal detector is confiscate the metal detector. Metal detectors are not that expensive, however. “They just buy another one. The law is not adequate to deal with the problem,” Conforti said.
Proietti disagreed. His assistant, Rosanna Binacchi, told me in English: “We’re not counting on legislation. If there is no market, then there is no problem.” They are dealing with the problem, Proietti explained, by trying to reduce the demand for antiquities. The public must be educated not to purchase them.
“Our biggest problem,” Proietti said, “is that there is too much to defend. It is not an easy problem to protect it. Many of the tombs are in open spaces.” Proietti also expressed a certain sympathy for the tombaroli (grave robbers). “This is a way of raising money for people. They have no other way of earning a living.” He too is against jail terms for grave robbers. I mentioned that sometimes a family has engaged in tomb robbing for three generations. “No,” he replied, “More than that. I know many of them.” Yet no change in the law is needed, he said.
Pursuing the tombaroli can be dangerous. They usually work at night with very sophisticated equipment. When they hear someone coming, they fire shots in the air to warn intruders to stay away. Conforti showed us a video taken from a helicopter of tombaroli working at night. Proietti said that the Mafia has also gotten involved in illegal excavation. Yet, Conforti stated, “Excessive protectionism does not breed legality.” He cited America’s experience with Prohibition. “You have to have a certain elasticity,” he said.
Just this year, the United States agreed to ban importation of artifacts from Italy unless they are accompanied by an export certificate from the Italian government (or unless the item can be shown to have left Italy prior to 1970). “For its part,” wrote Nancy Wilkie, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, which supported the ban, “Italy has agreed to institute a wide variety of measures designed to stem the pillaging of sites, including increased funding for the protection of ancient remains and museums, and prompt prosecution of looters and the imposition of more severe penalties for their activities.”b
In early 2000 the carabinieri published an elegant volume titled The Museum Retrieved, showcasing its archaeological recoveries during the past 30 years. Designed to “draw attention to the depredations of the gangs of tomb-robbers who sack entire sites,” the book actually documents something else. Almost all the recoveries are of articles stolen from museums, not looted objects from illicit excavations. Featured in the book are three looted pots and two vases recovered in New York and France, a number of looted vases recovered in a raid in Bari, Italy, in what was described as “Operation Geryon,” and a 3-foot-high looted sculpture of the seated Capitoline Triad (the 033gods Minerva, Jupitor and Juno) recovered in Switzerland. All the remaining items in the book are objects—some intact, others in pieces—stolen from exhibits and storerooms of both very large and very small Italian museums. All the sculptures featured in the book, except the Capitoline Triad, were stolen, not looted.
Two conclusions are possible: The major problem is not so much illicit excavations as museum thefts. Alternatively, the carabinieri are far more successful in recovering stolen objects than looted objects. In any event, it is clear that looted objects are rarely recovered from the antiquities market. Artifacts stolen from museums, on the other hand, have been inventoried; often pictures of the stolen items are available to alert the antiquities market. Indeed, the carabinieri issue bulletins on stolen art. The latest edition, titled Art in Hostage (number 23, 2001), goes on for nearly 300 pages. These bulletins claim to have “led to many important recoveries.” As to looted objects, however, once they get on the market, recoveries are rare. If looting is to be stopped, it must be stopped at the source; that is, it must be prevented. The looters must be caught in the act and given heavy fines or jail time. This does not happen. Nor is there a concerted drive to make it happen.
In the meantime, the government sale of duplicates, which might reduce illegal looting, is not being considered.
One of the rare recoveries of looted objects, which both Conforti and Proietti referred to in our interviews, was the gold phiale (libation bowl) recovered in 1999 in the United States from New York collector Michael Steinhardt, who had purchased the piece for $1.2 million. It is said to have been illegally excavated somewhere in Sicily.c Recent rumors suggest it may be a fake. The Italian dealers who clearly violated Italian law by exporting the phiale with false documents have been identified. But, Conforti told me, “They have not yet been brought to trial; the indictment is still being drawn up.”
