NOTE: The headlines on this story have been revised from those originally appearing in the July 7, 2010, edition of PAW.
Three years after the Princeton University Art Museum reached an agreement with the Italian government to return antiquities from its collections, it again finds itself a target of Italy’s strenuous campaign to repatriate objects in American museums that Italy says were acquired illegally. Italian authorities are investigating a prominent curator at the museum along with a Princeton alumnus alleged to have acquired looted artworks, The New York Times reported June 3.
A 14-page legal notice from the public prosecutor’s office in Rome identifies Michael Padgett, the museum’s curator of ancient art since 1992, as the focus of a criminal investigation into “the illegal export and laundering” of Italian archaeological objects, the Times reported. According to the Times, the document alleges that former New York antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagià ’73 “sold, donated, or lent” about two dozen questionable works through Padgett to the University Art Museum from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.
The document, described as a summary of a preliminary investigation by Italian prosecutors, also alleges that Almagià sold illegally acquired artifacts to museums in Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, San Antonio, and elsewhere.
Both men denied wrongdoing. In a statement to the media, Padgett said: “After working so closely and cooperatively with the Italians in the past, I was very disappointed and surprised that this investigation is now taking place. I am reluctant to comment at length at this early stage, but I do want to clearly state that I am innocent of what the Italian prosecutor is apparently alleging.”
Since 1970, 1.5 million items are believed to have been looted from archaeological sites in Italy, often for sale abroad. Lately Italy has enforced its laws with vigor, investigating major American museums and compelling them to turn over antiquities that Italian authorities say passed through the black market. Princeton agreed to return four disputed works in 2007, with four others to remain on loan from Italy.
“The University has hired legal counsel in the U.S. and Italy to help us understand what it is that concerns the Italians and to anticipate any charges that could be brought,” President Tilghman told PAW June 7. “As of right now, we know very little. The wheels of justice move extremely slowly in Italy. We have known about this for some time, but it has been largely a black box to us precisely what is happening.”
Tilghman said that as a result of the University’s previous negotiations with the Italians, the art museum has developed “clear and transparent standards we will apply to acquisitions going forward. What is challenging is that the standards of provenance have been changing over the last 30 years — and rightfully so — and have become much more stringent.”
In a June 8 interview with PAW, Almagià said that he ceased being a dealer when he moved to Rome about eight years ago. Owing to Italian laws that strictly govern private ownership of art, “You are immediately equated with a criminal” by being a collector of antiquities nowadays, he said. He has become a political activist outspoken in his criticism of the current Italian government and has pushed for decriminalization of the ownership of antiquities in his country. He said he regards the government’s attempts to prosecute him as a “mere policy of harassment” for political reasons: “I’m giving them a hell of a lot of trouble.”
Almagià said he was “scandalized” to see Padgett drawn into the fray and that the items in question at Princeton scarcely matter in the big picture of Italy’s cultural patrimony. He described them as “scholarly objects,” far from priceless, and said some are mere fragments.
Interviewed by PAW, several museum officials nationwide expressed bafflement that Italy was taking action against Princeton after the 2007 accord. They described Padgett as an internationally renowned curator and archaeologist. Jasper Gaunt, curator of Greek and Roman art at Emory University, said many of his colleagues are “outraged” that Padgett has been targeted. They fear a repeat of the ordeal undergone by Marion True, a former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, whose trial in Rome for conspiring to traffic in stolen antiquities has dragged on for five years.