Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Dec. 2002, amended in March 2022, Sept. 2022,  Oct. 2022, Nov. 2022

Art Theft

Mona LisaThe most famous case of art theft in the 20th century was, no doubt, the disappearance of Leonardo's La Gioconda. It went missing from 1911-13 and was recovered when the moron who stole it from the Louvre in Paris tried to sell it (!) to a museum in Florence.

Art theft is a major problem in much of Italy, and Naples is no exception. Paintings and statues of varying degrees of worth disappear all the time from small, unguarded churches, and pilferage is of great concern even at major archaeological sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are relatively well guarded. (I recall, however, a friend familiar with Mexican archaeology telling me once as we walked around Herculaneum how incredible it was to him that you could actually walk right into the buildings and touch everything. "They wouldn't let you near anything this valuable in Mexico.")  There's no telling where much of the stuff winds up —probably in the hands of private collectors elsewhere in the world. Sometimes the authorities get the material back, sometimes they don't. 

This morning's paper carried a story of what counts as a major "bust" in Naples. They have arrested a gentleman who had 21,000 objects of artistic or archaeological interest in his home in Campi Flegrei (the Flegrean Fields) outside the city. The gentleman in question has been very busy over the last few years scouring the area known as "Magna Grecia" — ancient Greek colonies on the southern Italian mainland. His collection, obviously meant for illicit sale to collectors elsewhere, ranges from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages and includes pottery, bronze items, and even fossils. 

Sometimes, you can be sitting on top of something of interest. In many of those cases it is best to let things lie and not say anything; at least, that is the opinion of those average citizens sitting on top of it. Because of the long and tortured history of the subsoil of Naples, most of the streets in the old historic Greco-Roman center of the city — although they lie accurately over the street grid of the old city — are, in some cases, as much as 40 feet above the ancient streets themselves. In the case of the actual, geographic center of the old city, the intersection of via dei Tribunali and via San Gregorio Armeno, where the modern churches of San Lorenzo and San Paolo Maggiore now stand, that area was buried by a massive mudslide in the sixth century. The excavated site of the Roman market place below San Lorenzo is the only major excavation in the old city. 

Thus, all of the buildings within a few squares blocks of that site have basements that would count as museums anywhere else in the world. Bits and pieces of ancient Greece and Rome are simply sticking out of the walls if you go down below the ground floors of any building in the area. Should the shopkeeper call the museum to come and get this piece of mosaic or that tile or vase? Maybe not. They might close down the shop and declare the poor man's business a national treasure. Even worse: they might form a committee to decide what to do.

amphitheater vedius pollio

Above ground ruins are another sticking point. There is a large remnant of a Roman amphitheater on the western hillside of Cape Posillipo (photo, left). It is near the exit of an old Roman tunnel beneath that hill. The amphitheater is, however, on private property and may be visited only by appointment through various cultural or tourist organizations two or three times a year. The owner's point of view is that if everyone in Naples opened their property to archaeological "culture vultures," then there would be no private property in Naples. Everything, it seems, is on top of something interesting. 

added March 2022: There is an extensive overview of large-scale looting and plundering of Italian (including Neapolitan) work of art by the Nazis in WWII, by the forces of Napoleon in the late 1790s and early 1800s  and, to a lesser degree (and confined to the Kingdom of Naples) by British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, at this link.
added Sept.2022
More than 70 stolen antiquities, some more than 2,000 years old, were seized from collections in the U.S. and returned to their native countries of Italy and Egypt this week. The items include a mummy portrait and a marble head of the goddess Athena. Authorities say "[The] pieces represent thousands of years of rich history, yet traffickers throughout Italy utilized looters to steal these items [that] ...have sat in museums, homes, and galleries that had no rightful claim to ownership." Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime has said there was no question about whether the artifacts were stolen or not, [but]..."museums have information about items in their collection, why aren't they the ones digging into it?"

Along that same line, The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is returning ancient sculptures and other works of art that were illegally exported from Italy. The Getty will return a nearly life-size group of Greek terra-cotta sculptures known as "Orpheus and the Sirens" (image, above) dated from the 4th century B.C. Getty bought the sculpture in 1976 and it has been on display for decades. The Getty museum also plans to return other objects, including a "colossal marble head of a divinity" from the 2nd century A.D. and an Etruscan bronze incense burner from the 4th century B.C.

