The Medici Conspiracy

The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities-- From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museum


By Peter Watson

By Cecilia Todeschini

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The story begins, as stories do in all good thrillers, with a botched robbery and a police chase. Eight Apuleian vases of the fourth century B.C. are discovered in the swimming pool of a German-based art smuggler. More valuable than the recovery of the vases, however, is the discovery of the smuggler’s card index detailing his deals and dealers. It reveals the existence of a web of tombaroli — tomb raiders — who steal classical artifacts, and a network of dealers and smugglers who spirit them out of Italy and into the hands of wealthy collectors and museums. Peter Watson, a former investigative journalist for the London Sunday Times and author of two previous expos’s of art world scandals, names the key figures in this network that has depleted Europe’s classical artifacts. Among the loot are the irreplaceable and highly collectable vases of Euphronius, the equivalent in their field of the sculpture of Bernini or the painting of Michelangelo. The narrative leads to the doors of some major institutions: Sothebys, the Getty Museum in L.A., the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York among them. Filled with great characters and human drama, The Medici Conspiracy authoritatively exposes another shameful round in one of the oldest games in the world: theft, smuggling and duplicitous dealing, all in the name of art.


Praise for The Medici Conspiracy
"Written like a classic crime story, this true-life tale kicks off with a botched robbery and police chase. Authorities raid the villa of a Munich-based antiquarian to discover a collection of [fourth] century B.C. vases soaking off encrustations—and traces of theft—in a . . . swimming pool full of water and caustic chemicals. As the plot thickens, a cast of crooked art dealers, shady collectors, and formidable art institutions are implicated in an investigation that steers Italy's Art Squad to a Geneva warehouse filled with looted national treasures. The warehouse's owner? Giacomo Medici, Italy's most nefarious art dealer. With one of the book's main players, Marion True, the J. Paul Getty Museum's former antiquities curator, on trial for conspiring to purchase stolen antiquities . . . even the timing of this book is a work of art."
TIME (Europe), named one of the ten best books of 2006
"This is a devastating charge, and anyone with an interest in ancient art and archaeology will want to examine it carefully . . . [the] book provides the most comprehensive account yet of the investigation that led to True's trial, and contains much that will be of interest to anyone trying to understand the underground antiquities market and what should be done about it.... Watson and Todeschini are at their best in describing the detective work that led Italy's special art police unit to Medici's warehouses and then to Robert Hecht and other dealers."
The New York Review of Books
"Gripping. . . . As a portrait of venality, The Medici Conspiracy is both shocking and compelling."
The Observer (UK)
"The Medici Conspiracy is not, as its title might suggest, an allusion to historical Florentine intrigue—though the tale is worthy of such a connection.... Written like a detective story . . . the book is a thoroughly researched . . . and accessible read."
The Guardian (UK)
"The Medici Conspiracy documents convincingly—indeed takes the lid off—the extraordinary way that some of the world's most famous museums, aided by some of the most prominent collectors, have paid corrupt dealers millions of dollars to obtain notable antiquities looted from ancient sites in Italy and beyond and then illegally exported.... Watson and Todeschini have written a fascinating account of conspiracy and corruption in high places. It will rock the world of the complacent collectors who ask no questions. It shows how several museums have undermined their own reputations. And it is a rattling good read."
The Evening Standard
"[A] gripping crime story of epic proportions."
"Writing with the zest and seduction of the finest crime novelists, Watson and Todeschini . . . offer an invaluable primer in antiquities . . . [and] a dramatic, fascinating, and rightfully indignant report on outrageous avarice and crimes against civilization."
Booklist STARRED* review
"In light of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recent decision to return a rare—and by the Italian government's contention, stolen—vase painted by the Greek master Euphronios, Watson and Todeschini's colorful account of Giacomo Medici, an antiquities dealer found guilty of looting last year, and his illegal business dealings, is wonderfully prescient . . . they are at their best when chronicling the international adventures of various investigators, such as the Carabinieri Art Squad's raids on various Italian criminals to recover lost loot."
Publishers Weekly
"Giacomo Medici's international criminal network stretched from Italian tombaroli looting antiquities under cover of darkness to fraudulent dealers and high-profile institutions such as Sotheby's and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Watson and Todeschini combine methodical research with the tension of a thriller and genuine passion for their subject. They explain the tricks resorted to by smugglers and write movingly of the loss of our archaeological heritage caused by the careless dismantling of ancient sites. The Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas caused international outrage, but Watson and Todeschini suggest that comparable damage is being done across the world every day."
Scotland on Sunday
"This is not about the Medici but Giacomo Medici, the spider in the middle of a web of illegal art smuggling. The looting of tombs and archaeological sites is big business in Italy and, as Watson and Todeschini's book shows, some very important institutions have been caught buying the looted goods. They are particularly good at showing just what is lost when an archaeological site is compromised—beautiful objects without provenance [are] another clue to history lost. Reading almost like a thriller at times, this is an exciting exposé of a huge criminal trade."
Publishing News
"This title, which combines art history with the pace of a crime thriller, exposes the illegal trade in ancient artifacts and provides a useful background to trials currently taking place. Together, the authors reveal how looted objects have appeared in some of the most prestigious museums in the world."
The Bookseller
"Like a good crime novel, the pace is fast. The evolving plot is intriguingly complex. The villains are highly organized and unrepentant. The evidence is convincing, some beyond reasonable doubt. The goods are high-quality treasures and the handlers' profits enormous. The modi operandi include guns, chainsaws, ceramic bashing, charm, and threats.... The crimes against heritage involve reckless, intentional, and permanently depriving behaviour . . . the authors spare no punches—the antiquities market [is] stripped bare."
British Journal of Criminology
"A 'true-life thriller' rich in documentation and proof."
Corriere della Sera (Milan, Italy)
"Virtue prevails, as it must: and that is the story of this book. It is argued with a force comparable to the wrath of Cicero arraigning Verres, the rascal among connoisseurs in Late Republican times.... We join Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini in condemning the scrabblers and raiders who have supplied the demand . . ."
Times Literary Supplement
"[A] landmark exposé…"
American Journal of Archaeology

