Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sicilian marble scandal at the University of Virginia

The University of Virginia Art Museum is currently exhibiting "Acrolith" sculptures which were purportedly looted from the Hellenic site of Aidone on the island of Sicily. The Italian government's efforts to retrieve these artifacts has recently been reported in the New York Times and in the university's student newspaper, The Cavalier. Although many of the details are still unknown, the story which Italian prosecutor Silvio Raffiotta tells of how these artifacts made their way from Sicily into private collections reads like a good detective novel:

(The acroliths) were illegally excavated by tomb robbers in Morgantina in the late 1970s. They are believed to represent the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, whose cult was deeply rooted in Morgantina, which fell to the Romans in 211 B.C. In all, two heads, three feet and three hands were found; the body, most likely made of wood, might not have survived the centuries underground.

In a 1988 deposition, Giuseppe Mascara, a former tomb robber and antiquities dealer, told Mr. Raffiotta that in the spring of 1979 a young man had offered to sell him the two marble heads, which he said had been excavated in Morgantina.

“They were in the trunk of a car,” Mr. Mascara said in the deposition, and of “exceptional make.” But he did not buy them “because I didn’t know the man offering them to me and because of the asking price, which was enormous.”

Vincenzo Cammarata, another antiquities dealer who has been investigated for handling looted objects, also testified that he had been shown the acroliths, in the summer of 1979.

Mr. Raffiotta’s investigations began some years later and tracked the acroliths to the London showroom of the antiquities dealer Robin Symes, who is being investigated in Italy for dealing in looted art. Before arriving in London, the objects moved through Switzerland, a typical route used to disguise provenance.


Mr Raffiotta's reconstructed "chain of title" for the artifacts ends in 1980, when Mr. Symes sold the acroliths for a reported $1 million to Maurice Tempelsman. Templelsman, a Belgian-American diamond merchant more commonly known as the long-time companion of Jacqueline Kennedy, is believed to be the current owner. The University of Virginia Art Museum is apparently acting as a broker between Mr. Tempelsman and the Italian government as he endeavors to return the artifacts after a five year period during which they are being authenticated and appraised.

I was made aware of this interesting albeit sad story of international thievery and academic intrigue by Derek Fincham who writes the blog Illicit Cultural Property. Fincham also posted the photograph of the acroliths which appears at the top of this post.




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82 Comments:

At 9:21 AM , Blogger pamelastitch said...

Wow!! This is fascinating. It is amazing how many artifacts are stolen. hmmmm

 
At 8:44 PM , Blogger Don Thieme said...

Many African "art objects" were intimately connected with living traditions when they were snatched up by dealers for a pittance in the colonial period. The archaeological trove is not as rich, although there are the wonderful Benin bronzes. The best of those are in the British Museum, of course.

 
At 4:00 AM , Blogger David Gill said...

For further comments on this "return" (if and when it happens):
http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com/2007/09/virginia-return-could-this-have-been.html

 
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