Murky World of Antiquities Trade

Times Staff Writers

One was an Italian who got his start peddling trinkets on the streets of Rome. Another was an American expatriate who could close a deal for a Greek vase in six languages. The third was a flashy British dealer whose eye for ancient art dazzled the world’s wealthiest clients.

For 40 years, these men dominated the trade in Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. Italian authorities say they were also “promoters and organizers” of a network that spirited looted art out of the Mediterranean and into display cases of leading museums and private collections worldwide.

For 10 years, the Italians have focused on the trio -- largely unknown outside their niche market -- as they have built a criminal case that eventually ensnared one of the men’s biggest customers, Marion True, until this fall the curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum.


Court records detailing that investigation, along with internal Getty documents and rare interviews with all three dealers, provide a clear look at the inner workings of a $4-billion-a-year illicit trade that floods the antiquities market.

The men -- Giacomo Medici, Robert E. Hecht Jr. and Robin Symes -- acquired items that had been illegally removed from Italian tombs and used fake ownership histories, rigged auctions and relied on frontmen to sell the objects with a veneer of legitimacy, according to the records and interviews.

Much of the classical ancient art sold in recent decades is believed to have passed through their hands. Italians say they have traced more than a hundred looted artifacts handled by the dealers to the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a dozen other major museums and private collections in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Medici was convicted last year of trafficking in looted art, and described in his sentencing documents as being the mastermind of Italy’s trade in looted antiquities. Hecht, an American now on trial with True in Rome, is accused of being Medici’s partner and middleman.

Symes, a Briton, is identified in court records as the trio’s frontman to high-end clients. Italian authorities say they plan to bring charges against him next year.

Italian prosecutors argue that Medici, Hecht and Symes controlled enough of the trade to drive up prices, in part by selling to each other at auction and sharing the inflated profits when objects were resold.


The prosecutors allege that True conspired with them to acquire illegally excavated artifacts for the Getty. Museum officials have said they never knowingly bought looted artworks. True’s attorneys maintain that she is innocent, but say some of the art she acquired may have been looted without her knowing.

In lengthy interviews, each dealer boasted of his role in the antiquities trade but denied trafficking in looted art and scoffed at the notion of a conspiracy.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Hecht over lunch near his New York apartment. “I bought from Medici, and other people bought from Medici too. I sold a couple objects to Robin Symes. So what?”

“We’re all basically competitors,” he added.

Today, in part because of the Italian investigation, all three have fallen from prominence.

Symes is bankrupt and was recently released from a London prison, where he served seven months for an unrelated offense. Hecht continues to sell but is on trial in Rome and busy preparing his defense. Medici’s business was taken over by competitors during his investigation and trial.


The Wholesaler

Though he claims no blood link to the famous Renaissance dynasty of art patrons, Medici doesn’t shy away from the comparison.

“I’ve never found out if I’m related, but I feel duty-bound to defend this family’s name,” he said.

At 67, he does so with the vigor of youth.

During an interview in the lobby of a Rome hotel, the dealer spoke unflaggingly about the injustices of the Italian judiciary, sweat pouring from his brow as his hands sketched his defense in the air.

Italian prosecutors described Medici in court documents as a criminal mastermind who managed “a constant flow” of illegally excavated antiquities that were then “smuggled and distributed among the museums and collectors around the world.”

“Everyone knew that Giacomo Medici was the boss of the bosses,” Pietro Casasanta, a self-described tomb raider, told Italian authorities during their investigation. “Medici was head of the whole trafficking operation. He was like a commander in chief both in Italy and abroad.”

The foot soldiers in the underground antiquities trade are tombaroli like Casasanta, who specialized in excavating Roman temples across northern Italy. The tombaroli fan out at night and use shovels, backhoes, even radar, to excavate the tombs that honeycomb Italy’s countryside.

Medici’s contacts with the tombaroli allowed him to buy almost everything dug up in northern Italy, and he kept competitors at bay by turning them in to Italian art police, Casasanta told Italian officials. Medici’s eventual partnership with Hecht made the two the “pinnacles of international archeological trafficking since the early 1960s,” according to Italian court records.

