Is Italy “Asking For It” By Refusing to Release the Medici Photographs? Three items at Christie’s raise questions

Posted on June 6, 2010


Christie’s is being criticized for leaving on the auction block three items which have been alleged by archaeologists and an Italian prosecutor to have originated from the famous and illicit antiquities trader, Giacomo Medici.  Italy, however, has not submitted a formal request for repatriation of the objects to the U.S. government or even a title claim to Christie’s.

Among the objects in question are a 2nd century AD Roman marble torso, a 4th century BC Apulian drinking cup, and a 3rd century BC Greek terracotta figure of a goddess. The objects do not have provenance which would clear them of potentially being from the Medici “collections.” They’re scheduled to be auctioned on June 10th, and Christie’s refuses to pull the auctions without submission of a title claim.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Christie’s is being lambasted as immoral and unethical by David Gill and a prosecutor from Rome. And the objects have insufficient provenance to show they were exported prior to 1970 — before the UNESCO Convention would have prohibited their export. Rumor has it that they are pictured in the photographs seized from notorious illicit antiquities trader Giacomo Medici’s warehouse. So the fault lies with Christie’s and the private collectors who have listed the objects, right?

William G. Pearlstein, a New York based antiquities lawyer, doesn’t think so.  In fact, he has rather strong sentiments to the contrary.  He railed against Italy in recent emails as follows:

I noted at the November hearing of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on the interim review of the Italian MOU that Italy should be required to publish the Medici archives so that US market participants could protect themselves, police the market and diligence their purchases…

I’ve been over this ground before… in the matter of an Egyptian duck that was stolen from a government warehouse, never reported (perhaps never inventoried) and then seized when it came up on at auction 25 years later–after being consigned by a foreign purchase who took good title under local law.

At some point, sanity has to prevail and foreign governments should be penalized for incompetence or disingenuous actions that prejudice American purchasers acting in good faith. After all, why should foreign sovereign claimants be in a better position legally because US enforcement agencies are doing their bidding than a holocaust claimant pursuing a civil claim?

What the Italians are doing is outrageous. They are deliberately withholding the Medici files from the public, allowing hot pieces to remain in circulation and then playing up every seizure for maximum publicity value. They continue to play the role of victim when actually they have became cynical predators on American institutions that want nothing more than to do the right thing.

The demand for “transparency” as to inventory and collections has to work both ways. Claimants have to operate in a manner that allows market participants to police the integrity of their collections and held accountable for their failure to do so; i.e., laches. What’s needed is an on-line registery whereby transparancy is rewarded with repose/quiet title after a reasonable claim period, claims are evaluated fairly and bad faith claims are penalized.

Shared with permission of Pearlstein.

So what do you think?  Is it fair for source nations to cry for transparency on one hand and then withhold information that could allow collectors and dealers to adequately assess the legitimacy of antiquities already on the market? Does Italy deserve what they get for refusing to publish the photographs seized from the Medici warehouse?

Read the Wall Street Journal article: Three auction items vexes Christie’s.

Read Why Can’t the Public see the Medici Polaroids on the Illicit Cultural Property Blog.