A Trove of Stolen Treasure Looters in Italy dig up ancient treasures and sell them to the highest bidder. Some pieces make their way to the world's biggest museums. Author Peter Watson examines the network behind the trade.
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A Trove of Stolen Treasure

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A Trove of Stolen Treasure

A Trove of Stolen Treasure

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For decades, major museums and collectors generally fended off charges that many of their fabulous antiquities were acquired illegally, but the winds have changed. Marion True, once the highly respected curator of antiquities of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is on trial in Italy for conspiracy to smuggle recently uncovered treasures out of that country and onto the Getty's display cases.

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City agreed to return to Italy a Greek vase known as the Euphronios Krater. The Met played, the Met paid a million dollars for that vase back in 1972, and until this year, always denied Italian claims.

Egypt wants the Saint Louis Museum to return a 3,200-year-old mummy mask it bought in 1998, believing that it had left Egypt back in the 1950s. Egypt says it was stolen from a storage site near an archaeological dig in the 1990s.

The issues are more than academic. Who owns cultural property? Do artifacts belong to the modern-day countries where ancient civilizations once thrived? Should there be a statute of limitations? Does a hot antiquities market lead to more looting?

Later in the program, thoroughbred horseracing. As usual, there's talk of a super horse, as Baltimore prepares for the Preakness Stakes this weekend. Andy Beyer handicaps the hype. But first, if you have questions about how antiquities get from an ancient ruin to a big-city museum, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK, and the e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Ralph Frammolino is staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize with a reporter Jason Felch on their coverage of the antiquities scandal at the Getty Museum. He's with us now from the studios at the L.A. Times. Thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. RALPH FRAMMOLINO (Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And how serious is this case against former Getty curator Marion True?

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: Well, it's fairly serious, and at least the Italians are very serious about getting a conviction. One of her co-conspirators in the trial, and she has two...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: ...one of her co-conspirators has already been convicted and assessed one of the largest fines ever in an antiquities case. He's appealing his conviction, and they're using much of the same evidence against Marion True.

CONAN: And it seems this controversy has spread to academia as well. NYU got a $200 million gift from a controversial source, and now some people, at least, have resigned saying that if they accept this, they're agreeing with practices that are illegal.

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: Yes, cultural property is becoming the third rail, and many, what used to be very pocket kind of concerns--archeology, museum world--but it sort of reflects, I think, the larger globalization that we see in economics. We're finding source countries that used to be the providers, cheap providers of some very fabulous cultural property now saying, now, wait a minute. We want to control that. We want to control our own cultural destiny. And a lot of the consumers, the Western nations in particular, are now being faced with demands to return things that they, well, arguably knew were hot.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Which countries in particular are affected?

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: Well, the source countries are Italy, Greece, Turkey. You're looking at China now. There's a lot coming out of China and Southeast Asia, and of course, Mesoamerica. We're talking about Peru, which recently sued one of the museums in the East--and the name escapes me--for returns of, return of an object. So those are the source countries now, and then the consumer countries are the United States, Great Britain, France, the Western countries, and also Japan.

CONAN: And as, one of the things that I guess a lot of people have a hard time believing is antiquities, this was all dug up years and years ago. It was Troy. We all remember that, but this stuff keeps coming up.

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: Neal, the whole issue of antiquities goes back to when the first army made its first conquer and conquered its first civilization. Antiquities or trophies--artwork were always trophies, and they were brought back. If you can't bring back the head of your enemy, you bring back an obelisk.

What's happened is, starting in the 1970s, there has been a gradual, and now it's gotten to a point where it's a sea change. It's almost, you talk about Tsunami. It's a Tsunami in this area where the countries around the world recognize that there was a lot of looting going on. There was a lot of illicit trading, and this wasn't fair. This wasn't fair for the cultural integrity of the countries that were being ripped off, so a movement started with UNESCO in the 1970s. There was a convention that has been signed now by 109 countries in which they say we are going to respect our colleagues and what their laws say. If Italy says you dig this up after 1939, it is the government's, and it's therefore our property. We respect that.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: And that has then come together with a lot more push on the part of source countries to exercise their rights. Mexico has done this. Italy has done this. Turkey has done this, where they have filed either civil suits in the United States, or they have asked the federal government--through the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty--to help them recover, help them bring criminal cases against people who were involved in the chain that brought looted antiquities to rest in, you know, museums and private collections here.

