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Pompeii fresco fragment reopens dispute over ‘looted’ artifacts

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Expert Says Rare Piece at Getty Museum in Los Angeles Linked to Dealer Accused of Antiquities Trafficking

A leading looted antiquities expert is asking the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to return a fragment of a Roman fresco to Italy, claiming it has evidence linking the piece to a notorious dealer.

Professor Christos Tsirogiannis has a photograph of the same fresco fragment from the archive of Robert Hecht, who died in 2012, having faced accusations of trafficking in illicit artifacts. These artifacts included a 2,500-year-old Greek vase that he sold in 1972 for a then-record value of $1 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and which was later returned to Italy in 2008.

The fresco fragment has a beautiful depiction of a young woman looking out from a balcony. Wearing a loose robe, she drinks from a shallow cup that she holds in her right hand.. A photograph of him was among the material, including antiques still covered in dirt, seized by Hecht police in 2001.

The fresco fragment had been donated to the Getty in 1996 by a private collector who had purchased it from one of Hecht’s brokers in 1987.

Tsirogiannis, a former senior field archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, is now an associate professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Aarhus University in Denmark. He believes this fragment may well have come from Pompeii and has alerted the district attorney’s office in New York.

He said: “It is a beautiful and rare representation that comes from the Vesuvius area, probably from one of the villas covered by ash after the eruption. The museum has substantial evidence connecting him to known traffickers. The Getty has already returned to Italy dozens of antiquities from the same private collection. This is another case.”

In 2000, Lord Renfrew, Cambridge’s leading archaeologist, noted the fragment as an antique “of unknown provenance” and questioned its acquisition by the private collector.

Last week, he also asked the Getty to return it to Italy. he told the Observer:: “You can presume of looting when in reality it does not have a respectable origin. You need a provenance going back to the turn of the century to have any value.

“So I’d say it’s clearly an example of a looted antiquity. There are several places such a wall painting could come from, but Pompeii is certainly a possibility.”

Looted antiquities are a particularly sensitive subject for the museum, which was founded by American industrialist John Paul Getty. His former curator of antiquities, Marion True, was singled out in 2005 – with Hecht – in Italy for being part of a stolen art ring, although all charges were dropped because the statute of limitations had expired.

Tsirogiannis’s investigation has focused on antiquities and trafficking networks, and he was given official access by law enforcement authorities in the early 2000s to tens of thousands of images and other footage seized in police raids from people involved in the trade. illicit.

Over 15 years, he has identified some 1,580 artifacts looted from auction houses, commercial galleries, private collections and museums. He alerts law enforcement authorities and governments, playing a major role in ensuring the repatriation of many antiquities.

He identified an ancient Greek bronze horse, which Sotheby’s New York had planned to sell in 2018 until it notified authorities of its links to disgraced British antiquities dealer Robin Symes. In 2020, Sotheby’s lost its legal challenge, and Greece’s culture minister hailed the court’s ruling as a significant victory for countries struggling to recover antiquities.

Related: Ancient sculpture put up for auction in UK to be returned to Iraq

Linking several antiques to Hecht, including two large vases that were repatriated to Italy in 2012, he said the latest example is a Roman helmet that Christie’s New York will offer on April 12 for an estimated value of $600,000. He said he has similar photographic evidence showing it had also passed through Hecht’s hands.

A Getty spokesperson said: “Getty continually investigates the background and provenance of items within its collection and considers new evidence when it comes forward. We have a long-standing policy of returning objects to their country of origin or discovery when investigation indicates that it is warranted.” Christie’s declined to comment.

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