The Medici Conspiracy: Free The Medici Polaroids?

In Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini’s The Medici Conspiracy, it’s fascinating just how much evidence the Carabinieri, and particularly Paoli Ferri the prosecutor, were able to gather against Giacomo Medici and the other looters of Italian archaeological artefacts. I would have thought that those involved in criminal conspiracies would know better than to keep records, but Medici in particular seems to have been almost compulsive in the amount of information he preserved – including photographs of looted items he handled. The photos ran in series with the object shown often first covered in soil, then part restored, then fully restored, and sometimes even in the museum they eventually ended up in.

These now raise another issue. Should the Polaroids of looted antiquities, seized from Medici’s Free Port warehouse in 1995, and from his Italian villa now be made available to the ‘public’?

At the moment it seems that outside law enforcement agencies, access to the images in not possible for most people. I’ve heard that the Art Loss Register have some images, but are unable to share them – in any case, you have to pay a fee and them ask the ALR to search for items which seems cumbersome, particularly given their ‘experts’ are not archaeologists. The Interpol database is available only to those whose access they approve.

David Gill seems to be the only other person with copies of them – and he uses these to illustrate items he thinks were looted by or via Medici on his blog Looting Matters. In June he helped identify three items in a Christie’s sale catalogue as being shown amongst the Medici Polaroids: Three auction items vexes Christie’s. (WSJ). This summer more Medici vases were located in a museum in Madrid (Art Newspaper). Earlier in the year there was a sculpture in a Bonhams sale which turned up amongst the Medici Polaroids.

We’re now some 15 years on, and many items that Medici sold and which one can prove were looted from Italy, have still not been located – let alone returned to Italy.

Gill has been working for a long time to prevent looting, and done much valuable research in the field. Given his involvement with law enforcement and the fact that he seems to have been a major source of information to the authors of The Medici Conspiracy, it’s not surprising that he’s the one that ended up with the Polaroids; he’s willing to put in the hours of hard slog to go through them and compare them to items coming up on the art market and in museums.

But is one man, even with the help of research assistants, enough?

When those who are pro-collecting ask for them to be made available, a handful of anti-collecting fanatics seem to make accusations along the lines of  “you only want to see them so you can conceal your looted stuff”. Then we have pro-collecting fanatics who are accusing those that are anti-collecting of playing (in the words of Sarah Palin) “gotcha” with the ‘reputable’ art market by, for example, embarrassing Christie’s by revealing the Polaroids only after the lots had been accepted and the catalogue printed.

I believe Christie’s should have been given the chance to find out if the antiquities were looted before they accepted them, and to do the right thing, but I find it more extraordinary that they refused to withdraw the three lots as soon as it was pointed out that they were looted: Three auction items vexes Christie’s.  The lots of course were eventually withdrawn – and even had they not been, I assume no-one would have been stupid enough to bid on them – but withdrawn far too slowly.

A pair of earrings was recently returned to Iraq; it had been for sale at Christie’s, where Donny George spotted it in a catalogue. Although the jewellery went back, Christie’s is still refusing to admit who consigned the lot. I think that auction houses (and museums) should be forced to reveal the sellers of dodgy items, and that those who sell and/or consign looted or stolen lots should automatically be named and shamed.

This insistence of client ‘confidentiality’ implies that Christie’s do not want to make a good faith effort to help prevent looting and only sell kosher antiquities. It also makes me wonder … If the three lots in the Medici Polaroids had been brought to Christie’s, and Christie’s had been able to identify them – and so not sell them or list them in a catalogue – would they have turned the items over to the Italian authorities or returned them their so-called ‘owners’ (i.e. the people who tried to consign the items). Given some other dealings I’ve had with Christie’s over items they knew had been smuggled out of Italy … actually, I don’t think that they would have done the right thing. And what I find the most shocking about The Medici Conspiracy is how many curators at major US museums bought items that they knew were looted – Marion True writing to Medici to ask where items come from (i.e. where they were looted from) is extremely disturbing (two of her former colleagues at the Getty have expressed similar dismay to me about her actions).

Watson and Todeschini also draw attention to the fact that Hecht was provided with information about Conforti’s efforts to prevent looting by the Met and Berlin Museum.

It’s a dilemma. I’ve seen pieces over the years that I suspected were dodgy (but suspicion and proof are very different things). I also know what’s in a few private collections, and various museums, as do many of my colleagues; and we want to help get looted archaeological material returned to it’s country of origin. I suspect that if other people like us helped, we could much more quickly identify the current locations of most of the Medici loot – but we can’t do it if we don’t know what’s in the photos (i.e. looted).

Making databases available online of items looted from Baghdad Museum worked to some extent. The problem is that there are so many different places to look where stolen material is posted – Interpol, ICOMOS, the FBI, etc. Several groups of museums, archaeologists and even collectors have discussed setting up something less unwieldy. And as a good tandem step US museums are no longer hiding potentially ‘hot’ or dubiously provenanced antiquities; instead members of the AAMD are posting photographs and details of newly acquired antiquities (and Nazi-era assets here)

I’d like to see one central database created with images of archaeological material stolen from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and so forth, along with the many different sets of Polaroids confiscated from various smugglers (Gill seems to regularly produce Gianfranco Becchina as well as Medici’s). And when material is stolen from Museums or archaeological sites, it could be added to the database. If there were such a database available, it would make it easier for us all to keep an eye out for looted material – and very hard for dishonest people to claim ‘good faith’ possession of loot.

One other issue to do with these recently uncovered Mobs of looters concerns me – and the looters are Mafia. We still seem to be using 1970 and the UNESCO Convention as the cut-off date (or the AIA’s 1973 decision in the US). Since Becchina, Medici and Robert Hecht we all working in the 1960s, it seems to me that we need to make an exception for these looted items and go back further. Since we are allowing claims from Jews who lost art in the Holocaust to go back well before 1970, it seems that we should go back to the Second World War in this case too. If we can show an item Hecht sold in the 1950s was looted, then it should be returned to it’s country of origin.

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In The Medici Conspiracy (pp. 165-6), Bob Hecht boasted in his ‘Memoirs’ about George Zakos smuggling these two silver cups, one of which depicts Iphigenia,  out of Turkey, and then selling them to Dennis Haynes and the British Museum for $90,000. The BM’s web site here gives their number as GR 1960.2-1.1;GR 1960.2-1.3, indicating they entered the BM in 1960 (Hecht seems to have sold them three cups, though two are on the web site). As a provenance the Museum helpfully adds “Said to be from Turkey” … The smuggler has already admitted that the pieces are indeed from Turkey, and were removed illegally. If one follows the 1970 date, they need not be returned; if one followed my suggestion, they would go back to Turkey.

Illicit Cultural Property, Derek Fincham’s blog, has more info about the Medici Polaroids here.

As does David Gill’s Looting Matters here.

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