Medici dismissed Casasanta’s statements as an attempt to win leniency.

“To accuse someone, you have to create a monster, and in 2001, [Italian prosecutors] built a monster,” he said. “All the world trade now accuses Giacomo Medici of being the monster. But where is the proof that I am that monster?”

Medici grew up surrounded by antiquities. His father and mother owned a kiosk in Rome’s Piazza Borghese, for decades a market for old books and prints, and sold small archeological finds to tourists.

Medici worked at the shop as a boy but had his eye on a bigger future, according to Hecht’s handwritten memoir of his decades in the antiquities trade. The journal -- seized by Italian authorities in 2001 -- is a major piece of evidence in Medici’s trial. Court documents in Medici’s trial quote extensively from the memoir.

“GM was more ambitious and, having bought a secondhand Fiat 500 for $400, rose early each morning and toured the villages of Etruscia visiting all the clandestine diggers,” Hecht wrote, using the ancient name for the antiquities-rich region north of Rome.

Medici became aware of the trade’s pitfalls in 1963, when at 25, he had what he calls “a little incident” involving some Etruscan vases he was selling. He was convicted of smuggling and said he spent three months in jail.

After several years running his own shop in Rome, Medici moved his business in the mid-1970s across the border to Geneva, where he set up shop in a warehouse in the Swiss city’s duty-free zone.

“At that time the antiquities market was flourishing,” Medici said in the interview. “I had a thought, an intuition, that it was a favorable moment.”

He attributes his subsequent success to his eye for quality and his “bravery” at auctions.

“I’m not full of myself, but I know the quality of the objects,” Medici said. “I know the objects that would be of interest to museums.”

His peers and competitors in the trade -- most of whom deny doing business with him -- agree.

Medici recalls making a name for himself in the auction houses of Europe, describing one of the times he outbid some of the heavyweights of the art world.

“I was the big player at this auction, and I got a lot of attention because an unknown dealer had beat the Met and the Getty,” he recalled.

According to records of his conviction, however, Medici was often buying from himself.

He would put antiquities up for auction through shell companies, Italian authorities say. Then he would enter the bidding, drive up the prices and acquire his own objects. Having established an inflated market value for the items, he could resell them at considerable profit, according to the Italians, who have evidence that he did this with 900 objects.

Italian authorities say the scheme had another benefit: laundering looted art. At the time, an auction house’s stamp of approval was widely seen as proof that the object had a legitimate ownership history, or provenance, and had not recently been dug out of the ground. If he was ever questioned, Medici could point to the auction catalog as evidence of an object’s value and pedigree.

When Swiss and Italian police raided his warehouse in 1995, they found a wealth of ancient art, some of it still bearing tags from Sotheby’s.

Roughly stacked on the floor and filling the room’s felt-lined bookshelves were ancient pots, bronze figurines, marble statuary, and mosaics, about 4,000 objects in all. In front of Medici’s desk sat several ornate marble capstones from ancient Roman columns. They served as stools for customers.

Sotheby’s shut down its London antiquities sales in 1997 after an investigation by British journalist Peter Watson alleged that the auction house had accepted hundreds of looted antiquities from a frontman for Medici while suspecting their illicit origin.

Medici also advanced his own interests by disparaging his competitors’ products.

In 1986, the Getty paid one of Medici’s principal rivals, Gianfranco Becchina, nearly $10 million for what is widely believed to be a fake kouros, a statue of a Greek warrior. Becchina, an Italian dealer based in Basel, Switzerland, had long been a major supplier of the Getty’s. The relationship had kept Medici from doing more business with the museum, then one of the world’s biggest buyers of antiquities.

Medici was so enraged by Becchina’s success that he commissioned a second fake -- similar to the Getty’s but smaller -- to discredit Becchina’s kouros, True told Italian authorities in a 2001 deposition.

When word spread that a second kouros had appeared bearing the same “unique” features as the Getty’s, it was widely believed that the museum had been duped. The Getty now describes its kouros as dating to “circa 520 BC or modern forgery.”

The Getty rarely did business with Becchina again.

“One of the things I have learned in this market is that the dealers can be incredibly vicious,” True told Italian authorities.

