2015-03-29 - artwatchuk - looters pits

The Conservation Laundering of Illicit Antiquities

Einav Zamir

2015-03-29 - artwatchuk - looters pitsMarion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles [Fig. 2], once hailed as the “heroic warrior against plunder,” [1] was indicted in 2005 for violations against Italy’s cultural patrimony laws.[2]

True became the first American curator to face such charges [3] — not coincidentally, it was also the first time that a source country had the means, financially and politically, to investigate and prosecute violations of their cultural patrimony laws [4]. The Swiss police and Italian Carabinieri’s raid on Giacomo Medici’s warehouse in Geneva a decade earlier [5] exposed an elaborate system, designed to avoid suspicion from authorities [6]. The subsequent investigation threw a spotlight onto the dubious activities of museum curators.

To read more of this ArtWatch UK article, click here.

2014-11-17 - James Beck Memorial Lecture Salmagundi Club

Recap: ArtWatch International’s Sixth Annual James Beck Memorial Lecture

Ruth Osborne

2014-11-17 - King Midas Tomb inlaid table

Inlaid Table from Tumulus MM in situ, 1957.

Last Thursday, November 6th, ArtWatch International hosted the sixth annual James Beck Memorial Lecture and Reception in New York at the historic Salmagundi Club on lower Fifth Avenue.

Alternating between London and New York, ArtWatch holds this event each year to honor memory, scholarly efforts, and unwavering commitment to artistic stewardship of its founder, Professor James Beck. Since Beck’s death in 2007, the lectures have been organized to continue Beck’s campaigning on the arts’ behalf, as well as to provide a platform for lectures by distinguished scholars, to commemorate his own contributions.


2014-11-17 - Michael Daley ArtWatch UK

Michael Daley, Director of ArtWatch UK.

Another remarkable force in the art world, and supporter of Beck’s efforts, New York painter Frank Mason, is also honored at the Beck Memorial Lectures. The Frank Mason Prize is awarded each year to an individual who has contributed to a courageous effort to benefit art scholarship and research. Frank’s dedication to traditionalist artistic training, his long teaching career at the Art Students League in New York, and protests against harmful restorations at the Metropolitan Museum leave behind a strong legacy. He was also instrumental in the founding of a precurser to ArtWatch International, The International Society for the Preservation of Art. This year’s recipient, Dr. Martin Eidelberg, has expressed similar dedication to traditionalist methods of studying art in his work on the eighteenth-century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau.

2014-11-17 - Martin Eidelberg

Dr. Martin Eidelberg

Since his professorship at Rutgers University, Dr. Eidelberg has been instrumental in making his extensive scholarship on Watteau and his circle available online. This year, his work on the “Watteau Abecedario” project, an online alphabetical catalogue raisonné will offer online audiences a comprehensive study of his oeuvre and will also address past and current issues of attribution, and in so doing present art history research as an ongoing, organic process. He says of his project that:


2014-11-17 - Francois Boucher Antoine Watteau

Francois Boucher, Portrait of Antoine Watteau, 1727. Courtesy: FAMSF.

Having the Abecedario available online is much more universal. A show is only on a certain period of time. And my experience is that it mostly goes to three cities, for three months at each city, and then it’s gone. And these days, it’s getting harder and harder to follow a show. The online catalogue raisonné is a way in which art gets distributed not only free of charge, but conveniently. So in part it’s good will. In part, it actually is a very useful tool.

The internet itself is a great tool. Because it really is a way of spreading knowledge and keying in. Now places like the Getty have digitized them and have finding aids. Which means you can just press a few buttons, and you can get every painting by Watteau or Boucher or Fragonard sold between 1680 and 1820. It’s brilliant.

Some people are going to say you’ve taken the human quality out of the humanities but that’s not true because then comes interpretation and it just means you don’t have to do so much other work sifting through the mass of data.

**Be on the lookout in the coming weeks for our full interview with Dr. Eidelberg on his project.

2014-11-17 - Martin Eidelberg ArtWatch International

Dr. Eidelberg with Ruth Osborne, Director of ArtWatch International.

