A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
On September 13, 1995, Swiss police raided four bonded warehouses in Geneva, seizing a large number of artifacts allegedly smuggled from Italy. The premises were registered to a Swiss company called Editions Services, which police traced to a Roman named Giacomo Medici. In January 1997, the Carabinieri, Italy's national police force, arrested Medici, whom they described as "the real 'mastermind' of much of [Italy's] illegal traffic in archaeological objects." Medici claims that he acquired all of the artifacts legally and that he is not the "monster" he has been portrayed as. He also claims that the search was conducted without his presence or that of a representative of Editions Services, and that the police did not find documents, now missing, that would have shown the legal provenience of the artifacts. He is believed to have been released on his own reconnaissance, and to date he has not been charged with anything.
According to the Carabinieri, Italy's national police force, the warehouses contained 10,000 artifacts worth 50 billion lire (about $35 million), which would make the seizure one of the largest antiquities seizures ever. Medici disputes these numbers, saying that the warehouses contained between 200 and 300 artifacts worth far less than $35 million. Photographs of a portion of the material, however, show at least 500 artifacts, and Medici admits that "the photographs do not represent in full the objects which were inside the premises."
Last year, an account of the seizure and Medici's arrest, along with three photographs of artifacts in the haul, appeared in Peter Watson's book Sotheby's: The Inside Story (New York: Random House, 1997). John J. Herrmann, Jr., curator of classical art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, recognized two stone column capitals in one picture as having been stolen from the House of the Fish at Ostia, the port of ancient Rome. Herrmann alerted the archaeological superintendent of Ostia, and he says the capitals are now back where they belong.
How the capitals came to be in the warehouse is not known, but comparison of the photographs with Sotheby's catalogs, brought to our attention by readers, shows that some of the other material came from auctions in New York and London. A Boeotian figurine and a Minoan jar were sold at a 1990 auction of antiquities in the collection of the Erlenmeyer Foundation for Animal Welfare; according to the catalog, these two items had been published in Orientalia in the early 1960s. Three pieces of Attic pottery--a black-figure kylix, a red-figure kylix, and a red-figure hydria--were sold at a 1990 auction of antiquities in the collections of the Texas oil barons Nelson and William Hunt. According to the catalog, two of these had been purchased at the Summa Gallery in Los Angeles in 1981, while the third had been exhibited at the J. Paul Getty Museum the year before. A bronze griffin protome and two Egyptian relief fragments were sold at a 1991 auction. Frederick Schultz, president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental & Primitive Art, says that many of the other artifacts were acquired at auctions as well.
None of these pedigrees, however, reveals where ultimately the artifacts came from, or whether their excavation and exportation from their country of origin were legal. According to Reuters, in October 1996 the Swiss investigating magistrate, Jean-Pierre Trembley, ruled that they should be returned to Italy. They were cataloged by officials from the Archaeological Superintendency of Southern Etruria, but the following month a Geneva court revoked Trembley's decision, saying that the artifacts' provenience had to be proven before they could be returned. Italy has appealed, and Switzerland's federal court will hear the case.
Medici asserts that "most of these objects could not have been found in Italian archeological sites." Archaeologists who examined the photographs on behalf of ARCHAEOLOGY say the material was made in a wide range of places around the Mediterranean, including Greece (in photos 2, 8, 10, 20, 22, 24, 26, 50, 55, 63, 64, and 67) and Cyprus (54), as well as Britain and northern Europe (59). To this list, Schultz adds Egypt (32 and 51) and the ancient kingdom of Urartu (in parts of what are now Iran, Turkey, and Armenia; see photo 44). There are also a number of Roman pieces (18, 21, 29, 38, 39, 40, 41, 43, and 66), but without further evidence it is difficult to tell whether much of it was made, or found, in Italy or one of the empire's far-flung provinces. Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Turkey--as well as most of the countries spread over what was the Roman Empire--have longstanding laws establishing national ownership of archaeological remains.
According to the archaeologists who examined the photographs, however, a great deal of the material probably did originate in Italy. There are Etruscan bronzes and ceramics (1, 5, 6, 9, 13, 15, 16, 21, 25, 27, 28, 56, and 57); South Italian pottery (2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11, 15, 16, 22, and 68); and Villanovan material (from northern and central Italy, 19 and 23). Furthermore, Greek pottery was much loved by the Etruscan elite. The art historian Nigel Spivey has written that "Vulci [an Etruscan necropolis] is still our main source of [Greek] pots. After Vulci, other Etruscan sites: Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Orvieto and Chiusi." Of the pieces whose country of origin are identified in John Boardman's standard survey, Athenian Red Figure Vases, more than 60 percent come from Italy; Greece is second, with only 25 percent.
Letter from Frederick Schultz, president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental & Primitive art
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1. Miscellaneous pottery, some South Italian; Etruscan candelabrum; Roman (?) sculptures