Wednesday 15 December 2021

US Post-Fact "Philanthropy" on Trafficked Antiquities

Press release: Manhattan D.A.’s Office Returns 200 Antiquities to Italy, 96 of which were seized from Fordham University’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art. All but two of them had been bought from a single dealer:

Among the items returned today, 150 were seized pursuant to the investigation of Italy native and former New York City resident Edoardo Almagià.
For several years, the Manhattan D.A.’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, along with law enforcement partners at HSI, investigated Almagià for trafficking ancient art from Italy, which he subsequently sold out of his gallery and apartment in New York. Like most traffickers, Almagià used different tombaroli (tomb raiders) to loot and smuggle artifacts from different areas of Italy, including the country’s southern and central regions, Sicily, and Sardinia. Almagià subsequently utilized a “network of scholars, directors, and curators of the most important international museums” to place stolen objects, according to an expert’s findings adopted by an Italian court. To date, the D.A.’s Office and HSI have executed 18 seizures of 160 antiquities trafficked by Almagià. This total includes 10 pieces seized earlier this month from ancient art collector Michael Steinhardt, which will be repatriated to Italy at a later date.

According to court documents filed in the criminal grand jury investigation of Steinhardt,  Almagià kept a ledger labeled the “Green Book,” in which he listed many of the antiquities he sold, the price he paid the tombarolo for each antiquity, the price for which he sold it, and occasionally, to whom he sold the antiquity. The complete ledger contains entries for almost 1,700 looted antiquities that Almagià purchased from tombaroli in Italy and then sold in the United States. Available evidence reveals Almagià expressed surprising candor with his clientele about his black-market supply of looted antiquities. For example, in order to inform them of objects that he would soon be able to offer for sale, he provided clients with details of ongoing clandestine and illegal excavations.

Based on this criminal activity, Italian prosecutors brought charges against Almagià in Italy in 2006 for knowingly committing crimes against the cultural heritage of Italy. The indictment included charges of receiving stolen goods, illegally exporting goods, and participating in a criminal conspiracy to traffic such goods. Ultimately, however, the charges were dropped because of the running of the statute of limitations. Nonetheless, in 2013, the presiding judge of the Tribunale Ordinario di Roma ordered the confiscation of Almagià’s antiquities that had already been seized in New York and Naples, as well as those of Almagià’s antiquities that had yet to be located. The presiding judge described Almagià as “contribut[ing] to what was one of the greatest sacks of Italian cultural heritage, based on sheer amount of stolen goods,” and added that he and his co-conspirators have “torn pages from the book of Italian history.” Almagià remains at large in Italy.
Also seized was the head of a Greek statue formerly in the Merrin Gallery that had passed through the hands of Giacomo Medici and a pithos from the Getty Museum that Almagià has handled.

It is interesting to note that by far the greatest bulk of US "repatriations" are going through New York, this is not because this is the only place in the US where there are collectors and dodgy dealers willing to shut their eye to the questions of origins of pieces, it is because this is more or less the only place in the whole US where such dealings are routinely investigated. California, Nevada, Pennsylvania and all the rest simply don't. This is largely the work of Manhattan D.A.’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit:
As of today’s ceremony, the D.A.’s Office has returned 717 antiquities to 14 nations since August 2020, including, in recent months, 27 relics to Cambodia, 104 artifacts to Pakistan, and 248 treasures to India. Earlier this month, our Office announced the seizure of 180 stolen pieces from the collection of Mchael Steinhardt, which will be returned to their 11 countries of origin at future ceremonies. To date, the D.A.’s first-of-its-kind Antiquities Trafficking Unit has recovered several thousand stolen antiquities collectively valued at more than $200 million. More than 1,500 of these priceless artifacts have been returned to their rightful owners and repatriated to their countries of origin, including a total of 717 objects to 14 nations since August 2020. Many hundreds more are ready to be repatriated as soon as the relevant countries are able to receive them amid the pandemic. But more than a thousand must be held awaiting criminal proceedings against the traffickers.
Note that very singificant remark: "Almagià expressed surprising candor with his clientele about his black-market supply of looted antiquities. For example, in order to inform them of objects that he would soon be able to offer for sale, he provided clients with details of ongoing clandestine and illegal excavations", and people still express the belief (delusion) that the antiquities market will self-regulate. That is simply a naive cop-out, to avoid taking firm action. I hear on the grapevine that there is at least one other big repatriation event coming up in the near future. In this case too, nobody further down the chain will be even questioned about their role in the trafficking of these items, let alone investigated to swee if they are still involved in more recent trafficking (within the Statute of Limitations). In reality, this is not about stopping the networks of the illegal antiquities trade, but only about salving the tarnished reputation of the US as a major hub of the criminal antiquities market. It's mainly for show. These items were removed from the countries of origin without ceremony or procedure, indeed in secrecy, but are going back in the full glare of the spotlight, everybody presenting themselves as concerned "philantropists", rather than representatives of a system that has done, and continues to do, so much damage.

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