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Raiding the Tomb Raiders Volume 59 Number 4, July/August 2006

How Italy cracked the network of looters, smugglers, and dealers supplying American museums

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Photographs recovered during a raid of middleman Giacomo Medici's Geneva warehouse shows a fresco still in place (taken during looting near Pompeii) and a portion of the same work later being pieced together for sale. (All photos courtesy of the authors and the Italian investigators.)

The antiquities smuggling trials of former Getty Museum curator Marion True and dealer Robert E. Hecht, who sold the Metropolitan Museum of Art a late-sixth-century B.C. vase painted by Euphronios for $1 million in 1972, continue in Rome (see "The Trial in Rome"). Meanwhile, the Met has agreed to return some two dozen ancient Greek and Roman works, including the Euphronios vase, to Italy, which claimed that they were looted. And that's not all. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is said to be in negotiations for the return of pieces from its collection that the Italians say were stolen. Italy is also pursuing artifacts in the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Princeton Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the private collection of the late Leon Levy and his wife, Shelby White, in New York.

Italy's legal offensive is based on mountains of evidence--thousands of antiquities, photographs, and documents--seized from looters and dealers in a series of dramatic raids by the Art Squad of the Carabinieri (a police force within the Italian army). In their new book The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums, excerpted below, journalists Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini detail the investigations led by Roberto Conforti, who commanded the Art Squad since 1990.

Conforti applied his considerable experience fighting organized crime to the task of breaking the illicit antiquities network. His approach was to patiently gather evidence, identify those involved, and put pressure on low-level operatives to turn on those above them in the chain. Fate intervened, however, and put the investigation on a fast track:

Pasquale Camera was a big man, weighing in at a little under 400 pounds, and as this suggests, he liked his food and he liked his drink. On August 31, 1995, a Thursday, he took his lunch at Luciano's Restaurant in Santa Maria di Capua Vetere, a small town north of Naples. He then set out on the A1, the Autostrada del Sole, Italy's main north-south freeway, to drive to Rome. The Carabinieri didn't follow him. They knew where he was headed--his apartment in Rome.

[image] The Italian investigations were advanced greatly by discovery of detailed records including a diagram showing links between tombaroli (tomb robbers), middlemen, and dealers. [LARGER IMAGE]

The day was hot and sultry. Sometime between 2:30 and 3:00 p.m., just as he was approaching the exit for Cassino, with the great stone hill of Monte Cassino and its historic Benedictine monastery looming above, Camera's car left the road, smashed into the guard rail and overturned. Camera was killed instantly. There were rumors, later, that his car had been interfered with in some way, but Conforti discounts this. He thought it more likely that Camera fell asleep at the wheel after a heavy lunch.

In Italy, road accidents are the responsibility of the Polizia Stradale; however, when accidents occur in small towns such as Cassino, the local Carabinieri are also informed. In addition to being told that a fatal accident had occurred, they were informed on this occasion that a number of photographs had been found in the glove compartment of the car, showing archaeological objects. It so happened that the commander of the Carabinieri in Cassino at that time had himself been a member of the Art Squad. On being told about the contents of the glove compartment, he immediately telephoned his former colleagues. Conforti now saw his chance--an opportunity that might never come again. Within an hour his men had contacted a magistrate in Santa Maria di Capua Vetere and obtained a search warrant, which entitled them to raid and search Camera's apartment in Rome.

Conforti's net was closing in on larger fish in the network, and one of the biggest was Giacomo Medici:

An official request was dispatched to the Swiss, seeking permission to raid the premises of Editions Services in Geneva Freeport. The Swiss complied quickly and, on September 13, 1995, the raid took place. The raiding party consisted of a Swiss magistrate, three Swiss police headed by an inspector, three of Conforti's men, an official photographer, and the deputy director of the Freeport. The offices of Editions Services were located in Room 23 on the fourth floor of a plain, steel-built warehouse.

In the first chamber of Room 23 the raiding party came to, there was a settee, some chairs, and a glass table supported by an enormous stone capital. At the far end was a frosted glass window, but the rest of the walls were lined with cupboards. At first glance, it was an ordinary sitting room and not especially stylish; there was a thin brown carpet covering the floor. However, when the Carabinieri started opening the cupboards, they quickly changed their minds. There was nothing ordinary about the room in any way. All the cupboards were shelved--and each and every one of them was packed--crowded, teeming, overloaded with antiquities: with vases, statues, bronzes; with candelabra, frescoes, mosaics; with glass objects, faience animals, jewelry, and still more vases. Some were wrapped in newspapers; frescoes lay on the floor or leaning against walls; other vases were packed in fruit boxes, and many had dirt on them. Some had Sotheby's labels tied to them with white string. But that wasn't all. There was also a huge safe, five feet tall and three feet wide. Amazingly, it wasn't locked.

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Medici's photo collection included a shot of himself at the Getty beside a fully restored sculpture of griffins attacking a deer (left), as well as the unrestored sculpture apparently in the trunk of a car (right). [image]
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If the contents of the cupboards had been astounding, the contents of the safe were truly astonishing. One of Conforti's men whistled as he realized what he was looking at. Inside were 20 of the most exquisite classical Greek dinner plates that anyone there that day had ever seen, plus a number of red-figure vases by famous classical vase painters. The Carabinieri immediately recognized one as by none other than Euphronios. Together, the objects in the safe must have been worth millions of dollars.

At the top of the chart of the illict antiquities network was Robert Hecht, whose clients included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty, and others. With the lower and middle levels wrapped up, Conforti moved against him:

A raid was scheduled on Hecht's Paris apartment for February 16, 2001.

The senior French officer knocked on the door. Hecht's ex-wife, Elisabeth, opened it. At first she tried to resist the incoming policemen. She said Hecht wasn't there and, moreover, that he did not live there, and hadn't for 15 years. The police--both French and Italian--were expecting this (it was a familiar delaying tactic) and presented her with a simple ultimatum: Either she could let them in willingly, in which case they promised not to enter her own bedroom; or they could do it the hard way, break down the door if she barred them, and then they would go through the entire apartment. She let them in.

A spacious hallway featured an impressive chandelier, and the apartment had two bedrooms. There was a study on the left, but Elisabeth led them to one of the bedrooms, which, she indicated, was Hecht's. The two Carabinieri in the raiding party had often enjoyed a joke that in the movies, police searching an apartment always look first under the bed. In real life, no one ever hides anything there. On this occasion--at the very moment they entered the bedroom, they could see some white plastic shopping bags wedged under the bed. They placed them on top of the covers, and reached inside. The first things they took out were some ancient vases--Attic, Apulian, Corinthian--full of earth. Then they found a bronze helmet, and a bronze belt, both dusted in soil. Next they came across a number of vase fragments, in the same dirty condition.

From the book The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini. Copyright © 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group (www.perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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