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Italy versus the Illicit Trade December 8, 2006
Updated December 11, 2006
by Kirsten Vala

An update on Italy's unprecedented stand against museums, collectors, and an international smuggling ring

In Italy's ongoing pursuit of stolen artifacts--reported here last February with "The Trial in Rome" and followed up in the July/August issue of ARCHAEOLOGY with "Raiding the Tomb Raiders,"--American museums are giving back works of art, court cases are plodding along, and at least one private collection has come under scrutiny. As 2006 comes to an end, Italy appears to be on the path to victory, though not without at least one setback, and Greece is following their example.

Getty Museum

On October 5, the Getty Museum signed an agreement with the Italy, stipulating that they would return 26 objects while Italy renounced claims to ownership of six other items and agreed to loan other artworks to the museum. But, according to a statement by Michael Brand, director of the Getty, Italy backed out of this deal without giving any reason. They then put forth new demands, including that the museum hand over a cult statue of a goddess (probably Aphrodite), rejecting a previously agreed to four-year period of joint ownership with the Getty, and the statue of a victorious youth (commonly known as the "Getty Bronze").

Brand went to Italy again on November 17, but that meeting ended abruptly when the Italian culture ministry said that no agreement would be acceptable if it did not include repatriation of the statue the youth. Found by Italian fisherman in international waters in 1964, the statue was acquired by the Getty Museum in 1977, after, Brand says, Italian courts determined that it could not be claimed by Italy. But Italian officials maintain that the statue was illegally exported and should be returned to Italy on that basis.

On November 21, under threat of an unprecedented "cultural embargo" from Italy, the Getty Museum announced it would give back the 26 works of art that conclusively belong to that country.

In a more amicable agreement last August, the museum returned to Greece two items (a Thasian relief from the sixth century B.C. and Boeotian stele, or grave marker, from the fourth century B.C). In return, Greece has agreed to lend the Getty Museum other artifacts and allow them to co-host future exhibitions of Greek art. Two more objects, a marble statue of kore, or a young woman, and a gold Macedonian funerary wreath, are still claimed by Greece (see below). An agreement in principle to return these two artifacts was announced December 11.

As the trial of former Getty Museum curator Marion True continues in Italy, the museum has tightened up their acquisitions policy. All items being considered for purchase must now have been documented out of their country of origin before November 17, 1970, or been legally removed from their country of origin after November 17, 1970. This is the date of the UNESCO Convention on cultural property. These new regulations are much stricter than the guidelines recommended by the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The MFA reached an amicable agreement with Italy over the return of 13 items, which included a marble statue (of the empress Sabina, A.D. 136) as well as ancient vases. After months of discussion, the agreement was signed on September 28 and the items returned soon after. On November 28, the MFA announced it was the first museum to receive a loan from Italy as part of such an agreement. Francesco Rutelli, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture of the Italian Republic, visited the MFA to unveil the nine-foot-tall statue Eirene (goddess of peace), which will be displayed at the MFA until the fall of 2009.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met signed a deal with Italy in February, returning 21 items in return for loans of other Italian artifacts. Among the objects returned was a sixth-century B.C. vase, the Euphronios krater, which the Met purchased in 1972 for $1 million. On November 29--without the fanfare graciously displayed at the MFA--the Met received from Italy a kylix (drinking cup) from 560 to 550 B.C., which will be on loan to the museum until November 2010.

Levy-White Collection

Italy has asked Shelby White, private collector in New York, to return 20 items suspected of being illegally excavated and exported. Negotiations are set to begin this month. Italy is not accusing Shelby White or her late husband, Leon Levy, of knowingly participating in any crime, but some of the artifacts under dispute have been traced to British dealer Robin Symes and convicted antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici (see below). Italy's request comes at an unfortunate time for White, coinciding with publicity for the April opening of the Met's Greek and Roman galleries which were funded by Levy and White. An architectural rendering of the new exhibition space features what appears to be the Euphronios krater, recently returned to Italy, as the centerpiece of the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court. Some items from the Levy-White collection that are claimed by Italy are currently on display at the Met. Other items from the collection are scheduled to be part of the exhibit opening in April.


Marion True and Robert Hecht

Former Getty Museum curator Marion True, 57, and antiquities dealer Robert Hecht, 87, are being tried jointly for conspiring to excavate and export artifacts illegally from Italy. Several objects they dealt with were linked to convicted smuggler Giacomo Medici. Their trial in Rome, which began last year and is currently in recess, is set to resume January 17.

Giacomo Medici

Tried separately, antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, 67, was found guilty last year of illegally buying and selling stolen Italian artifacts. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and fined $13 million. He is currently appealing his conviction.


Despina Papadimitriou and her three children have been charged with buying illegal Greek artifacts. The 152 artifacts, estimated to be valued at $1.3 million, were found during raids on the family's Schinoussa villa and Athens home. Papadimitriou is the sister of the late Christos Michailidis, who worked with antiquities dealer Robin Symes. The New York Times reported that, according to testimony given at Giacomo Medici's trial, Michailidis died in 1999 after falling down a staircase at an Italian villa, where he and Symes were attending a dinner party hosted by Shelby White and Leon Levy.

Marion True is facing charges from Greek authorities, regarding 29 artifacts found in her own Greek villa on Paros, which she purchased with a loan from Michailidis. Among the items confiscated were a pair of marble sarcophagi and a set of architectural blocks built into the villa's walls. True has said that all the antiquities seized from her villa were there when she bought it in 1995. Separately, Greece recently pressed charges against Marion True, along with four other people in regard to a fourth-century B.C. gold funerary wreath currently at the Getty Museum. Greece claims the wreath was illegally excavated from a Macedonian tomb before it was sold to the Getty for $1.15 million in 1993.

Kirsten Vala received her B.A. in psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis and is currently a journalism graduate student at New York University.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America