Roman sites were looted by Islamic State in Syria

The looting of antiquities is a serious problem in Italy. Giovanni Nistri of the art theft squad of the Italian military police told the New York Times that between 1970 and 2006, 858,000 art objects originating in Italy were stolen, and only a third had been recovered. In the same period more 700,000 illegally excavated archaeological objects have been retrieved but there was no reliable way of determining how many had been taken.

Between 1993 and 1997, Italian state police recovered 122,940 stolen artifacts. This is believed to have been just a small portion of total works that had been illegally obtained in that time. Between 1997 and 1999, 32,000 antiquities were seized from three warehouses alone. A survey found that more than 100 grave sites around the Roman town of Crustumerium had been looted since 1983.

Dealers estimated that in the 1990s that $50 million in Mediterranean antiquities were bought and sold in the United States every year. Many of the pieces have dug up by looters. In 1992, U.S. Customs officials seized 230 Etruscan and Apullain vases, worth $500,000 to $1 million, from a Los Angeles antiquities dealer. Some of the pieces still had dirt on them.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

See Archaeology, Bronze Age

Book:”The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities -From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums” by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini (Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group]

Looters, Thieves and Ancient Rome

Looters in Italy are known as “tombaroli” (“tomb robbers”). Many of them are from rural families who have been driven into a poverty by the declining agricultural economy. Some archeological sites are honeycombed with holes made by them. The tombaroli typically take what they find to the “capo zona”, often men with white-collar jobs whose phone records often indicate they make many calls abroad. The Mafia is believed to have a hand in illegal trade of antiquities and their involvement is increasing especially as other sources of income for them have begun to decline.

the ancient Romans did some looting of their own, such as in Jerusalem, depicted here

The archaeologists and looters keep tabs on one another. The looters watch archaeologists for leads on promising sites and archaeologists keep their ears open for local gossip about major finds. Looters like to brag and often they know they don’t value of what they have found so they consult knowledgeable people who are often in contact with archaeologists.

In January 1994, thieves made their way into the medieval castle in Melfi, a small town in the mountainous Basilicata region of Italy, and tied up the guards there, broke open a glass display case with huge metal drills and within a few seconds made off with nine exquisite 2,500-year-old vases. Police already had a number of phone taps on people thought to be in the looting business possibly related to the heist. After the robbery police noticed a lot of calls going to Casal di Principe, small town north of Naples. The calls to one man in particular, Pasquale Camera, caught their interest, and this lead to the uncovering of looting ring with connections to some of the world’s most famous museums. [Source: “The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities -From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums” by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini (Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group]

Around the same time German police called Italian authorities and said they were getting ready to do a raid on a Munich-based Italian antiquities dealer named Antonio Savoca, who was believed to be illegally trafficking antiquities from Greece and Cyprus. In the raid of Savoca’s home Italian police found the Melfi vases as well as a basement full of valuable antiquities along with a swimming-pool-size cleaning pool and tools used to restore them. There were hundreds of vases and stelae as well as bronzes, statues, mosaics, frescoes and jewelry. Most were of Italian origin but there were also some from Bulgaria and Greece.

On top of that police found Savoca’s card file, in which he kept a record of every individual he did business with. This was a goldmine for investigators and lead to other arrests and breakthrough, including the discovery of an organization chart of the top brass of an illegal antiquities trading ring in Italy and Switzerland with the name “Robert Hecht”—with arrows pointing to “Paris and USA—museums and collectors.”

Looting at Morgantina

Some of the most spectacular archaeological and looted discoveries in recent years have come from Morgantina, a Greek city in Sicily that was colonized in the 6th century B.C. and sacked by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. Before the Roman invaded, the Greeks buried their wealth, which included gold coins, jewelry, and sacred cups and bowls used in religious ceremonies. [Source: Alexander Stille, the New Yorker, May 24, 1999]

silver items looted from Morgantina that were returned

Pieces that appear to have been looted from Morgantina have shown in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the collections of prominent New York financiers such as Maurice Templeton, a companion of Jacqueline Kennedy. A set of beautifully-inscribed silver bowls and ladles, obtained by the Met in 1981 for $2.7 million, are believed to have been taken looters at Morgantina.

One of the central figures in the looting of Morgantina is Vincenzo Camarata. In December 1998, police raided a villa in eastern Sicily and found a huge quality of Greek and Roman marble statues, vases, sarcophagi, tools, weapons as well as tens of thousands of coins.

When authorities have attempted to crack down on looting activity at Morgantina, people presumably with connections to the looters have retaliated by knocking over columns, smashing ancient vases and throwing paint on mosaic floors. Years before that, archaeologists who excavated a site near Sperlonga and intended to take their finds to Rome were stopped by citizens of Sperlonga, who set up a road block and wouldn't let leave until they turned over the artifacts and treasures they found and insisted they be put them in a local museum built to house them.

Looting and the Getty Museum

The Getty Museum and the Getty Villa, a museum devoted to the ancient Greeks , Etruscans and Romans, has a larger antiquities budget that any other museum in the world. It began aggressively buying antiquities in the 1970s and continued on that course in the 1980s and early 1990s before toning it down. The have been vilified as being one for the worst offenders of obtaining looted material. [Source: Hugh Eakin, The New Yorker, December 17, 2007]

The Italians want to get back an ancient Greek bronze called Victorious Youth—a life-size bronze figure attributed to Lysippus, the most famous of all Greek sculptors—from the Getty. It was dredged up from the Adriatic by Italian fishermen in 1964 and purchased by the museum in 1977 for $3.98 million. The Italian claim it was smuggled out of Italy. The Getty has argued that such claims don’t apply as the statue was found in international waters before it was brought to Italy.

A gold funerary wreath bought by the Getty for $1.15 million in 1993 has been returned. At first its refused. Marion True, the former Getty curator who helped acquire art for the museum, wrote a letter to the dealer who sold it, saying it was “too dangerous for us to be involved with.”

One of the Getty Museum’s most prized pieces is a 2.3-meter cult statue of a woman believed to be Aphrodite. Clad in billowing drapery, it has been described as a masterpiece and is a rare example of a late 5th-century- B.C. sculpture. It was acquired by the Getty from a London dealer in 1988 for $18 million. "The proposed statue of Aphrodite would not only become the single greatest piece of ancient art in our collection; it would be the greatest piece of Classical sculpture in this country and any country outside of Greece and Great Britain," wrote former antiquities curator Marion True in proposing the acquisition. Around the time of the purchase reports began circulating in the U.S. and Italian press that the statue been found in the frequently-looted site of Morgatina. The Italians have been trying since the to get it back.

Efforts to Get Looted Material from Ancient Rome Back

gallery in the Getty Museum

Italy forbids the export, buying and selling of any art object more than 50 years old and objects suspected of being that old are subjected to complex, export regulations. The Italian government has asked the United States to impose strict restrictions on imports of artifacts and antiquities, particularly Etruscan and Attic pottery, Apulian vases, Greek-style terra-cotta figurines and ancient Sicilian coins.

Francesco Rutelli, an Italian culture minister, has been at the forefront of efforts to bring looted antiquities back to Italy. He has demanded the return of dozens of objects held in U.S. museums, works he said that were looted and smuggled out. Also involved in getting materials back has been General Robert Cinfortu, head of the carabinieri’s cultural-heritage-protection force.

Rutelli has seemed to go after the artifacts in part because it was good politics back home. He had few compunctions about using the U.S. media to serve his interests, often sharing information about targeted museums before the targeted museums themselves have been informed.

In 2008, the Euphronious krater and 68 other pieces returned from the Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston Museum of Fine Arts and other places were put on display at a special exhibition called “Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces”—“nostoi” is Greek for “homecoming.”

Efforts to Get Looted Material Back from the Getty

In the spring of 2006, Italian authorities began negotiating with the Getty for the returns of 52 objects they claim were stolen. In 2007, after intense pressure in which they vehemently denied charges while negotiating terms, the Getty agreed to return 40 objects in return for getting to keep the Aphrodite until 2010 and then turning it over to be installed in a museum in Aidone, a tiny town near the site in Morgantina where the statue was allegedly found. This was done even though archaeologists that worked in Morgantina have said there was no evidence that the statue was taken from there. Talks went on for some time on the return of the statue “Victorious Youth.”

In 2005,Marion True, the former Getty curator who helped acquire art for the museum, was charged with conspiracy to smuggle tens of millions of dollars of antiquities, including Greek vases and Etruscan statues. Her co-defendant was Robert Hecht, the same antiquities dealer whose name appeared in the antiquities sting in Germany. He was also the one who sold the Ephronios Krater to the Met. Both True and Hecht denied the charges.

Prosecutors alleged that Hecht obtained several pieces sold to the Getty from Giacomo Medici, an Italian art dealer convicted of trafficking antiquities in 2004. He has been described in court documents as being involved in “one of the greatest thefts against the Italian state ever recorded.” Police raided a Medici’s warehouse in Geneva, Switzerland and found thousands of artifacts and photos of artifacts, many still caked with dirt implying they were looted. Prosecutors argue that Hecht and True knew that Medici was the source of their purchases and knew there was at least a strong likelihood they were looted and may have perused the images of dirt-caked pieces to pick out what they wanted.

On top of that True was being investigated in Greece in connection with buying a vacation home on the Greek island of Paros using a loan obtained from Lawrence Fleischman, a well-known New-York-based antiquities collector, in return, investigators alleged, for the acquisition of Fleishman’s 303-piece, $60-million-dollar collection for the Getty.

True became curator of the antiquities department at the Getty in 1986. At that time she told The New Yorker she had a low opinion of the museum’s antiquities collection. “The collection was sort of a joke. The museum was sort of a joke,” she said. One of her goals was to right that situation but at the same time she also took measures to tighten Getty’s acquisition policies. In March 2009 she testified at her trial in Rome, saying, “If ever there was any indication or proof of an object coming from a certain place: or an illegal excavation, “we would make a decision and return the object regardless of the statute of limitations.” She also said the Getty followed proper procedures and checked with Italian culture officials if there were any liens on specific artifacts.

Getty Museum’s Story Of How It Obtained the Aphrodite

Aphrodite statue that the Getty returned to Italy

Jason Felch wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “For years, the Getty museum clung to the implausible story that the statue had been in the family of a former Swiss policeman, Renzo Canavesi, for more than 50 years after being purchased by his father in Paris in the 1930s. It took dramatic evidence of the statue's illicit origins — and an alleged link to organized crime — to destroy the credibility of that cover story and persuade the Getty's board to return the statue. [Source: Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2011 ]

“In 2006, private detectives hired by the Getty uncovered more than a dozen photos of the statue. One shows fragments of the goddess scattered in a pile of dirt on a brown tile floor. In another, pieces of varying sizes were lined up in rows on a large, thick plastic sheet. Another photo showed the statue's marble face still encrusted with grime. It is not clear who took the photos or where they were taken. But the fact that the statue had been in fragments and covered in dirt as recently as the early 1980s — the date on the photographs — was seen as clear evidence that it had been illegally excavated not long before the Getty bought it.

“The investigators' discovery of the photos was described in the book about the dispute. "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum" was written by this reporter and former Times staff writer Ralph Frammolino, and published in May 2011, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The investigators, working under a Getty contract with the corporate investigative firm Kroll, also found evidence connecting Canavesi with an alleged Sicilian antiquities smuggler whom investigators were told had ties to organized crime, the book reveals.

“Canavesi told investigators that he was a friend of Orazio di Simone, who in 1989 Italian authorities charged with smuggling the Aphrodite out of Italy. (The case was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.) When the Getty's investigators tried to interview Di Simone, they were warned against it by Italian authorities, who suggested he had ties to the Mafia. In an interview with the authors, Di Simone denied the charge and any involvement with the statue.

“When told of the photographs and Canavesi's ties to "dangerous people" in May 2006, the Getty board reluctantly agreed to include the statute of Aphrodite on a list of objects it was willing to return to Italian authorities, who had accused the museum of knowingly buying looted art for decades. At the time, former Getty antiquities curator True was on trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted art.

