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Doubts on Donors' Collection Cloud Met Antiquities Project
The New York Times

A decade ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art embarked on a vastly ambitious project: the transformation of its dark and crowded Greek and Roman galleries into one of the premier spaces for antiquities in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2007, the project will culminate in the opening of a huge colonnaded Roman court that Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, has described as "a grand orchestral coda" to years of work reinstalling the museum's classical collections. But as the project nears completion, it also threatens to become one of the Met's biggest headaches, forcing the museum to address difficult questions about the ethics of collecting practices.
Among the most generous financial supporters of the new galleries is Shelby White, a Met trustee, who with her husband, the financier Leon Levy, amassed one of the world's best private antiquities collections. Objects from their collection have been on loan to the Met for years, and it has long been assumed in the art world that the trove will be donated to the museum. Mr. Levy, who died in 2003, and Ms. White gave $20 million to create the new Roman gallery, which will bear their names.
But Italian investigators now say they have photographs and documents tracing nine Levy-White works to an art dealer convicted in 2004 of trafficking in illegal antiquities. Two of these, a large Greek vase and a bowl depicting Zeus and his cupbearer Ganymede, are on view at the Met.
Such revelations are emerging as Italy opens an aggressive campaign to force the Met to return objects in its permanent collection that it contends were looted from Italian soil.
It is not the first time that evidence has surfaced suggesting that objects in the Levy-White collection were illicitly acquired. Several other works that have resided in the couple's collection have been claimed by foreign governments, and some of those objects have been the subject of legal action. For much of the last 15 years, the collection has also been dogged by criticism from archaeologists who say that many works were unknown before surfacing in the collection - a strong indication, they contend, that the objects were unearthed recently and passed through the art market in violation of cultural-property laws.
As the acquisition practices of American museums draw intense international scrutiny, the situation presents a growing public relations problem for the Met, if not also a diplomatic and legal one. The Levy-White collection could prove a complicating factor in discussions between the Met and the Italian Culture Ministry, which says it has evidence that more than 20 objects that the Met already owns were illegally removed from Italy. As the case has unfolded, the Italians have issued subpoenas to the Met through the United States Justice Department.
"It's very embarrassing for them to be in this situation, and it was avoidable," said James C. Wright, chairman of the department of classical and Near Eastern archaeology at Bryn Mawr College, which has adopted a policy discouraging its scholars from accepting money from an archaeology fund established by Ms. White and her husband.
In a telephone interview, Ms. White, an occasional freelance contributor to The New York Times, declined to comment on the recent evidence presented by Italy or on her plans for the collection, although she confirmed that it was destined for public institutions. She vigorously defended her collecting activities, noting that her aim has always been to make artifacts available to the public and to scholars. "I've published my collection, I've exhibited it," she said. "I'm not hiding things. If it turns out there is something I shouldn't have bought, I will act appropriately."
Italian officials have made clear that any move by the Met to acquire the collection or to put other works on view that appear to have been unearthed in Italy in recent years could have consequences in Rome. "It would be a problem if the works included those whose provenance we have questioned," said Giuseppe Proietti, a senior official in charge of cultural heritage for the Italian government.
The issue is particularly sensitive because of parallels drawn by several people close to the collectors between the Levy-White antiquities and those of another New York couple, Barbara Fleischman and her husband, Lawrence, who died in 1997. Italian prosecutors charge that some works purchased by the Fleischmans came from illicit sources. Those objects figure prominently in the trial of Marion True, a former curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles who has been indicted in Rome on charges of antiquities trafficking.
The Fleischmans, who were active supporters of the Met in the 1980's but eventually gave their collection to the Getty, spent millions of dollars on the same kinds of antiquities that Ms. White and Mr. Levy did, and did business with many of the same dealers.
Recently, the Met has seemed to be trying to distance itself from Ms. White's artifacts. Shortly after a meeting with Italian culture officials last month, Mr. de Montebello indicated that any questions raised about the Levy-White collection were for Ms. White and the Italians to sort out.
In a telephone interview this week, he added, "The Levy-White collection presents very little concern to me because it is not mine."
Yet it sometimes seems as though the Met is of two minds. Mr. de Montebello also said he hoped to receive at least some of Ms. White's collection. And he has resisted taking steps that would harm the Met's relations with Ms. White, continually deflecting questions about works that have come under Italian scrutiny.
"Obviously it's awkward dealing with a board member," said Jane Waldbaum, the president of the Archaeological Institute of America, which has long taken a strong stand against museums that collect antiquities with an unclear provenance. "It's very difficult when you are dealing with a potential donor to say: 'We'll pick and choose. We don't want any of your hot items.' "
It is a conundrum for many large American museums: as they rely on wealthy collectors for donations of rare antiquities, they are struggling to balance those relationships with growing pressure to adopt higher ethical standards for acquisitions. Mr. de Montebello defended the Met's collecting and display practices, while arguing that "with every passing year, standards - legal and ethical - change."