2014-11-17 - Elizabeth Simpson Salmagundi Club

Dr. Elizabeth Simpson

This year’s lecture also enjoyed a most captivating speaker whose lecture focused on the necessity of engaging, and sustaining, a  dialogue on art’s behalf. Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, professor of ancient art, archaeology, and museology at the Bard Graduate Center, presented on the excavation and conservation of ancient wooden furniture from King Midas’s Tomb in present-day Turkey.


Since the excavation of royal Phrygian Tumulus MM[1] in Gordion, Turkey in 1957, the story of King Midas’s inlaid wooden furniture has taken several twists and turns. From it, we can learn a great deal about conservation pros and cons, the impact of underdeveloped preservation methods, and the importance of paying close attention to the materials used for storage and display.

2014-11-17 - Rodney Young archeologist Gordion Midas Mound

Rodney Young and colleagues outside Tumulus MM, Gordion, 1957.

When the tumulus was first opened by Prof. Rodney Young and archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the already-damaged furniture was further harmed by excavation methods and initial attempts at preservation. At this time, there had not been sufficient research or experience in the field of archeological wood conservation, and the furniture suffered. But come the early 1980s, Dr. Simpson had the opportunity to lead a team of conservators in Ankara to correct some of the early mistakes made under Young. Using improved methods and materials, they succeeded in returning the furniture to a more stable condition, even restoring some of the contrast of the wood inlay. The techniques used on this project would set new standards for conservation in the field of dry archeological wood.


2014-11-17 - Midas Mount inlaid table Ankara Museum

Inlaid table as displayed at Museum at Ankara, 1983.

The display of the newly conserved Midas furniture at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey also went through some trial and error. The first glass cases contained materials that damaged the furniture while on display, and had to be replaced in the 1990s.  We then learned that, despite the great improvements made by Dr. Simpson and her group, which were able to be sustained through years of careful scrutiny, recent changes at the museum have discarded the improved and safer display cases for new ones that put the furniture in danger of harm yet again. The story is not yet over, and it serves as a prime example that one’s work on behalf of art is never truly finished.


We want to thank Dr. Simpson for sharing with us her piece of the story of King Midas’s furniture, which stimulated a brilliant discussion on the development of conservation practices afterwards. Another warm thank you to Michael Daley, Director of ArtWatch UK, who was able to join us for this year’s lecture. He opened our event with a wonderful speech on the beginnings of ArtWatch and the work of James Beck and Frank Mason. As one who has had the privilege of working closely with Beck for several years, Michael puts forth a sincerity about his work with ArtWatch that is contagious. We here in New York are indebted to his investment in the organization and his work on the behalf of art, and are greatly looking forward to next year’s lecture in London.


[1] Tumulus MM was named as such for “Midas Mound.”

2006-05-03 - Euphronios krater

Has the Met Been Rewarded for Looting Antiquities?

The Metropolitan Museum website may now indicate that the famous 2500-year-old Euphronios krater is “Lent by the Republic of Italy,” but that has hardly been the case since the acquisition of the object thirty years ago. Shortly after the Met acquired the krater, Italy claimed that the work had been stolen from a tomb in Cerveteri.

Despite Italian rumblings from the start, the Metropolitan, they say on the basis of switched documents, insisted that they believed the work came from a Lebanese collection. Nonetheless, proof has finally been accepted that the krater, which was purchased for $1 million during the tenure of Director Thomas Hoving in 1972 from Robert E. Hecht, was stolen from an Etruscan tomb the year before.

The Met’s deal includes the return of the krater as well as fifteen pieces of silver looted from the Sicilian site of Morgantina, acquired by the museum in 1981 and 1982. In that instance, although claims of the illegal provenance have been made since 1987, the Met has only recently acquiesced.

While many may not be surprised at the reluctance of the Metropolitan to return the objects, and the complete refusal to admit any wrongdoing in their acquisition policies, more shocking is the manner in which current and former Metropolitan officials have spoken of the matter. In a recent interview (Time Out New York, March 2006) former Director Hoving lauded Phillipe de Montebello’s arrangement with the Italian government. “It was there for 30 years. Now they can exchange it for other great things. They’re going to get fabulous stuff over an indefinite period, stuff they could never buy, never find and never afford if they found it. It’s sensational. It’s a landmark move. It’s gutsy, and I think [Met director] Philippe de Montebello did a great thing.”

