It reads like a Hollywood blockbuster: dashing detectives hot on the trail of an international ring of art thieves, hunting for millions of dollars’ worth of antiquities from the great civilizations of the past. Yet this isn’t the plot of an adventure film—it’s a nonfiction book. The Medici Conspiracy, a thorough account of the illicit trade in antiquities and its investigation by the Italian Carabinieri, is as informative as it is entertaining. Written by veteran journalists Peter Watson and Cecelia Todeschini, the book offers a gripping introduction to the struggle against the illicit trade in antiquities. With a cast of characters larger than that of a dime-store detective novel—brilliant investigators, cavalier tomb robbers, and fabulously wealthy collectors abound—The Medici Conspiracy does not falter over its 300-plus pages.
The authors take care to make us as readers feel swept up in the action, almost as if we’ve joined the ranks of the Carabinieri Art Squad. They describe the investigative process in great detail, from the cloak-and-dagger details (including tapped phone lines and plainclothes officers) to the challenges of international legal bureaucracy. They also take us inside the smuggling rings to reveal their hierarchical structure. Beginning with tomb robbers (tombaroli, as the professionals say), continuing through middlemen, and ending with high-profile dealers, these antiquities trafficking rings are complex operations. It is especially interesting to read about how they launder looted goods, giving stolen property a false veneer of legitimacy to sell on the open market. Beyond the exciting accounts of police raids and illegal backroom deals, The Medici Conspiracy provides a substantive discussion of the devastating consequences of antiquities looting for archaeology: the lack of information about an artifact’s context when excavated. Looted antiquities may be beautiful, but from the standpoint of archaeological knowledge, they are worthless.
Readers of The Medici Conspiracy will find themselves delving deeper and deeper into a criminal underworld they may have not even known existed, an unsettling feeling akin to spiraling down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. Rather than merely a few bad actors trying to make some money, Watson and Todeschini make the case that the global market for antiquities is deeply corrupted. In chapters on unethical behavior by auction houses and global museums, they seek to reveal active complicity or irresponsible negligence on the part of many individuals, including art dealers, curators, and collectors. Watson and Todeschini’s charges against some of the most prestigious custodians of the world’s artistic treasures are shocking, yet their arguments, developed on the basis of painstakingly collected evidence, are convincing.
Given the sprawling time span of the investigation, nearly 10 years, and the complex interlacing of the criminal relationships mapped out by the authors, The Medici Conspiracy may be challenging for readers less familiar with the subject. Despite the action and adventure, this is not a summer beach read. The authors make an admirable effort to explain technical terms, though, such as the various shapes of ancient Greek vases (kraters, kylixes, and so on), as well as many relevant terms in Italian. When pieces of evidence unveiled earlier in the text become relevant again at later stages in the investigation, Watson and Todeschini provide helpful reminders of the original point, which improves the coherence of an otherwise unwieldy plot. Even with these much-needed accommodations for the non-doctoral reader, the book does not want for detail, making The Medici Conspiracy a fascinating read for both amateur cultural heritage sleuths and subject matter experts alike.
The authors’ note at the beginning of this weighty tome offers a hint at the high stakes of the story to come: “This is a book about art, about the great passions it arouses and the crimes those passions can lead to.” Indeed, The Medici Conspiracy will capture the attention of those who take an interest in art, but it touches on so many more fields, such as criminology, law, and international relations, giving it wide appeal. Even a decade after the book’s publication, it remains a valuable source of insights on antiquities trafficking—and a thrilling read.
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Andrew Lokay is an intern at the Antiquities Coalition. Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, he is now a student at Stanford University, where he studies International Relations and French. If you are interested in interning at the Antiquities Coalition please send a resume and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org.