Law in Contemporary Society

A Tempest in a Teapot

The Symbolic Function

Marion True, the former Getty curator, was charged for conspiracy in violation of the cultural patrimony laws for allegedly helping a Sicilian antiquities smuggling ring illegally export the Aphrodite statute out of Italy. This paper argues that the Italian government has supplemented the purpose of fact finding in criminal trials by inscribing a warning to American museums on True's body. First, True's trial functions as an iconic message to cultural institutions that the Italian government is shifting the emphasis of anti-smuggling enforcement from the Mafiosi looters in Sicily to American museum professionals. Second, it serves to hurry American museums to repatriate the suspicious antiquities in their collections. True's trial represents a historical culmination of two forces: unsuccessful enforcement efforts within Italy and a resurging nationalist fervor to reclaim her patrimony illegally abroad. Since private actors manage the art world in the United States unlike the rest of the world's primarily state-administered art collections, Italy has resorted to different tactics than the traditional sovereign-to-sovereign peaceable negotiations. With a greater bargaining chip by virtue of a monopoly on its criminal justice system, Italy has taken Marion True hostage to achieve what it wants to get done but has realized it couldn't otherwise: get all its antiquities back.

Shifting the Burden from Italian Criminals… the Black Market...

The Italian government’s shift in emphasis from prosecuting local looters to foreign museum professionals originates in a surprising technological development, the portable metal detector. Cheap and accessible, these devices proliferated in Sicily in the 1970s and allowed local smuggling rings to interfere with the well-financed archaeological digs conducted by professional teams. Sicily constitutes a Mafia-controlled enclave commanded by the lawlessness of bribery and corruption. With new potential revenue from these million dollar statues, the Mafia is believed to have contributed to the illicit lootings with the help of these cheaper technologies. Orazio di Simone, True’s alleged co-conspirator, has been repeatedly accused of having ties to the Mafia.

…to Foreign Museum Professionals

True’s trial signifies Italy’s failure to successfully prosecute the looters, smuggling rings, and general Mafioso lawlessness. As a Sicilian dilettante of archaeology, Judge Magistrate Raffiotta led the crusade in the unsuccessful prosecutions against the looters in the 1980s. The problem of prosecuting these actors is simple: When the looter operates in unpeopled areas of Sicily during the darkness of night and with few traces, efforts to capture him and prove his guilt are stifled, especially with the Sicilian habit of concealment and corruption. Of the 36 trials presided by Rafiotta, very few turned up a conviction, owing to the lack of evidence. In the late 1980s, Rafiotta moved the Italian cordon sanitaire from around the locals to the foreign buyers on the antiquity market to suffocate the trade.

This trial marks Italy’s shift to discrediting the antiquity buyers after fifty years of non-enforcement beyond the Italian frontier. Night looters hand it to the smugglers, who pass Italian customs and give it to the dealer in Switzerland, who sells it to an American buyer, who clears it with American customs. Far from smuggling the artifacts, the foreign buyer bears the legal impact of enforcing cultural patrimony laws in Italy. As first to prosecute the curator, True’s trial masquerades under the promise of her factual guilt its other purpose of dispiriting looters and enforcing Italian laws at home. Whether guilty or innocent is besides the point since Italy's ultimate objective is to repatriate.

A Martyr for Another Country's Cause

Powerful Symbol for Repatriation

True’s trial signifies a radical diplomatic effort to bring antiquities home. While Italy pursued since 1988 the antiquities drained by smugglers in traditional Mediterranean languor, True’s indictment in 2006 has shown, faute de mieux, more success. Since then, at least four cultural institutions in America hurriedly agreed to return allegedly looted antiquities, even more than the blemished. These results demonstrate the policy success of prosecuting the private buyers in the American art market largely fueled by typical American cupidity.

Nevertheless, Italy’s successful efforts to get publicity for a criminal trial against an American corrupt its legitimacy. Less than a disinterested state prosecuting a foreigner, Italy has embroiled True in an issue of nationalist politics. Blasting the case on loudspeaker in almost every professional international news source from the New York Times to Le Monde to the New Yorker, the government has summarily spoken of her ‘obvious guilt’ without having tried her or offering proof. If fact finding were the only purpose, the Italian government could have indicted far more museum directors to discover the extent of their involvement in the underworld, a possibility as likely as hers. Symbolism mystifies our perception of the ‘real world’ to empower what is otherwise powerless. Its main purpose is to turn the content-free case of True’s trial, whose facts we read little in the newspaper, into a powerfully symbolic cause célèbre inspiring a new alacrity among museums to negotiate with the Italian government.

A War Offensive

True’s trial is a productive counteroffensive against American cultural ‘invasions’ despite the paradox that Italians on the ground illegally smuggle the antiquities. Warlike language is befitting where the Italian government threatened to order a ‘cultural embargo’ against the Getty when it remained hesitant to negotiate even after the indictment. The Italian government understood Robert Olson’s invitation to the American ambassador as a witness to the negotiations to represent a form of political pressure over an issue it regards as cultural, fit for cultural ministers, which America lacks. This misbelief belies two problems. First, Italy must deal with private parties in the American art market, meaning that it must create different incentive structures to persuade private entities to respond, including the threat of criminal investigation. Second, the Italian government confessedly discontinued negotiations with the Getty at the brink of resolution because the political environment in Italy precluded agreement without a specific statue included. True’s trial represents a successful political tool in achieving vittoria against the private museum outlaws. The government recently declared this achievement in an exhibition entitled Nostoi, Greek for homecoming.

The Symbolic Trial

The significance of a symbolic trial concerns the role of the state to exercise its sovereign power to take an individual hostage for the sake of signaling a policy shift - a function of the criminal trial supplementing the purpose of fact finding. True’s trial represents a historical event to achieve the goal of repatriation after domestic failures to contain the cultural items. Whether True is innocent or guilty, Italy is successfully fulfilling its policy goals. (997 Words)

-- By JesseCreed - 09 Feb 2008


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r12 - 12 Jan 2009 - 22:59:07 - IanSullivan
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