CONAN: And one of the things that some people are asking about, as well you know, is is there a statue of limitations? After all, that Euphronios Krater that was found in Italy, originally from Greece. How'd they get it?

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: Well, that's true, and that's why the people in, within this realm are--the debate now is not so much should we do this, but what is the date we should have that would be sort of like the date where we'll say, okay, after this date now, we're going to really start enforcing these laws.

Many people who are sort of hardliners within the archeological community say 1972. That is the date. If you have anything, if you acquired anything after 1972 and you don't know its ownership history or provenance, it's looted. Others, the Getty, when they, here they made their decision that 1995 would be the date that they would enforce this.

And there, recently, as I understand it, Switzerland has come out with a brand-new law saying as of now, from now on. And so, essentially, grandfathers in all these other objects, and it does away with these arguments that, well, you know, if we give the Euphronios Krater back, we're going to have to empty our entire collection, because it's all ultimately looted, so this now is the debate that's going on. Where do we draw the line, because people are now recognizing a line needs to be drawn.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get a listener involved in the conversation. And by the way, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, e-mail talk@npr.org. This is Dave. Dave's calling from South Lyon in Michigan.

DAVE (Caller): Yes, actually, the gentleman just answered my question about the antiquities that are already in museums, whether or not they would get taken away.

CONAN: And remains to be seen, I think, is still the answer. But isn't that--isn't that, Ralph Frammolino, isn't that really the question that's pending, in a way, in this trial in Italy?

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: Well, this trial in Italy is unique. And it's unique because, for the first time, the Italians were able to get pretty hard evidence that the things that they're looking at…

And by the way, it's not just the Getty. There are other museums now, that are on the hook for this material, because it went through a major supplier--Giacomo Medici is his name…

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: …it went through his warehouse. What they were able to do is they got photographs. They've got 4,000 photographs, or Polaroids, of these objects as they appear, as they came out of the ground. Things like--at the Getty Museum, there's a photograph of this wonderful table footing of griffins eating a fallen doe. Well, it's all broken up and it's wrapped up in an Italian paper and—newspaper--and it's in a car trunk. Well, that's obviously looted.

And so, they were able to use this, and to trace it to the Getty, and to present what they think and are arguing are--is irrefutable proof. And this has really kind of galvanized the movement by source countries.

And through technology and being able to trace things through the Internet, they were able to trace things to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts--which this week, is going to Italy for discussions about repatriating objects; to Princeton--which this week is going back to Italy.

They traced it to New York, and we know about what the Met did. They traced it to the Getty. We're talking about museums in Toledo, Cleveland, Minneapolis. So we've just started to see some of the dominoes falling in this cultural, patrimony debate.

CONAN: Dave, thanks for the call.

DAVE: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's go to Neal, Neal calling from San Francisco.

NEAL (Caller): Yeah, well, you know, there's this argument on the other side that most of these source countries were notoriously indifferent to their art history, archeology, and all the rest, until fairly recently. And that the Western archeologists who went in and found these things, and dug them up, and all of that, were really saving them from the terrible neglect and indifference.

In fact, in ancient--in medieval Rome and even in early modern Rome, they were using the model columns from the forum for--tearing them down and using them for new buildings. And so I think this is a--and today, to this day, the Islamic countries by and large--there may be some exceptions like Turkey--are very--are antagonistic to their ancient civilizations.

For example, it was the Greeks who built many of those great, beautiful cities in Turkey. And the Islamic people have no interest in that stuff at all. The Egyptians don't care about the pyramids essentially. Obviously, some do, but the majority don't.

So we're saving--by bringing these things to the West, we're actually saving them and we're seriously studying them. And, in many cases…

CONAN: Let's give Ralph Frammolino a chance to respond because we're running short on time, Neal.

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: Well, they're really good points that this listener is bringing up, and that's, in fact, true. I mean, Italy itself, which is bringing this prosecution, they stole obelisks from Ethiopia. So they had to--one of the things they had to do was return one of the obelisks back to Ethiopia because they were bringing in charges against the Getty and these other museums.

