Monday, 22 November 2010

Witschonke, "Make the Medici Archive Public"

The letters to the Editor section of the "Art Newspaper" contains a letter from Roger Bland's good pal Rick Witschonke referring to an October article, “Medici ‘loot’ for sale?” about the withdrawal of another object from auction because of the appearance of what seems to be an identical item in the Medici archive.
Such images, from the 1995 Medici raid or the 2002 Becchina confiscation, appear periodically in the press when a similar object comes up for sale. The stigma of association with one of these convicted antiquities traffickers is often enough to result in its withdrawal. The larger issue, however, is that US collectors, dealers, auction houses, and museums are compelled to research the provenance of any prospective purchase to ensure it is not recently looted, and yet Italy has not published the Medici and Becchina photo archives that they hold, which would make vetting much easier. Furthermore, it appears that certain individuals (like David Gill and your Fabio Isman) are granted access, with the intent of periodically embarrassing the trade. This strikes me as cynical and counterproductive if the objective is to make the antiquities trade more transparent, and looted antiquities unsaleable. If a collector could go to a public archive (the Art Loss Register, for example), and determine whether a prospective purchase was questionable, the object would likely remain unsold.
—Rick Witschonke, Califon, New Jersey

Surely the embarrassment is not whether an item is sold on the US market or not, but who has been buying objects which are not of licit provenance. And who has been selling them - knowing that. As such therefore, the Medici archive is evidence in a series of ongoing investigations as each of these finds comes to light again. If the archive was published, any stolen goods it figures would remain underground and the links between the present owner and the looter more difficult to research. I doubt whether there are many ongoing FBI investigations where all the basic evidence is displayed online for amateur sleuths to puzzle over (and publish their conspiracy theories on the websites which are devoted to solving this or that crime). Like the full files accumulated as a result of the ongoing 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum thefts: full texts of staff interviews, review of security arrangements and flaws, fingerprints, DNA, inside informers' reports and so on. Make sense? Of course not, it would compromise the investigation.

Who should make the antiquities market transparent? Antiquity dealers selling the stuff they have in their stocks, or the Italian police? Somewhere down the chain of ownership of all those objects is somebody who knows full well that they originated with Medici et al. A whole series of people have sold them on (or may be in the process of selling them on) who are hiding that fact. That's where the transparency is needed. Of course it is not just US collectors who need to know, who need to find out what precisely it is they are buying and where in fact they came from.

That is what the PAS guidelines for buyers of antiquities recommends, that buyers themselves establish the vendor's title to sell.


rickwitschonke said...


I think you have missed my point. You admit that many of these objects have been "sold on", presumably to people who are ignorant of their origins. If these people want to do the correct thing and check provenance, it would be very helpful to have access to the Medici photos. Perhaps the objects would then remain underground, but at least they would become unsalable.

You also raise several red herrings. I did not suggest that the complete records from the prosecution be published - only the photos, as was done immediately after the Gardener theft. And certainly many objects posted on the Art Loss Register are still the subject of ongoing investigations.

And the hypocrisy I see is that David Gill is given access and allowed to "publish (his) conspiracy theories on the websites which are devoted to solving this or that crime", but collectors, dealers, and museums are denied that access.

Rick Witschonke

David Gill said...

Mr Witschonke seems to miss the point. Is he trying to suggest that the Medici Dossier, the Becchina Archive or the Schinousa Archive are just part of a 'conspiracy theory'? What are the full collecting histories of the pieces that appear there? And would he suggest that The Art Newspaper or even The Wall Street Journal are part of a conspiracy theory? I suspect he does not understand - or chooses not to understand - the issues.
Best wishes

Paul Barford said...

Hi David,
I think his comment was supposed to be a 'topical' quote from the bit of my post about amateur sleuths on the internet, rather than an attack on you personally.

David Gill said...

I think he has lifted a quote from you and reapplied it: 'David Gill is given access and allowed to "publish (his) conspiracy theories on the websites which are devoted to solving this or that crime"'.
Perhaps he should check his facts.
Best wishes

David Gill said...

For further comments on Mr Witschonke's letter see here.

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