Slide Show >>Back in 1998, with help from prominent local donors, the St. Louis Museum of Art cobbled together $499,000 to buy a beautiful ancient Egyptian burial mask. The piece, one of the gems of the museum's collection, recently became controversial when the Egyptian government demanded its return, contending it had been stolen from a warehouse in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
"We regard this as a very serious charge," says Brent Benjamin, the museum's director. "We've spoken with [Egyptian authorities] and asked them to provide documentation. We'll make a disposition based on the facts."
The case is one of many indications that the scandals in the antiquities trade are far from over. Indeed, high-profile disputes have hit the headlines recently. New York's Metropolitan Museum -- without admitting fault -- agreed to return 21 artifacts that the Italian government alleges were stolen. Marion True, former antiquities curator at Los Angeles' Getty Museum, is on trial in Italy on charges of conspiracy to traffic in antiquities.
WIDENING CIRCLE. Claims are likely to proliferate as so-called source nations such as Egypt, Yemen, Greece, Turkey, China, Guatemala, and Peru are emboldened by Italy's success with the Met -- and museum directors are chastened by the associated bad PR and potential lawsuits. (See BW Online, 01/25/06, "Peru's Battle for Its History".)
One sign of the times: Following in the footsteps of Met director Philippe de Montebello and new Getty chief Michael Brand, Boston Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers plans to meet with Italian authorities in Rome on May 18 to discuss their demand that his museum return more than two dozen artifacts the Italians say have questionable origins.
The likely result of all the controversy: a cleanup of the U.S. antiquities trade, which its critics contend has been all too willing to turn a blind eye to questionable activities. U.S. museums "were too loose in the way they acquired antiquities," contends Paolo Ferri, the prosecutor in Rome who is pursuing antiquities cases. Adds Giuseppe Eskenazi, a prominent London dealer in Chinese ceramics: "Some people have been getting away with murder, and that's about to stop."
"STOP THE LOOTING." Several dealers in the U.S. and Europe have already been charged with, or convicted of, crimes. But the broader aim of the source nations is to cut off the market for stolen antiquities by shaming big U.S. museums and collectors into tightening their acquisitions standards, something European institutions such as the British Museum have already done.
"I don't think [source nations] are interested in emptying the museums or taking them to court. What they want to do is stop the looting," says Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World.
Some museum directors worry that the baby is going out with the bathwater. They note that doubts about the origin of artifacts arise for many reasons other than theft and contend that museums have an obligation to preserve even artifacts of doubtful pedigree so they can be studied by scholars and viewed by the public.
BREAK IN THE CASE. "Whether legally excavated or not, these objects have intrinsic qualities from which one can learn a great deal," de Montebello said at a recent presentation at the National Press Club in Washington. However, he also admits that the Met and other U.S. museums have dramatically cut down on their antiquities acquisitions. Peter Watson, a research associate at Cambridge University's Illicit Antiquities Research Center and co-author of the new book The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums, says that from now on it will be "very difficult to build collections of classical antiquities legally." He predicts that controversy and potential legal problems will cause many private collectors to reduce their purchases.
Claims against the museums so far revolve around a small group of dealers. The Italian carabinieri's big break came in 1995, when they raided the Geneva (Switzerland) warehouse of Giacomo Medici, a dealer who was later sentenced to 10 years for illegal trafficking in artifacts. (He has appealed.) Investigators contend that items sold by Medici have often ended up in major U.S. private collections and museums.
"They found pictures of artifacts that [were owned by U.S.] museums," says Jane C. Waldbaum, a retired University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee archeology professor. Waldbaum, president of the Archeological Institute of America, is one of many prominent scholars who is highly critical of the antiquities acquisition practices of U.S. museums like the Met. "It's hard to get around that kind of evidence."
SHAKY DONATIONS. Further investigation led the Italians to the Getty's Marion True and Robert E. Hecht Jr., an American-born dealer now on trial in Italy with True for conspiracy to traffic in antiquities (both deny the charges). The octogenarian Hecht has been doing business with major U.S. museums for decades. For instance, a search of the online database of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' collection turns up hundreds of items he gave or sold to the museum. Back in 1972, Hecht sold the Met its famed Euphronios krater, a 2,500-year-old Greek vase that is among the items now being returned to Italy, for $1 million.