I mean, nobody's hands are clean. And, yes, you're right, these nations have neglected this in the past, and museums do have a legitimate question about--I mean, we're not hiding this stuff. It's out on glass showcases and…

NEAL: One more--hello?

CONAN: I'm afraid we don't have time, Neal.

NEAL: Quick question, oh.

CONAN: I'm afraid we don't because we're running out of the break. And, in fact, we have to say goodbye to Ralph Frammolino as well: staff writer for the Los Angeles Times who was kind enough to join us from that newspaper's radio studios today. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. FRAMMOLINO: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: We'll be back after the break. If you'd like to join us, again, the number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK; e-mail is talk@npr.org. Who owns the artifacts that are pulled from the ground? Should museums have to give them back after having them for many years?

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Several American museums have recently been asked to return some of their prized antiquities. Greece and Italy have both pressed museum directors to hand over pieces they say were stolen, looted and sold to the highest bidder. If you have questions about how these articles are found, how they find their way into museums, give us a call: 800-989-8255; e-mail is talk@npr.org.

At our Web site, NPR.org, you can read about the 1995 raid on suspected tomb raider Giacomo Medici's warehouse in Geneva and see some of the vases, frescoes and other antiquities that police found there.

How do those objects, though, get from the site of an ancient ruin to our museums? Peter Watson writes about this in his new book, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums.

He's with us now from the studios at the BBC's broadcasting house in London. Very nice of you to join us today on the program.

Mr. PETER WATSON (Author, “The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums”): Good evening.

CONAN: And that name, Giacomo Medici, is coming up a lot in this program already. He was already convicted in this ongoing trial in Rome.

Mr. WATSON: Yes, he got--as Ralph Frammolino was saying--he got 10 years and a $12 million fine--though under the Italian system, he's appealing. But it's the largest sentence ever carried out, because he was the major figure in a wide network of people, and he was the sort of center of the web. Everything went through him in his warehouse in Switzerland. And by a series of accidents and clever investigations, the Italians got onto him in 1995 and found 4,000 objects in his warehouse and lots of photographs and documents…

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. WATSON: …which is--have led to the current trial in Rome and his own trial, which was ended in 2004.

CONAN: But how did these objects find their way out of the ground and into Mr. Medici's warehouse?

Mr. WATSON: Well, one of the things that was found in the course of the investigation, was a piece of paper, which the Italians called the organigram(ph). Which was a layout of the network--this underground network. And this shows a series of tomb robbers scattered around Italy, and how they bring the objects to Mr. Medici, who has a house north of Rome. And he was responsible for buying them from the tomb robbers, and then transporting them to the warehouse in Switzerland.

And at that time, of course, over the past 20 or 30 years, once they are smuggled into Switzerland--so far as Swiss law was concerned--it was then quite legal to export them. And they went out through auction houses, mainly Sotheby's in London, and to collectors around the world and to museums in Germany, Denmark, Japan, America, Britain, and elsewhere.

CONAN: Mm hmm. And if you think that this was a, you know, a process whereby, well, famous pieces are put on the market--there're examples of walls, entire walls, uncovered in Pompeii, that were smashed into easily smugglable bits. You also report in the book, on vases, you know--these ancient vases that were smashed and then shipped in little bits, so that they could be put together back at a museum, in Los Angels.

Mr. WATSON: That's right, and it's an answer to one of the earlier questions, that people are preserving these objects. I mean, this is, quite frankly, moonshine. During the course of our investigations, we came across one “excavation,” which was being carried out by a mechanical digger, in the south of Italy in the dead of night.

Now, this was destroying as much as it was finding. And the excavation referred to, was a villa found near Pompeii, south of Naples. And the photographs were taken by the tomb robber, of the walls of this villa, in situ. They were very, very beautifully painted frescoes. And they were partially--the room was partially covered with what we call, wrapuli(ph), which are small balls of volcanic ash, which formed when Vesuvius erupted. And these are shown in the photograph and, therefore, identify it as coming from that area.

