Confrontation With Italy Looms at the Met

The New York Times
November 21, 2005

In its pristine glass case at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a small black terra-cotta vase with red figures depicting Zeus cradling Dionysus says little to the casual viewer about its origins. As string music filtered into the Greek and Roman galleries on Friday night, tour groups who stopped to glance at its label saw only that the vase, known as an amphora, is attributed to a painter from the fifth century B.C. and that it arrived at the Met in 1982.

But for Italian investigators tracking looted antiquities, the amphora is of keen interest. They say that Polaroid photographs obtained in a 1995 raid on a warehouse in Geneva show that the vessel was among thousands of artifacts illegally excavated from Italian soil. At a meeting tomorrow in Rome, they plan to question the Met's director about the provenance of that object and about 30 others that they assert were clandestinely excavated before making their way into the museum's collection or the private trove of Shelby White, a Met trustee.

Their hope is to bring about a day of reckoning for American museums and collectors, requiring them to explain how they came into possession of such objects and even to return some of them.

"We're going to say, these pieces have emerged as evidence in the trial of a convicted art dealer, they were illegally excavated and taken from Italy, and we would like them back," said Maurizio Fiorilli, the lawyer representing the Italian government.

A spokesman for the Met, Harold Holzer, said the museum would not comment on any specific item cited by the Italians in advance of the meeting between Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, and Italian cultural officials. Ms. White, who amassed a vast antiquities collection with her husband, Leon Levy, who died in 2003, also declined to comment on the Italians' allegations.

Mr. de Montebello faces a careful balancing act as he fields questions from Mr. Fiorilli on those Greek and other ancient artifacts. While Italy's culture minister, Rocco Buttiglione, has emphasized that his government is not out to "destroy the cultural potential of American museums," the ministry has threatened to deny loans to museums that refuse to cooperate. And in a powerful reminder of the Italians' determination, a former curator from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles went on trial in Rome last week on criminal charges of conspiring to import looted antiquities for that museum's collection.

Much of the evidence in that case relates to the 1995 raid, in which investigators uncovered thousands of photographs and negatives of archaeological pieces neatly arranged in albums. Many photographs showed ancient vases and pots still encrusted with dirt, in some cases photographed in the open countryside, surrounded by weeds. Others showed fragments of ancient artifacts wrapped in local newspapers, to prove their Italian provenance, and still others depicted recently discovered tombs, their crude openings sealed with makeshift covers.

According to Italian court documents, seven important vases of "extraordinary artistic quality" in the Met's collection have been identified in photographs found in that warehouse, rented by the Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. The documents assert that Mr. Medici received and restored those pieces in Switzerland and then sold them through dealers like Robert Hecht, an American who is currently on trial in Rome with Marion True, the former Getty curator.

In addition to that amphora, attributed to the so-called Eucharides Painter, the Italians cite Polaroid photographs of a red-figured amphora lying in pieces on a nondescript gray carpet. One depicts a cloaked young male figure on the back of the amphora; another shows its base, photographed as it lay in a suitcase.

Attributed to the artist widely referred to as the Berlin Painter, this red-figure amphora, now expertly restored, is on display in the Met's Greek and Roman galleries. Other objects cited in the documents that reside in the Met's collection also include a kylix, or drinking cup, from the sixth century B.C.; an oinochoe, or pitcher, in the shape of a head for which the Italian government did not give a date; and a red-figured dinos, or bowl for mixing wine and water, from the first century B.C. that depicts Herakles and Busiris and is attributed to the so-called Darius Painter.

Also on the Italians' list of Met artifacts are a red-figured psykter, or vase for cooling wine, decorated with horsemen; the Euphronios krater, a renowned red-figured vase from the sixth century B.C. ; and 15 pieces of silver from the third century B.C.

The items that Italy plans to discuss with Mr. de Montebello include eight objects in the Levy-White collection. Mr. Holzer declined to say whether any of those items are on loan to the Met, but one of them - a vessel attributed to Eucharides Painter - was visible in the Greek and Roman galleries Friday night along with more than a dozen other items lent by the Levy-White collection.

Mr. Holzer said that as of Friday, Italy had "not submitted a list or supplied supporting information to the Metropolitan Museum" for discussion at tomorrow's meeting.

But Mr. Fiorilli said the delegation from the Culture Ministry would be reiterating what Italy has told the Met in earlier rogatories, or formal requests for information as part a legal discovery process - that they believe these specific works were illegally excavated and exported from Italy. He said he wanted the Met to clarify the channels through which it obtained them.

The Met's Euphronius krater and the 15 pieces in its Morgantina silver collection have long been a source of contention between the museum and the Italian government.

In both cases, the Italians say that over the years they have produced plenty of evidence to the museum indicating that the artifacts were stolen by tomb robbers and whisked out of the country. But the Met has repeatedly replied that the evidence is inconclusive, the Italians said.

To bolster Italy's claims, however, court records show that Italian prosecutors have recovered a handwritten memoir by Mr. Hecht that recounts the story of the acqusition of the Euphronius krater, beginning with a morning in December 1971 when Mr. Medici approached him with a Polaroid photograph of the piece.

Court records in the case against Ms. True, the former Getty curator, show that both she and her predecessor at the Getty, Jiri Frel, have testified that Dietrich von Bothmer, who was the Met's antiquities curator in 1972, had informed them them of the exact location of the tomb where the krater was found, in an Etruscan site just north of Rome.

Mr. von Bothmer could not be reached for comment. But he has been quoted in The Los Angeles Times as denying that this incident occurred.

In the case of the silver pieces, which Italians claim were stolen from Morgantina, Sicily, negotiations have already begun. According to an Italian cultural official involved in the matter, who declined to be identified publicly, the Met has told the Italians that it would acknowledge the Sicilian provenance as long as they could keep half of the silver on loan for 25 years.

Sensing a shift in public opinion and emboldened by the evidence that has emerged during the 10-year investigation of Mr. Medici and his associates, the Italian authorities clearly feel they have strengthened their hand. The Getty Museum has already returned several pieces to Italy, including three artifacts it described as "donations" on the eve of Ms. True's trial this month.

In exchange for cooperation from museums, Italy has promised that it will review its policies for art loans, which currently run for up to four years, and consider extending that to eight or even 12 years. But it has made clear that it will deny loans to museums that refuse to cooperate.

Among the objects shown in photos found in Mr. Medici's archives, court records show, eight have been identified as pieces in Ms. White's collection and will be broached at tomorrow's meeting.

Ms. White, an occasional freelance contributor to The New York Times, and her husband have donated millions of dollars to the Met for the creation of new Greek and Roman galleries in their name that are to open in 2007. Many in the art world have long speculated that their prized antiquities collection will one day go to the museum.

But Mr. Holzer said, "No promise of a gift of the Levy-White collection has been made."

Elisabetta Povoledo reported from Rome for this article and Randy Kennedy contributed reporting from New York.