The story begins, as stories do in all good thrillers, with a botched robbery and a police chase. Eight Apuleian vases of the fourth century B.C. are discovered in the swimming pool of a German-based art smuggler. More valuable than the recovery of the vases, however, is the discovery of the smuggler's card index detailing his deals and dealers. It reveals the existence of a web of tombaroli—tomb raiders— who steal classical artifacts, and a network of dealers and smugglers who spirit them out of Italy and into the hands of wealthy collectors and museums. Peter Watson, a former investigative journalist for the London Sunday Times and author of two previous exposés of art world scandals, names the key figures in this network that has depleted Europe's classical artifacts. Among the loot are the irreplaceable and highly collectable vases of Euphronius, the equivalent in their field of the sculpture of Bernini or the painting of Michelangelo. The narrative leads to the doors of some major institutions: Sothebys, the Getty Museum in L.A., the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York among them. Filled with great characters and human drama, The Medici Conspiracy authoritatively exposes another shameful round in one of the oldest games in the world: theft, smuggling and duplicitous dealing, all in the name of art.
In light of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recent decision to return a rare and by the Italian government's contention, stolen vase painted by the Greek master Euphronios, Watson and Todeschini's colorful account of Giacomo Medici, an antiquities dealer found guilty of looting last year, and his illegal business dealings, is wonderfully prescient. Making sense of a lengthy catalogue of legal, artistic and forensic documentation, the authors meticulously map out Medici's underground network of middlemen and tombaroli, or tomb robbers, and link them to corrupt dealers such as Robin Symes as well as to established cultural institutions including Sotheby's, the John Paul Getty Museum and the Met asserting that Medici supplied most, if not all, of the major collections of classical antiquities that have been established since WWII. