David Gill, archaeologist, reflects on the news that a number of antiquities acquired by the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid appear to feature in the dossier of Polaroid photographs seized from dealer Giacomo Medici.
In 1999 the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid acquired 181 antiquities from the Spanish financier Jose Luis Varez Fisa for $12 million. Varez Fisa was listed in the 2009 ARTNews list of top 200 collectors. At the time the then museum director, Miguel Angel Elvira Barba, was quoted: “We have taken an enormous step forward both in terms of quality and quantity; [this] collection now puts us among the ranks of the greatest museums in Europe and the US.”
Now a piece of investigative journalism by Fabio Isman for the Art Newspaper has thrown light on the origins of part of the collection. Working with archaeologist Daniela Rizzo of the Villa Giulia, a Rome museum with major holdings of objects from the cemeteries of Etruria, and Maurizio Pellegrini, who has expertise in using photographic and documentary evidence, Isman reports that some 22 objects from the former Varez Fisa collection have been tentatively identified in photographs seized from two dealers based in Switzerland: Giacomo Medici in Geneva and Gianfranco Becchina in Basel.
These photographs, often showing objects still covered with deposits or in a fragmentary condition, have been used as evidence that previously unknown archaeological sites have been disrupted to provide items for the market. Many of the 120 or so objects returned from North American public and private collections to Italy in recent years are reported to feature in the Medici Dossier.
One example from Madrid is an Athenian black-figured amphora that shows the Greek hero Herakles wrestling with the Nemean lion while watched over by the goddess Athena. The pot appears in the Medici Polaroid photographs still covered in salt deposits suggesting that it was fresh from an archaeological deposit. Cambridge researcher Christos Tsirogiannis has identified the same (but restored and cleaned) amphora in two photographs seized by Greek police at the residence of an antiquities dealer on the island of Schinoussa. The amphora then passed to a New York private collector, was sold at auction in New York in 1997 for $145,500 and thence apparently to Varez Fisa.
The Madrid museum has yet to respond to the identifications.