Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Book Review of “The Medici Conspiracy” by Peter Watson & Cecilia Todeschini

           I found this book to be really interesting and applicable to this class. The book focuses on a real-life case of the art dealer Giacomo Medici and his involvement with the illicit trade and trafficking of antiquities at an international level. This book really opened my eyes towards the complexity of trading and selling illicit antiquities and how many people are actually involved. I was also shocked to see how many “good” people were involved in some part of the trade, such as reputable art dealers, museum curators, and archaeologists. It was also interesting to get a sense of the official activities that go on in a situation like this, such as all of the investigations, interrogations/interviews, phone-line tapping, etc. 

            The book focuses on the activities of the Carabinieri Art Squad, founded in Italy in 1969. At this time, Italy was the first country to have implemented a police department specifically assigned to combat art and archaeological crimes. In the first few chapters of the book, the authors give some background information surrounding the issues. They discuss how investigation in other countries can help other countries, how and why Greek art, especially vases, is important to us, and how much intellectual past has been stolen by looters and is now in unknown collections across the world.

Applying it to Archaeological Ethics
            The authors discuss many things in this book that I found could be directly applied to a variety of the topics which we discussed in class.

            One of these topics is who is qualified to determine the value of archaeological objects. The book discusses, in particular, the objects that were found in Corridor 17. First, Daniele Rizzo, the archaeologist at the Villa Giulia Museum, and the director of the museum who was also the head of the Superintendency of Southern Etruria, Anna Maria Moretti examined the object from Corridor 17. Both of these women are obviously fairly qualified to determine the value of archaeological objects, but three more people were chosen to study the objects more closely. These people were all extremely distinguished scholars: Professors Gilda Bartoloni, Giovanni Colonna, and Professor Fausto Zevi, all of La Sapienza. These three scholars were all well-known and highly respected in their fields and were therefore obvious choices for this responsibility. I think that all of these people seem to be well-qualified to determine the value of these archaeological objects, but they are only looking at the objects from a purely archaeological perspective. This can be compared to NAGPRA and Native Americans wanting their cultural history to be looked at as more than just archaeological objects, but also as important cultural and familial objects.

            Another topic that this book discusses that is relative to archaeological ethics is that on provenance. The authors state that Medici claimed that all of his objects in the Freeport had been bought legitimately and that that was his idea of provenance. This presents the problem which we discussed in class; people do not understand the important of knowing the original context of an archaeological object. The authors discussed how forensic archaeology can help deal with objects without provenance. An interesting point that the authors made that I would like to point out, is the difference between objects excavated professionally in situ, and object photographed during a looting. “Objects excavated professionally (and legally) have a very different appearance; they are photographed in situ, showing their context, with a measuring tool to indicate size, and are properly dated” (57). This point stresses the importance of provenance and how a properly recorded and dated object can tell us way more than a looted object. 

            A part of the book which I found specifically bothersome was Chapter 7 which discussed the Getty Museum’s involvement with stolen and looted objects. I could not believe that such a distinguished museum played such a large role in acquiring stolen and looted archaeological objects. The acquisition of these objects takes a while and must go through various outlets. The sequence is described as going “from the ground of Italy, to Switzerland, sometimes to an auction house or art dealer’s catalogue, then finally to the museum itself” (88). This chapter brought forth various breaks in archaeological ethics with those who are perceived as being there to protect the objects from such activities. This makes me question the legitimacy of some museums. Museums do not always indicate a provenance for the objects that they display which means that the objects were probably looted or stolen. This makes me think, can we really trust museums? The authors make a good point in stating, “one would have thought that if the museum had indeed done its own research into the provenance of the objects it was thinking of acquiring, then there would have been a record somewhere of the results of those inquiries” (220). It appears that museums are not doing all of the work and research that they can in order to determine the legitimacy of some of the objects that they are acquiring. Whether it simply be that museums do not wish to discover the provenance of some objects, or whether museums are knowingly acquiring looted or stolen objects, it is still archaeologically unethical. 

            Repatriation is also discussed in this book. The case of looted objects from the Turkish Uşak tomb and the Metropolitan in New York is discussed. This also brings to mind the legitimacy of so-called ‘reputable’ museums. A collection acquired by the Met was proven to be looted from the Uşak tomb in Turkey and was requested to be given back. At first the Met resisted but eventually caved. If we give the Met the benefit of the doubt in this case and think that it was not aware that these objects had been stolen, it should have still given back the objects to Turkey after they were proven to be from the Uşak tomb. I think that this would have been the more ethical decision instead of trying to keep the artifacts for itself. 

            The authors mention a Swiss archaeologist Fiorella Cottier-Angeli. She worked ostensibly for Swiss customs. She also helped Medici with the ease of transporting looted or stolen artifacts by authenticating them. Don’t archaeologists have an ethical responsibility to report items that they think are being stolen? It seems to me that this archaeologist was acting in strict opposition to what she should have been doing.

            The book also discusses problems with private collections. It quotes John Walsh, director of the Getty, and Robert P. Bergman, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, saying: “The private collection known no such restrictions. The only considerations for the collectors are, Do I like it? Can I afford it? Can I live with it?...The guiding factor in the selection of these pieces has been their exceptional artistic quality, not their archaeological interest” (116). An example of this that is mentioned in the book is the frescoes that were torn from their original context on villa walls in order to be sold on the antiquities market. Private collectors are twisting archaeological objects away from their real important in cultural and social history into purely artistic interest. This is not the proper or most beneficial environment for archaeological artifacts to be presented in. 

            These are just a few of the issues that were discussed in The Medici Conspiracy but they gave me a true sense of the different problems, and the complexity of these problems, that are being faced in the archaeological world. It seems ridiculous to me that these illegal transactions are still being performed today by professional and reputable people. I agree with Watson and Todeschini that cases such as the one concerning Giacomo Medici must be used as an educational tool for all of those in the archaeological field. It must also be used to inform and warn those in the illegal trades that archaeological objects are much more important than their monetary or artistic interest.

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