It soon became clear in my interviews with both Conforti and Proietti that they were chiefly concerned not with ordinary artifacts but with recovering true “museum” objects. As Conforti put it, “We are not looking for little Apulian vases. We are looking for the most important pieces.” 035(Apulia is a region in southeastern Italy where tombaroli have illegally excavated tens of thousands of Apulian vases over the last 15 years.d) Two museum-quality items they mentioned are both in American museums. One is mockingly referred to in Italy as “the Aphrodite of Malibu” (Malibu, California, is the location of the J. Paul Getty Museum). Before purchasing this 7-foot-high statue (which may be Demeter rather than Aphrodite) from an antiquities dealer, the Getty sent photographs and information about it to the governments of the countries from which it might have come, asking whether they had any knowledge of it. The Italians said no (not surprising in the case of a looted object), so the Getty bought the piece. Subsequently, a rumor by a journalist surfaced that the statue had been illegally excavated at Morgantina, a site in central Sicily. A local investigating magistrate, however, was unable to substantiate the rumor. The site is under excavation by an American expedition from Wesleyan College in Connecticut and the University of Virginia. Malcolm Bell, a University of Virginia archaeologist who codirects the group, agrees with the magistrate’s findings. “There is no evidence whatever that the statue was found there,” Bell told me. In contrast to other illegally excavated finds from Morgantina, there is no local version of this rumor. The removal of such a large statue would probably have disturbed the surface at the site, yet no such disruption has occurred. Even the date of the statue (about 400 B.C. on stylistic grounds) does not fit with Morgantina, which in the fifth century was an impoverished place struggling to survive, according to Bell. Proietti nevertheless wants the statue back. He feels that if he can just get the Getty to return the Aphrodite, other museums will fall into line and return their unprovenanced Italian objects.
The other artifact that the Italians would like to get back is the Euphronios vase from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is a red-figured calyx krater (a large Greek urn that holds almost 12 gallons of wine) painted in about 510 B.C. and portraying a Lycian prince killed in the Trojan war being carried to his rest by Sleep and Death. Thomas Hoving, director of the Met in 1972 when the vase was purchased,e assessed it extravagantly as perhaps “the finest work” in all New York: “The drawing is equal to Leonardo’s or Albrecht Dürer’s. The drama is as intense as the greatest Rembrandt. The architecture is Parthenonesque although on a much smaller scale. The artist was as innovative as Pablo Picasso.”f It is the crème de la crème, the finest work of the greatest painter of ancient Greece. And it is signed by the artist, Euphronios (as well as by the potter, Euxitheos).
From the moment he first heard of the vase, Hoving thought it “had been illegally dug up and smuggled [out of Italy].” Of the 27 known Euphronios vases, only this one was complete (although restored from fragments; vessels like these are almost never found intact). It “had to have been found in an Etruscan tomb near Rome,” Hoving immediately concluded. “Etruscan tombs were often filled with Greek goodies. The Greeks disdained being buried with their stuff.”
Later, however, Hoving would come to believe the story of Robert E. Hecht, Jr., 036the antiquities dealer who handled the transaction: The fragments had been owned since early in the century by a Beirut family who kept the pieces in a shoe box. For security reasons, the fragments were taken from Beirut to Switzerland, where by August 1971 they were in the hands of a well-known restorer who reassembled the vase.
The Italian carabinieri, however, claimed to have caught the tombaroli who had extracted the fragments from an Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri, not far from Rome. The tombaroli lookout decided to talk after learning that a million dollars had been paid for “their” vase, whereas Hecht had paid them only $8,500. A federal grand jury in New York was impaneled to consider a criminal indictment. When it turned out that the tombaroli who supposedly illegally dug up the fragments claimed to have done so in December 1971—after the fragments were at the restorer’s atelier in Switzerland, and even after the vase had been brought to Hoving’s attention—the case was dropped.
Much later, however, Hoving learned that Hecht actually (and miraculously) had two Euphronios vases in fragments. One had indeed been long in the possession of the Beirut family. (It was only 50 percent complete, however, and was later sold to collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White for $1.7 million and displayed at the Met.) Unbeknownst to Hoving, Hecht had given him the papers 062documenting the other Euphronios vase. The one he sold to the Met for a million dollars was indeed the one the tombaroli had illegally dug up in December 1971. Hecht finally admitted to Hoving that he had “switched” the papers.
Since this disclosure, the Italian authorities are once again attempting to get back the Euphronios vase from the Met. Should it go back? “Hell, no,” says Hoving. “Despite our suspicions, we bought it in good faith and it arrived legally through U.S. customs. There’s nothing the Italians can do about it or should.”
Conforti and Proietti feel differently. It is at the top of their list, they told me.
It’s a problem acknowledged by all. There is no room to store them—the piles of antiquities recovered in both legal and illegal excavations in Italy. There is simply too much. “We ought to dump the excess,” said Angelo Bottini, superintendent of antiquities for the region of Tuscany, at a recent conference on the theft of antiquities and works of art. The conference was organized by General Roberto Conforti, commandant of the paramilitary carabinieri charged with protecting Italy’s cultural patrimony. Conforti is Italy’s chief cop for the recovery of illicitly excavated antiquities. I asked him about Bottini’s suggestion that […]