The Italian and other governments are becoming far more aggressive in seeking the repatriation of looted antiquities. Italy in particular waged a long legal battle against Getty curator of antiquities, Marion True, for acquiring illicitly exported pieces, although the case finally exhausted the statute of limitations. And in recent years numerous American museums – including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Boston’s Museum of Fine Art and the Getty in Los Angeles – have been forced to return looted antiquities to their host countries. These include the famed Etruscan Euphronios krater (wine bowl) dating from 515 BC and which was bought by the Met in 1972 for $1.2m. It turned out that this had also been handled by Medici, and the museum gave it back to Italy in 2006. Just this month, the Getty said it was returning a 12th-century Byzantine illuminated New Testament to the Greek Dionysiou monastery – from which it had disappeared more than 50 years ago.
Well, I'd been on the run and was eventually arrested at my villa in Marbella.I knew one of the Italian godfathers of the mafia who also has a villa there. We are great friends. So within ten minutes of being arrested, his counsellor was in my cell. He said, "Felice cannot come but he sent you his kind regards," so then I was sent to Madrid where I dined with a very important member of the police. He arranged for me to go to prison there instead of being extradited to France where they were really after me. I had the best time of my life in jail [in Madrid]. I had the guarantee I was coming out in a year and I bought a cell phone from one of the ETA boys in there. It was like that movie Goodfellas. I had my own kitchen, my own shower, and every day I could bribe one of the guards to go to the market-it was fantastic.
I also learned to drink in Russia, because if you didn't drink with them they didn't trust you. So I learned to buy the icons like this [holds a hand over one of his eyes to show how drunk he was]. I really learned the basics there. The Russians are very educated. I had a great time, which made me forget that this was my university. This was the first time I learned about big smuggling. There was a black market and I became an outlet who had the possibilities to market everything in the West.
So long as museums continue to spend money to acquire even well-provenanced antiquities, they will be signaling that antiquities are worth a lot of money whether well-provenanced or not. That in turn will drive continued circulation of recently-looted artifacts for less-fastidious collectors around the world. Museums should certainly make provenance info about objects acquired from dealers who have been arrested, they need to do much more than that if they want to make a real difference. To begin with, all provenance information about all artifacts that museums consider acquiring — not just about artifacts sold by arrested dealers, not just about artifacts acquired, but also artifacts looked at and refused because the provenance looked dodgy — should be made available for researchers and to the police. Beyond that, museums should shift themselves, and encourage collectors to shift, away from purchasing antiquities so as to reduce demand, and museums should think of ways in which they might generate financial support to help pay for more site guards. One way would be for museums to take out of storerooms and lease out artifacts that collectors would gladly pay to temporarily display (like the Palmyra sculpture the Boston MFA showed for the first time in decades to honor the decapitated Palmyra site director). Another way would be for museums to push collectors and dealers to join them to support the imposition of a tax on antiquities sales, with the revenues dedicated to funding better and more site protection and policing of the illicit trade.
More recently, this year, the Department of Homeland Security seized seven objects in the Honolulu Museum of Art’s collection because they had been notified that the works were smuggled into America. Six of the objects came from Subhash Kapoor, whom authorities believe looted over $100 million in art. After that, the museum’s director, Stephan Jost, returned the works that Greene donated eleven years earlier and found that no signed warranty was given to the museum either.
You always have to be a step ahead of them. Most of them you could pay off, but some you couldn't. I was cocky. I would show off in their faces sometimes. It was stupidity, but I saw the news of my smuggling in the papers and I liked it, it showed them I could still do it even though they were after me. Also I'd travel on fake passports and change my appearance. Instead of blue eyes I'd change them to brown with contacts, I'd dye my hair blonde... all those corny tricks. At that time they worked.
Buried treasure, mysterious deaths, looting, forged documents, secretive Swiss bank vaults and shadowy intermediaries. This is not a description of a Dan Brown thriller. It’s real life: the trade in illegally exported antiquities. As prices soar into the millions of dollars for the top pieces, so does the incentive to dig up treasures in Italy, Greece, Turkey and farther afield, pass them to “runners” who will sneak them illegally across borders, store them in a Swiss vault and then quietly slip them into the trade. The players in this murky world can make a fortune, but this is a dangerous game.