Today, Medici lives an hour north of Rome in a sprawling villa, a temple of Mediterranean kitsch and a testament to his success. Located a short drive from one of Italy’s most notorious looting sites, the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, the seven-hectare compound is painted with faux frescoes and Doric columns. A high wall surrounding the estate hides its 15 horses, 120 palms and 280 olive trees.

But for all his savvy and success, Medici, as an Italian said to have close ties to looters, could never get direct access to high-end clients, who worried about appearances.

He needed a partner.


‘Mr. Percentage’

Medici met Robert Hecht in 1968, when the two sat in Hecht’s car -- parked in front of Rome’s Palace of Justice -- and admired a red figured kylix, or drinking cup, that Medici had recently purchased.

In his unpublished memoir, Hecht writes that Medici had bought the cup for $2,400 from “the squad,” an apparent reference to looters. In the car that day, Hecht said, he offered Medici $3,500.

“He jumped for joy and said ‘yes.’ ... GM soon became a faithful purveyor,” wrote Hecht, who has since repudiated his own account, saying he fabricated it to sell the memoir to a publisher.

Today, it is hard to recognize the swashbuckling dealer described by one former Getty official as a legend of the antiquities trade, “an intellect and adventurer at the same time.”

At a recent meeting, the shrunken 87-year-old shuffled out of his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, his head bowed under its own weight. But a spry smile suggested that the sharp intellect was intact.

Besides English, Hecht speaks fluent German, French and Italian and “can also order a meal or swing a deal in Turkish or Greek,” he said. He is fond of answering questions by quoting Tennyson or Gilbert and Sullivan.

But those who have done business with him speak of a harder side.

“Hecht was a menace to all, since he knew a lot about all the different traders, and it was common knowledge that he had been writing a book since the ‘80s,” Freida Tchakos Nussberger, a Swiss antiquities dealer, told Italian investigators. “He even attempted, often successfully, to photograph different characters while holding some compromising pieces.”

Hecht earned the nickname “Mr. Percentage” because he always took a cut when connecting sellers to buyers, Nussberger said.

For a man who has dropped thousands on a rare coin and sold Greek vases valued in the millions, Hecht is known by his colleagues to be perennially broke.

“We’re all not Gettys,” he said. “Sometimes you make purchases of objects you don’t sell, and you have no cash.”

True offered another explanation in her deposition, describing Hecht as “a compulsive gambler and a serious alcoholic.”

He could be “charming, very, very intelligent, but he could also turn, be very hostile, very sarcastic, very sinister,” she said.

“I don’t drink any more wine than she does,” Hecht retorted over lunch at an Italian restaurant. “Gambler? In my club we play backgammon for small stakes.”

Of True, once his friend, now his co-defendant, he said, “She doesn’t live up to her name.”

When not preparing for his Rome trial, he said, he still occasionally sells art and coins, the twilight of a career that has lasted more than 50 years.

An heir to the fortune of the Washington, D.C.-area department store chain that bears his family name, Hecht served in the Navy Reserve in World War II.

After the war, he said, he briefly investigated war crimes in Germany before accepting a scholarship to study classics and archeology at the American Academy in Rome.

It was while there that he first excavated Roman and Etruscan ruins. By the time his two-year term ended in 1949, he was already buying ancient art.

“I lived in Rome and enjoyed life, buying and selling antiquities,” Hecht recalled. “The thing is, I love objects. Since I couldn’t afford to keep every object, I bought and sold.”

He stayed in Italy until the mid-1970s. Curators and dealers tell of seeing Hecht in markets in such cities as Istanbul and Beirut, prowling for ancient coins, his passion.

In 1962, on a Turkish flight from Izmir to Istanbul, a stewardess saw him examining newly purchased ancient coins. Waiting for him when the plane landed were Turkish authorities, who believed he intended to smuggle the coins out of the country. Hecht was barred from reentering Turkey until 1980.

He was also caught up in an Italian bust of antiquities dealers accused of trafficking in looted art in the early 1960s, but the highest court in Italy eventually exonerated him for lack of conclusive evidence.

