What’s in Your Museum?

The Asteas krater
“95 percent of all antiquities in the U.S. have been smuggled.”
John Cooney, former curator of ancient art, Cleveland Museum of Art

Our story begins with a pot and a pig.

In 1970, an Italian man working on a canal near Naples discovered a remarkable piece of crockery: a 27-inch-tall, double-handled chalice or krater, black with red painted figures. A black marketeer offered the worker a million lire ($1,533 then) and a suckling pig for the chalice. An old pot was useless; a pig, the worker could use.

The black marketeer then sold the krater to Gianfranco Becchina, owner of the Antike Kunst Palladion gallery in Basel, Switzerland. Becchina recognized the krater as a masterwork by Asteas, a Greek vase painter active in Paestum (an ancient Greek colony outside present-day Naples) between 350 and 320 B.C. It was worth a lot more than a pig.

Of course, this was all totally illegal.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property banned the export or sale of heritage works without the permission of the country in which they’re found. Any free-range antiquities surfaced from 1970 on are supposed to be turned over to the national authorities.

Becchina didn’t usually wait for antiquities to come to him. He employed a small army of tombaroli (tomb robbers) to pillage Etruscan tombs in Italy. He could call on forgers to whip up false documents. The tombaroli dug up the artifacts and Becchina laundered their histories, then sold them for a handsome profit at auction (sometimes using assumed names) or through a network of other dealers.

Big-name museum curators would cherry-pick the best pieces while winking at their sketchy provenance (discovery and ownership history). The Louvre, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford were all customers. So was Jiri Frel, chief curator of antiquities for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Frel spied the now-clean Asteas krater in 1981 and bought it from Becchina for $250,000.

Crime paid well. Becchina’s profits allowed him to revive his family’s artisanal olive-oil business (served in the White House!) in Castelvetrano, Sicily, his boyhood home. Sure, he had competition from Giacomo Medici, a Geneva-based dealer who ran his own cadre of tomb raiders and smugglers, but there was plenty of business—and money—to go around.

But then a group of armed robbers swiped eight ancient Greek vases from Melfi castle in southern Italy in January 1994. The Carabinieri’s Cultural Heritage Protection Unit (the “art cops”) launched Operation Geryon to recover the vases.

That October, the Carabinieri followed a tip to antiquities dealer Antonio Savoca’s home in Munich. They found the stolen vases and a card catalog of Savoca’s sales and contacts, including Luigi Coppola, who’d fenced the Melfi swag through Savoca. The police put Coppola and his accomplice Pasquale Camera under surveillance.

Camera died in a car crash in August 1995. His car trunk and apartment disgorged papers and photos of antiquities so freshly excavated that some still had dirt on them. One showed a certain red-on-black krater from Paestum attributed to Asteas, by now nestled in Malibu’s Getty Villa. The evidence eventually led to seventy raids and nineteen arrests…

Even thieves have organizational charts
…including Danilo Zicchi, whose apartment had been a shipping point for looted artifacts. There the Carabinieri discovered the blockbuster clue: Camera’s handwritten “organigram”—org chart—of the Italian antiquities-smuggling trade. At its top was Robert Hecht, a major New York art dealer who sold pieces to the Met; immediately below him were his two major suppliers, Medici and Becchina.

On September 13, 1995, Italian and Swiss police raided Medici’s Geneva gallery and warehouses. They found 10,000 antiquities, sales records, correspondence with major dealers and collectors, and thousands of photos tracking the progress of artifacts from the ground to the museum vitrine or auction podium. Multiple arrests ensued.

Becchina retired to his Sicilian olive orchards in 2000, leaving his wife Ursula to run the Basel operation. However, the net was finally closing on them. After years of investigation, the art cops raided Becchina’s gallery and three of his warehouses in May 2002. The haul included 6,315 artifacts in various stages of restoration, over 7,400 photographs of relics (many sporting fresh dirt), and 13,000 documents in 140 binders.

The Italian justice system being glacial in its movements, Becchina’s wheeling and dealing—though diminished—kept rolling. Collectors and curators still bought from him despite the seizures, the arrests, and the avalanche of evidence against him. It wasn’t until a fourth Becchina warehouse was busted in September 2005 that his brand finally became toxic.

Becchina managed to hold off the prosecutors until his conviction for smuggling and looting in February 2011. He remains free on appeal, turning out Olio Verde while writing aggrieved letters to his local newspapers.

Museums, police, and the Italian and Greek governments are still tracking down the tens of thousands of artworks Becchina and Medici looted over more than thirty years, following pictures and documents seized in the raids to relics for which the current owners in many cases paid hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars. The Met, the Getty, the Toledo Museum of Art, Princeton, Emory University, the Boston and Dallas MFAs, and numerous other institutions have returned hundreds of artifacts to Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Many hundreds of others are still in play.

Sadly, Becchina’s and Medici’s downfalls didn’t end the trade in looted art. Turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria has flooded the market with plundered antiquities—and there are still plenty of buyers who don’t care how hot their art is.

And our pot?

Faced with the evidence unearthed in Basel, the Getty agreed in September 2005 to give up the Asteas krater. Following a triumphant four-year tour of Italy, the krater at last came home to Naples on November 23, 2009, and now stars at Paestum’s National Archaeological Museum.

This little piggy went home.


Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. No pigs were harmed during the writing of his 2012 debut international thriller Doha 12, and he can account for all the pots in his living room. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and marine archaeology.

Read all posts by Lance Charnes for Criminal Element.

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