The Medici Conspiracy (2006)

Peter Watson, Cecelia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy, The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities– from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (2006) 334p.

The Medici Conspiracy recounts the ecents that led the Italian Carabinieri Art Squad, headed by Roberto Conforti, to bring down the largest criminal organization purely and solely dealing in illegal antiquities, the cordata. The downfall of the cordata started with the death of Pasquale Camera, a local ‘captain’ in the cordata, when his car turned over on his way to Rome. In the glove compartment they found about fifty pictures of antiquities from illegal digs. In following raids on his homes and affiliated raids, Conforti discovered a complete organigram of the cordata. The years of investigation proved to establish the existence of the cordata as decribed in this organigram, but also showed the shocking involvement of leading musea and collectors of antiquities, and the unimaginable scale of looting that existed running into the hundreds of millions of dollars worth.

The main suspects in the looting of antiquities are dealers as Robert Hecht, Giacomo Medici, Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, leading musea as the J. Paul Getty Museum, with the active involvement of curator Marion True, and the Metropolitan Museum, and its curator Dietrich von Bothmer, and auction houses as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams. More than 80% of the antiquities sold at auction houses has no provenance. The Medici Conspiracy explains in high overview the triangulation schema’s that dealers, musea, auction houses, and tombaroli, the looters, have developed to launder the illegal trade and destruction of archaeological sites.

Musea use front covers for their purchases in the form of private collections, like in the case of the Fleischman collection which was ultimately purchases by the Getty museum or the Shelby White collection in the case of the Metropolitan museum. These private collectors have thus greater freedom to purchase antiquities with unclear provenances. The dealers on their part have created a web of front stores in the form of galleries, trading companies and practically non-existent private collections. En large, these dealers buy and sell from themselves through the auction houses, as a way to fabricate and artificial provencance for the looted antiquities. The dealers use private collectors and curators to further cover up the true origins, with claims of undocumented antiquities having been in private collections in Beirut or Switzerland.

The worrisome element in this is the involvement of high society in low crime and the reluctance of musea like the Metropolitan to establish firm guidelines in the purchase policy. Instead the two work actively together to evade responsibility for the preservation of antiquities and archaeological sites in the countries of origin. The Shelby White wing in the Metropolitan is to open in the Spring of 2007, but the collection contains many pieces that were bought from Giacomo Medici, who was the convicted to 10 years imprisonment for his leading role in the illicit looting of antiquities.

The book is not written fabulously, and the last chapter summarizing the moral of the story is completely superfluous, but the story, the organization and the events are fascinating and interesting enough, to make this book worth reading.

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