A pair of the biggest U.S. collectors have also come under scrutiny. The first is philanthropist Shelby White, widow of the late New York financier Leon Levy and a Met trustee, who has donated $20 million for a new Roman court at the museum. Archeologists have long criticized the Levy-White collection; two prominent British archeologists studied a 1990 show of the collection at the Met and concluded that 93% of the objects had no clear provenance.
White didn't respond to a request for an interview, and Ferri declines to say which collectors, if any, are being investigated. But de Montebello has told The New York Times that White plans to meet with Italian authorities to discuss their questions about some items in her collection.
BRILLIANT DISGUISE. Also caught up in the Italian case is the collection of Barbara Fleischman and her late husband Lawrence, the bulk of which -- some 300 pieces -- they donated to the Getty in 1996. Barbara Fleischman resigned from the Getty board earlier this year after news surfaced of a controversial loan her husband had made to True, and the museum acknowledges that some items Italian authorities want returned came from the Fleischman collection. Fleischman didn't respond to a request transmitter to her by the Getty for an interview.
The alleged questionable dealing isn't restricted to Italian artifacts. In 2002, for instance, Frederick Schultz, a prominent New York dealer, was convicted of conspiring to sell ancient art objects from Egypt. He went to prison in September, 2003, after his appeals failed, according to press reports.
The main artifact in the case was an ancient sculpture that, according to court testimony cited in the reports, had been dipped in plastic and painted to make it look like a cheap tourist bauble, smuggled out of Egypt, and eventually sold to a London collector who was told it came from a well-known private collection.
WHICH POCKET? Antiquities dealers are likely to take the financial hit if the latest charges of dirty dealing can be made to stick. For instance, St. Louis' Benjamin says his museum did extensive research before buying its Egyptian mask in 1998, checking it out with previous owners, Interpol, stolen art registries, and the head of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
But, he adds, the museum always requires dealers to indemnify it against successful title claims. If the mask turns out to have been stolen, the museum would expect the seller, Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities gallery with offices in Manhattan and Geneva, to return its money. Hicham Aboutaam, one of two Lebanese-born brothers who own the gallery, declined to comment on the situation.
As it turns out, Phoenix has had several scrapes with the law since the purchase. In 2004, Ali Aboutaam, the second brother, was convicted in absentia in an Egyptian court for smuggling antiquities. (Hicham Aboutaam says the case was politically motivated, and the conviction has since been overturned.) The same year, Hicham pleaded guilty in federal court to a misdemeanor charge of falsifying customer forms for a 700 B.C. silver vessel from Syria that the gallery had sold to a collector for $950,000. He paid a $5,000 fine and was sentenced to five years of probation. He now acknowledges having used faulty judgment.
CAUTIOUS HONESTY. The previous year, U.S. customs agents had seized an ancient alabaster plaque valued at $20,000 to $30,000 that the gallery had consigned to Sotheby's after the auction house alerted authorities that it might have been stolen. The U.S. government returned the plaque to Yemen, where it had been stolen from a museum a decade earlier.
Hicham Aboutaam says he and his brother had purchased the plaque from a London dealer and urged that it be sent back to Yemen when they realized it was stolen. "It's a new era," he says. "People are much more cautious now. Out of 20,000 items my family has sold in over 30 years, under 10 have had problems. We hope to reduce that number to zero in the future."
"UNIVERSAL CONDEMNATION." Will all the controversy really force a cleanup of the business? Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant New York City district attorney specializing in antiquities theft who was also the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves colonel who investigated the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003, says Interpol's budget must be increased. He has also called for the development of a flash border alert system that would instantly alert authorities around the world when objects are seized.
But he says "creating a level of universal condemnation" of dealing in stolen antiquities is also important. "If [collectors and museums] are careful, they're still going to get burned sometimes," Bogdanos says. "But we can do a lot better than we've been doing."