Digging Up the Past
By Michael H. Miller
May 25, 2010 | 3:17 p.m
In June 1964, a group of fishermen off the northern Adriatic coast pulled a dull gray mass, shaped like a man, covered in barnacles, out of the water. It was the statue now known as Victorious Youth, believed to be the work of Lysippus-Alexander the Great’s personal sculptor. The fishermen took the statue ashore and sold it, cheap. It changed hands many times after that, quietly, until 1977, when the J. Paul Getty Trust purchased it for a then-record sum of $4 million from a Munich art dealer. In February 2010, Italy won a lawsuit in Italian court against the Los Angeles museum, demanding the statue’s return. The Getty, appealing, has yet to comply, arguing it was a Greek statue found in international waters.
Victorious Youth is far from the only masterpiece in limbo-or in court. As million-dollar antiquities auctions (and a controversy surrounding them) kick off in in New York the week of June 6, never has the tension between collector, dealer and so-called “source” nation been higher. Late last week, Germany’s Foreign Minister formally spurned Egypt’s request for the return of the 3,000-year-old Bust of Nefertiti that sits in a Berlin Museum; three months ago Egypt hosted an international conference demanding the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum, which has had it for 200 years. There are ongoing legal battles and new, or louder, claims from Turkey, China and Greece for the return of items. But Italy has been the most aggressive, successfully demanding the return of objects from both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty. (The Getty has returned 39 disputed objects to Italy since 2006, and isn’t finished, according to the museum’s general counsel, Stephen Clark.) Such disputes have pulled in collectors and chilled the climate for buying certain works, regardless of quality, dealers and auctioneers report. Now, three pricey ancient Greek items up for sale at Christie’s next month threaten to become a part of the messy, murky issues clouding the market.
Here’s the back story: In 1995, Swiss and Italian investigators raided the Geneva warehouse of art dealer Giacomo Medici. Inside, they found a treasure trove of ancient objects, part of a massive network of illegally trafficked artifacts that Italian prosecutors said was orchestrated by Mr. Medici. He was found guilty of trafficking by an Italian court in 2004 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The case is on appeal. The warehouse contained hundreds of in-situ photographs of the objects that established their illegal excavation, mostly from Italy but also from Egypt and Greece. Many of these objects eventually ended up on the international antiquities market and in the collections of such leading collectors as Metropolitan Museum of Art trustee Shelby White.
Some attorneys and self-appointed looting watchdogs claim that three items up for sale at Christie’s on June 10 are pictured in those Medici warehouse photographs. “There were a lot of them, so it’s no surprise they’d still be popping up in sales,” said Patty Gerstenblith, who practices art and cultural heritage law.
At issue are Lot 139, a marble torso of a youth, headless, legless, missing the right arm, holding a cockerel in his left hand, valued at $20,000 to $30,000; Lot 112, a Greek terra-cotta goddess, nearly nude with draped fabric barely covering her left side, head cocked with attitude, valued at $6,000 to $8,000; and Lot 104, a cylindrical bowl featuring the image of a nude, frowning Eros, which rests atop a black goat’s head with white horns, valued at $25,000 to $35,000. “As a matter of policy, we do not sell works that we have reason to believe are stolen,” a Christie’s spokeswoman said.
David Gill, an ancient history scholar from the University of Wales, has written on the three Christie’s lots on his blog, Looting Matters. They “resemble more than a little” polaroids of three objects that had been illegally sold out of the Medici warehouse before it was raided, he said. However, according to Christie’s, the auction house “strictly adheres to all applicable local and international laws with respect to cultural property and national patrimony of art.”
For players in the sale of antiquities, a key “safe” date is November 1970. That was when the UNESCO convention met to hammer out an international treaty meant to prevent the illegal import and export of cultural property. If an object’s provenance-that is, its history of import, export and ownership-cannot be traced back to November 1970, many people in the U.S. antiquities trade won’t deal with it. This is where any confusion regarding the three ancient Greek Christie’s lots comes from: a lack of detailed provenance. Lot 112 has the oldest history, with a provenance going back to 1984, but the Christie’s description merely reads: “Anonymous sale, Sotheby’s New York, July 1984,” indicating that it has been in this country for some years. The other two go back only to the early 1990s, and mention previous sales at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. (Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have faced legal repercussions, lawsuits and claims regarding items on the block in the past, but the frequency of such claims has fallen sharply in the last decade.) But 1970 provenance is merely an ethical standard, not a legal one. Nonetheless, masterpieces, even at discounted prices, aren’t making their way to (public) market, because sellers and buyers are worried about lawsuits.
In 2008, Italy struck a deal with Ms. White for the return of 10 objects-ironically, some of them Greek-in Ms. White’s private collection, several of which Italian authorities said had been traced back to the Medici warehouse. Nine of the 10 have been returned, with the final repatriation scheduled to happen sometime this year. Ms. White could not be reached for comment.
At the Getty, even after years of negotiations, the repatriations aren’t over yet: One “very major work” (Cult Statue of a Goddess) will be returned by the Getty to Italy at the end of this year, said Mr. Clark.
Florent Heintz, head of the Sotheby’s antiquities department, talked about the significant research involved prior to the offering on June 11 of a second-century marble bust of Athena. Priced at $600,000 to $900,000, it’s one of the highlights of the upcoming sale at Sotheby’s. According to Mr. Heintz, the auction house was able to trace the provenance back to the early 1950s using photographs of past owners with the object, receipts from its restoration and invoices from when the statue was put into storage. Sometimes it’s not so simple, he added. People don’t always save such documents. “We basically have to take people’s word for it,” Mr. Heintz said. “We try to use our best judgment.”
The matter is frustratingly complicated, with disputes ranging from items allegedly smuggled out of the country-emphasis on “allegedly”-to ones simply without the right paperwork. Collectors declined to comment, but dealer Torkom Demirjian, owner of Ariadne Galleries on Madison Avenue, said he bought a Byzantine capital (the top adornment of a column in ancient architecture) at a public Italian auction with a “very well-cataloged, very well-illustrated” provenance several years ago. The Italian government would not allow Mr. Demirjian, who has faced repatriation claims in the past, to take the capital back to the States. His only option was to find an Italian buyer to purchase the object. He found one, but three months ago, he was sued by the Italian Ministry of Culture for moving the object from Venice, where he bought it, to Florence. He didn’t inform the Italian government of the move, he said, which is against Italian law. This gave them an opening to sue Mr. Demirjian to keep the capital, he said. “The American government will do nothing to help me, even though I did everything by the book,” he said.
He misses the good ol’ days.
“People did acquire things when it was not customary to have paper trails-it was true of art from all periods,” said Mr. Demirjian. “All of a sudden we come to 1970, and there is a shift requiring provenance information. To apply a very new rule for an old practice doesn’t really make sense.”
Of course, we apply lots of new laws to correct past wrongs. Oscar White Muscarella, an archaeologist recently retired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a major proponent in keeping ancient art where it was found. The Met fired him in the early ’70s after he publicly accused the museum of purchasing a stolen Greek vase. Mr. Muscarella sued for his job back and won. He’s spoken loudly against plunder and illegal excavation in the decades since. “Archaeology is love,” he said. “Plunder is rape. People are hung up on collecting art as an expression of their wealth.”
Mr. Demirjian, understandably, disagrees. “if I were Italy, I would give money to America to have their cultural representation here,” he added. “Who can tell me today that a Roman urn in New York is less a Roman urn than in Italy? The idea that everything should be locked in a geographic boundary is a stupid, ridiculous idea.”