Exposing the Culture Thieves - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Exposing the Culture Thieves June 14, 2006

Investigative journalist Peter Watson discusses the illicit antiquities trade.


Peter Watson is co-author with Cecilia Todeschini of The Medici Conspiracy, an excerpt of which appears in our July/August issue. Watson has followed the connection between criminals and the art and antiquities markets for more than two decades. In 1983 he posed as a wealthy art dealer to help expose a ring of art thieves that stretched from Italy to New York. Six old master paintings were recovered and four people were arrested, including the smuggler, a priest on the staff of the Vatican's mission to the United Nations. In 1997, the same year he published his expose Sotheby's: Inside Story, Watson was appointed a research associate the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, working with its Illicit Antiquities Research Centre. The new book details investigations by Italian authorities, the final acts of which are even now being played out in courts in Rome and museums in the United States.

How did you get into investigative journalism?
I spent four years as part of The Sunday Times "Insight" team, which was its investigative unit, under its legendary editor Harold Evans (married to Tina Brown).

Cecilia Todeschini, who helped in the investigations that culminated in your book Sotheby's: Inside Story, is co-author of The Medici Conspiracy. What's her background?
Cecilia is by profession a TV researcher. She is totally bi-lingual in English and Italian and a superb translator, catching all the subtleties of idiom etc. She covered all the great mafia trials in Sicily and got to know many of the main prosecutors in particular, becoming friends with some who were killed.

The Medici Conspiracy

In reading The Medici Conspiracy I was struck by how much documentary evidence the investigators found, records and photographs kept by the looters and smugglers themselves.
In my experience, criminals always put things in writing. Since they are criminals, they distrust each other and putting things in writing becomes necessary. In my career I have helped put nine people in jail, and free two people who were in prison and shouldn't have been there. In all cases, amazingly incriminating things were written down.

Is there a reliable estimate of the monetary value--setting aside the cost in terms of lost knowledge through site destruction--of the artifacts trafficked through the networks based in Italy? With individual pieces running to six and seven figures, it must be high.
Paolo Ferri [the Italian public prosecutor] says 100,000 tombs have been looted in Italy alone, with half a billion (US$) being taken. To that you have to add Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, West Africa, Central America, Peru, China, and then some. The overall figure is very large. Say at least four times the Italian figure.

You call the network a cordate, the Italian word for mountaineers strung together on a rope for safety. What are the basic levels of the network?
The levels of the cordate are: tombarolo or looter; capo zona who runs the tombaroli in a specific region; middle man (the actual smuggler); the "Swiss" dealer; the auction house (or the link-man, a Robert Hecht-type figure); the collector; the academic "authenticator"; and the museum curator.

How does a network like this pass along its goods to some of the most prestigious museums in the world?
Traditionally, the cut-out has been the Swiss dealers; this is less likely since last year's change in the Swiss law, though we are all waiting to see if it proves effective. The main point is that the auction houses, collectors and museums in America, and elsewhere, have always subscribed to the fiction that, if it comes from Switzerland, and there is no photographic or other evidence that an antiquity hasn't been in the ground of an "archaeological country," then that object is "clean." This might be what in spin-doctoring is called "deniability." That whole set of reasoning is exploded by the Medici case.

Greek authorities have seized artifacts and documentary evidence in raids on the islands of Paros and Schinoussa, and it may be that they will be able to roll up another network. But in the course of their investigations the Italians were often met by a lack of cooperation or indifference from their colleagues in other countries when they asked for assistance. What do you attribute that to?
I think indifference in the past was brought on by the relative lack of success in persuading collectors and museums and auction houses that this stuff really was loot. The spectacular success of the Italians in forcing the American museum to return material has caused a major re-think. The Greeks have known about Schinoussa since July 2003, when I published my first article about Symes/Michaelides. They have only raided it recently because of the Italian success, a success they would like to emulate.

Have the Italian investigations and prosecutions had an effect? Is this network still functioning?
I think the network has been broken because so much has been exposed that collectors will now not collect unprovenanced classical antiquities because museums won't acquire them. So the market has been knocked on the head. We are told by the archaeologists in Italy that looting is down by half. Probably the market will now shift to other areas.

Such as?
We understand that a lot of material is coming out of China just now.

You noted in The Medici Conspiracy how an exhibition of sculpture from Nepal in New York during 1964 "inspired" so many collectors that half of all Hindu and Buddhist sculpture has since been stripped from that country. How does the equation of appreciation with acquisition come about?
People go to exhibitions and, as a result, acquire a passion for antiquities. To begin with, they rarely think about where these works originated. This study, we hope, will give them pause for thought.

In Sotheby's: Inside Story you documented the pillaging of a shrine at an Indian village called Lokhari from which the statues of some 20 goddesses were stolen, including a goat-faced one that was apparently sold through Sotheby's in 1988. Was that ever traced?
The Lokhari statue was never traced. Someone, somewhere, knows what they have and is keeping it hidden. Maybe we should have an amnesty for such objects. On the other hand, the Indian responsible has been jailed. Maybe he is helping the Indian police and we will hear about this object in due course. I know no more than that.

For the villagers, the loss of the statues, which were the focus of worship, must have been devastating. During your recent investigations in Italy did you see something that hit that hard?
For me the shocking moment came with the photographs of the Pompeian villa showing frescoes being looted and, later, being reassembled. That people would carve up such beautiful objects to smuggle them abroad was sickening.

The antiquities-buying community would like people to believe that the artifacts on the market are "chance" finds, discoveries that do not entail the systematic destruction of archaeological sites and deliberate circumvention and breaking of laws by organized gangs. But that's not what you've seen from India to Italy, is it?
The idea that these objects are "chance finds" is exploded forever. We now have four extensive archives of people involved in the illicit trade--Medici, Becchina, Symes, Evangelista--involving well over 25,000 objects, plus Hecht's 88-page memoir. Each and every object mentioned in these documents was illegally excavated or stolen and smuggled out of Italy. For over 30 years the cordate have been bringing objects out of the country, via Switzerland, all of which have been looted, and a great proportion of which are of world importance, ranging in value from $100,000 to $50 million. It is important to realize that this business is organized. It is a branch of organized crime. I don't say that the mafia is involved but I do say that there is an infrastructure to this business. In the "Dossier" section of our book we print an "organizational chart" of the business that one of the looters had drawn up.

You end The Medici Conspiracy with a short list of steps that should be instituted immediately. What are those?

  1. The world's museums should not acquire objects without a proper provenance, which should indicate how an object left the ground, under what circumstances, and who performed the excavation.
  2. Museums should not acquire objects from individual collectors where the above conditions do not apply.
  3. Museums should publish the circumstances of their acquisitions, giving the above details.
  4. Objects that come to light through Switzerland should, for the time being, be treated with great suspicion.
  5. The archaeological countries should bring their laws into line with that in Britain. In the UK, if someone discovers an antiquity on their land, it must be shown to the British Museum, which has the choice of acquiring the object, at a fair market value, or studying it and then releasing it to be sold by the discoverer.

The aim of these measures is not to prevent ancient objects being dispersed around the world, but to prevent illicit excavation, which causes a loss to knowledge.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America