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Italy Focuses on a Princeton Curator in an Antiquities Investigation
Elisabetta Povoledo
New York Times June 2, 2010

It has been five years since a former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles went on trial in Rome for conspiring to traffic in stolen antiquities. The case has become a cornerstone of Italy’s aggressive campaign to recover ancient treasures from around the United States and has led major American museums to make their peace with the Italian government. As the museums have relinquished dozens of artworks that Italy claims were looted, receiving loans of other objects in exchange, officials on both sides have talked about a new era of collaboration.
But now an Italian investigation of a second American museum curator, in a case involving similar allegations of criminal conspiracy, seems likely to upend assumptions about any rapprochement. According to a 14-page legal notice from the public prosecutor’s office in Rome, J. Michael Padgett, 56, antiquities curator at the Princeton University Museum of Art, is a focus of a criminal investigation of “the illegal export and laundering” of Italian archaeological objects.

Once again an American may be facing a drawn-out legal ordeal, and at least the hypothetical threat of incarceration in a foreign country, for acquiring art for a museum — something that was unheard of before the Getty case, and that many museum professionals believed was not going to happen again.

Also named in the case are a former New York antiquities dealer, Edoardo Almagià, 59, and two other co-defendants. The document identifies nearly two dozen works and groups of works — among them pieces of a calyx krater attributed to the Attic vase painter Euphronios and a group of Etruscan architectural terra-cottas — that it describes as having been looted from Italian sites and “sold, donated or lent” by Mr. Almagià to the Princeton museum through Mr. Padgett from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. According to Princeton nine of these works are in the museum’s collection.

The document also lists about 20 pieces, including vases, bronzes and sculptures that it says Mr. Almagià obtained illegally and sold to other American institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the San Antonio Museum of Art; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Tampa Museum of Art; and the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington. And it claims that several vase fragments of illicit provenance were “sold and/or donated” on unspecified dates to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The document, dated March 9, 2010, was provided to The New York Times by someone with close knowledge of the case who asked not to be identified because the charges had not been made public. It reflects the findings of a preliminary investigation by Italian prosecutors and does not constitute a formal request to a judge to move the case to court. But as a formal notification to the defendants, it indicates that a criminal proceeding is under way and advises the defendants of their rights, setting the stage for a possible trial.

It is unknown whether Italy will request the return of any of the listed pieces at Princeton and other museums, although it has succeeded in recent years at getting American institutions to hand over dozens of antiquities mentioned in Italian judicial proceedings.

Reached by telephone, Mr. Padgett said he was innocent of any wrongdoing and referred all questions to Princeton University. Cass Cliatt, a spokeswoman for Princeton, said the university was aware of the investigation but had not received any communication from Italy about the case. “We are conducting our own investigation and looking into the various elements of the documentation” that has been served to Mr. Padgett, Ms. Cliatt said.

In a telephone interview from Rome, Mr. Almagià, a Princeton alumnus who was a supporter of the museum in the 1990s while working as a dealer in New York, called the charges “absolutely ridiculous.” He said he has been “harassed” by Italian authorities for many years, but has not been dealing in antiquities since taking up residence in Italy some eight years ago.

The document from the prosecutor’s office does not specify on what evidence the charges are based, though it appears to draw partly on sales invoices and provenance documents used by Mr. Almagià and various companies and people described as intermediaries. It also mentions archaeological material confiscated by United States Customs officials from Mr. Almagià’s New York apartment in the fall of 2006.

Francesco Ciardi, the prosecutor in charge of the case, declined to comment on it, but said that American authorities had offered “excellent collaboration” in the investigation.

The criminal proceeding against Mr. Padgett comes as a particular surprise following a series of agreements between American museums and the Italian government to resolve antiquities disputes. Among those museums was Princeton, which in October 2007 agreed to relinquish eight antiquities in exchange for Italian loans and new forms of bilateral cooperation.

Along with similar deals struck by the Met; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Getty; and the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Princeton-Italy agreement was signed against the menacing backdrop of the trial in Rome of the former Getty curator Marion True. That case, in which Ms. True was charged with criminal association with two antiquities dealers who sold millions of dollars’ worth of allegedly illegal antiquities to many museums in the 1980s and ’90s, has not reached a verdict in the five years since it went to trial. But it has destroyed Ms. True’s career, fueled a major upheaval at the Getty and brought a chill over the collecting activities of museums across the country.

Though the agreements by Princeton and other museums did not explicitly rule out future Italian investigations of museum dealings, they were widely seen as ending the threat of further legal action against American museum staff members.

“I’m rather shocked,” said Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Met, on being informed of the investigation of Mr. Padgett. In early 2006, shortly after Ms. True’s case went to trial, Mr. de Montebello negotiated an agreement with Italy to give up the treasured Euphronios krater and other classical artworks at the Met in exchange for long-term loans. “My understanding was Marion True was it, they weren’t going to do this anymore,” he said.

Since those agreements, Mr. de Montebello and other museum leaders say, discussions with Italy have largely moved from settling grievances of years past to developing new ways to protect archaeological sites. On Friday in Rome, Michael Conforti, the outgoing president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and the director of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., met with officials from the Italian Culture Ministry to discuss a request by the association to expand the long-term antiquities loans that have coincided with the restitution deals.

“The Italians have said that relations with Cleveland, Boston, the Getty — the big, object-rich institutions — have never been better,” Mr. Conforti said.

But as with the association’s current discussions, the museums’ counterparty in those deals was the Culture Ministry, which is formally separate from the prosecutor’s office. According to Italian law, a prosecutor has a duty to pursue a case if there is evidence that criminal offenses occurred.

The document from the prosecutor’s office said that Mr. Padgett “put the structure of Princeton University Museum of Art and his scientific expertise at Almagià’s disposal, increasing the value of the objects with the attribution of authorship, despite the fact that he knew the illicit trade of the artifacts he examined.” It went on to say that he “also put at Almagià’s disposal his important contacts in other museums and American collections.” However, the document added, the allegations of criminal conduct against Mr. Padgett were related only to the artworks mentioned in connection with the Princeton museum.

It was not immediately clear how defense lawyers plan to respond to the charges, but the fact that many of the transactions cited happened over a decade ago may be a key issue. The most recent Princeton acquisition identified by the prosecutor appears to be a sixth-century B.C. Attic vase sold to the museum in 2001, although the prosecution document alleges that the conspiracy operated from the 1980s “up to Dec. 14, 2006.”

According to Italian law, prosecution of a conspiracy — defined as when three or more individuals form an association to engage in criminal activity over a period of time — can carry statutes of limitations of a decade or more, depending on the severity of the crime and whether there are other related offenses.

Since the Getty signed a pact with Italy in 2007, however, the case against Ms. True has seemed to become bogged down in the sluggish Italian legal system, and lawyers for Ms. True could seek to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the statute of limitations has expired. Any such motion would be filed when the case resumes on Oct. 13.

But the Getty is still fighting a court battle in Italy over another prized object in its collection, the Getty Bronze, a statute called “Victorious Youth” that it acquired in 1977. And with Mr. Padgett now in the sights of prosecutors in Rome, it appears that Italy is wagering it can keep up its legal offensive against American curators while continuing to rebuild cultural relations with American museums.

Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the longtime lead prosecutor against Ms. True who had been running the investigation of Mr. Almagià until his transfer to another position earlier this year, declined to comment on the Padgett case. But when asked why a case was being pursued against another American curator, he said, “When the facts demand it, we have to act.”

Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.



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