THIS IS A BOOK about art, about the great passions it arouses and the crimes those passions can lead to. In particular it is about very beautiful ancient sculptures and exquisitely painted Greek and Etruscan vases, art works that tell us so much about the great civilizations of the classical world, which are the foundation of the West. It is also about an ugly conspiracy to rip these grand and important objects from the ground and smuggle them abroad. It proves beyond doubt for the first time that a good number of the antiquities in many of our most prestigious museums, and held in the best-known collections, have been illegally excavated and passed through the hands of corrupt dealers, curators, and auction houses, shaming us all. The conspiracy has been the subject of painstaking investigations by the Italian authorities that have led to a series of groundbreaking trials that have shaken the world of archaeology and antiquities-trading to its core.
For this paperback edition, one or two errors have been corrected, and the text has been updated to take account of events since hardback publication in Spring 2006. This includes an entirely new chapter (Chapter 21) on important revelations in Greece.

ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 1972, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced—via an article in the New York Times Magazine —a sensational new acquisition. It was an exceptionally rare Greek vase, a calyx krater in the terminology of the classical world, meaning that it was a two-handled bowl, used for mixing water and the strong, heavy wine the ancient Greeks produced (they did not drink their wine "neat"). This krater was very large, designed to hold seven gallons of liquid, and very old, having been produced in the sixth century BC. It had been "thrown" by the potter Euxitheos and decorated by the painter Euphronios, who is acknowledged to be one of the two or three greatest masters of Greek vase painting. His works are so rare that the last important piece before this one had been unearthed as long ago as 1840. About eighteen inches high, the vase showed ten massive, beautifully fashioned ochre figures on a black background. The main figure was the dying, naked Sarpedon, son of Zeus—the greatest of all Greek gods—oozing blood from three wounds and being lifted up by the twin gods of Sleep and Death. The great warrior had delicate locks of reddish hair, and his teeth were clenched in a paroxysm of death. In other figures, young men were preparing for a battle that could kill them, the delicate lines of their armor beautifully rendered—in browns, red, and shades of pink. Not the least remarkable thing about "the Euphronios vase," as it became known, was the price paid for it by the Metropolitan Museum—$1 million. This was the first time $1 million had ever been paid for an antiquity.
No sooner was the news about the acquisition made public than controversy erupted. Many—including several prominent archaeologists and museum curators—thought that the Met had been duped. Cornelius Vermeule, then acting director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, pointed out that a number of comparable vases were on the market, some for as little as $25,000, and that the most anyone had ever paid for a krater of similar size and age was $125,000. John Cooney of the Cleveland Museum of Art appraised the vase at between $150,000 and $250,000, whereas Professor Ross Holloway of Brown University said $200,000 was the limit. On this reckoning, the Met had paid four to eight times what the krater was worth.
Still more controversial was the way the Met had actually acquired the vase.1 In February 1972, some months before the public announcement, according to the account given at the time, Dietrich von Bothmer, the curator of the Greek and Roman Department, had received a letter from a certain Robert E. Hecht Jr., an American dealer in antiquities then living in Rome. Educated at Haverford College, Hecht was the heir to a Baltimore department store fortune but had been living in Europe since the 1950s. In his letter to von Bothmer, Hecht had described the vase he had on offer as the equivalent—in beauty, importance, and price—to an impressionist painting. (The Met had itself opened the age of million-dollar impressionists with its then recent acquisition of Monet's Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse, for which it had paid $1,411,200.) Hecht gave it as his opinion that the vase on offer was the equal of the famous calyx krater in the Louvre, generally regarded as one of the three greatest pieces of pottery known.
In June that year, 1972, Thomas Hoving, the director of the Met, along with von Bothmer and the Met's deputy director and chief curator, traveled to Zurich to view the krater. Von Bothmer later said, "When I saw the vase I knew I had found what I had been searching for all my life." Hoving was more grandiloquent.