By that time, Hecht had become entangled in another scandal: his 1972 sale to the Met of the Euphronios krater, an ancient bowl considered a masterpiece of Greek pottery and widely believed to have been looted.

Suspicions that the bowl had been illegally excavated and exported were never proved in legal proceedings in New York and Rome. Still, the scandal led Hecht to relocate to Paris, which has been his primary residence.

He has since stayed largely in the shadows of the trade, relying on a string of business partners to represent him.

His most faithful is Fritz Burki, a former janitor who took an interest in antiquities conservation as he swept the classroom of an archeology professor at the University of Zurich, court records show.

Burki eventually became a full-time restorer, working mostly for Hecht, whose pottery shards he would carefully reassemble like pieces of an ancient puzzle. It was in the garden of Burki’s home that Met officials first saw the Euphronios krater in an early stage of restoration.

Burki was often identified in museum purchase records as the owner of objects sold by Hecht. When questioned by Italian authorities, Burki admitted that he had acted as a “straw man” for Medici and Hecht in sales of looted art.

Another of Hecht’s partners was Bruce McNall, a Los Angeles entrepreneur and passionate coin collector who owned the Summa Gallery on Rodeo Drive. In the 1980s, they sold to wealthy collectors, with Hecht supplying the antiquities and McNall securing the capital, court records show.

When the partnership eventually fell apart, Hecht found another partner, Jonathan Rosen, who owned Atlantis Antiquities in New York. McNall went on to acquire the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, produce Hollywood movies and serve four years in federal prison for his role in a $236-million bank fraud.

Italian authorities allege that Hecht also conspired with other dealers in a scheme to drive up the price of vase fragments. The dealers would distribute the fragments of an important vase among themselves -- at times by breaking up an intact vase, the Italians say.

After one dealer donated a “seed” fragment to a museum’s curator, other dealers would approach the curator with a matching piece, authorities say. Because the curators were desperate to complete objects in their collections, each fragment became more valuable than the last.

True told Italian prosecutors she also had concluded that dealers were working together to extract higher and higher prices for matching fragments.

The fragments she was being sold had sharp edges that fit neatly with other fragments being sold, not the worn edges one would expect from an ancient fracture, she said.

“I came to realize we were being blackmailed,” she said. “Clearly the pieces seemed to be smashed.... It was clear these fragments had been dispersed over a huge market.”

She told of a specific incident in which she said Hecht tried to sell her a piece missing from a cup in the Getty’s collection.

“Bob had once called and offered me a fragment that he said he had

Hecht, like other dealers, called the Italian theory “silly,” saying ancient vases are always more valuable intact than broken.

But the allegation is supported by the Getty’s records, which show that several of its vases were pieced together with fragments bought over several years from a handful of dealers.

Italian authorities found photos in Medici’s warehouse of several fragments of a phiale, or libation bowl, later bought by the Getty. The museum’s records show that the bowl was compiled from 25 fragments purchased over 15 years from five dealers, including Fritz Burki. The first fragment was a donation and the last was purchased for considerably more than any other.

One of them came from the British dealer, Robin Symes.


The Frontman

“I was a legend,” said inmate NH7973, a soft-spoken man with a close-cropped gray beard and an expressionless face.

“One time, a man came up to me in a nightclub and kissed me on the mouth. I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ He said, ‘Because you are Robin Symes! You’re to the world of art dealers what the Beatles are to music!’ ”

For Symes, once the most successful salesman in the antiquities world, the music has stopped.

He’s bankrupt. His primary residence in 2005: Her Majesty’s Pentonville prison, where an English judge sent him earlier this year for committing perjury in an unrelated business lawsuit.

He was released in August, after serving seven months. But his troubles aren’t over.

Italian authorities say they intend to file charges next year against the dealer. They say he and his now-deceased Greek life partner acted as “frontmen” for the sale of millions of dollars’ worth of looted antiquities to museums and private collectors.

Symes, 67, did this in large part by faking ownership histories for illicit merchandise, according to Getty records.

“We have been provided with persuasive evidence, by Italian police and prosecutors, that Symes (a) dealt routinely in goods that are stolen and (b) routinely manufactured provenances for these goods,” a Getty attorney wrote in a 2002 memo.

