Smuggling the Renaissance: The Illicit Export of Artworks Out of Italy, 1861-1909 (Series: Studies in the History of Collecting & Art Markets, Volume 8)

Joanna Smalcerz, 2020. Leiden, The Netherlands : Brill, xii, 244 pp., full colour ill. €121.00 (excl. VAT; ebook also available). ISBN 978-90-04-42148-6 (hardback), ISBN 978-90-04-42149-3 (ebook).

– Eleni Vassilika

Smalcerz’s study focuses mostly on the art trading activities of the Florentine dealer Stefano Bardini post Italian unification (1861) with the German curator Wilhelm Bode. The latter personified the German State (first unified in 1871), buying aggressively and trying to make up for lost time, following the French and British Grand Tour acquisitions of the previous century. A decade younger than Italy and with its new capital in Berlin, Germany acquired art as a means of creating its identity. Similarly, America’s ambition of the industrial and financial magnates during the Gilded Age was to achieve the cultural status of other countries. The author brings in other dealers and collectors from time to time, plus various Italians (Giuseppe Donati, Giuseppe Fiorelli, Adolfo Venturi, Pietro Rosa, Cesare Correnti , Pasquale Villari), who attempted to keep Italian patrimony within the country.

Renaissance art in particular was idealised as an ‘age of secular individualism’, but also as an era of ‘bloody tyrants and divine artists’ and it would fit into the German study of cultural history (Kulturgeschichte). The allure of the Renaissance was aided by the scholarly publications of Vasari, Walter Pater (1873), Jacob Burckhart (starting in 1860 and running to 7 editions, English ed. 1878) John Ruskin (also 1873),  Aby Warburg (1891), and Bernard & Mary Berenson (1896 & 97). These helped to usher in tourism and collectionism (eg Baron Alphonse de Rothschild and Jacquemart Andrés in France), a fashion eagerly followed by the German bourgeoisie (which Thomas Mann ridiculed). In this period-shift from the aristocracy to the haute bourgeoisie, the collectors were chiefly bankers and financiers who wished to emulate the Medici, whilst competing with one another. Thus, Isabella Stewart Gardner mimicked Isabella d’Este and lived in her mock palazzo surrounded by fine art. It was in 1899 that the economist Thorstein Veblen codified the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ referring to the wasteful activity of collecting by the capitalist class. The Americans could not get enough of the Italian Renaissance and the British art critic Roger Fry criticised the lack of it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The legal situation regarding artistic heritage had not yet been defined following Italian Unification, and was not helped by the patchwork of earlier laws of individual regions being unsuccessfully applied (Tuscany 1754, Papal states 1820, Naples & Sicily 1822, Lombardy 1818, Parma 1822, Modena, 1857, Piedmont, Sardegnia and Liguria none). The Pacca Edict (7 April 1820) of the Papal State was a legal tool created following Napoleon’s wholesale export of artworks. Sales were permitted within Rome, but export permission could be granted (by the Ufficio delle licenze per l’estrazionei di ogetti di belle arti) following submission to art/archaeological inspectors and payment of a 20% export tax. The testamentary rule of keeping collections together (Fideicommisum), or their inheritance by the eldest son (majorat) and the restriction of sales from churches were liberalised in the 1860s.