And what then happens, and this is shown in the photographs--is that these walls are detached from the villa, they're broken up into laptop size pieces--the photographs are in the book. They are then transported by truck, from near to Naples to Switzerland. And we see them in the photographs, laid out on the restorer's table, like a giant jigsaw. The pieces are put back together in the right order, but photographed before they're joined up. Then they're photographed again after they are joined up. I mean, this is barbarism on a major scale.

CONAN: Let's get a listener involved. This is Darrell, Darrell calling us from St. Louis.

DARRELL (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DARRELL: This is a fascinating conversation. I'm in the wine business and I represent one of the estates that's owned by the Medicis. And this Giacomo's a distant cousin. But I was with, you know, the gentleman named Roberto Stucchi(ph), whose mother is mother is Lorenza De'Medici(ph). She's the foremost authority on Tuscan culture.

And he has this winery that was built in I--the early 11th century. And I was there and I noticed this clay urn on his shelf. And he said, yeah he found it when he was a kid. And he started telling me about northern Tuscany, that it's just, there's tombs everywhere up there. It's an archeological masterpiece.

And he found that--he and his friends used to play, they'd go with a screen and a shovel, and they would just sift through the soil. And he found it as like a 10-year-old boy playing on the family property. And that's when he started discussing tombaroli.

And he told me about what happens--that you could be a farmer that might be growing, let's say potatoes, and you start finding shards. Well, you're a potato farmer, you don't want your property to be seized by the government, so you hire the--so they could do a proper archeological dig.

So they hire these tombaroli, and they come in with bobcats and high-voltage lighting. And they come in at two in the morning, and they excavate it--for lack of a better word--and just yank everything out of there so the farmer could go back to farming his property and the state knows nothing about it.

CONAN: Pete…

DARRELL: (unintelligible).

CONAN: Peter Watson, does that sound familiar?

Mr. WATSON: It sounds very familiar. We have got the records in the book of a tombaroli, who was a, sort of manic about keeping records. And he kept a diary of what he found where, and how much he sold each pot or vase for. And included in the costs, were--he would pay rent to the person who owned the land, in order to have the privilege of digging there. And that person would also get a share of the proceeds. So, yes, it sounds very familiar.

DARRELL: Additionally, on his property, at Padilla(ph) Cota(ph) Bono(ph)--an 11th-century property--and underneath one of their vineyards, they discovered a fifth-century ruin. So you--I guess how old things are is very relative when you look at it like this.

CONAN: Yeah, I guess, Darrell. Let me…

DARRELL: So, go ahead.

CONAN: I just wanted to ask Peter Watson--but the other part of the story--is that farmer right in fearing that, in fact, if he finds some shards in his field, the government is going to seize his land as and, you know, spend years doing an archeological dig? And what's more, that anything they find, it isn't his, it's the government's.

Mr. WATSON: Well, actually in Italy, you can legally keep things--so long as you inform the government. So it's not quite so draconian as that. And most of the areas where the archeologists are looking, are now specified archeological sites. But yes, there's not getting away from the fact that in all the Mediterranean countries, not just Italy--but you go to Cypress and you scratch the ground, and you're as likely to find something as not.

Same is true with Turkey. These were, you know, major civilizations. And, you know, we can't go overboard here. You know, you can't come down on everybody. But obviously, when major finds are discovered, it's natural to want to excavate them properly to find out just how important it was and how much it can tell us.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. WATSON: I mean, take for example, the Euphronios Krater that you refer to. Now until the Euphronios Krater appeared, no vase by Euphronios had been found for about 140 years.

CONAN: A famous Greek artist, yes.

Mr. WATSON: That's right. We call him the Michael Angelo of classical Greece, if you like. But he--since then rather, there have been another four Euphronios vases turned up. Three of them we know were passed through the hands of Mr. Medici.

Now the possibility is quite strong that these all came from the same tomb, or villa, or repository of one kind or another. Now since he was such an important and famous artist in his day--had that, had those vases, if they were found together, been excavated in the proper way--then obviously, that would be a tremendous discovery, that we would all want to go and see when we visit Italy next. But of course we never get the chance with looting.

