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Case in Italy suggests MFA received stolen art

Museum says it received no proof

From left, a two-handled jar depicting the murder of Atreus, a portrait statue of Sabina, and a vase for bath water. Photographs of these were seized in raids.
From left, a two-handled jar depicting the murder of Atreus, a portrait statue of Sabina, and a vase for bath water. Photographs of these were seized in raids. (Museum of Fine Arts)

Italian prosecutors preparing for this month's high-profile antiquities smuggling trial in Rome have seized photographs of three ancient objects -- a vase, a jar, and a statue -- that could make the strongest case yet that Boston's Museum of Fine Arts acquired stolen art in the last 25 years.

The evidence, which has surfaced in connection with Italy's decades-long attempt to force American museums to return looted art, has led the investigators to compile an additional list of 29 objects in the MFA's collection that they suspect were taken from ancient sites largely throughout Italy.

The list obtained by the Globe is included in court documents being used to prosecute former J. Paul Getty Museum curator Marion True and dealer Robert E. Hecht Jr., who are accused of handling and receiving stolen objects and taking part in a smuggling ring. Both have maintained their innocence. The trial begins Nov. 16.

While the trial centers on the Getty's distinguished antiquities collection, Hecht has also sold or given more than 100 objects to the MFA over the years.

The vase and jar in the MFA collection are from the Apulian region in the south of Italy. The third item is a marble statue from Greece. The Polaroid photographs that depict those objects were seized in raids at Hecht's Paris home in 2000 and convicted art smuggler Giacomo Medici's warehouse in Switzerland in 1995.

According to prosecutors, the photos show the items dirty from being pulled out of the ground.

''It is the smoking gun," said Ricardo J. Elia, a Boston University archeology professor who has extensively researched the trade in antiquities from southern Italy. ''It means they came out of the ground; they were looted and cleaned up and sold. That's about as strong a case as you're going to find."

MFA officials said yesterday they have yet to hear from Italian authorities. The museum has long disputed that works in its collection were stolen, an assertion underscored yesterday.

''There's absolutely nothing we've seen or heard that proves anything to us," said Katherine Getchell, the MFA deputy director who oversees the museum's curatorial departments. ''We would be more than happy to hear directly from the Italian government and if, through that process, we find that any object in our collection has been stolen, we will absolutely return it to its prior owner."

The Italian government has long contended that American museums built their antiquities collections by buying works dug up by art looters. As far back as the early 1970s, Italian officials appealed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other institutions to return items they suspected had been stolen. But the requests have largely been ignored, with museums insisting that they needed proof that the items had been looted. The key breakthrough occurred in 1995, when Medici's warehouse was raided. The dealer kept detailed records and photographs of pieces he had acquired from looters, scrubbed clean of dirt, and then placed in auction houses and with dealers, prosecutors say.

The MFA came under scrutiny through its dealings with Hecht, who has sold or given about 116 objects to the museum over the years. Hecht made deals with Medici and, on his own, took part in many controversial sales. In the 1970s, the Italian government ordered him out of the country and Turkey banned him during the 1980s. Italy continued to investigate him, leading to the current charges that he was part of a smuggling ring that ended up bringing valuable objects into the Getty collection.

The photos seized in the investigation are considered important because, for the first time, they could potentially place in the ground objects with virtually no recorded history of ownership. Some of Medici's photographs showed dirt-encrusted works pictured next to a newspaper to date when they were removed from the soil.

Paolo Ferri, the Italian prosecutor on the case, said in an interview this week that he intends to turn his attention to other American museums, including the MFA, after the Hecht and True trial is over.

''Boston has many questions to answer," said Ferri. ''They have to convince me that they were working completely in good faith. Now they have the knowledge that they have acquired stolen artifacts. Are they worried? I don't know. Do they want an agreement? I don't know. But, they do have a moral obligation to give back the items to the victim, which in this case is Italy."

Ferri said the photographs show clear signs that items now in the MFA were pulled out of ancient tombs in the 1970s. Virtually all Apulian vases were buried in tombs in Southern Italy.

''The photos had the articles still dirty from the earth," he said.

The three photographed items were acquired by the MFA with little information of their history.

Fritz Burki, a Swiss art restorer who worked with Hecht, sold the Greek statue to the MFA in 1979. The MFA purchased the vase from the Royal-Athena Galleries in New York in 1988, four years after it was acquired in a sale in Sotheby's Auction House. A pair of New York collectors purchased the jar for the MFA from Burki in 1991. While the piece is 2,300 years old, MFA records have no details of its ownership before it reached the museum's hands.

That raises questions for archeologists like David W.J. Gill of the University of Wales at Swansea, who has challenged the antiquity trade over the years.

''Here is something that's two and a half thousand years old, and it's in pristine condition," said Gill. ''Any museum curator with an ounce of integrity would say: 'We cannot justify keeping it in our collection. We have to give it back.' "

Royal-Athena Galleries owner Jerome Eisenberg, reached by phone, said he bought the vase in good faith from Sotheby's.

''There's no way of knowing for sure, but the fact that they found a photograph with dirt on it shows there is a good possibility it was taken out of Italy illegally," he said.

When told of the seized photograph in the court files, the MFA's Getchell said: ''This is really hypothetical, and I can't respond to hypotheticals."

This is not the first time the MFA has faced pressure to return artifacts with suspicious provenance. In 1998, the Globe detailed how the MFA had acquired 61 Greek and Roman antiquities over the previous 15 years that had no provenance, or ownership history, a strong indicator they had been looted.

In response to the Globe articles, the MFA promised to work harder to create a provenance of works in the collection. In 1999, the museum returned to France a Roman bronze statue suspected of having been stolen. Last year, the museum returned a painting to Poland that had been plundered by the Nazis.

''We're not hiding anything," said the MFA's Getchell. ''The provenance of the objects is on our website. We are really trying to do everything we can to be transparent and play a leadership role so that if there is a claim, it can come to us. But it needs to come to us directly from the source."

Ferri, the Italian prosecutor, said that he did contact the MFA, as well as other museums in 1995, by sending a CD-ROM with photographs of questionable items.

The MFA said that it has no record of receiving the disc.

The museum said that it has not ruled out purchasing works from Hecht in the future, though the accusations against him do raise a red flag.

''I'd have to think long and hard about it," said Getchell. ''We are not in the business of blacklisting anybody."

The MFA accepted a piece as a gift from Hecht as recently as 2004. He donated a silver piece, ''Mounted Statue," in honor of retiring curator John J. Herrmann Jr.

In a phone interview from his New York home, Hecht said yesterday he was innocent of the charges he is about to face in Italy. He also denied he had sold stolen works to the MFA.

He spoke warmly of the museum, and mentioned attending Herrmann's farewell party at the MFA last December. He said he is angry about the charges against them, and believes he is not being treated fairly.

''You know the Bible, don't you?" he said. ''When they were going to take Jesus to be crucified, he said, 'Forgive them for they know not what they do.' "

Geoff Edgers reported from Boston; Sofia Celeste reported from Rome. Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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