"So we, as best as we can do it, conform to the ethical and legal standards of the day," he said.
Mr. Levy and Ms. White began buying antiquities in 1970, and their collection, which includes hundreds of bronze, stone and terra-cotta objects, ranges from prehistoric Aegean art to works from Central Asia and the Middle East. Yet it is their sizable holdings of Greek and Roman art that are attracting most of the attention as Italian officials try to retrieve similar objects from the Getty Museum and other institutions.
According to archaeologists and Italian court documents, several works in the Levy-White collection appear to have been smuggled out of Italy through the same network of dealers who sold the disputed works to the Fleischmans.
For example, Robin Symes, a London dealer, sold many works to the Fleischmans and to the Getty. Investigators have traced these works to Giacomo Medici, the Italian art dealer who was convicted in Rome of illegal trafficking in artifacts. According to written evidence used by Italian prosecutors to convict Mr. Medici, a copy of which was obtained this week by The Times, Mr. Levy and Ms. White bought at least six objects from Mr. Symes that have also been traced to Mr. Medici. (Mr. Symes has not been charged in the continuing investigations.)
Among these are a small bronze statue they purchased from Mr. Symes for $1.2 million in 1990, just months before it went on view in a major exhibition at the Met, "Glories of the Past: Ancient Art From the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection." Thirteen photographs showing the same statue still covered with dirt were found in the possession of Mr. Medici, according to the Italian documents, which cite a dealer's receipt indicating that the statue came from central Italy.
In the 1980's both the Fleischmans and Mr. Levy and Ms. White were widely known in the antiquities trade for their aggressive pursuit of top objects. In the late 1980's and early 90's, both couples were also charter members of the Philodoroi, a small group of wealthy patrons founded to support the Met's Greek and Roman department.
Underscoring the close connections between the two couples and the objects they acquired, two fragments of a Pompeian fresco from the Fleischman collection fitted like a puzzle piece with a third fragment in the Levy-White collection. It is unknown how the piece reached Mr. Levy and Ms. White, but the Fleischmans' two pieces are mentioned in the case against Ms. True - and have been linked by Italian investigators to other Pompeian fresco fragments confiscated from Mr. Medici that are of the same condition, style and age.
In many ways, Ms. White is the profile of an ideal trustee, and not just for her financial largess. Beginning in the late 1980's, she and her husband, along with several other collectors like the Fleischmans, brought enormous energy to a Greek and Roman department that had for years been known for its lack of exhibition programming and its dry display of Greek vases, lined up neatly in rows. She has also been active on the board, serving on the acquisitions committee. (Another member of that committee is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman emeritus of The New York Times Company.)
In 1990 the major Levy-White show at the Met established the couple's collection as one of the most spectacular of its kind. But by bringing it to world attention, the show raised serious questions in many quarters about how it was acquired.
The Turkish government contended that one object in the exhibition, part of a statue known as "Weary Herakles," was stolen in 1980 from an excavation site in southern Turkey. In 1993, the couple reached a legal settlement arranging the return of a group of Roman bronze objects that had been taken from a private farm in England before Mr. Levy and Ms. White bought them from a New York dealer.
In a lengthy study in 1999, two prominent British archaeologists, David Gill and Christopher Chippindale, determined that 93 percent of the objects in the Met's Levy-White show had no known provenance.
Unlike collectors whose interest in such objects is strictly aesthetic, Ms. White and Mr. Levy were also passionate about scholarship and research about the ancient world. In 1985 they began financing a major archaeological excavation in Israel that continues today. And a fund they established at Harvard to support publication of archaeological work has so far distributed $9 million to more than a hundred scholars.
Defenders of Ms. White say her support of archaeological work is an important resource and note that plenty of archaeologists, including Ms. Waldbaum of the Archaeological Institute, have participated in Levy-White-sponsored projects.
But such efforts have long been overshadowed by the couple's collecting activities, which many scholars say have contributed to the destruction of the archaeological record.
"They had a voracious desire to collect, and some of the pieces they have are extremely important," said Martha J. Joukowsky, a Brown University archaeologist and former collector who resigned from the board of the Levy-White publication fund to protest the couple's approach to acquiring antiquities. "But when you are collecting things that have not seen the light of day and are illicitly traded, then that's where I have a problem."
Scholars at Bryn Mawr and the University of Cincinnati have also adopted policies to ensure that no Levy-White money is used for their schools' publications.
"We didn't want to be perceived to have anything to do with looting, however indirect," said Jack L. Davis, a professor of Greek archaeology at Cincinnati.
For the Met, however, such considerations seem to be far less important. As negotiations with Italy continue, Mr. de Montebello appears more than ready to challenge foreign governments that present anything less than what he calls "incontrovertible proof" that objects in his museum were stolen.
"We cannot lightly take any claim without substantiation," he said. "One would need to be pretty convinced that indeed laws had been broken before removing an object from the public that had been acquired for the public."



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