Of the 42 Getty items the Italians say are looted, at least 16 went through Symes’ hands.

In an interview granted before his prison release, Symes denied that he knowingly sold looted goods but spoke at length about the global influence he enjoyed as a dealer.

“There are very few museums in the world where you won’t see something I’ve had at one time or another,” he said.

Symes entered the antiquities trade in the 1960s, about the same time he met Christo Michailidis, an antiquities enthusiast whose sister married into a wealthy Greek shipping family. Symes and Michailidis moved in together and began building a thriving business catering to the richest clients in the world.

One of them was J. Paul Getty, a self-confessed “art-buying addict” who idolized Julius Caesar. Symes eventually convinced Getty that Alexander the Great was more admirable, selling a bust of the young conqueror to the oilman in 1973.

By the ‘90s, Robin Symes Ltd. and related companies were making nearly $4.5 million a year, London court records show. The Italians say Symes and Michailidis racked up $12 million alone in 1992 by selling artifacts they acquired from Medici.

“They built it up to probably one of the world’s major antiquities dealerships, to the extent they could influence prices worldwide,” said Anthony Russell, a former Scotland Yard art detective who was hired to investigate Symes during the business lawsuit.

The gregarious Michailidis tended to the business, which his sister helped prop up with cash infusions and loan guarantees, according to friends and London court records. Symes had a discerning eye for quality antiquities, as well as the expertise to discuss fine points of furniture and painting, friends say.

He also had a flair for closing a deal, said Barbara Fleischman, a Getty board member and former Symes customer. After ushering a preferred client into a private gallery, she said, Symes would discuss the piece’s history and artistic merit as a curtain parted, revealing the antiquity on a pedestal, bathed in lights.

The pair’s allure was underscored by an “absolutely extravagant” lifestyle, said Mario Roberty, a Swiss attorney who has represented dealers and clients for 20 years.

Symes and Michailidis owned a house in New York City and a vacation compound on a Greek island. Their London home was filled with $15 million in designer furniture and featured an indoor pool surrounded by ancient busts. They tooled around town in a maroon Bentley and a silver Rolls-Royce.

On the A-list for the 1998 Getty Center opening, Symes later sniffed that the event had been “tacky” because it featured mariachi music, instead of classical.

“They had an excellent mixture of taste and arrogance and whatever was needed to cater to the biggest collectors,” Roberty said.

Another expert said the sophisticated Symes offered collectors “a safety barrier” from the dirty side of the trade.

Symes “enabled purchasers to say they bought in good faith,” said Dick Ellis, the former chief of the Scotland Yard art squad and now a consultant with an art recovery firm.

An academic inquiry by the Getty showed how that worked in the case of one purchaser, New York diamond merchant Maurice Templesman.

Symes assembled a private collection for Templesman and acted as agent when the businessman sold it to the Getty in 1985.

Medici told a Getty official that he had bought three of the pieces in the collection from “excavators.” Two of the pieces had been dug up from a tomb in southern Italy in the mid-1970s, according to an internal memo written by the Getty official. Symes then acquired two of the objects directly from Medici and bought the third from Hecht, Medici told the official.

The museum itself continued dealing with Symes, but with growing doubts over the ownership histories he provided for artifacts he sold, records also show.

When the museum acquired a 7 1/2 -foot statue of Aphrodite from Symes in 1988, Harold Williams, the Getty’s top administrator, was wary of Symes’ claim that it came from a Swiss collector. Williams took the unprecedented step of requiring the dealer to put up collateral in case the statue was later found to be looted or a fake. It is now one of the objects the Italians are demanding that the Getty return to them.

In 1999, the Getty returned two Symes-related pieces to Italy because of “substantial evidence” that they had been illegally removed from the country.

Getty attorneys strongly objected to the museum’s plans to buy another Symes-related statue in 2002 after discovering irregularities in the ownership records.

Symes said the piece, a bronze statue of Poseidon, had come from a “Greek widow” named Marika Tamvacaki, who reportedly bought it in 1938 then moved it nearly 20 years later from Egypt to Switzerland for “safekeeping.”

