Controversies Heritage Comment Italy

Why Italy should sell the 5,000 antiquities recovered by the police

Improperly excavated artefacts could be auctioned to help cash-strapped museums

The Italian military police presented the recovered artefacts in Rome on 21 January. Photo: courtesy of Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale

Congratulations to the Comando Carabinieri for the protection of cultural heritage for their great work in tracking down years’ worth of illicit trade in antiquities out of Italy. Their evidence has proved that museums, particularly in the US, were making a fool of the law and buying works that had been both dug up and exported illegally.

The prosecution (without verdict) of former Getty curator Marian True, and the items that have had to be restituted by museums to Italy because the case against them was embarrassingly secure, have led to a more civilised, ethical policy being adopted by most institutions, which will no longer buy or accept as gifts items that lack a documented provenance dating back before 1970 (the date of the Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property).

The recent photographs of the stalwart carabinieri in front of the 5,000 stolen antiquities do, however, invite a fundamental question. Where should they go now?

Because they were not properly excavated by archaeologists, they tell us nothing beyond the evidence of their own being and so add very little to the story that museums are already telling. Many are not even intrinsically rare or very beautiful.

We asked a top dealer and an auction house in London to select and value some pieces that they knew were exceptional and then some ordinary pieces, and, finally, to give a rough valuation for the whole group. It came to €15m, and although this is considerably less than the €50m boasted by the Italian authorities, it is still a useful sum of money.

It might make it possible for the museum of ancient Roman ships near Pisa to open. The 30 vessels, some of them wonderfully intact, were dug up in 1999, but no one can get to see them. The same goes for the other museum of ancient ships, near Rome, which has been closed for 12 years. Or there is the city of Rome’s old Antiquarium, which has been closed since 1939, while the new one near the Colosseum has been rebuilt, but is also closed. Or the archaeological area called the Horti Lamiani, also in Rome, with 1,600 sq. m of coloured marble and painted walls, not to mention 8,000 drawers of finds. This has had the complete museum treatment, but has never opened. Then there is the Museo Archeologico of Licata near Agrigento in Sicily, closed since 2008, while tomb robbers dig with impunity at the nearby site on Monte Sant’Angelo (and in what used to Etruria and Magna Graecia). All this information and more comes from my journalist friend Tina Lepri, and it is a scandal.

Fit for purpose?

In view of this irrational state of affairs, of which the state of Pompeii is only the most shocking example, it would be sensible for the Italian government to take a hard look at its archaeological policies and consider whether they are fit for purpose.

It is widely believed that, since the law of 1939, the state has never allowed archaeological finds to enter private hands, but in the early 1960s, it gave concessions to a commercial company, the Società Hercle, a private individual, Francesco Bongiovì, and the C.M. Lerici foundation of the Politecnico of Milan to excavate Etruscan tombs in exchange for a share of the finds. It was the influence of left-wing politics and art historians such as the Marxist Giulio Carlo Argan in the 1970s that led to the hardening of attitudes towards the private ownership of cultural goods of any sort, but especially antiquities.

Currently, every single thing found under the ground, every shard, every broken Medieval knife hilt, not only belongs to the state but is never deaccessioned, so the logical implication is that everything has to be housed in museums. This is a huge cost in financial terms, but also in terms of human energy. Not for nothing are Italian archaeological museums so backward in what they do for the public compared with museums in the UK or Germany.

It would be sensible now for Italian museums to be invited to choose a small number of masterpieces from the carabinieri’s hoard, and then for the state to sell the rest gradually, with an authorising “passport” for each item. A named archaeological project should benefit from the proceeds, which might help to placate opponents (and there are plenty of zealots in Italy who react like the National Rifle Association in the US whenever a change in the traditional position is suggested).

Besides bringing in much needed cash, such a sale would save Italian museums from having to take on hundreds of objects, many of them little, if at all, different from what they already have, while museums abroad, collectors and the trade would be able to acquire legally validated pieces.

For decades now, archaeology has been more about the discovery of how people once lived than merely hunting for treasure. The Italian official attitude towards the country’s archaeological heritage is stuck in the treasure-hunting phase and it urgently needs to think instead about what it can do to put knowledge and the effective protection of the archaeological patrimony first. This latest “treasure trove” could be put to the service of that knowledge and the guardianship of what is the world’s—not just Italy’s—heritage.

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5 Apr 15
17:10 CET


Kudos to Steve Sim from an Italian abroad: whether corruption will take hold, as it most certainly will, auctioning lesser artifacts can save Italy's museums. We have too much stuff and not enough money to keep our cultural system running as it should, with entire archeological sites literally falling apart as well as museums unable to stay open.

30 Mar 15
2:5 CET


I support Anna Somers Cocks' idea, but it is not just an Italian issue: all nations around the Mediterranean face the problem of looting and an enormous volume of confiscated stolen artefacts, which causes storage problems that no one has the time or the funds to handle. A licensed market, a market regulated by government authorities and producing a proper paper trail for every object, as was the case in Cyprus until 1996 or as it still exists in Israel, might be worth a try, even if we accept the inevitable side effects caused by corruption. The sanctioned sale of looted and intercepted material that is not of outstanding scientific or aesthetic importance might, after it has been properly recorded, help to generate desperately needed funds for conservation work. New museums, however, will not make looted antiquities go away, or even prevent looting at all.

30 Mar 15
2:5 CET


I do not follow: "choose a small number of masterpieces from the carabinieri’s hoard" [so that] "collectors and the trade would be able to acquire legally validated pieces". So they take illegally excavated material removed from the market and and make it "legal" to go back on the market? As we all know, very soon after coming on the international antiquities market in its current form most artefacts lose any "passports" (export documentation, transfer of ownership documentation), within a few years. On that form, most of these postulated 'released' artefacts will also lose all documentation of legality.

27 Mar 15
14:13 CET


Roberta Mazza - did you not actually read the article? It explains that there are museums aplenty, too many, so many that there is not enough funding to keep them all open. The Italian state's chauvinistic attitude to Classical Italian antiquities (claiming ownership of everything because loss of anything is a sign of some unmanly defeat, a shame on the nation harking back to the days before unification when Italy was plundered at will) is dysfunctional without proper state funding to back it up. And a lot of Ancient Roman stuff is, to put it honestly, a load of tasteless tat. Museums should not be junk warehouses, they are meant to display the best of the best.

26 Mar 15
13:53 CET


This article is honestly appalling. These objects should go in a new museum, or a section of an exhistent one to illustrate the story of their recovery and the shame museum directors, dealers besides tombaroli must feel for the threat they are to our cultural heritage.

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