[jm] welcome all this because I like museums. There are those who shrug and say "who cares?"
Candid curators of fine museums will say they know they have bought things from art-smugglers. What were they supposed to do, say "no"? The smuggler will just sell it elsewhere. At least in their museum the items are on respectful display. There are many things to consider, not least of which is the illusion that the art world will ever recover from the devastation and plundering of WWII. (See my item from January 2022 at this link.)

added Oct. 4 2022

John Oliver's HBO "Last Week Tonight" item on "Museums" is here. Oliver, a Brit, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, usually, has nasty things to say about his ex-overseers, and this one is no exception. He has it in for the British Museum. To be fair, he has it in for all major museums, all art-auction house, and all those who steal art (here called "loot", plunder") or sell it or display it. A few excerpts:

“If you are ever looking for a missing artifact, nine times out of 10 it’s in the British Museum... It’s basically the world’s largest ‘lost and found,’ with both ‘lost’ and ‘found’ in the heaviest possible quotation marks.” He mentions the Elgin Marbles, aka the Parthenon Marbles, taken from Greece in the 19th  century by Lord Elgin and currently in the British Museum. “They weren’t lost. They were taken, which is clearly worse. It’s like being unable to find the last puzzle piece and learning that you didn’t actually misplace it. A British earl snuck into your house, stole it, and then sold it to a museum over 1,000 miles away.”                                This collection (image, right) Benin Bronzes is held in the British Museum

Oliver slammed the “unbelievably patronizing” arguments of those who defend the British Museum and other
repositories of stolen goods. Some claim the objects were taken in a different time ― and that means there’s a different context to consider. He deals with the Benin Bronzes*  "...The British Museum is proud of these. In 2018 an investigation by French journalists reported that over 90% of Africa's cultural heritage is held outside Africa by major museums."

A Nigerian historian says the so-called Benin Bronzes make him proud to be Nigerian, but he saw them for the first time in the British Museum and says "Sadly, most Nigerians will never see them."

*The Benin Bronzes are a group of several thousand metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal
of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Edo State, Nigeria. Collectively, the objects form the best examples
Benin art and were created from the thirteenth century by artists of the Edo people. Apart from the plaques,
other sculptures in brass or bronze include portrait heads, jewellery and smaller pieces. Most of the plaques and
other objects were looted by British forces during the Benin Expedition of 1897 as imperial control was 
consolidated in Southern Nigeria. About two hundred pieces were taken to the British Museum in London,
while the
rest found their way to other European museums. A large number are held by the British Museum with
notable collections in Germany and the United States.

Oliver's piece is amusing, as one expects. Importantly, it is a condemnation of the fact that all major museum  work
with known art thieves and knowingly receive stolen (looted) property. Art auction houses are complicit. They knowingly auction off loot. All of these agencies grow evasive when questioned.The topic is vast, says Oliver, and there isn't time to touch on everything, yet he finds time  for an overly long (and overly cute) segment of a "payback museum" full of empty boxes that should contain looted items
but, golly, they've been stolen. That's why the boxes are empty. Get it?

There are different questions here that Oliver doesn't go into: (1) Should we even have museums? (2) How else can one see great worlds art and sculpture.(3) Will the art world ever recover from WWII? There are still hundreds of thousands of objects stuck in storehouses, objects that will never be returned. Oliver's video is linked in the first line of this entry. He makes some good points for the uninformed.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
added Nov.2022

The Mysterious Case of the Coffee Table of Debauchery

The first five Roman emperors were Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The first one, Augustus, is widely judged as one of the greatest leaders in history. The others were neurotic and sadistic pigs. The worst one was Caligula, who ruled briefly (thank God) from 37 to 41. He was as depraved as they come. I feel dirty just thinking about the coffee table made out of a mosaic that originally ornamented one of Caligula's giant barges of debauchery. Most sources focus on his cruelty, sadism, his extravagance, and sexual perversions. An insane tyrant.

To start in a cleaner place, there's a small lake 30 km (19 mi) south of Rome - lake Nemi. It's circular and volcanic. It has a surface of only 1.67 km2 (0.64 sq mi) and a maximum depth of 33 m (108 ft). Excavations in the lake in the 1920s brought up pieces of two giant barges, built for Caligula. Replicas of these barges are now in Rome  the National Roman Museum. Bits of the actual ship hulls that survive are at the Museum of Roman Ships in Nemi, right by the side of the lake. The barges were gigantic: 100 meters long; 20 meters wide; 6 decks, displaced 7,400 tons, and carried a crew of 700-800 (sic)! That was the large one, the floating palace, with lots of marble, mosaic floors, heating and plumbing, and amenities such as baths. The smaller barge was probably nice, too. They were recovered from the lake bed in 1929. The ships were destroyed by fire in 1944 during World War II.

