Over the past two decades, Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis has identified upwards of 1,500 looted antiquities by scouring museum holdings and auction house offerings, and matching up objects of dubious provenance with photos taken from the archives of disgraced dealers. Now, the Denmark-based professor, former field archaeologist, vigilante provenance researcher, and repatriation advocate — whom convicted antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici characterized as “doing terrorism toward the auction houses and the museums” — is calling upon the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to repatriate an ancient Roman fresco fragment. The 23-by-17 inch painting scrap, he says, is linked to American art antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht Jr., who was accused of trafficking in looted art.
For six decades, Hecht sold Mediterranean antiquities to leading museums and prominent private collectors. He regularly supplied the Getty Museum with artifacts in the 1980s and 1990s and allegedly participated in a tax fraud scheme that involved private collectors donating trafficked antiquities to the Getty. After a raid of Medici’s warehouse of unprovenanced artifacts in 1995, Italy began to investigate Hecht for his part in an international antiquities trafficking operation; Hecht had, for example, acquired a looted Etruscan vase from Medici, which he sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (It was repatriated in 2006.) Shortly after Medici was convicted in 2004, Hecht was indicted, along with Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True. For Hecht and True, the multi-year trial ended without a conviction when the statute of limitations on the charges expired. Hecht died shortly after the case ended in 2012.
When French and Italian officials raided Hecht’s apartment in 2001, they found his personal memoir along with “letters, antiquities covered with soil and wrapped in plastic shopping bags, as well as Polaroid and regular-print images depicting restored and unrestored antiquities, some still ‘very dirty with earth,’” Tsirogiannis wrote in his article “Nekyia: ‘Woman on a balcony’ at the Jean Paul Getty Museum,” published in the Journal of Art Crime in December 2019. The researcher — who has traced numerous artifacts to Hecht, including a helmet currently on offer at Christie’s — describes a bundle of photographs, connected to one another with string, depicting antiquities ranging from vases to figurines to mosaics.
A fresco fragment currently on view at the Getty Villa was among the antiquities in the photos, he says. “Woman on a Balcony” is believed to be part of a large Roman Second Style wall painting, which perhaps decorated a dining room. It was painted in Italy — Tsirogiannis suspects that it was made in Pompeii — sometime between 10 BCE and 14 CE. In the image, a woman in a loose tunic and matching cap drinks from a cup as she balances a pitcher against a balcony railing. The fragment belonged to antiquities collectors Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, who first exhibited the work publicly with the Getty in 1994 and donated it to the museum — along with 287 other objects — in 1996. The Getty also purchased 33 artifacts from the Fleischman collection.
Tsirogiannis explains in his article that the Getty recently updated the online provenance for the object and revealed that the Fleischmans acquired the fragment from Fritz Bürki, who regularly acted as a criminal front for Hecht, according to Tsirogiannis, who cites Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini’s 2007 book The Medici Conspiracy. In 2007, two years after the museum’s antiquities curator was indicted for trafficking, the Getty repatriated 40 objects to Italy. One of the objects in the return was a second fresco fragment — a Pomepiian lunette depicting Hercules — that the Fleischmans had also acquired from Bürki, making “Woman on a Balcony” even more suspect.
Tsirogiannis brought his findings to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which has a task force that is dedicated to fighting antiquities trafficking.
“The next steps regarding the repatriation of the fresco to Italy, belong exclusively to the Manhattan DA’s Office, after I sent them, last January, my academic article … which includes all the relevant evidence and information,” Tsirogiannis told Hyperallergic.
“It is important that the fresco be returned because it belongs to Italy and because there will be a chance to be re-contextualized,” Tsirogiannis continued. “Sooner or later it will help the Italian archaeological service to locate the exact monument and the exact part of a wall at this monument from where originally the fresco was cut off.”
Lord Colin Renfrew, a leading archeologist at the University of Cambridge, questioned the legitimacy of the fragment’s provenance in 2000 and has recently echoed calls for the fragment’s return. “One can presume it to be looted when it really has no respectable provenance,” Renfrew told the Observer. “You need a provenance going back to the beginning of the century to be of any value.”
When Hyperallergic reached out to the museum for comment, a spokesperson said: “Getty continually researches the background and provenance of items within its collection and considers new evidence when it is presented. We have a longstanding policy of returning objects to their country of origin or discovery when the research indicates it is warranted.”
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