The Roman Pacca cause célèbre involved Raphael’s Conestabile Madonna (1504), that had eventually become the patrimony of Perugia, but was brought for sale to Rome in 1868, where Scipione Conestabile was charged under the Pacca Edict. He was found not guilty because the Edict only applied to export from and not import into the Papal States. Once back in Perugia, the concept of pre-emption of the sale to a foreign nation by the city was discussed, but the 330,000 lire could not be raised to match the offer of Stepan Gedeonov on behalf of Czar Alexander II (intending the painting as a gift for the Czarina’s namesday 1871). Cesare Correnti, Minister of Public Education, had tried to mediate but failed, only to use the event in Parliament to demonstrate his impotence. For him it was the 55th Raphael work (out of 87 known) that had left Italy. Correnti’s proposals for protecting monuments were repeatedly defeated (1872, 1875, 1877, 1878) due both to the presence of noblemen in the Senate who wished to liberalise the market in order to sell their own chattles and to the short-lived governments. By 1888 discussion revolved around the creation of a catalogue of inalienable Italian property, letting go of lesser-quality material (taxed at 20% and with a penalty for illegal export equal to the value of the artwork), and this included the question of furniture, porcelain, textiles etc. Following refinement of the Nasi law of 1902, Giovanni Rosadi’s law was passed in 1909 prohibiting the export of objects of historical, archaeological or artistic interest whose exportation would constitute grave damage to the nation. Essentially this law is equivalent to the Waverley criteria of 2002 governing the export of art from the UK.

Stefano Bardini’s sale of two Botticelli frescoes detached from the walls [sawn from behind]  of the Villa Lemmi in Florence (for which John Ruskin had commissioned copies) had been refused export permission in 1881. To circumvent the refusal, Bardini arranged for a foreigner, unlikely to be tried in Italy (a strawman named Charles Ephrussi) to buy them ‘in Florence’ and accept responsibility for their export ban. Having protected himself on paper, Bardini proceeded to traffic the frescoes to the Louvre. So too Bardini sold the Bust of the Princess of Urbino (perhaps an illegitimate daughter of Duke Federico de Montefeltro) that was considered alternately to be by Donatello and a forgery. Bardini bought the bust in 1887 together with his occasional Roman associate Giuseppe Giacomini for Bode in Berlin. Bardini applied anonymously through a Roman art shipping company for export permission which was refused, so he collected the bust and took it away in a pram. He then suggested to Bode various options to evade the export block: a) find a foreigner, who could deliver it to Bode, then holidaying in Switzerland or b) send the bust to the German Archaeological Institute for transfer to the German Embassy that it might go to Berlin by diplomatic pouch. Bode was anxious to protect his reputation and that of the state, so Bardini then advised him to find a foreign strawman that the sale might take place on paper in Rome. Albert Figdor, a Viennese banker and collector was chosen by Bode, but he panicked and instructed one of his clerks Paul Kramer (who had never been to Italy) to sign his name to the Roman bill of sale (50,000 lire). When the Italian authorities eventually learned that the bust was in the Berlin museum, they arranged for Figdor and Kramer to be formally interviewed in Vienna, but both men came clean (1890). Unfortunately for Bardini, it also emerged that he had smuggled the bust from Rome to Florence (in contravention of the Pacca Edict), where it was photographed (a deposition was made by the photographer) for an eventual album of his greatest sales. Despite Bardini’s previous conviction for contravention of the Pacca Decree (in 1889 when he was fined 806,25 lire later reduced to 100 lire), and thanks to a new penal code (Zanardelli 1890) with its three year statute of limitation, Bardini was acquitted.

Study of an archive of some 400 letters between Bode and Bardini reveals that Bode acquired aggressively and sent customers to Bardini, receiving a 12% commission, though he did not profit from advice or authentications from the collectors, hoping for eventual gifts to the Berlin Museums. A number of academics acted as enablers for museum directors such as Gustav Ludwig, research assistant to Bode (involved in the acquisition of Giovanni Bellini’s Resurrection in 1904), or Otto Mündler, who acquired on behalf of the National Gallery, London.

It occurs to this reviewer that a loyal museum equivalent to Bode, who bought as aggressively, albeit with less regard for his personal reputation, was Wallis Budge at the British Museum. Indeed, he was commended by the the trustees in 1887 for his energy. Budge exported crates of Egyptian antiquities through the military and once, while under arrest, calmly waited as gardeners tunnelled under a storeroom to retrieve his sequestered antiquities.