Even though Hoving chalks up his acquisition of the stolen krater as the normal practice of the time, saying it occurred in the “days of raw piracy, when nobody cared,” he simultaneously touts his role in formulating the UNESCO
treaty back in 1970.

In his book, Making the Mummies Dance, the former Director wrote about the experience of landing the Euphronius krater: “I sat back at my desk shuffling black and white photos of my passion and felt a near-sexual pleasure. We had landed a work that would force the history of Greek art to be rewritten, perhaps the last monumental piece ever to come out of Italy, slipping in just underneath the crack in the door of the pending UNESCO treaty which would drastically limit the trade in antiquities. We had gained a triumphant work, one of surpassing power and infinite mystery, one, I knew, that would one day reveal surprises.”

One might, however, expect a more conciliatory attitude on the part of the current Metropolitan Director and other officials at the Museum. However, despite overwhelming evidence that the objects were improperly acquired and withheld from Italian collections for decades, Philippe de Montebello seemed less than apologetic.

The United States participated and played a key role in the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) agreement signed in Paris in 1970, entitled Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Regardless of the government’s official position, Montebello told the New York Times shortly after the agreement was struck, “I am puzzled by the zeal with which the United States rushes to embrace foreign laws that can ultimately deprive its own citizens of important objects useful to the education and delectation of its own citizens.” His own words suggest that the only reason that the Metropolitan decided to finally address the Italian claims is because the issue, one he referred to as an irritant, did not appear to be dissipating.

Much to the chagrin of archaeologists everywhere, Montebello minimized the importance of preserving the archaeological context of objects, information that is lost when objects are stolen: “How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole in — supposedly Cerveteri — it came out of?” he asked. “Everything is on the vase.” Despite the fact that Montebello claims that the attention given to the issue of stolen objects in recent years has greatly reduced the number of antiquities entering into American collections, the Metropolitan’s policy, dating to 2004, is not particularly rigid. It allows for the purchase of any object with documentation that dates back at least ten years, unless the object is deemed especially important.

Even with the recent decision to return several items, including the famed krater, the Met feels they have achieved something of a victory, a point not lost on Hoving. Montebello thinks the real achievement in the current agreement is not the return of stolen objects, but rather that Italy “has agreed to the principle of a fair exchange of like material.” To wit, the Euphronius krater, in deference to the re-opening of the remodeled Roman and Hellenistic galleries at the Met in Spring of 2007, will remain in New York until early 2008.

This same attitude, that no real wrong was committed, was celebrated at a panel discussion entitled “Who Owns Art” at the New School in New York on March 6th. Montebello said: “I thought that some sort of formula where reciprocity and exchange could be arranged would be successful for both sides and not deprive the American museums altogether of antiquities when the objects were returned to Italy. As you know, Italian museum storerooms are engorged with works of art. It’s not as if they needed them. This is a political statement.” He criticized the Italian government strongly for pursuing their case through the press, calling the process “shabby”. The audience, reportedly composed largely of collectors who paid $25 each to attend the event, was criticized by some as a staged publicity event. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the panel discussion was organized by the New York Times, a paper with notoriously close ties to the Met.

The Metropolitan isn’t the only institution to come under fire for their practices of acquisition, past and current. The Getty, embroiled in a scandal known as “Gettygate”, has been questioned regarding a full half of the antiquities in their large collection. Just recently, the villa (in Paros) of the Getty’s former antiquities curator, Marion True, was raided, and several undeclared antiquities were confiscated. True is, by the way, already facing trial in Italy for the looting of antiquities. This was followed shortly thereafter by the discovery of thousands of undeclared ancient objects in a cache located on the Greek island of Skhoinousa, many of which had been purchased by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Authorities have released few immediate findings, but there was an expressed interest in determining if any of the objects were intended for the already embattled Getty Museum.

The scandals may grow tiresome, but museums, especially public institutions like the Metropolitan, have a responsibility to the public, and they should show an interest in serving more than their legacies.