ROME – Marion True's trial may soon be over, I was told yesterday by Maurizio Fiorilli, one of two state prosecutors leading the case, who is also the man negotiating bilateral accords on restitution with American museums. The two issues are linked. He said he is close to an agreement with the Getty over the 52 items Italy has demanded be returned. (I note that the LA Times has a similar story today.) And he said that once that is accomplished, the trial against Marion True can be expected to come to a quiet close, perhaps as soon as the next two months. He said he would withdraw the civil prosecution, and the criminal prosecutor would be expected to negotiate a jail sentence of two to three years. I was amazed at how explicitly he linked the two actions, making no bones about the fact that True’s trial is a pressure tactic to force the Getty to heel. “This is my experience,” Fiorilli said, pragmatically. “Until today, no American museum has accepted to return artifacts based on the scientific evidence.” Hence: hardball, Italian-style. He confirmed many other fascinating things that I’d learned from other sources. That will have to wait for the book.
“Sharon Waxman has written a compelling page turner about the world of antiquities and art-world skulduggery. She manages to combine rigorous, scholarly reporting with a flair for intrigue and personality that gives Loot the fast pace of a novel. I enjoyed it immensely."
“Sharon Waxman’s Loot is the most instructive as well as the most intelligent (and the most entertaining) guide through the labyrinth of antiquity and the ways in which the claims of the departed intersect with the rights of the living.”
"Loot is a riveting foray into the biggest question facing museums today: who should own the great works of ancient art? Sharon Waxman is a first-rate reporter, a veritable Euphronios of words, who not only explores the legal and moral ambiguities of the conflict but brings to life the colorful -- even outrageous -- personalities facing off for a high noon showdown over some of the world’s iconic works of art. Vivid, witty, and delightful, this book will beguile any reader with an interest in art and museums."
“Sharon Waxman approaches her subject with the passion of a great journalist and the rigor of a scholar. It may never again be possible for some of us to walk down the halls of the Louvre or the British Museum or the Metropolitan without a vague sense of disquietude, a frisson of wonder about the provenance of some of their showcase works of ancient art.”
Karl E. Meyer, author of The Plundered Past and co-author of Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East:
"Sharon Waxman’s Loot is indispensable for everyone concerned with the illicit trade in smuggled antiquities. She exposes the self-serving humbug that too often afflicts both affluent possessors and righteous nationalists and shows that we all have a stake in getting an honest account of how great objects came to rest in our grandest museums."
July 31, 2007
July 30, 2007
Here's a very good example of the difficulties posed when you start trying to reset the historical clock, and right old wrongs. This is the famed Piazza Navona in Italy, home of Bernini's sculpted masterpieces. The central monument, the Four Rivers Fountain, represents no fewer than three different epochs: Egyptian, Roman and Pontifical. A description of the monument explains its history and current renovation. But the legend tells us only that the obelisk, of Aswan granite, was found in five pieces in the Circus Maximus. A Latin inscription on the base attests that it was made for Domitius in imperial times (from where? how? a mystery.) It was brought to this spot in the mid-17th century so Pope Innocent X could build himself the most glorious monument in all of Rome on this piazza. And this Bernini did. Can this piece be deconstructed at this late stage? If Egypt were to reclaim the obelisk, what would become of the Bernini marble colossi, representing the four rivers of the world? I note this only because Rome has a surfeit of obelisks, and Egypt almost none, although it is also worth noting that Zahi Hawass seems to be giving Italy an utter pass on plundered antiquities. In any event, there are 13 obelisks in Rome alone, and far more today in Italy than in Egypt. (Here's chapter and verse on Rome's obelisks. Egypt now has seven.) I'm getting a little obsessive: I did a tour of Rome's obelisks (on scooter, a most pleasant task) and found five without much trouble, not including in Vatican square, which I missed. They are of different sizes, and were brought to Rome at different times. There used to be, until recently, an Ethiopian obelisk, taken by the Italian army during its occupation of that country in 1937. It was returned to Ethiopia in 2005. Well, at least that's a start.
