The New York Times reported in 2010 that Italian authorities were investigating Edoardo Almagià ’73 for illegal trafficking in antiquities. The cited document written by Italian authorities alleged that the former antiquities dealer loaned, donated, and sold ancient artifacts to the Princeton University Art Museum through curator Michael Padgett, who also was under investigation. Almagià claimed the investigation is meant to punish him for his political activism.   PAW spoke to him from Rome.

How did you get interested in antiquities?

I grew up in Rome. As a 9-year-old, my father brought me to Libya on business, and I saw Lepcis Magna [the ruined Roman city]. I fell so much in love with the site and the Roman world. I decided to become a collector.

The famous Ara Pacis from ancient Rome was discovered under the Palazzo Fiano Almagia a century ago – this was your family?

The Ara Pacis was found under my family’s palace, and the expense of excavating it was underwritten by us. Later we lost everything because of the fascist regime, which stole everything. My father was kicked out of Italy in 1939. He lived many years in America and was an admirer [of the United States]. When he died, I decided to move to the U.S. [in the 1980s]. I lived in New York and found antiquities again, as a dealer.

What was your undergraduate experience like?

I lived at 411 Lockhart, beside the U-Store. I was in the University Scholar Program, majoring in history and international relations. But I took many art history classes. A favorite teacher was a lady I very highly esteemed, Mrs. Evelyn B. Harrison [Greek and Roman sculpture expert]. I took virtually every one of her classes. She definitely gave me the tools and opportunity to acquire much greater knowledge.

Are you still dealing in antiquities?

I moved back to Italy in 2002 and stopped dealing. It was becoming too unpleasant after that law was so stupidly accepted by the United States [the 2001 bilateral agreement restricting importation of artifacts]. They’ve criminalized and destroyed the antiquities market.  

Since 1939 the Italian government has claimed ownership of all antique objects in the country, even those in private homes. You have been working as a political activist trying to change this law – why?  

You are immediately equated with a criminal nowadays by being a collector. You have in Italy hundreds of thousands of people that have antiquities at home. They might have inherited them or bought them. In my youth, there were flea markets, and you could buy every antiquity you wanted. All those people that bought things – are they all criminals?   It’s like Prohibition in the United States – there’s a criminal underworld. Italian law leads to crime. By legalizing the market in antiquities, you destroy the black market and eliminate the incentive to make forgeries.  

The Italian government has been pressing American museums to return antiquities they claim were looted. What do you think of that campaign?

The Italians have set up an operation to scour every American dealer and museum coast to coast. It’s a publicity stunt. The investigators, they’ve built a career on this. It gives the Carabinieri a good life – they don’t get shot in the face.  

What do you think of the 2007 agreement by which the Princeton University Art Museum returned artifacts to Italy?

I have urged the Italian government to give back the objects it took. What they took from Princeton, it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous Princeton didn’t do anything to fight that. Museums should really be tough. Every American museum should fight for its right to acquire objects in the market. The museum has a right to collect; the dealers have a right to deal.

Italy’s campaign for repatriation shows no sign of letting up, and Italian authorities are investigating Princeton again in spite of the 2007 agreement.

I’ve been telling the Americans for 20 years that the Italians would do this. They’re exploiting the stupidity of American institutions. If you give them your hand, they go for the forearm. I say to the museums: You have been bullied, you have been blackmailed. It’s ridiculous that the United States has allowed this to happen. Meanwhile, Europeans have sent the Italians packing.  

To what extent does the Italian government genuinely care about cultural heritage, and to what extent do you think this is political grandstanding?

These trials have cost the Italian state millions. Meanwhile, the vaults of [Nero’s] Domus Aurea have collapsed, the Palatine Hill is falling apart, Pompeii is disintegrating. I live near the Borghese Gardens. Rome is a dirty city; it has decayed beyond belief. The whole cultural patrimony of Italy is allowed to collapse. But they have millions to attack American institutions? It’s a masterpiece of irrationality and schizophrenia.

What is the ultimate answer to the antiquities problem?

The solution is to bring the matter to the politicians. By next year, the treaty between the United States and Italy will expire. What the U.S. should do, and it should have been done earlier, is to have the treaty renegotiated and to draw a line – to say, what’s here now, this is ours. The Americans need to say: We believe in freedom, free markets, free enterprise. It’s a very serious ideological battle.

Interview conducted and condensed by W. Barksdale Maynard ’88