Wednesday 22 February 2012

Italian Archaeologist Turns Dodgy Dealer?

Late last year, Italian authorities raided two homes as part of a two-and-a-half-year investigation (Operation Nemesis) into a gang suspected of trade in archaeological artefacts, robbery and fraud. The story was being discussed in Italy back in December, but it has only hit the English art world comparatively recently, The Art Newspaper has a brief report online on this story today. Seven arrests were made and a further seven suspects are under investigation. The charges they face include criminal conspiracy, aggravated robbery, forgery of works of art, fraud and aggravated bodily injury. The thieves were caught because of their dealings with collector Marquis Roberto Bilotti Ruggi d’Aragona from Rome, who had become suspicious of his partners due to the sheer number of rare artefacts he was being offered. He finally contacted the police in April 2010 after he was assaulted and robbed by unidentified assailants who broke into his home to steal an ancient vase depicting the robing of Achilles, an artefact he had repeatedly refused to trade with the gang.
The gang was allegedly led by Edoardo David, a renowned archaeologist who often worked as a consultant for the archeological division of the Soprintendenza for the Lazio region (the local arm of Italy’s ministry of culture), and his two principal associates, Massimo Monaco, a former boxer, and Mariano Capomaggi, all of whom are being held at the Regina Coeli prison in Rome awaiting trial. Four other people are under house arrest: Enrico Corradi, an antiques dealer from Aprilia, near Rome; Massimo Bordo, a ceramics expert, and Massimiliano Congiu, both from Tarquinia, near Rome; and Enrico Diomedi, a nurse.
The Marquis, an aristocratic philanthropist and antiques collector, had hoped to expand his collection and establish his own family museum of antiquities. In the process between March 2009 and April 2010, he spent €600,000 on around 300 works which he bought from the gang. He also says that he exchanged many of his own valuable items, including family heirlooms and antique furniture, with the gang for a number of artefacts. The gang is believed to have acquired by these means more than €1m worth of items from his collection. It seems that many of the artefacts they sold the Marquis were fakes made by members of the gang.

When the police raided two properties belonging to gang members, they found a large number of antiquities, both authentic and fake. There were more than 2,000 authentic artefacts at David’s property, the investigation of their provenances is not yet complete, but some were obtained from the Marquis, and the police have identified many others as stolen. More interestingly, police also found 3,000 allegedly forged Greek and Etruscan artefacts (mostly pots it seems) ready for selling at Bordo’s property. It is alleged that potter Bordo used methods to avoid the fakes being detected such as grinding authentic antique ceramic material and blending it with the clay from which he would then shape the artefacts. The pots were then irradiated in the X-ray machine of the Tivoli hospital near Rome (reportedly now also confiscated by the police) which was made available by nurse Enrico Diomedi. Supposedly the x-rays were intended to interfere with the outcome of any thermoluminescence testing of the modern pieces (I am not clear how this was intended to work, it would - surely - create a 'modern' date, supposedly what the forgers wanted to avoid).

Despite the length of the investigation, due to the nature of the antiquities market, police have so far been able to establish whether there are any further victims.

Much is unclear from the initial reports, the trial will presumably reveal more about the mechanism of this affair. Above all it is not clear to me what kind of transactions the Marquis d’Aragona believed he was participating in. The gang are accused of forging pots, not the accompanying documentation. Yet if the Marquis really did have plans to show off his new acquisitions in a public museum, he would have needed paperwork to confirm legal origins (even if a Marquis), OR he could have been planning to use the old "been in the family for years" ploy. Was this David's interest in swapping pots with him? That the Marquis' pots were from a (real) old collection - with whatever implications that would have. He may have realised that some spectacular-looking pots could be traded for the more (in comparison) run-of-the-mill but authentic vessels from the collection, the marquis may have been tempted by the apparent opportunity to 'upgrade' the collection. Not being able to dig up too many genuine grave pots for the swap without attracting attention, David may have hit on the "undetectable fakes" idea and drawn in Bordo and Diomedi. I presume that the antique dealer Corradi was the shop front for the operation. Apparently he had falsely represented himself as the curator of a museum and president of a local "Archeoclub".

'Reperti archeologici falsi, arrestato tarquiniese' Tuscia Web 13 dicembre, 2011.

'Anche un antiquario di Aprilia nella banda di falsari che operava nel mondo dell'arte', Studio 93, 13th Dec 2011.

Dan Duray, 'Italian Police Nab Fake Antiquities Ring', Gallerist February 22, 2012

Tina Lepri and Ermanno Rivetti, 'Police raid criminal gang suspected of faking antiquities', the Art Newspaper Issue 232, February 2012 [Published online: 21 February 2012].

Footnote: The case of course produced its crop of anti-archaeological conspiracy theory in the coiney "Heartland": Peter Tompa - 'Italian Archaeologist Arrested for Fakery', Wayne Sayles - 'Archaeologists embrace forgery', Dave Welsh - 'Condoning Forgery'...

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