A smuggling ring put at least 110 Italian antiquities up for sale at Sotheby's Holdings Inc. and supplied 96 looted objects to 10 museums around the world, according to charges contained in Italian indictments and a judge's sentence of a convicted smuggler.
The global scale of the alleged ring's trade -- worth tens of millions of dollars and involving museums from Tokyo to Toledo, Ohio -- is outlined in a series of cases that Italian prosecutors are bringing, in part to keep looted archaeological artifacts from auction houses and museums, the papers obtained by Bloomberg News show.
``A critical point has been reached, where the laxness, and sometimes the complicity of some museums in the U.S., and elsewhere, has been exposed,'' said Colin Renfrew, 68, a Cambridge University archaeology professor and member of the U.K. House of Lords. ``The current trial is an important one.''
Sotheby's, the largest publicly traded auction house, helped the alleged ring launder looted artifacts, Judge Guglielmo Muntoni of the Rome Tribunal wrote in sentencing Roman dealer Giacomo Medici, 67, to 10 years in prison for receiving and exporting stolen antiquities.
``Selling and re-buying the same artifacts, Medici and his associates were able to trade in `clean' works of art, sellable to whomever they wanted at the prices they themselves set at auction,'' Muntoni said in his decision filed May 12, which catalogs 110 items Medici put up for sale from 1983 through 1994 at Sotheby's in London and New York.
Medici sold stolen antiquities at Sotheby's ``thanks to the absolute absence of controls on the part of the auction house and the complicity offered by its employees,'' Muntoni wrote.
Sotheby's isn't charged with any crime, and Medici, who says he's innocent, isn't serving his sentence while he appeals.
Sotheby's spokeswoman Helen Griffith in London said the company conducted a 10-month review of its antiquities business in 1997. ``It found no substantive deviation from the company's longstanding policy that employees may not violate or assist in the violation of the laws of any country,'' she said.
The review came after U.K. journalist Peter Watson's 1997 book ``Sotheby's: Inside Story'' and an accompanying television documentary used company documents and hidden-camera reporting to show how the auction house facilitated smuggling and sold antiquities known to have been stolen from tombs.
As a result of the review, Sotheby's stopped holding regular antiquities sales in London and appointed a worldwide compliance officer, Griffith said.
Watson's report and testimony were among the evidence used to convict Medici, and will also be presented at coming trials in Rome, the court documents say.
Prosecutors in Rome are building cases against at least 11 others besides Medici, including the former antiquities curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Marion True, and an assortment of art dealers and restorers, the documents show.