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Antiquities spark a global tug of war

An Italian paramilitary-police operation in 2000 resulted in the recovery of 1st-century architectural artifacts like this one, confiscated from private villas on Rome's outskirts.
An Italian paramilitary-police operation in 2000 resulted in the recovery of 1st-century architectural artifacts like this one, confiscated from private villas on Rome's outskirts.
/ Source: The Associated Press

From Egyptian mummies to Greek statues, remnants of ancient civilizations are eagerly eyed by dealers looking to pocket profits and by curators hoping to add prestige to museum collections. The flourishing illegal market in antiquities is being battled with tougher laws, international accords and legal action, like a case in a Rome courtroom Thursday against a curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The crusad to save ancient heritage has been invigorated by the public outcry over the looting of Iraq’s national museum after the fall of Baghdad, which “served to galvanize the world’s attention,” said Jane C. Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Once antiquities start circulating, it is often exceedingly difficult to trace them.

“Most of what appears on the market are undocumented antiquities,” said Waldbaum, a classical archaeologist. Often, there is no way to tell “when, where or how they were acquired, no way to know if they were excavated yesterday or come from a collection,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday from the institute’s headquarters in Boston.

Acquisitions contested in court
In Rome, prosecutors are seeking the indictment of Marion True, curator for antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and three art dealers on charges of illegally exporting cultural goods, receiving state-protected cultural property and criminal association.

Italy, a pioneer in police work to crack down on illicit antiquities trafficking, forbids selling or exporting ancient artifacts found in the country.

Getty officials defended True’s work. “We’ve found no evidence of any wrongdoing,” said Pamela Johnson, a spokeswoman for the J. Paul Getty Trust. “We have reviewed and provided to the relevant prosecutors thousands of documents from our files.”

True’s lawyer, Francesco Isolabella, defended his client after Thursday’s hearing, saying “the acquisitions True made were made in the clear light of day.”

One of the accused dealers, Giacomo Medici, an Italian, denied he ever sold anything to the Getty. The other two dealers are an American resident of Paris and a Swiss man.

Medici said the investigation began in 1995 when police found photos of artifacts they deemed of “uncertain origin” in his office in Geneva. He said hundreds of pieces are under investigation.

The judge postponed the hearing until March 4, citing technicalities.

Other high-profile cases include the conviction last year by a federal court in Manhattan of antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz, a former president of a dealers association. He was sentenced to 33 months in jail for plotting to smuggle a stolen bust of a pharaoh out of Egypt.

International efforts 
While countries rich in archaeological finds like Greece and Italy have long led campaigns to discourage illicit trade, nations like Britain and Switzerland, considered hubs of illegal trafficking in antiquities, have begun taking steps to combat the problem.

In October, Switzerland ratified the 1970 UNESCO treaty, which allows countries to reclaim illegally acquired cultural artifacts. Britain signed in 2002.

“We have made enormous progress,” Andrea Rascher, who heads international and legal affairs at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture in Bern, said in a telephone interview Thursday.

A new Swiss law extends the span on what’s known as “good faith acquisition” from five to 30 years. Under that clause, an antiquities owner who can document the object was acquired “in good faith” more than a specified number of years ago can keep the object.

The Swiss antiquities business now has what Rascher called “tougher diligence” rules, requiring them to record every piece that enters their shops.

Last month, Swiss authorities handed over to the Egyptian government two mummies, sarcophagi and masks that were among some 200 objects discovered in a customs warehouse in Geneva.

Other recent cases include:

Afghanistan asked Switzerland in October to look into a customs depot for pieces of the giant, 1,500-year-old Buddha statues the country’s Taliban rulers blew up in 2001 before U.S. military forces drove them out. The pieces were reportedly spotted by an international specialist.

Germany last month returned to Greece 13th-century Minoan-era idols and a bronze pot dating to Byzantine times that were found at a Munich train station in 1999.

In 2001, nearly 275 items stolen from the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth, near Athens, were returned. The FBI, acting on a tip the goods were consigned for auction at Christie’s, had discovered them in fish crates in Miami.

Saying it could help counter pressure on museums to purchase more antiquities, Waldbaum noted a U.S.-Italian accord that permits long-term loans of Italian treasures, including many kept in storehouses because Italy’s museums have no more room.

Associated Press reporter Aidan Lewis in Rome contributed to this report.