To call [the vase] an artifact is like referring to the Sistine Ceiling as a painting. The Euphronios krater is everything I revere in a work of art. It is flawless in technique, is a grand work of architecture, has several levels of heroic subject matter, and keeps on revealing something new at every glance. To love it, you only have to look once. To adore it, you must read Homer and know that the drawing is perhaps the summit of fine art . . . I found the drawing the finest I had virtually ever observed. One long, unhesitating line that sped from the wing of Sleep through his arm in a pure stroke was genius.... I tried to think of something comparable, from any time or any master. I could only think of the so-called Alexander sarcophagus in Istanbul, the precious drawings in the illuminated Book of Hours created for the Duke of Berry by the Limbourg brothers around 1410, and the watercolor of the bird's wing by Albrecht Dürer in the Albertina in Vienna. They were all unique masterworks, yet none had the same sense of soul.
There was no haggling over price, so it was said, and Hecht hand-carried the vase to New York at the end of August. Before it went on display, the cracks that covered the surface were painted over, at museum expense, and von Bothmer began to prepare a scholarly article on the vase to supplement the piece in the New York Times, which had been placed via Punch Sulzberger, a Met trustee and a member of the family that owned the paper.
To begin with, both Hoving and von Bothmer were coy as to exactly how they had acquired the krater, and about the cost, though the director, who appeared with it one morning on the Today show on ABC TV, admitted that the vase would be insured for $2 million. Hoving had told the reporter who compiled the initial New York Times story that the vase had been in a private collection in England at the time of World War I. Hoving said that he didn't wish to be more specific about the owners "because they have other things that we might want to buy in the future."
The veiled explanation didn't stand much scrutiny. Many archaeologists were skeptical about Hoving's account from the very beginning because the Etruscansa had always had a predilection for Euphronios, and it was generally assumed in the profession that the krater had been discovered on an illegal dig, somewhere north of Rome. In the trade, too, it was realized that a vase by Euphronios—who, after all, was very famous, the equivalent in the ancient world of Michelangelo or Picasso—could not have lain for half a century unknown in a private collection.
Then there was Hecht, the dealer. At that time he was persona non grata in Turkey following a scandal in which, on an internal flight from Izmir to Istanbul, he had taken out some ancient gold coins to examine them. An air stewardess noticed the coins and informed the captain, who radioed ahead to the airport. On arrival, police were waiting for Hecht, arrested him, and seized the coins, which they discovered had been illegally excavated. The coins were therefore confiscated and Hecht expelled. He had also been arrested in Italy in the early 1960s, implicated in an antiquities-smuggling scandal, but acquitted.
The editors at the Times began to sense that the story they had run about the acquisition of the vase had been part of a carefully orchestrated presentation. No one likes being a patsy, and so the paper assigned a team of reporters to verify the real story. One of them, Nicholas Gage, began by delving into the customs records at New York's Kennedy Airport for August 31, 1972, the day when it was said that the vase arrived. After several hours, he found records for a vase valued at $1 million that had arrived that day aboard TWA flight 831 in the company of one Robert E. Hecht Jr. Flight 831 came from Zurich, so that's where Gage went next. In Zurich, he interviewed three dealers, each of whom said he had heard that the vase had been dug up in late 1971 in a necropolis north of Rome and was sold to Hecht by a well-known middleman for a little under $100,000. In Rome, others gave Gage the same story.
Meanwhile, back in New York, von Bothmer had been a little more forthcoming. He first of all confided that the vase could have come from England—or it could have come from Italy. "But it doesn't make any difference whether it was the 3,198th vase or the 3,199th vase found there." All that mattered, he said, was whether it was genuine or fake, and how beautiful it was. "Why can't people look at it simply as archaeologists do, as an art object?" This statement severely damaged von Bothmer's credit among archaeologists. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, Margaret Thompson of the American Numismatic Society spoke for many when she wrote: "I am outraged.... [A]ny archaeologist worthy of the name knows that the place and circumstances of discovery are of great significance for the archaeological record." She was supported by the newsletter of the Association for Field Archaeology, which argued in an editorial that publication of the fantastic price of the krater had "at one stroke" enormously inflated the market for all antiquities. "The purchase cannot fail to encourage speculators whose objectives in acquiring ancient art . . . lie in the tax benefits to be saved by donating the objects to museums or educational institutions at their new market value.... As long as acquisition at any price is to be the credo of our major collections, they will fail to serve the cause of knowledge and serve only to incite resentment and encourage crime." And in fact that year, at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), traditionally held between Christmas and New Year's Day, and called in 1972 in Philadelphia, the scholars delivered a humiliating rebuke to von Bothmer. He was a distinguished man. A German by birth, he had studied at Berlin University and at Oxford with J. D. Beazley, the great historian and connoisseur of Greek vases. Von Bothmer was wounded in World War II, in the Pacific, and awarded the Bronze Star for heroic achievement—all this before joining the Met. That year, 1972, he was one of those slated for the six-strong board of trustees of the AIA—a nomination that is normally tantamount to election. But just before the vote, a seventh nomination was made from the floor. Von Bothmer came bottom of the vote—and out.
In speaking about the vase, its English provenance was not all that von Bothmer revealed. He also confirmed that he had first seen it in the garden of Fritz Bürki, a restorer who was listed in the Zurich directory as a sitzmoberschreiner , or chair mender. The vase had been broken, von Bothmer said, but had been reassembled and was complete, save for a few slivers. Von Bothmer further volunteered that, at the Met, if they were offered an object without a pedigree, or provenance, their normal policy was to submit a photograph of the object to the authorities in those countries "that might consider the object part of their cultural or artistic patrimony." That procedure hadn't been followed with the Euphronios vase, however, because—it now turned out—Hecht had provided a pedigree. He said that the krater had belonged to an Armenian dealer named Dikran A. Sarrafian, who lived in Beirut, Lebanon. Hecht had provided two letters from Sarrafian, one dated July 10, 1971—that is, a few months before the alleged clandestine dig in Etruria. The first letter said, in part, "In view of the worsening situation in the M.E. [Middle East], I have decided to settle in Australia, probably in N.S.W. [New South Wales]. I have been selling off what I have and have decided to sell also my red figured crater which I have had so long and which you have seen with my friends in Switzerland." It mentioned a price of "one million dollars and over if possible" and a commission of 10 percent for Hecht. The second letter, dated September 1972, confirmed that Sarrafian's father had acquired the vase in 1920 in London, in exchange for some Greek and Roman gold and silver coins.
On learning all this, the enterprising Gage dashed to Beirut, traced Sarrafian, who—over several whiskies at the St. George Hotel—told him that Hecht had just been and gone. Sarrafian, according to Gage, was a smalltime dealer in coins, who also organized archaeological tourism. He would not at first say what, exactly, Hecht had paid him for the vase, or why the American had flown to see him in such a hurry. He admitted to Gage that he did not collect—either vases or statues—but had inherited "a hatbox full of pieces." This is the man that the director of the Met, Thomas Hoving, would not identify to begin with because he owned other "major objects" that the museum might want.
This whole set of events—so improbable, so inconsistent and mysterious—had created a furor in Italy, as had the fact that so far as the fractures in the vase were concerned, none of them crossed any of the ten faces on the figures. This was miraculous good fortune. Unless, perhaps, the vase had been deliberately and carefully broken in order to smuggle it more easily out of the country where it had been found.
Gage didn't give up. Back in Rome, and acting on a tip, he drove to Cerveteri, the ancient site of an Etrurian city northwest of Rome, and went from door to door asking for a man known as il Ciccione (a modern American equivalent would be "Fatso"). According to the story he wrote later, Gage was eventually led to a two-room stone house where he found "a short, husky, unshaven man in bare feet." This was Armando Cenere, a farm laborer and mason, who confessed to also being a tombarolo, or tomb robber. Later in the evening, sitting by his stove, Cenere further confessed that he had been one of a team of six men who had been digging nearby at Sant'Angelo in mid-November 1971, when they had turned up the base and handle of a Greek vase. He was detailed as "lookout" while the others cleared the entire tomb, a process that took a week. They found many pieces, including a winged sphinx, which they left in a field and then tipped off the police about it. This was to divert suspicion from themselves and what else they had found.
Cenere recalled to Gage one piece of pottery that, he said, showed a man bleeding from three wounds. Shown a photograph of the Met's Euphronios vase, he identified the portrait of the dying Sarpedon. He said he had been paid 5.5 million lire (about $8,800) as his (equal) share of the payoff.