“It was only after a 2007 Times investigation revealed the existence of the photos — and the fact that Getty officials had turned down an opportunity to see them a decade earlier — that the Getty sent an attorney and a museum official to Switzerland to secure copies of the photos and confirm they were of the Getty's goddess. The museum has since refused to make the images public, citing a promise made to Canavesi. "He would not show them without the Getty's agreement that they be kept confidential," said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig. "We gave him that commitment and we will honor it."

Aphrodite Sent Back to Italy

In March 2011, the J. Paul Getty Museum repatriated the 2,400-year-old Aphrodite statue to Italy along with 39 other objects whose origin was disputed. Jason Felch wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The J. Paul Getty Museum's iconic statue of Aphrodite was quietly escorted back to Sicily by Italian police, ending a decades-long dispute over an object whose craftsmanship, importance and controversial origins have been likened to the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum. [Source: Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2011]

The 7-foot tall, 1,300-pound statue of limestone and marble was painstakingly taken off display at the Getty Villa and disassembled in December. Last week, it was locked in shipping crates with an Italian diplomatic seal and loaded aboard an Alitalia flight to Rome, where it arrived on Thursday. From there it traveled with an armed police escort by ship and truck to the small hilltop town of Aidone, Sicily, where it arrived Saturday to waiting crowds. It was just outside this town, in the ruins of the ancient Greek colony of Morgantina, that authorities say the cult goddess lay buried for centuries before it was illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy.

“The Getty settled its dispute with Italy in the fall of 2007 by agreeing to return 40 prominent objects in its antiquities collection, including the Aphrodite. In turn, Italy has offered to loan the Getty about 50 comparable antiquities, part of a broader cultural collaboration between the parties. Most of the disputed objects were returned soon after, but both parties agreed to delay the return of the Aphrodite until this year.

“In part, the delay was intended to help the Getty as an institution prepare for the loss of an object that helped establish its reputation as a cultural force, recalled former Museum Director Michael Brand in a recent e-mail. "What was previously regarded as unthinkable, almost the end of the world, became simply a necessarily sad moment," Brand wrote.

Return of Looted Materials by U.S. Museums

Ralph Frammolino wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “For decades, U.S. museums, and private collectors who donated objects to them, had been purchasing antiquities at auction or from dealers. With objects of unclear provenance, or ownership history, an attitude of don’t tell, don’t ask prevailed: sellers offered scant, dubious or even false information. Museums and other buyers commonly accepted that information at face value, more concerned that the objects were authentic than how they came to market. Foreign cultural officials occasionally pressed claims that various vases, sculptures and frescoes in U.S. museum showcases had been looted—stripped from ancient ruins and taken out of archaeological context—and smuggled out of their countries, in violation of both foreign patrimony laws and an international accord that sought to end illicit trafficking in cultural property. Museums resisted those claims, demanding evidence that the contested artifacts had indeed been spirited away. [Source: Ralph Frammolino, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011]

“The evidence, when it was produced, brought about an unprecedented wave of repatriations—not only by the Getty, but also by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Princeton University Art Museum, as well as from antiquities dealers and collectors.

“Within the past five years, museums have returned to the Italian and Greek governments more than 100 artifacts worth nearly $1 billion. The Met gave back 21 pieces, including its celebrated Euphronios krater, a Greek vessel dating to about 515 B.C., which the museum had acquired in 1972 for a then-record $1 million. The Boston MFA returned 13 objects, including a statue of Sabina, wife of the second-century A.D. Roman emperor Hadrian. In no case did a museum acknowledge wrongdoing on its part, and, in a historic shift, the Italian government agreed to make long-term loans of other antiquities to take the place of those that had been repatriated.

“The Getty gave back more objects than any other museum—47, nearly a dozen of them masterpieces—and the last piece to go was its iconic goddess. The story of the statue stands as a case study of how longstanding practices in the market for Greek and Roman antiquities were overtaken by changes in attitude, the law and law enforcement.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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