CONAN: Darrell, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

The concern of archaeologists in source countries where artifacts are found is understandable. So is the dilemma faced by museums and institutions around the world. After all, not all objects are acquired illegally. In 2002, the directors of 19 museums--including the Metropolitan and Getty--signed a declaration on the importance and value of universal museums. James Cuno is president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was one of the signers, and he joins us now from his office in Chicago. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JAMES CUNO (President, Art Institute of Chicago): Thank you very much.

CONAN: The declaration affirms the need to discourage illegal traffic in antiquities. It also argues there should be some sort of statute of limitations, some date after which or before which no claims will be recognized. In your mind, how would that work?

Mr. CUNO: Well, I think there are a couple of things about this. One is that no one condones the illicit excavation or digging and therefore looting of archaeological sites--that we all agree that we want to preserve archaeological sites and the information contained therein.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. CUNO: Equally, no one condones criminal activity. What is critical, however--and what needs to be addressed and what is always the bone of contention--is what to do when one is offered an object already alienated from its find spot, if they're already removed from that excavation or that site.

Not the excavation, but found by the farmer in the field kind of thing, or the looter in the field, whatever it might be. What's the museum to do with that object? And some of us feel that should there be--this is an object with incomplete or no provenance--should we turn our back on it? And if we turn our back on it, where does it go and to what purpose does it serve?

And some of us think that there ought to be--within reasonable limits--the opportunity to acquire that object, because just as you were talking most recently about the Euphronious Krater, its whereabouts was made known by the fact that the museum acquired it--the Metropolitan acquired it.

So, there's an advantage to acquiring, to study, preserving, collecting these things, presenting them to the public, and presenting them to the public in the context of a universal museum, which has comparative--the opportunity for comparisons between Mediterranean cultures, Asian cultures, Meso-American cultures--in which one can see relationships between cultures and not just distinctions between cultures.

CONAN: I also understand that, in fact, even though an object may be removed from its archaeological context, that doesn't mean it's archaeologically valueless.

Mr. CUNO: Some will say an object with no provenance, it is outside of an archaeological site, is meaningless. And, of course, that's not true. Any number of things that have been important to us have no provenance, no archaeological context to speak of. And among them one has, for example, the oracle bones in China. These are bones that were found in medicinal shops in the early part of the 20th century, therefore without provenance, no archaeological site or context for them. But nevertheless, they're the means by which we were able to verify the existence of the earliest known Chinese dynasty.

Equally true with cuneiform tablets. Much of what we know about the ancient Near East is from those tablets, and those tablets are most often without provenance, and certainly, the Dead Sea Scrolls are that way. Now, that's true, what I just said. In each of those cases, those are objects that have language on them. They're textual objects, so they're objects that can tell us things independent of their find spot. But there are certainly things like that that are important.

CONAN: We're talking with James Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and with Peter Watson, author most recently of the Medici Conspiracy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And James Cuno, I have to say, at this point, are you checking the provenance of every object--every antiquity in your collection?

Mr. CUNO: We're certainly checking the provenance of those that seem to be problematic. That is, that those that are associated with people who have proven over time to be associated with problematic acquisitions. So, we're looking at those, and then with every acquisition--potential acquisition--we look at them fiercely. That is, that we--together with our curators and lawyers--talk with the dealers, searching provenance. It takes months. We're enormously careful about it.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Now, let's get a listener on the line. This is David. David calling from Salem, Oregon.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. How are you doing? Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: My comment really didn't have anything to do with the provenance, it had to do with an earlier caller that you had who mentioned that many artifacts are actually--well you could call it looted, but you could easily as well say that educated, intelligent, trained people were able to save them and bring them to places where they could study them adequately and where they could keep them safe.

I'd like to really speak strongly to the opposite side of that. I lived in a small town in Columbia, in a town called San Agustin for many years. The valley of San Agustin is full of sites where there are large stone statues, and there's an archaeological park full of these large stone statues as well.

And when we talk about the fact that there are places in the world that are dangerous or that have governments that aren't stable or the situation isn't stable, we're ignoring the fact that looking at life as made up of governments and political situations is really only one way of looking at things.

There are people who live in this valley of San Agustin, and anyone who's been there and knows this place knows that the people in that valley have a fierce love of their statues. And they're very proud of their statues that were made by the people who lived before them on their very land in the valley where they live.