Schultz, that is, who I hope is reading along. Howard, dearest: Starbucks in Egypt. Starbucks in Turkey. Starbucks in Greece. Now I'm in Rome: No Starbucks! I'm beginning to worry about you guys.
July 29, 2007
COLYBITHRES, Paros – Everyone should see Colybithres; the world would be a calmer place. It is a cove facing the town of Naoussa on the island of Paros, accessible mainly by boat, a noisy junk that for $3 motors you across to paradise. Along the way, the Aegean is bright blue beneath the prow, a sunlit sapphire enveloping your gaze. As you approach the cove, the sea turns suddenly quiet and electric green, a swirl of neon liquid. The sun streams through the pale, translucent shallows and reflects the white sand below. You land, and climb over rocks, heavy, smooth, primitive stones in curved formations, jutting out into the water. And as you swim, the world spins more slowly, your heart beats to the rhythm of the tide lapping softly against the shore. In the gentle embrace of Colybithres, old couples fall in love again, new couples come to pass. And the weary spirit remembers that, sometimes, there is perfection. On Paros.
NEXT: On to Rome.
July 28, 2007
I spoke briefly by phone yesterday to Marion True, the former Getty curator now dangling in the legal winds in Italy and Greece. And I spoke at great length to her friends, dotted around the island. Every story has two sides. Yesterday I heard the story of a much respected, widely beloved scholar who devoted 23 years of her career to improving the Getty’s poor reputation in the museum world by aggressively promoting scholarship, funding conservation all over the ancient world (the Sphinx, for example, in Egypt), giving poorly-paid Greek archeologists grants to study at the Getty institute, holding colloquia like the one to investigate the authenticity of the Getty’s disputed kouros (bought before her time). Her acquisition decisions were reviewed by a scholarly steering committee and approved by the museum director. It was True, they say, who pushed the Getty trustees to announce they would stop buying antiquities in the mid 1990s, because she felt it fed the smuggling trade (her critics say the Getty conveniently did this only after acquiring the Fleischmann collection, a largely unprovenanced group of treasures). Now, the friends say, she has been hung out to dry. That much appears to be true. The Getty is paying for her team of 5 lawyers, but have urged her to keep quiet and not defend herself. Her friends say the Getty’s aim is to protect the Getty, not True. It is a tragic tale, however you slice it: either the insidious corruption of a Harvard-educated, lover of history by the prevailing norms of a see-no-evil antiquities trade. Or the public crucifixion of a competent curator who played by the rules – and the rules lived in a grey zone -- and then found herself in the cross-hairs when the rules changed to black and white. No one in Paros, even those who don’t associate with True, think there is any substance to the charge that she had looted antiquities in her Paros home. And yet there are looted antiquities in the homes of wealthy Greeks, all over the country, who are essentially untouchable. I have been thinking a lot of what it must feel like to be Marion True, of the crushing of an individual when institutions collide. Is Marion True corrupt, or is the entire system corrupt? Her friends say she has, at points, been suicidal. There is a visible human cost to the tectonic shifts in the world of patrimony and cultural identity.
July 26, 2007
PAROS, Greece – The sun is quickly sinking over the bay of Paros, a honey-orange ball easing its way beyond the undulating hillside of this island. The light has cast a pinkish hue over the water, while a huge ship – Blue Star Ferries – slides into the port, with tourists mainly eager to mount scooters and head for the beaches. But Paros is a center of antiquity, home to many rich archeological sites, many of them fairly recent finds. Still, it’s most famous as the source of the finest marble used in the ancient world, a pale translucent stone which allows light to reflect from within. Parian marble was used, for example, for the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and many other monuments (including many by Praxiteles, whose exhibit was inaugurated last night in Athens). Paros is also the place where Marion True, the former curator of the Getty, has her second home. I am here to learn more about True, how she is viewed now that she is accused of a crime. For many years True mixed with high society, befriended the local archeologists and collectors alike, doling out grants and buying for the museum. Last year her home here was raided by police, who claim to have found illegal antiquities there. True says the pieces were in the home when she bought it, apparently a common custom around here, and that she’d informed the authorities when she bought the house. Few are willing to associate with her today. As one former friend said, anonymously, told me: “Well, when you have power, you have many friends….” Still on trial in Italy for related alleged crimes, True comes to Paros, but is seldom seen.
