The ransack of Italy
May 20, 2005 8:41 AM   Subscribe

The ransack of Italy is finally becoming big news. The Getty had a reputation for buying Italian antiquities of "uncertain provenance". It recently returned some treasures, but has remained in the market; it also kept the Morgantina Aphrodite. But, perhaps, not for much longer. Marion True, a senior curator there, has just been indicted by the Italian authorities "on criminal charges involving the acquisition of precious antiquities".
posted by andrew cooke (10 comments total)
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posted by andrew cooke at 8:45 AM on May 20, 2005

The fact that some people live in the same geographic region in which great works of art were produced, doesn't necessarily give them a stronger claim on those works than anyone else.

Many people, I have noticed, take personal pride in the fact that their ancestors did great things. Meanwhile they just sit around and talk about them.
posted by yesno at 11:49 AM on May 20, 2005

maybe, but that doesn't give you the right to steal our shit
posted by matteo at 2:25 PM on May 20, 2005

you're in italy, matteo, right? has this made the headlines there? i thought it would be all over the news later today, but i've seen nothing. how long before the head of the british museum is a wanted man (i presume) across several continents?
posted by andrew cooke at 2:29 PM on May 20, 2005

oh, re: the Getty -- it's fun that they bought the kouros, one of the lamest examples evar in the long, long history of art forgery. I love the caption on their website, too:

"Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery"

priceless. (pun intended)
the guy who spent a few nights rubbing raw potato halves all over the kouros' surface to convince a clueless buyer it was just SO old must be still be pissing his pants thinking about the name "Getty". talk about laughing all the way to the bank.
posted by matteo at 2:29 PM on May 20, 2005

Slight derail: to be fair to the Getty, the kouros poses all sorts of complicated problems. Nobody has yet figured out how the dedolomitization could have been fabricated--although Norman Herz argues that the patina is fake (scroll down for abstract)--and the sculpture doesn't bear any tell-tale signs of modern toolwork. The problem lies in the origin of the stone itself (wrong place, given where the kouros was supposedly found) and the chronological mix-and-match of its design. And, of course, somebody faked the provenance (a problem discussed in this e-mail). (See Archaic Greek Sculpture: The Kouros for some more kouroi.) There's a good popular essay on art forgeries, including the kouros, in the New York Times Magazine (mirrored). Still, if you want a "modern" (18th-19th c.) copy that's nevertheless marvelous art, look at the Getty's remarkable purple centaur.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, in the early 80s my father translated an amazingly tiny Greek inscription found on a tablet purchased by Marion True's mentor/predecessor, Jiri Frel. (As one of the articles points out, Frel also got in trouble for creative purchasing habits.) Dad recalls that Frel had these ancient odds-and-ends just lying around in his desk.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:13 PM on May 20, 2005

There's a further discussion of the kouros in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, but again, he has his own point to make. As to lameness of forgery, I'd have to say it's a damn sight better than just about anything by Van Meegeren.

Slight derail part two:

I've always been a little leary about the Getty having any good art at all, simply because of the fault line and all that. Since 9/11, I can be made melancholic by the assumption that sooner or later the nutters will nuke Manhattan and ruin the New York Public Library, the Met, the Frick, et alia. Ditto DC and the National. If we are indeed at war as our leaders assure us we are, then perhaps they should move some of the good stuff to, say, Rochester or Gary or Albuquerque or Saskatoon (please?). Just to be on the safe side. Like the Germans in '42.

And leaving aside natural and unnatural disaster, the sad fact is that we all seem to go through bouts of deliberate artistic destruction from time to time (we Anglos doesn't get off the hook here either, lest you think I'm being superior).

So- from this perspective, a little, hell, a lot of international dispersal is perhaps not a bad thing. Legal is best, of course, if national pride can deal with it. If Italy or Afghanistan or Peru or fill in the blank were to de-access at least some of their second tier excess in an orderly fashion to the world's all too willing buyers, it might curb at least a little of the criminal behaviour, or channel it in the creation of fakes, and preserve more against the flood tides of history.

Yeah, I know, one time sale of national heritage and all that, but on the other hand, the stuff would go to loving homes, be they American, Japanese, Chinese, Swiss, Singaporian, Australian, or wherever else money and aesthetics coincide. Speaking as an American, I'm sure we'd be willing to throw a few a few glass beads or perhaps some arrowheads, or even the odd Grant Wood on the table.

(Nothing new under the sun, of course. George Dennis writes of tombaroli he met in the course of their work who would be disgusted at finding minor yet charming smaller pieces of buchero and despite his pleas, crush them underfoot. That was in 1848.)

Thomas J, by the way, who's your daddy? Just out of curiosity. If you don't mind my asking. Not that it's any of my business, because of course it isn't.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:00 PM on May 20, 2005

Dad (known on the blog as Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt).
posted by thomas j wise at 7:51 PM on May 20, 2005

For 48 hours the herbivores became carnivores, biting large lumps out of each other's reputations; it was very Darwinian." "Retentionists" and "restitutionalists" locked horns last December when the British Museum organised an international symposium on the controversial cleaning of the Parthenon Marbles in the 1930s.

Hasn't it been pretty standard practice since forever for the rich and powerful to pick up whatever catches their eye and carry it wherever they like? How did the Elgin Marbles get to the British Museum, anyway? It's all part of how the pot gets stirred and cultures get cross-fertilized.

But if that's no longer acceptable, then Italy will of course be wanting to restore all the Greek art antiquities hauled home by the Romans--in order to, y'know, have clean hands in the matter.
posted by jfuller at 7:48 AM on May 21, 2005

S.M. Burstein! A name I know! Lucky you.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:21 AM on May 21, 2005

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