US Italia
4 December 2005
Charles Vincent Sabba Jr.

Tombarolo; oil on canvas; Charles Sabba; 2005.

   For years, the Italian authorities have stated that numerous U.S. museums, such as the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum, the Princeton Museum, and Boston Fine Arts, possess Italian archeological treasures thatwere looted from and smuggled out of Italy. As well, for years the U.S. mainstream media has ignored this issue, with one exception: New York's Italian language newspaper America Oggi was the first to sound the battle bugles. Oggi has for some time made its readers aware of the situation; I myself wrote an article for them two years ago about the Morgantina silver horde that was looted from Sicily, smuggled out of Italy, and bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I am very satisfied that the mainstream American media has finally begun to address this issue, due to the sensationalized trial of ex-Getty curator Marion True and her co-defendant, the notorious dealer Robert Hecht (who played a role in the Morgantina silver's sale). Hopefully after the trial, this barrage of articles does not cease, since they only reflect a small part of a huge problem. The global trade in illicit antiquities is largely overlooked and unfortunately viewed as a victimless crime. Indeed, it is often romanticized by Hollywood.

   There is nothing romantic about the clandestine illicit market in archeological treasures and it is a crime that leaves behind bloody victims. The global trade in illicit archeological artifacts is estimated to be a $4 billion a year market. It is now well established that both organized crime and international terrorist organizations make huge profits through this illegal activity. America's most hated killer, Mohammed Atta, on scene leader of the 9/11 attacks, is known to have inquired about selling "an unlimited supply" of artifacts looted from Afghanistan. This problem does not just affect Italy, but the whole world. How many Iraqi artifacts have funded the insurgency who use that money to kill U.S. GIs? The museums who buy the objects that pad criminals Swiss bank accounts have blood on their hands. The U.S. media must maintain the pressure well after the True/Hecht trial in Rome, now that they are addressing the gravity of U.S. museums possessing artifacts bought through dealers and middlemen with overlooked criminal sources.

   As a result of this press attention, the American public has become more sensitive to the issue. The socially conscious contemporary art scene is reflecting this more and more. Back in June 2005, A New York artist named Perry Bard painted five images of Mesopotamian artifacts on a box truck that were either destroyed or stolen from the Baghdad Museum. The truck was driven around Manhattan as a public art display. While discussing the issue of repatriation and possible long term museum loans with the highly successful New York artist Andrew Ginzel, he stated: "I think that museums worldwide should adhere to standards. In the long run they only hurt themselves by not having universal standards. On the other hand, I don't think one nation should possess all of the world's heritage. Everyone can benefit from a circulation of art through long term loans." Italy is suggesting longer term loans to museums that cooperate with their requests for repatriation.

   Interpol declares on its website that Italy and France are the two most victimized nations affected by this criminal activity. An agreement (the MOU) between the U.S. and Italy that restricts antiquities trade and inhibits looting, was signed in 2001. This accord has been very effective and has shown America's loyalty to a great ally, as well as a commitment to protecting the world's cultural heritage. The MOU will expire next year if the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee does not renew it. Not renewing this measure would be disastrous. On Sept 8, I testified with SAFE's director Cindy Ho and her dedicate team of representatives on behalf of the renewal. "It is imperative that the bilateral agreement be allowed to continue the work it has begun to stem the traffic of illicit antiquities," states Cindy Ho. "To not renew the agreement is akin to taking away a patients medicine just as he/she is feeling better." At the hearing a lawyer representing collectors accused the Italians of fighting to preserve an outdated law from 1938 that was created during Mussolini's fascist era. This is incorrect. The Italian state first crafted a law protecting its cultural heritage back in 1909. It was one of the first nations to take the problem seriously.

The problem is greed.

   For many years U.S. curators have bought aggressively on behalf of their institutions. Many have chosen to do business in Europe, instead of the U.S., to maintain a low profile. These same curators often overlooked the bad reputations of the notorious dealers they did business with, as well as the falsified provenances they represented. An art dealer, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me that he was in Malibu attempting to sell a piece on consignment. The Getty curator told him that they had to meet in London or no deal could be made. This piece was later bought by the same curator (after he left the Getty and found employment at the Metropolitan Museum in N.Y.) from a different dealer for a higher price. When the curator was confronted by the original dealer about the matter, he winked, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, and stated it is expensive to deal with the Getty. Huge sums exchange hands in this area and dirty curators can receive kickbacks as high as 20 percent of the piece's final price to orchestrate these deals.

The solution lies in Italy's champions.

   The Italian Carabinieri's Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC), an art crimes investigative unit, was implemented on May 3, 1969, making Italy the first nation in the world to have an investigative unit dedicated solely to art crimes. The establishment of this unit occurred one year ahead of recommendations from the General Conference of UNESCO held in 1970 where member states were requested to adopt measures to prevent the illicit trade in art. It has grown over the years into an extremely effective force and has recovered over 450,000 archeological pieces. Its agents have established themselves as the globe's elite art theft investigators. Under the guidance of General Ugo Zotin, and Colonel Ferdinando Musella, the agents of the TPC have declared to the world that Italy is no longer willing to be a victim, but a formidable defender of its people's artistic heritage. These fine men and women are always ready to intervene not only on behalf of Italy's artistic heritage, but the world's art treasures as well. I had the pleasure of spending some time with the carabinieri delegation at the Italian embassy on Park Avenue the day before the news broke about the Getty restituting three of the most important objects out of the 42 questioned works they possess. The joy I observed in these proud investigators at their victory can not be described in words. These are blue collar guys. Seasoned investigators who come from various backgrounds such as narcotics and anti mafia. They were not art historians or involved in the art market prior to their TPC assignment, but for them it is all about the art and the people that art belongs to. Not the price of the objects; not the politics of it all; the art! They are passionately fighting to preserve Italy's heritage for the people and more importantly, Italy's children. The children of Aidone, Sicily, deserve more than anyone to see the Morgantina silver where it originated. Their ancestors created it! Likewise every piece of Italian treasure that has been looted from Italian soil must be repatriated to the future generations of Italy. The long arm of the law reached all the way from Rome to Malibu, California. It can certainly reach all the museums in Between.

Shaman/Hunter's Wall in C.V.Sabba's Manhattan Studio; 2005.