Efforts to tackle art trafficking "make looting more attractive" as a tighter black market has raised the value of the booty, Italy's culture minister said Thursday, a day after reaching a historic agreement with the J. Paul Getty Museum to recover some lost treasures.
Deals like the one announced with the Getty to return 40 artifacts to Italy by the end of the year make it "impossible for serious institutions to purchase illegally," Francesco Rutelli said, but it also has the unintended consequence of raising the value of contraband art as it becomes more precious.
"Such a decisive fight against art trafficking makes looting more attractive, in the sense that (the items) have a higher value because there are fewer," Rutelli told a news conference. "An object that a few years ago could be bought for $400,000, today is worth $4 million."
Italian authorities have launched a worldwide campaign to recover looted treasures and had been at odds with the Getty over dozens of antiquities they say were illegally dug up and smuggled out of the country despite laws that make all antiquities found in Italy state property.
Following more than a year of often-stalled negotiations, Italy and the Getty - which has denied knowingly buying illegally obtained objects - also agreed on widespread cultural cooperation, which will include loans of other treasures to the Los Angeles museum.
"The agreement is part of a strategy that we follow with great determination because we want the universal cultural heritage to be protected and we also want to eliminate the water where traffickers swim and sail," Rutelli said.
Former Getty curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht are on trial in Rome with the charge of knowingly receiving dozens of archaeological treasures that had been stolen from private collections or dug up illicitly. Both deny wrongdoing.
Ministry officials said the agreement with the museum would only affect a civil lawsuit seeking damages which was attached to the criminal proceedings at the start of the trial - but that the trial itself would continue.
Italian authorities have signed separate deals in the past with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts for the return of a total of 34 artifacts - including Hellenistic silverware, Etruscan vases and Roman statues - in exchange for loans of other treasures.
So reducing the supply has just resulted in prices going up? I seem to recall some curmudgeonly rogueclassicist type last year suggesting that would be exactly what would happen ... just to remind y'all:
Now here's the problem with the 'current trend' of returning items without some sort of portable antiquities scheme accompanying it (Greece offers finders 10% of the value of a found artifact, I believe, but I'm not sure how that system works). What the current trend of getting the Getty or whoever to return artifacts of questionable provenance will ultimately result in is a further narrowing of the antiquities market itself and NOTHING will end up being offered to museums. All the 'good stuff' will be sold under the table to private collectors and the academic world will never ever see it. What is worse (potentially) is that all this ultimately will also just drive the prices of illicit antiquities up, making them a more alluring commodity for folks to seek out and sell to their local 'dealer'. And I can't help but wonder whether we'll be hearing of more cases (like the one in Turkey) where real items are switched for fakes ...