Stolen Art

Hiding in Plain Sight

Bell-krater featuring an elderly satyr and a young Dionysus. Attributed to Python (Greek, South Italian, Paestan, active mid-4th century BC). Polaroids of this bell-krater were found in the Medici Dossier suggesting that it was sold to and purchased by the MET in 1989 unlawfully. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Medici Dossier is a collection of approximately 20,000 photographs recovered from disgraced antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.  The subjects of the photographs, including Corinthian kraters, Roman busts, Canosan terracotta figures, and other artifacts from throughout the Mediterranean, were acquired by Medici and his cohorts, often illegally, over the course of several decades.  Many of the illicit objects are now held by institutions and individuals who may or may not have been aware of their history and who, in any case, do not have legal ownership of them.

Giacomo Medici held a key position in what has been described as one of the largest and most lucrative antiquities smuggling networks in the world.  Medici was caught, tried, convicted, and, in 2004, sentenced by an Italian court to ten years in prison and a fine of ten million Euros for crimes involving the looting and theft of cultural artifacts and the subsequent selling of them to collectors worldwide through corrupt art dealers and other criminals.  At the time, Medici received the largest penalty ever issued for an antiquities crime in Italy.  Incident to Medici’s arrest, his Swiss offices were raided.  Hundreds of works of ancient art, including rare and valuable pieces with Greek, Roman, and Etruscan origins, were recovered along with thousands of photographs of objects that had passed through Medici’s hands during his approximately 40 years in the trade.

A number of journalists and antiquity bloggers have obtained access to at least parts of the Medici Dossier.  However, despite the passage of over 20 years, the Italian police have not fully released, and continue to refuse to fully release, the photographic materials to auction houses, museums, and organizations dedicated to the identification and recovery of lost and stolen art.  It is not entirely clear why the Medici Dossier has not been made more widely available.  One possibility is that the Italian authorities may fear that its release could jeopardize ongoing investigations.

The withholding of the Medici Dossier is by no means a unique situation.  The Association of Art Museum Directors, for example, issued a formal statement in April 2015 that raised questions about documents, photographs, and other items seized from alleged art thieves Gianfranco Becchina, Edoardo Almagia, Robin Symes, Robert Hecht, and others.

The fact that the Medici Dossier and information about countless other stolen or looted works of art have been kept under wraps, for whatever reason, is extremely problematic for those individuals and institutions that participate in the legitimate art and antiquities trade.  First, collectors, dealers, auction houses, and museums place their financial well-being and reputation at great risk when they become directly or indirectly involved in the purchase or sale of illicit works.  And second, those same buyers and sellers are put in an impossible situation when there are rumors about the illicit character of a particular piece of art but the rumors cannot be substantiated; should the piece be presumed to be legal and therefore tradable or should it be presumed to be illegal and therefore not tradable?

One way to reduce the risk posed by the illicit art trade to the legitimate art trade would be for the latter to make it standard operating procedure to promptly and diligently submit information about stolen works to large scale stolen art databases such as those operated by INTERPOL, the Art Loss Register, and the FBI.

INTERPOL is the world’s largest international police organization.  Its mission is to enable police agencies from its 190 member countries around the world to collaborate in the fight against international crime.  INTERPOL characterizes the illicit traffic in cultural heritage as a transnational crime that affects the countries of origin, transit, and final destination, and it observes that the illicit trade is sustained by the demand from the arts market, the opening of borders, the improvement in transport systems and the political instability of certain countries.  INTERPOL maintains a database of stolen art that includes works that have been reported as stolen and works that have been recovered but remain unclaimed by their owners.  INTERPOL actively encourages police agencies, art and antiques dealers, museums, and private collectors to exchange information by using its stolen art database as a tool for responding to art crime.

The Art Loss Register (ALR) is the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, antiques, and collectibles.  ALR’s mission is twofold.  First, by encouraging the registration of all valuable artwork on the database, the ALR seeks to deter the theft of art.  And second, by providing a due diligence service to buyers and sellers of art, the ALR seeks to deter the trade of illicit works and facilitate the return of stolen works to their rightful owners.  Through its database and related services, the ALR has been instrumental in the recovery of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen objects.

The National Stolen Art File (NSAF) is a computerized index of stolen art and cultural property reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies throughout the United States and the world. The NSAF consists of images and physical descriptions of stolen and recovered objects, in addition to investigative case information.  The primary goal of the NSAF is to serve as a tool to assist investigators in art and cultural artifact theft cases and to function as an analytical database providing law enforcement officials with information concerning art theft.  The public can search an online version of the National Stolen Art File, excluding investigative information, but at this time works of art can be added to the database only if the request comes through a law enforcement agency.

Adding the Medici Dossier to the Interpol, ALR, and FBI databases, and making it the norm for other stolen and looted items to be submitted for inclusion, will benefit the legitimate art and antiquities trade by creating a disincentive for would-be thieves while at the same time facilitating the recovery of illegally obtained works.

Whitney Carter will receive her BA in Cultural Anthropology and Criminal Justice from Boston U in May 2016.  As an undergraduate, she completed a directed study entitled “The Destruction of Cultural Artifacts by the Islamic State” and an archeological internship in Menorca, Spain that focused on excavation and the protection of cultural resources.  Upon graduation, Whitney’s objective is to obtain employment in the field of cultural heritage management.  She can be contacted at w.carter@sbcglobal.net or through LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pub/whitney-carter/a6/78a/189.

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