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Exciting, Definitive Review of the Looting of Italy's Archaeological Treasures
on July 21, 2006
"The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums" reads like a contemporary page-turning crime thriller, but recounts a saga that is all too true, revealing a thirty-year old conspiracy which looted many of Italy's most important archaeological sites merely to satisfy the insatiable appetites of greedy American and European collectors and museum curators whose interest was solely in getting the best pieces possible for their collections, whatever the cost to their personal integrity and academic reputations. Peter Watson, Research Associate, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, and Cecilia Todeschini, a researcher and translator, have written a passionate, provocate look at the looting of archaeological sites, which should be regarded as the definitive examination of this sordid issue. Their insightful work of nonfiction covers the successful exploits of the Italian Carabineri Art Squad investigation code-named "Operation Geryon" that has led to the successful prosecution of Italian antiquities "dealer" (a more apt description would be professional thief) Giacomo Medici, and the ongoing trials of his American colleague Robert Hecht, and disgraced former Getty Museum curator Marion True (Both of them have received ample publicity in The New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere.). The authors also - I believe - note correctly the scandalous behavior of many major European and American museums in acquiring antiquities of dubious or unknown provenance (This means that these objects were most likely excavated illegally by the Tombaroli (Tomb Robbers) on behalf of Hecht, Medici and others of their ilk.), of which two of the worst offenders include New York City's venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum near Los Angeles (It is no exaggeration to surmise that the Getty Museum's antiquities collection is based almost entirely on loot; a point which the authors return to frequently.). They also strongly condemn the actions of major auction houses like Christie's, Bonham's, and especially Sotheby's, for aiding and abetting the lucrative illicit trade in stolen antiquities.
"The Medici Conspiracy" also tells the true story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's acquisition of the Euphronios krater (two-handled Classical Greek vase) - a story which has yet to be told fully by The New York Times - which both opens and closes this book. To the authors' everlasting credit, they recount the courageous actions of a young Metropolitan Museum of Art curator of Ancient Near East Art, Oscar W. Muscarella, who strongly objected to the museum's purchase of this vase from dealer Robert Hecht, recognizing that this important object had been excavated illegally from an Etruscan tomb in central Italy. For displaying such courage, Muscarella was fired three times (Only the third time was related directly to the Metropolitan Museum's acquisition of the Euphronios krater; one of the other instances was due to Muscarella's campaigning for equal pay to be granted to the museum's female employees.) by Thomas Hoving, the Metropolitan's director, and sued the museum successfully, before he was finally reinstated as a tenured associate curator in 1977 (A year later, Muscarella was given the unique position of Senior Research Fellow, a title which he holds still at the museum.). More than thirty years after Muscarella strongly voiced his objections, he finally seems to have been vindicated, with the ongoing trial of Robert Hecht, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's commitment to return the vase to Italy sometime in the next year or two (A distinguished alumnus of our high school, Muscarella is widely well regarded for his excellent scholarship on the archaeology of Anatolia (Western Turkey) in the First Millenium, B. C., was a visiting professor at Brown University, and has lectured often at Brown and elsewhere around the globe.).
I have a unique perspective on this issue given a longstanding interest in the relationship between commercial fossil collectors and professional paleontologists. You could substitute "fossil" for "antiquities" and obtain a sordid view of commercial fossil collecting that isn't too far removed from the authors' depiction of the "Medici Conspiracy" (But thankfully, there is better cooperation between some commercial fossil collectors and professional paleontologists; one notable example is the excellent relationship which the Black Hills Institute for Geological Research - the commercial collecting firm that excavated "Sue", the female Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton owned by McDonald's and displayed at Chicago's Field Museum - has fostered with distinguished invertebrate paleontologists from the United States Geological Survey and the American Museum of Natural History.).
I strongly commend Public Affairs for recognizing the importance of "The Medici Conspiracy" by publishing this definitive tome. It is indeed definitive since the illicit global trading of antiquities is regrettably a cultural crime against humanity; it is the most comprehensive examination I have come across on this illicit trade. Anyone who is interested in art, antiquities, museum collections, and private collections should definitely buy this book soon. I promise, you won't be disappointed.