Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tracing the Path of Looted Treasures

NPR :: " Author Peter Watson talks about his new book The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums, and the network behind the trade.

A 1995 raid on suspected tomb raider Giacomo Medici's warehouse in Geneva showed that Medici had been storing thousands of ancient vases, frescos, and other antiquities -- some in fragments or in various stages of restoration, some encrusted with dirt -- out of reach of the Italian government, in the Swiss Freeport. The Italian Carabinieri Art Squad gained access to the warehouse in 1997, as part of their investigation into Medici's ties to a global ring of looters, dealers, curators and collectors who worked to smuggle antiquities out of Italy. The documentation they found in Medici's warehouse proved to be as damning as the objects themselves."

As someone who has visited Pompeii and was disturbed by the deteriorating condition of what little art remains in situ there I found the following excerpt from the book very upsetting:

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What the images revealed was a dismaying sequence -- " a real horror,? as he wrote in his report -- in which the first pictures showed three walls of what any expert could recognize as a Vesuvian/Pompeian villa. They could make this identification because the three walls were frescoed in what is called the Campanian II style. The decoration on Roman villas went through what art historians and archaeologists recognize as four styles, between the second century bc and ad 79. Campanian II comes second in this chronology, and decorations in that style differ from what came before and after in consisting of more panoramic landscapes, mythological scenes, and certain architectural features.

The photographs showed nine walls in all, but three were of particular interest. Two of them were in red, pale blue, and gray. These walls showed two female figures in the foreground with, below them, miniaturized masks and smaller figures. On the right wall was shown an architectural drawing of a two-story building, with a similar symmetric design opposite, on the left wall. In other words, in this first sequence of photographs, the room -- or one end of it -- is intact. " The frescoes are in an excellent state of conservation, both pictorially and structurally.? However, besides the walls of the room, the photographs also showed a mass of earth mixed with lapillae covering the floor and filling the space to a depth of a few feet; lapillae also encrust the ceiling area. Lapillae are a telltale sign to any Italian archaeologist. They are small balls of volcanic ash, formed after the eruption of Vesuvius in ad 79, which buried so much of the surrounding countryside south of Naples. This was further confirmation, in addition to the subject matter and pictorial style of the frescoes, that this room had been part of a villa that was one of those overwhelmed by the eruption of the famous volcano, but not one known to the official archaeologists. The first sequence of photographs therefore confirmed that this had been a very important discovery, made in a clandestine " excavation? by some tombaroli. It was the next set of photographs, however, that constituted the " horror.?

This second set showed the image of the central wall -- the one with the two female figures and the figurines -- but laid out like a giant jigsaw. The images had been cut from the original wall, in a number of highly irregular pieces, each in size about as big as a laptop, and then put back together again on panels that were framed -- edged -- in wood. The fresco had been taken off the villa wall, detached from its right and left companions, and cut up into chunks. That it was the same image was quite clear to Pellegrini, even though there were gaps between the separate pieces: The two females were clearly visible and recognizable. In his report, Pellegrini commented that this operation, normally highly technical (when done by archaeologists), was here done crudely and in a hurry, without any regard for the integrity or sanctity of the images but simply so that the fresco could be quickly and more easily smuggled abroad?"

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