Cenere's testimony, though vivid, was not conclusive. He could have been mistaken, he could have been inventing the details, in the hope of payment, or the limelight. If he and his friends did find the vase, and it was in pieces, it was unlikely that none of the breaks would cut across at least one of the figures' faces. Certainly, Thomas Hoving didn't accept the tombarolo's version; he even said the Met was being "framed" by the Times.
Eventually, the case came to court in Italy. In the witness box, Cenere went back on everything he had told the New York Times. He and Hecht were acquitted, though the latter was also declared persona non grata in Italy, to add to his similar status in Turkey. He moved to Paris.
At the end of 1972, when von Bothmer gave his talk to the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (after which he was not voted on to the board of trustees), his subject was the myth of Sarpedon, illustrated with slides of its portrayal by the artist Euphronios. During the course of his presentation, von Bothmer showed not only scenes from the Met's krater but also an earlier treatment of the same subject on a smaller cup, or kylix. In other words, this cup was a second unknown work by Euphronios. Wasn't this an extraordinary coincidence—that the krater should show up after fifty years in Sarrafian's collection, and then another piece should surface at the same time? Furthermore, what von Bothmer didn't know just then was that the police investigations of the krater in Italy (following publication of the New York Times article) had, quite independently, uncovered rumors about the existence of a second Euphronios work—a kylix—also with a dying warrior scene. Tackled later by journalists, von Bothmer admitted that he had a photograph of the kylix but had never seen the cup itself. He wouldn't show anyone the photograph, he said, since "the owner might have a prior claim on it" (although he had used the photo readily enough in his AIA lecture). Moreover, he didn't know where the actual object was—"It's supposed to be in Norway."
Discussing the kylix, Hoving and von Bothmer got themselves into a real muddle over who had seen what, and when. In the first place, Hoving changed his story. In an interview with David Shirey of the New York Times, he said at first that he had never seen the kylix, or even a photograph of it. Later, he telephoned back and said, "I want to be perfectly clear that I never saw the cup. I did see a photograph." One reason for this change may have been that, late in the day, he recalled an interview he had given to a reporter from the London Sunday newspaper, the Observer, which was also interested in the Met's controversial acquisition, because it might have been smuggled out of Britain. To an Observer reporter, Hoving admitted being offered—in fact, on that very day of the interview—a kylix by Euphronios, a cup that he said was signed, was in fragments, had pieces missing, but showed Sarpedon being carried off by Sleep and Death. Hoving told the reporter the cup had been made about twenty years before the krater.
Later, still before Gage published the first of his articles, von Bothmer said it was Hecht who had the kylix and had had it since before he'd had the krater. On this occasion, von Bothmer also said that he had seen the kylix in Zurich, in July 1971, thus giving a different version to what he had said before, when he had claimed not to have seen the kylix and didn't know where it was. He told the Observer reporter that he didn't want to say too much more about the cup, because he wanted to buy it. There followed this exchange:
OBSERVER: Isn't it a good fortune for Robert Hecht . . . that he manages to have first the vase and then the cup?
VON BOTHMER: The other way round—the cup has been owned for a couple of years, I was shown this cup in July 1971. [Pause.] I stopped in Zurich and I saw the cup and I have my notes and my dates. I would put it differently—the cup at the price then being quoted me was not nearly so exciting to me until after this object [the vase] appeared. Therefore, when you have two of a kind, it takes on greater significance.
In other words, von Bothmer implied that the Euphronios krater had surfaced some time after July 1971, when he saw the cup in Zurich. Was he not then aware of Sarrafian's letter to Hecht, dated July 10, 1971, affirming that the krater had been in the Sarrafian family for more than fifty years and that Hecht had already—by July 1971—seen it in Zurich?


On Sale
Jun 12, 2007
Page Count
400 pages

Peter Watson

About the Author

Peter Watson is a journalist, television presenter and historian of intellectual movements. He has written for the Observer, the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the New York Times, and the Spectator. His books include The Modern Mind; Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud; and The German Genius; The Age of Atheists; and Convergence — and he has been published in twenty-six countries.

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