In 1929, a German archaeologist took away a large stash of the statues from San Agustin to Berlin, because he was a luminary of the archaeological world in Berlin. And, of course, Columbia was out at the end of nowhere, and he was able to get these statues to a place where he believed that they would be kept safe and could be studied.

Can you imagine what's happened to Berlin since 1929, as opposed to the peaceful countryside of San Agustin? He took them exactly to the center of the maelstrom. Now, when I went there to study these statues, there were already a number of them missing, of course.

And, in any case, the really important point for people to understand is this: out of the 34 statues that Croist(ph) took back to Berlin, there are 21 of them that can now be accounted for down in their warehouses. And you'll only get to see those warehouses if you're able to produce the type of credentials that they respect. There are only three of them on display there. And the people of San Agustin would appreciate them in the true universal museum, which would be in their original sites back in the countryside of Columbia.

CONAN: Let's give James Cuno a chance to respond to David's question.

Mr. CUNO: Well, I think it's important to acknowledge that we can't generalize upon these things, and to say that what's true of Columbia isn't true of Greece or Turkey or Egypt for that matter, or true of Iraq or Afghanistan. We have to take them case by case--not only in terms of the relative abundance of things remaining in those countries, but the relatively stability in those countries and the relative importance of seeing those objects elsewhere in the world, not only in those countries.

I would argue that the spirit of the universal museum--in contradiction with your caller--is that it's important certainly to have some representation of these things in the place from which they come. It's equally important to have them elsewhere in the world, so that people elsewhere in the world can see them. And not only them, but them in relationship to, as I said earlier, comparative examples of other cultures. And what museums today understand is what museums understood earlier in the 20th century, is that we're all for scientific excavation of archaeological sites. What we're equally for is shared access to that material.

And previously, in the first part of the 20th century, there was a practice of something called partage, by which the excavating team shared in the finds with the host country, and returned to (unintelligible), to London, to Paris, to Chicago, to New York, to Boston with a portion of those objects for further study and for greater appreciation by other people in the world. So it's really about shared access and about scientific excavation and about preservation.

CONAN: James Cuno, thank you very much. I know you're busy. Appreciate your time today.

Mr. CUNO: Thank you.

CONAN: James Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, with us from his office there in Illinois. More on this point when we come back from a short break. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a Senate committee it may not be possible to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq this year. In addition, Gen. Peter Pace told the same committee it will be months before any Iraqi army units will be ready to operate completely on their own.

And the Senate continued its attempt to pass an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws today. Conservatives pushed through an amendment that calls for a 370 miles of fencing along the U.S./Mexico border. Details on those stories, and, of course, much more coming up later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION at this time, best-selling author E. Lynn Harris began writing about the invisible life of black male bisexuals years before the down low phenomenon went high profile. Now he sets his sights on a new target, homophobia in the black church. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

In a few minutes, racing towards the Triple Crown. Horse racing's Preakness is this weekend. All eyes are on Barbaro and Pimilico. But first, the trade in looted antiquities. Our guest is Peter Watson, author of the Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Rudy. Rudy's calling us from Clarksville, Tennessee.

RUDY (Caller): Yes, sir. I was wondering, if museums get a lot of their pieces from private collectors, what would be the implications of, you know, more restrictive international laws on private collections that may be donated to museums? Would these pieces then be relegated to the black market, where they're bought, sold, and traded and never see the light of day?

CONAN: Mm hmm. Peter Watson, that mechanism--as you describe it in your book--is a very important one.

Mr. PETER WATSON (Author): Yes. I think--but the likelihood is that the opposite would occur, because I think that's what the Italians' plan is at the moment.

I mean, it's very, very difficult--if you're trying to crackdown on this trade--to chase all the thousands of tomb robbers in one country and catch them and punish them. What you do instead, is you try to close down the market, the illicit market. So, you put pressure on the collectors, and you put pressure first on the museums--which is what is happening now--not to acquire unprovenanced objects, either directly from the market or from collectors who normally donate to museums either for tax breaks or for the sort of intellectual and social prestige that it brings.