And the coffee table? The mosaic (above, right) is a 4
1/2 sq.-foot geometric piece made up of rich green and white marble and purple-red porphyry, a type of rock textured with crystals that was the choice of Roman emperors. It had been part of an inlaid floor in one of the barges. At some point in the confusion of post-WWII Germany, that mosaic disappeared. It didn't walk off. It was stolen. Looted.

Imagine the surprise of Helen Fioratti, an art dealer who owns a gallery for European antiques and lives in Manhattan on Park Ave. She told The New York Times in 2017 that she and her husband, Nereo Fioratti, a journalist with Italy's  Il Tempo newspaper, had bought the piece in good faith from an Italian noble family in the 1960s and had no reason to suspect they were not the mosaic's rightful owners. Once the Fiorattis brought the mosaic home to their Park Avenue apartment, they affixed it to a base to turn it into a coffee table. "It was an innocent purchase," Fioratti said. "It was our favorite thing, and we had it for 45 years." But prosecutors for the Manhattan district attorney's office say the mosaic was stolen from the Nemi museum. In September 2017, they seized the mosaic and returned it to the Italian government. It is now back in the Museum of Roman ships in Nemi (image, above).

Fioratti is an art dealer. She knows about documents of provenance (a list of earlier owners to trace how an object gets from here to there to somewhere else). An innocent purchase in good faith? "Good faith" for these scavengers is when they take money out of the collection plate in church.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
added Nov.26- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This is a bullet-point summary of articles linked above:

  • Climate protesters in Europe have stepped up attacks on art. Museums have banned bags and coats. Museums have hired extra guards.
  •  In London, it didn’t work. Last week, members of a group called Last Generation threw black liquid at one of Klimt’s major works, “Death and Life.” A protester had brought the liquid into the museum in a hot water bottle strapped to his chest. The Klimt, protected by glass, was not harmed, but security team could only have stopped the attack by invasive body searches, “like at the airport...if we do that, the whole idea of what a museum is dies... A museum should always be open to the public."
  • Attacks show no sign of abating. Museum directors are settling into a nervous equilibrium, fearful but unwilling to make visitors feel welcome. So far, nothing has been permanently damaged, but an accident, or an escalation by protesters could destroy a masterpiece.
  • It started in Britain in June. Protesters glued themselves to the frames of famous paintings. Then they splattered van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” with tomato soup and doused others in pea soup, mashed potatoes and flour. (image, above)
  • Many works are protected by glass. Yet protesters in Paris poured orange paint directly onto a silver Charles Ray sculpture outside the Bourse de Commerce.
  • Over 90 art institutions issued a statement, saying they are “deeply shaken” by the “risky endangerment” of art works. The activists “severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects.”
  • Protests call themselves activists. They raised the stakes in October when one of them threw soup over Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in the National Gallery in London (image, above).
  • Some museums have taken timid steps. Some have banned visitors from taking bags or jackets into the museums. Others have made no changes. Some inspect bags at their entrances, but the checks are often cursory and wave visitors through without checking backpacks.
  • A bag check can't do much anyway, since items like tubes of glue are easy to hide. If they want to attack an art piece, they will find a way.
  • Politician are speaking out. Italy’s culture minister has said his department might cover all paintings with glass. That is expensive and entrance fees would rise. They have glazed paintings for decades but cannot do that quickly for all of the remaining paintings. Non-reflective glass is costly.  A painting of moderate size — a square yard/meter— costs about $1,000.
  • The Hiscox insurance firm advises museums to put more works behind glass but does not require it.
  • Besides, a barrier between art and audience can be contrary to the spirit of work. Take Picasso’s 1937 antiwar masterpiece “Guernica". It was “a symbol of freedom and the fight against fascism. The most you can do is have more security guards. Or close the museum.
  • There is no silver bullet. You can hope the protestors remain “genteel, middle-class liberals” who took steps to avoid permanent damage.
  • Florian Wagner, 30, the member of Last Generation who threw the black mixture at the Klimt painting in the Leopold Museum, said he knew before-hand that the work was protected by glass. He practiced the stunt five times at home and knew it would not disfigure the painting. “We are not trying to destroy art" but to “shock people” into acting on climate change. He's done with protests. “I think I’ve made my point,” but was sure others in Austria and across Europe would continue. The actions would only stop, once governments “act on this crisis.”

               to home page                      to art portal                        to top of this page

© 2002-2023