Thursday, November 18, 2010

What the Italians in the Marion True Case Should Have Been Seeking from Museums

Hugh Eakin interviewed Marion True last month in the New Yorker, clearly on her side in the "ordeal", noting that the defense never made its case (it never presented its case, true enough, but surely there was a case to be made based on the massive amount of circumstantial evidence offered in Watson and Tedeschini's Medici Conspiracy).

True does deserve some sympathy as a pawn in a bigger game, but the stakes of that game are not made clear in the article. A comment by "Anderson" on Eakin's interview offers what is probably the consensus view of the case's relationship to the broader issues it is enmeshed with, those of the black market trade in looted -- not merely illicit -- antiquities and the impact museums have and could have on that market:

I have been following this case and what a black joke it all is. The international traffic in pillaged art is a huge and hugely depressing problem for anybody with an ounce of humanity and love of art, history and culture. But. It has to be said that Italy is a train wreck of a country, politically (I love Italy in every other way), with a president that has spent the last decade or so urinating on the rule of law there, where the garbage can't even be collected reliably, and where they cannot even begin to stop organized crime from the ongoing looting of their cultural heritage, very often even the heritage in their museums, much less what is buried in the ground in Puglia or Sicily or wherever. Much of the rest of the world with a significant archaeological history is in much worse shape. So the Italians prosecute a woman, not even the museum she worked for, to send a message to museums, which aren't even a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg of the problem, and have actually been really trying to help as best they can over the last couple of decades, as one would expect, dedicated as they are to the love of history, art and culture. I bet there are a lot of lawyers out there who are really happy though.

No doubt Italy has its problems, including finding adequate resources to protect its vast holdings, as we see from the collapse of the gladiatorial building in Pompeii and the plastering of advertisements on palazzi in Venice. And no doubt museums -- even museums as wealthy as the Getty -- buy only a tiny fraction of what is looted. But it would be wrong to conclude that what museums do makes no difference or that museums have been helping as best they can. Museums have a vested interest in bringing artifacts that are out of the ground into their collections, not in protecting those not yet excavated. Adopting a clean-hands policy is the least, not the best, museums could do. The best would be to forcefully urge their collector-donor-board members to support measures to clean up the antiquities trade (by legal changes making it much more difficult to traffic inadequately provenanced antiquities, reversing the burden of proof, etc.), and to urge those same wealthy collectors to voluntary donate and/or ask the government to impose taxes on antiquities sales to raise money that would be dedicate to the hiring of more site guards, satellite monitoring, or any one of dozens of ways in which looting of sites could be reduced. The shame of this prosecution is that it did not send that message to museums.

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