Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Madrid Museum and the Medici Polaroids

Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum may have bought trafficked items concludes Fabio Isman ('Looted" from Italy and now in a major Spanish museum? ' Art Newspaper online 13 Jul 2010). The 22 objects in question (Greek pots and the suchlike) seem to have passed through the hands of antiquities dealers Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina.
Medici was discovered with a store full of antiquities, photographs (many of them Polaroids without any scientific method) and documents, in Geneva in 1995, while Becchina was identified as the owner of three warehouses in Basel in 2001, allegedly containing thousands of suspicious artefacts and photographs, along with an archive of files on clients, shipping documents, invoices and bank statements. Medici was finally found guilty in 2009 in Rome of trafficking in antiquities (he is appealing: he initially received ten years in prison, reduced by two on first appeal, and a €10m fine payable to the state as compensation for damage to Italy’s cultural heritage), while the trial of Becchina is now beginning. He denies charges of trafficking in illegally excavated antiquities.
The objects in question were bought by the Madrid museum in 1999 for $12m from the 82-year-old collector and entrepreneur José Luis Várez Fisa and they had formed part of his collection of hundreds of ancient artefacts from the Etruscan period, Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and Spain, spanning the fifth century BC to the fifth century AD. The archaeological museum’s then director, Miguel Angel Elvira Barba, said in 1999: “We have taken an enormous step forward both in terms of quality and quantity; [this] collection now puts us among the ranks of the greatest museums in Europe and the US”. Their exhibition in 2003 was accompanied by a 500-page catalogue.
In 2006, the Italian archaeologist Daniela Rizzo from the Villa Giulia in Rome and document expert Maurizio Pellegrini, both of whom have assisted Prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri in the case against Giacomo Medici, came across the catalogue. They have been working on a database of tens of thousands of objects that they believe were secretly and illegally excavated from Italy, and put up for sale from the 1970s onwards, many of which have been traced back to the confiscated archives belonging to Medici and Becchina. They have spent so many hours poring over these images that they are now able to almost instantly identify them and, in only a few days, were able to match items from the catalogue with pictures seized in the police raids. They believe that 22 of the artefacts in the Madrid museum’s 2003 catalogue also appear in Medici’s and Becchina’s confiscated photos [...]. A few of them show objects still covered in mud—suggesting they had been recently (and illegally) unearthed—while others show the pieces in fragments, before the dealers sent them to be professionally restored.
It is important to note that there is no evidence of any dealing between José Luis Várez Fisa and Becchina or Medici, despite the large amount of paperwork seized from the pair, or that Fisa was aware of any problems in the provenance of the objects he acquired. It also the case that the widespread trafficking in illegally excavated antiquities since the 1970s until very recently (despite the 1970 Unesco Convention designed to curb the illicit trade) has meant that objects have inadvertently entered private and museum collections (although higher standards of due diligence over provenance-checking among museums are now the norm). Meanwhile, requests to the Madrid museum from The Art Newspaper to comment on these allegations remained unanswered at time of publication. Nevertheless the case demonstrates how easily all too many recent private collections were formed, and how some of the world’s most important museums (and not only those who knowingly connived to buy objects directly from the “traffickers”), bought antiquities that had been completely decontextualised from their past, with origins were at best extremely obscure. Will the Italian state try to reclaim at least some of the more important artefacts taken from under its soil? And, now that the National Archaeological Museum of Madrid knows all about the illicit provenance of many of its artefacts, will it pretend that nothing has happened? Indifference, surely, is not an option.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.