America Oggi/ Oggi7
Art Without Justice
By: Chiara Zamin
In recent days the Getty Museum of Los Angeles has decided not to restitute the Aphrodite and the Victorious Youth, the two valuable statues placed on the list of the trafficked objects that ended up at Malibu.
In a long letter written to the Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli, the director of the California museum Michael Brand confirms the decision to return to Italy only 26 pieces, that as of now have been verified as imprudent acquisitions, but will not cede on the Venus of Morgantina and the bronze athlete attributed to Lisippo, observing that, according to Brand, “they are works that have been found in international waters” and therefore not Italian.
The letter from the Getty has inflamed the spirits of all at the Ministry, from archeologists, researchers, and investigators who are surfacing hidden truths.
The Getty’s decision arrives, in fact, after a year of talks with Italy that demands the ownership of some 52 works, currently held amongst the American museum’s collection but according to Italy are the fruit of illegal excavations.
Much has been written in these days about the break in negotiations between the two institutions in both the Italian and American press. In the New York Times, Michael Brand has underlined his responsibility to “preserve and care for the collection of the Getty Museum, and to adhere to the laws of California”.
We ask at this point who is right and who is wrong and, in our attempt to understand more, we have collected the testimony of who in this twisted story is giving an important contribution to justice.
Illegal trafficking, speculation, tomb robbers, fakes, behind all these words hides the market of illicit works of art that the Italian Carabinieri for years have controlled through their investigative actions.
Investigations that have resulted in the arrest of Giacomo Medici, condemned to ten years in prison and that as of now sees Marion True and Robert Hecht as defendants. True, ex-curator of the Getty Museum, accused of lying about many acquisition operations on behalf of the museum; Hecht, a kind of “dragon” in the trade of art works, incriminated for selling pieces with illicit provenance to several American museums amongst which is the Los Angeles Getty.
“They are criminals” states Stefano Alessandrini, consultant for “Italia Nostra” in the Roman civil trial of Hecht and True.
“The bronze of Lisippo” affirms Alessandrini, “was discovered in 1964 by a fisherman from Fano, his name was Romeo Pirani”. Pirani sold the bronze to a middleman for a little sum: 3 ,500 mila lilre (of the old lira). From the fisherman, the bronze statue passed into the hands of two entrepreneurs from Gubbio, and they themselves sold it, to an antiquities dealer in Milan. From Milan the statue arrived in Monaco at the Society Artemis of whom “dealer” David Carrit sold it to the Getty.
According to Alessandrini, the Los Angeles museum was knowledgeable of the illicit provenance of the bronze statue and that all these transfers of ownership were not declared to the Italian authorities. Alessandrini adds: “I have a copy of an interview from 1979 that was conducted by ABC. They interviewed Owen, the ex-director of the Metropolitan, in which he declared to have turned down the purchase of the Lisippo because the provenance was uncertain. In spite of other museums evading the purchase of it, the Getty accepted it anyway and paid to have the Lisippo”.
The theory that the Getty Museum knew everything is however denied by the same director Michael Brand that in the letter revolts to Minister Rutelli declaring: “we reject any suggestion that the Getty had knowledge when it acquired the objects to be transferred that they had been illegally excavated from Italy”.
We asked Charles Sabba, a police officer in New Jersey, expert in the commerce of illegal archeological artifacts and who already for five years has denounced in our newspaper the illicit activities of some American museums, why the Getty wanted at all costs to buy artworks without being sure of the provenance.
“Because they had a ton of money at their disposal and had to fill the rooms of their museum, they had to do business. They don’t want to restitute the Lisippo or the Venus of Morgantina because they are hoping to cut their losses in half, attaching the false excuse that the two works were discovered in international waters”.
Sabba, who has deeply cared in his heart for years about this problem, has written a letter to the president of the Italian American Society of New Jersey to ask for their disponibility in supporting the carabinieri, through an official condemnation of the Getty Museum and their criminal actions.
“But what international waters” Alessandrini repeats to me. “The fisherman that found the bronze is my acquaintance, I am also from Fano and I know all of them who have seen the statue. The bronze had been found in Italian waters… if the Getty restituted all of the art that belongs to Italy it would have to close”.
Peter Watson the journalist who writes of scandals, lights, and shadows in the art market, along with Cecilia Todeschini, has published recently the book, “The Medici Conspiracy” (Public Affairs, 2006). After working attentively researching amongst the documents, archives and collaborating with the Italian archeologists and investigative unit, Watson unmasks all in a series of illicit facts, names, and surnames, of all of those who became millionaires by manipulating the art market.
The investigative book starts by underlining how the Italians realized the gravity of these facts and started to claim all that belongs to Italy. Watson talks about the Etruscan civilization and how their tombs were disfigured by what he calls “la cordata” a group of criminals amongst whom are Hecht, Medici, Symes, and others. This all surfaced thanks to the meticulous work of the archeologists who were given access to Giacomo Medici’s archives. Their research permitted them to date the vases and various artifacts back to the so called tombaroli who stole them.
Watson’s book was presented a few days ago in New York by SAFE (Saving Antiquities For Everyone) , an American non-profit organization that was established a few years ago and is sensitive to the problem of the commerce in illegal works of antiquity.
This week’s anticipated visit in New York by Minister Rutelli will be without a doubt an occasion to recuperate the dialogue with the various American institutions, even if the Minister makes clearthrough his last declarations that there is no more space for cunning or talking in circles. << The situation has changed, today it is no longer acceptable for a large museum to exhibit works that are obviously stolen. The restitutions that we are requesting from the Getty Museum are only a small part of the problem. There are other works that are not part of those 52 which we have already asked for to be returned and can possibly have an irregular provenance, of which we are reserving an assessment>>. At this point, there has been a new counter reply by Michael Brand, director of the Getty: << Available for reopening of the negotiations with the Ministry. In regards to the Athlete of Fano, emotions can not have the best in respect to the substantial evidence that confirms the ownership of the statue that belongs to the Getty, including the fact that this statue was found in international waters in 1964>>. We attempted to contact the Getty’s press office, the answering machine responded saying “the office is closed for the observance of the Thanksgiving holiday”. Buon Tacchino.