And far from this going anymore underground--I mean, let us not forget that it is already hugely underground. And the process that we're now in the middle of with this trial is trying to stop this by approaching the market countries and shaming them into stopping this, by doing exactly what they Italians are doing now by bringing people to trial and showing the ins and outs of how the traffic in this world actually works and the damage that it does.

And never forget that the people who make the money here, the big money, are the middlemen. The people who bring it from Switzerland to America, from Switzerland to Denmark, from Switzerland to Japan. It's not the small people on the ground who make any real money here.

CONAN: And Rudy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

RUDY: Thank you.

CONAN: And it's part of your argument that, in fact--there's museums, yes--but collectors too have driven up an enormously hot market in antiquities that, in fact, is spurring even more looting.

Mr. WATSON: Yes. I mean, I think the point to recognize--two points I'd like to make. One is that people on my side of the argument are not against objects of antiquity being in all the museums around the world. We think that that is right. There is a kind of museum of mankind, if you like. What we are against is the illicit looting, and how best to stop that. And I think that it is the way the Italians are proceeding is a more effective way than chasing the tomberoli.

Now, the Euphronious Krater that we keep coming back to--why that is so important is that in 1972 when the Met acquired it, it paid a million dollars for it. And it was real headline price. The price of an Impressionist painting. Up to that point, no antiquity had sold for more than, I think, $125,000, and various people said that similar objects were on the market for as little as $25,000. So in paying this--in overpaying by such a large amount for this eye-catching krater, there is a sense in which the Met created a market.

The people in Italy went crazy when they heard this, and redoubled and re-tripled their efforts to find objects. So there is a direct link between the money and the looting.

CONAN: We should say, of course, tombaroli, the Italian word for, basically, tomb raiders; I think that's right.

And here's a--finally, an e-mail question from Mark(ph), in Little Rock.

(Reading) "My former employer has a very large collection of ancient Native American artifacts, which I suspect are stolen. Who do I contact to turn him in? I feel as if these items rightfully belong to the tribes they were stolen from."

Mr. WATSON: Well, there is, I forget, I've forgotten his name now, but there is a police force in the American National Parks Organization, which takes on this responsibility. So that's not a very, perhaps, close definition, but I'm sure your caller will know all about the American National Parks. And under that rubric you'll find their investigative unit.

CONAN: Okay. He can probably find the Park Service at gov.org--U.S.--anyway, he can find it through the Park Service. Anyway, and finally, I just wanted to clarify, though, that Native American antiquities, they are part of this, as well?

Mr. WATSON: Well, yes, they are. I mean, the point is if they are smuggled out of America, then yes they are. I mean, Britain is in the same dilemma, in the sense that we are a market country. We, you know, the auction houses deal in elicit material from Greece and Italy and Egypt, and so forth. But we also have our own Roman History, our own Stone Age History, and things are found.

But we have, what many people think is, the most sensible of all laws. And that is, if you find an object on your land, you take it to the British Museum, which will give you a--put a market value on it. And then the Museum can either buy it from you for that value, if they think it's important, or you're free to sell it or to keep it.

And this, so far, works well. But it doesn't entirely stop smuggling.


Mr. WATSON: Because, you know, the British Museum is not flush with funds, so its market valuations tend to be on the low side and people often think they can get more by smuggling it abroad. But that is a law that I know many people on both sides of the argument think might be another way forward.

CONAN: Sounds like Antiquities Road Show almost.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But the--and where are we on the debate over this, the so-called statute of limitation? Should it be 1972, 1995, today?

Mr. WATSON: Well, I think most archeologists would go for 1972, because, firstly, you can't go back throughout history. I mean, it would just be chaotic. And where would you stop? It has to be somewhere fairly modern. And so most archeologists, I think, would go for that; they tend to think that the more modern dates are too recent.

But let's face it, this area of looted antiquities is a little bit like ivory poaching, smoking--you know, attitudes and morals are revolving. And so long as the game is improving, then that's a good thing, I think.

CONAN: Peter Watson, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. WATSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Peter Watson's new book is, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities--From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums. He joined us today from the BBC's broadcasting house in London.

In just a moment, Barbaro's run for the Triple Crown.

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