Marion “Tomb Raider” True is accusing her former employers, the Getty Museum, of acting all like they didn’t know nothing about her buying habits. Although she officially served as their Curator of Antiquities from 1986 – 2005, in fact, True was a super high-end picker of Greek and Roman loot with the Spending Budget of the Century. NYTimes reports that, in her legal defense, she delivered a copy to the Italian court of her own letter she wrote to the Getty directors back in December, in which she accused them of leaving her to “carry the burden” of the institution’s collecting practices, even though her superiors at the museum and the trust had “approved all of the acquisitions made during my tenure.”
So far, the most fascinating character in what already purports to be a fabulous tableau of the art-loot underworld is an Italian archaeologist, Pietro Casasanta. And here I quote at length from the NYtimes, because what Casasanta says is so blunt, it’s awesome:
“For 50 years we were experts in archaeology, and then from one day to the next, we became common thieves,” said Mr. Casasanta, referring to his fellow clandestine excavators. Although he knew he was breaking the law when he scoured the countryside for ancient treasures in recent decades, he continued, he also knew that he could get away with it.
“No one bothered us, starting with the police,” he said, noting that he used to dig with gigantic machinery that would have been hard to miss. “It was unprotected for 50 years; no wonder so much material was unearthed.”
Mr. Casasanta’s testimony offered a broad picture of antiquities dealing until around 1995, when the police forced him to close down his shop in Rome after investigating his transactions.
Describing himself as a “loose cannon,” Mr. Casasanta told the court how he sought to present pieces he sold as legally excavated and then inflated their value by buying them back at auction. He also described an intricate web of relationships between tomb robbers and dealers in Italy and abroad, typically in Switzerland and Britain.
But mostly he defended his profession, claiming that through his nighttime forays, thousands of works of art were saved from potential destruction by future urban development. “If it weren’t for tomb robbers, people wouldn’t be seeing vases in museums,” he said. “I deserve to be nominated as a lifetime senator for the cultural pleasure I have allowed people to have.”
Repeatedly Mr. Casasanta emphasized that tomb robbers and dealers had worked in relative tranquillity, even while knowing that their digs were technically illegal. “What you consider law, I considered otherwise,” he said.
I draw 3 lessons from this passage:
1. Archeology is under pressure, and has been for 50 years. It is not just a shortage of funds that prevents proper scientific excavation, it is also rapid urbanization destroying the sites themselves.
2. The market incentive to see profit from these goods insured that they reached public collections. At least this is what Casasanta argues, and that the Italian state knowingly permitted a parallel world of market-driven black archeology to compensate for their own inadequacies in state-funded, officially-sanctioned archeology.
3. Auctions are used to wash these goods. This is no different than the painting business.
Now Marion’s own defense tactic, essentially admitting that she knew of the problematic origins of her purchases but that so did her bosses, is sure to turn up the heat on Getty….which we can only assume is the point of the whole trial in Italy and in Greece. Getty right now is playing real stubborn about what it’s going to give back to those countries. Currently they’re offering to give back 26 objects to Italy (here they are), but the Italians are claiming 46 (or 52, amount shifts). Most famously, they’re demanding back Victorious Youth
Victorious Youth. Greek bronze statue, c.350BC
That’s right, Getty is refusing to give a Greek statue back to Italy…. so what’s up with that? Since this piece deserves its own post… I’m gonna do that, just as soon as I get down to the library to read up from Joseph Alsop’s The Rare Art Traditions which has a telling analysis of this object’s murky history, but let me just leave you with this hint: look at the legs….