Getty attorneys were told that Tamvacaki was Michailidis’ aunt and was poor.

The lawyers grew skeptical when they learned that the purported date of her purchase was conveniently right before Italy’s 1939 antiquities law would have made the transaction illegal.

They became even more suspicious when they found that an affidavit purportedly signed by Tamvacaki at the American Embassy in Athens was dated on a Sunday, when the embassy was unlikely to have been open.

As the Getty backed away from that purchase, Italian authorities were piecing together transactions that they said tied Symes to Medici and Hecht.

One case, Italian authorities say, shows how a looted artifact was given the appearance of a clean provenance:

The item, a 5th century BC roof ornament, was sold to Texas billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt by Hecht. Hunt put the piece up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1990, and Symes purchased it. The London dealer turned around and sold it to New York collector Lawrence Fleischman the same day, records show.

When the Getty acquired it from Fleischman with the rest of his collection in 1996, the roof ornament had what appeared to be an unimpeachable pedigree: It had been part of two private collections exhibited at major museums and had been purchased by a reputable dealer from a marquee auction house.

But the Italians say they discovered Polaroids of the ornament in Medici’s warehouse, along with several others like it. They also found that Hecht had told Getty officials the piece had come from Cerveteri, the notorious looting site.

The Italians discovered that other, similar roof ornaments pictured at Medici’s warehouse were later acquired by a Copenhagen museum. The catalog for the Fleischman collection also notes that two undocumented ornaments from the same series wound up at the Met and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Before the Italians could catch up with Symes, however, his business was unraveling. Michailidis fell down the stairs of a Tuscan villa and died of head injuries in 1999. His family sued Symes for a share of the business.

In January, a judge sent Symes to Pentonville for perjury after he admitted covering up two antiquities sales that netted him more than $2 million. The judge called the confession a “culmination of years of deliberate lies by Mr. Symes.”

During his prison interview, Symes declined to discuss his sales to the Getty or the source of his inventory. He said that what items he didn’t buy at auctions simply “came to me.”

James Ede, a London dealer and former chairman of the International Assn. of Dealers in Ancient Art, said Symes’ fall marked more than the end of one man’s career.

“Some feel that Symes was a buccaneer,” Ede said. “But the age of buccaneers is over.”


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An elaborate network

This chart was created by J. Paul Getty Trust attorneys after a review of the museum’s transactions with antiquities dealers. The diagram shows how objects originating in Italy passed through dealers and into private collections. The Getty acquired some objects from those collections and others from the dealers and their galleries. The three main dealers are highlighted:


Private collectors: Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman, along with Maurice Tempelsman, bought antiquities from Symes and Hecht, among others. The Getty acquired Tempelsman’s collection in 1985 and the Fleischman holdings in 1996.


Robin Symes: London dealer who with partner Christo Michailidis courted the world’s wealthiest clients.

Giacomo Medici: Convicted last year in Rome of trafficking in looted art. Italian authorities called him the mastermind of a criminal network.

Geneva’s Duty-Free Zone: Xoilan Trading, an offshore firm used by antiquities dealer Robin Symes, shared a Geneva warehouse address with two of Medici’s companies, Gallerie Hydra and Edition Services.

Robert Hecht: American antiquities dealer, based in Paris, whose memoir chronicles 50 years in the trade. It is now being used as evidence against him in his Rome trial.

Hecht’s partners: Fritz Burki, a Swiss restorer used by Hecht and Medici, admitted to authorities that he acted as a straw man through which the dealers sold looted objects. Hecht also worked with Bruce McNall, owner of the now-defunct Summa Gallery on Rodeo Drive. The dealer later worked with Jonathan Rosen, who owned the Manhattan gallery Atlantis Antiquities.

Gianfranco Becchina: Swiss dealer who sold the Getty its famous kouros (a marble statue of a Greek warrior), believed to be a fake, and several other antiquities from his Basel gallery, Antike Kunst Palladion.

Nicolas Koutolakis: A dealer, now deceased, who worked with Becchina.

Sources: Getty records, Times reporting