July 25, 2007
Quick word of thanks to you readers who have been so responsive to and supportive of this blog. Coincidentally, several of you wrote in today to ask me to include friends' emails on the bloglist, which of course I'm delighted to do. Hopefully I'm doing something right. Tonight I was at the opening of a new exhibit of the Greek sculptor, Praxiteles. Met the usual collection of diplomats, government officials and archeologists. (Cocktail small talk by archeologists is incomprehensible. May as well be Greek. Wait, perhaps it was Greek.) One Greek expert on sculpture gave me what she called the conventional wisdom on Marion True, the ex-curator of the Getty now on trial in Italy, and after that, Greece. "She's a crook," said this archeologist, in a surprising display of vitriol. "In Greece her name is mud." Tomorrow: Paros, where Marion True has her vacation home.
This is a view of the Parthenon from inside the new Acropolis Museum, where frantic construction continues on the $170 million museum being erected at the base of the historic hill. The museum, monolithic from the outside but spacious and airy on the inside, is a grand statement to the world about Greece's ability to care for its own monuments, and most particularly its most iconic treasure, the Parthenon. The man in the photo is Dimitris Pandermalis, the president of the new museum, an archeologist who has spent seven years getting this museum built. (It's late in coming, plagued by lawsuits and other such.) The top floor, where this photo was taken, is the key: its shape echoes the Parthenon itself, and it will array the marble friezes, sculptures and pediments from the building on a life-scale model, all encased by glass. So here's the rub: Greece wants England to return half of the Parthenon sculptures, which have been at the British Museum since the 1820s, taken by Lord Elgin. The British Museum is not considering doing so. This story has gone on for decades. But now Greece has an appropriate place to display them, and is attempting to reunite all the Parthenon pieces scattered in various museums around the world. Here (below) is how Pandermalis intends to exhibit the frieze of the Parthenon, with the actual sculptures at the height shown here, and with plaster casts of the many friezes still at the British Museum behind a grey scrim. You can't help thinking of that as another deliberate gesture, and as the scrim as a kind of shroud. Pandermalis, however, is anything but emotional. "It's the pride of the nation," he says quietly. "But I prefer to be silent on the issue."
I need to take a moment to tell you about the spectacular, historic hotel where I'm staying for a few days in Athens. The hotel Grande Bretagne is linked in every way with the tumultuous changes that have transformed this country from a dusty outpost of the Ottoman Empire into a modern, independent Greek state. It opened for business, roundabout 1874, in response to the need for luxury accomodations for rich European travellers exploring the origins of Western civilization. (I picked up a fantastic book in Egypt with travel writings from the time, including a list of recommended dos and donts. The writer recommends leaving your maid at home. "No lady who values her peace on the journey, or desires any freedom of mind, or movement, will take a maid," someone named Harriet sagely wrote in 1846. "What can a poor English girl do who must dispense with home-comforts, and endure hardships that she never dreamed of, without the intellectual enjoyments which in her mistress compensates for the inconvenience of Eastern travel?") Happily, by the 1870s, this was resolved, in Greece anyway, with the opening of this hotel. The Grande Bretagne, a seven-floor palace in colonial style, has long been a landmark along Syntagma Square, just beside Parliament, but today it is something even more special. The Greek family that owns the hotel, the Laskiridis, undertook a massive renovation in 2001. The entire hotel was closed for a year and a half, and gutted. It is fair to say no expense was spared to transform the place into the glittering gem it now is, with a rooftop pool, a terrace with a breathtaking view of the Acropolis, antique furniture, heavy silk drapes in the rooms, beautiful linens, towels. I could really go on, but I won't except to say the spa is not to be missed. The family, I am told, sunk $130 million into the renovation, a gesture to luxury and the art of living, rather than a savvy business decision. Beyond all that, the staff is both professional and warm, from the concierge to the security staff, always ready to solve a problem or offer advice. This is one of those rare places that are worth the trip.