The collecting frenzy for Renaissance art applied equally to private collectors, especially Americans. When Isabella Stewart Gardner had her heart set on acquiring a signed Raphael, Berenson asked: how about a Botticelli? Once these collectors managed to acquire an artwork they faced the problem of circumventing the export rules. Mary Berenson once wrote to Isabella Stewart Gardner: there is always a way! Smalcerz enumerates the possibilities available at the time: 1) substitute an acquired painting with a daub (Mary Berenson) or with a good copy for the original so that it could be quietly trafficked (as organised by Bernard Berenson with the [Circle of] Bellini panel (attributed at the time to Giorgione) of Christ Carrying the Cross for Isabella Stewart Gardner). Bardini made so many copies of pictures that he also was able to sell some to unsuspecting collectors; 2) pay a bribe (Bardini to Stanford White); 3) use a foreigner to smuggle unframed canvases (Bernard Berenson); 4) intentionally break sculptures into fragments (as with the terracotta Deposition relief in the Gardner museum); 5) pack things with personal items in luggage (Isabella Stewart Gardner wrote to Bernard Berenson in 1897 “…I have seen wonderful things in Paris, bought by those Jews, Kann and Dreyfus. They have had great luck and have packed up and walked off with things they bought in Italy. Don’t you think the best way to do is that? Put the Giorgione in a trunk and presto.”; 6) Pack pictures into a concealed second bottom of a trunk (as boasted by Mary Berenson in 1900, with the panel by Piermatteo d’Amelia of the Anununciation headed to Isabella Stewart Gardner, the trunk packed “with large, cheap and worthless dolls”; 7) removed from frames, roll the canvases and hide in tubes (as in the ‘exhaust-pipe plot’ with the seven van Dycks from the Cattaneo family in the undercarriage of a car; 8) send pictures by diplomatic bag (the German Consul in Florence accepted artworks for Wilhelm Bode); 9) carry works over the border into France (as arranged by the Neapolitan Canessa brothers among an amateur cycling tour group, each with pieces of antiquities. Or hide objects among oranges in train carriages, always avoiding Austrian-bound trains. Italian incompetance meant that artworks being exported were not were not always checked against relevant export documents, the seals were not always official, and perhaps bribery and collusion were involved.

Similarly, collectors smuggled artworks into America in order to evade the customs duty of 30% imposed in 1883 (as did John Pierpont Morgan and Isabella Stewart Gardner). With museums publishing their catalogues more regularly, Italian dealers preferred to deal with private individuals over curators (Bardini to Quincy Adams Shaw in 1896), who were willing to enter into the spirit of illicit trafficking. Bardini’s network involved impoverished aristocratic families, clergy , artists working as restorers and forgers, plus a clientele that included the Prince of Liechtenstein, Albert Figdor, the Jacquemarts,  John Pierpont Morgan, Quincy Adams Shaw, Stanford White, Adolf von Beckerath and [Henri] James Simon (both through Bode). It might be noted here that in 1898, Bode founded the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft with Simon, who went on to fund the excavations at Tel el-Amarna resulting in Simon’s ownership of the famous bust of Nefertiti. It is known that Simon was content to act as strawman for Bode’s Italian acquisitions, whereas when Bardini asked Von Beckerath to do the same, he refused strenuously.

Smalcerz analyses the thinking of white-collar crime, the social identities and the trust that unifies these unlawful networks. Indeed, the collectors had to break the law in order to compete with each other and not weaken their positions.  As with white-collar criminals today, they rarely confessed publicly, were comforted in the awareness that others were doing likewise, rationalised their acts as serving a higher purpose or to aid their social group or nation and in the interest of preventing objects suffering ruin in their country of origin (an argument often used for the Parthenon marbles). Trafficking was creatively and meticulously planned and often in the spirit of a thrill. Legal restrictions did not eliminate demand, in fact the more Italians tried to protect given artists, the more it intensified. However, Bardini tried to stick to small, lightweight and portable images that lent themselves to trafficking.

Smalcerz should be praised for her granular detailed study of some of the cases, but she repeats them often and in a sequence that is not always easy to  comprehend. She does not elaborate on who was caught or how they were punished, but rightly suggests that future studies should cover the extent of spoliation and the study of export licenses during this period.


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