The Fordham University Villanovan hut urn

Over on Facebook, Jason Felch has recently drawn attention to an old Chasing Aphrodite post about the Fordham University Museum of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art. This museum collection comprises more than 260 objects donated in 2006 by William D. Walsh and his wife Jane [1]. Jason links to a January 2014 post on David Gill’s blog Looting Matters, which reports that legal title to a ninth century BC Villanovan hut urn in the collection’s possession was ceded to Italy in 2010 after it was discovered to have been illegally excavated and traded. The piece itself remained on long-term loan at Fordham. It can be seen today on the digital inventory of the Fordham collection (inventory number 4.021), where Fordham University is listed as the ‘owning institution’ – presumably a mistake.

At the time of the donation in 2006, Walsh said he had bought most of his material at public auction and reckoned his collection to be worth something in the region of $5-6 million [2]. It would be unusual and surprising if Mr and Mrs Walsh had not claimed a tax deduction on this sum for their donation to Fordham. It is after all standard practice, though one that is open to abuse [3]. In January 2014, David Gill went on to review the publication of the collection, drawing attention to the general dearth of useful information about provenance.

5-1b The hut urn seems to be the one appearing in the ‘Woodcutter’s Archive’ [4], as pictured here. The ‘woodcutter’ in question was Giuseppe Evangelisti, who in December 2003 was living north of Rome when the Carabinieri paid him a visit. They discovered a stash of hundreds of looted antiquities together with a photographic archive of every object he had ever found, said to number in the ‘hundreds of thousands’. Evangelisti is alleged to have sold finds to (among others) Giacomo Medici, the Aboutaam brothers, and ‘a prominent gallery in London’s Mayfair district’. As part of his PhD research [5], Gordon Lobay discovered that the urn had been sold at Christie’s New York on 18 December 1996 (lot 164) for $6,900. It is not known whether or not Walsh was the successful bidder, but it seems likely.

So, while the urn’s provenance might start with Evangelisti and end with Fordham, the money trail would start with the US taxpayer, passing through Christie’s to an intermediary dealer, perhaps Medici, the Aboutaams or a prominent London gallery (Christie’s would surely know), before finally petering out in the pocket of a tombarolo.

References

[1] Cavaliere, Barbara and Jennifer Udell (eds), 2012. Ancient Mediterranean Art. The William D. and Jane Walsh Collection at Fordham University. New York: Fordham University Press.

[2] Pogrebin, Robin, 2007. Fordham opens its gift: an antiquities museum, New York Times, 6 December.

[3] Thompson, Erin, 2010. The relationship between tax deductions and the market for unprovenanced antiquities, Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts 33: 241-265; Yates, Donna, 2016. Museums, collectors, and value manipulation: tax fraud through donation of antiquities, Journal of Financial Crime 23(1).

[4] Watson, Peter and Cecilia Todeschini, 2007. The Medici Conspiracy. New York: Public Affairs, at 265-268.

[5] Lobay, Gordon, 2007. Objects and Objectivity: An Archaeology of Auctions. Central Italian Antiquities at Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s 1970-2005. Unpublished PhD thesis: University of Cambridge.