Sunday, 4 October 2009

Collectors' Rights Lobbyist's Italian Conspiracy Theory

There has recently been opened in Italy a new exhibition 'L'Arma per l'Arte: Antologia di meraviglie', to commemorate 40 years of the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale and its fight against art crime. There is a nice short video here. It highlights a number of the cases that have been in the news recently in which this organ has been engaged. Some of them have involved archaeological objects which had been looted and smuggled out of the country by criminals and then bought by less-than-diligent North American public and private collections but in recent years as a result of their investigations have been returned to Italy. The exhibition naturally includes a number of these in its "anthology of marvels".

Washington collector and collector’s rights activist Peter Tompa who works for the legal firm Bailey and Ehrenburg cannot seem to see these objects in their wider context in the exhibition. Concentrating on this aspect alone, in a petulant, spite-filled post on his “Cultural Property Observer” blog, Tompa attacks David Gill for writing about the exhibition (Sunday Oct 4th Archaeologist David Gill Celebrates Italy's Latest "Trophy Art" Exhibit) and not seeing the "politics" behind it which Tompa using a number of his own posts as sources tries to explain to his audience.

In the process, he also attacks SAFE (through association), the Italian government, Francesco Rutelli (allegedly "the Great Repatriator," was “to use the exhibit to drum up nationalist sentiment and votes before the last election” but “failed miserably”), “Italian cultural bureaucrats” who have turned on Silvio Berlusconi (for attempting to “reform -- with limited success-- Italy's entrenched cultural bureaucracy”), and the physical state of the Castel Sant' Angelo (built in the 30s of the second century) compared to the monuments of Washington DC (mostly completed in the 1800s to 1930s).

Conspiracy theory aficionado Tompa has come up with an alleged motive for this new exhibition. He says that “Italian cultural bureaucrats hope the new exhibit will encourage the government to return to a more aggressive stance on repatriations, and forget about real reforms of the system that could undercut their own power”.Tompa’s point is that “the fact that these exhibits are so mixed up with Italian politics should raise questions for "cultural property observers" unencumbered by the "archaeology over all" perspective of Gill and his associates at SAFE”.

I think it is Mr Tompa who is applying an “archaeology over all” approach to his assessment of this exhibition of the 60 exhibits, only 17 are antiquities returned by haughty US collectors. The rest are paintings and manuscripts and the suchlike, some of which never left Italy, and what links them is that they were stolen and then returned. This is the political point from which Tompa and all apologists of US collecting wish to divert attention. It is not "trophy art" Mr Tompa, it was Stolen art, but due to the work of the carabineri now is not.

1) Perhaps instead of attacking countries that do have such specialist police forces, US collectors might consider that the US needs a force devoting its attention to art stolen from collectors, Derek Fincham's blog mentions a number of recent US art thefts. Supporting such institutions surely is also in the interests of private collectors.

2) By the way, Tompa criticises the Italians because the Castel Sant' Angelo is in a poor state, while before even half a century of occupation of the White House was up, the building was already in a state of imminent collapse and had to be considerably rebuilt under Harry Truman. Let him look closer to home before casting aspersions about others.


David Gill said...

You comment on just one part of the conspiracy theory. For further assertions from ACCG-associated commentators see
Best wishes

Paul Barford said...

Thanks David,
These guys take the biscuit, eh? I recall the exchange to which you refer took place while I was taking a break

and I characteristed it on my return as "some sterile needling of David Gill and more attacks on Robyn by Wayne Sayles and Peter Tompa". Which just about sums it up.

But there are some useful Waynisms that I will try to work in somewhere one day:
"I make no apology for anything I might ever have said or will say about Mr. Barford". (No surprise there, then - manners 101 was obviously not in his university course),

and "Nobody every cared to track a coins history in the past and only archaeologists and Nationalists are concerned with it today".
Nationalists? Logic 101 seems to have been absent too. Ethical collectors are neither of course.

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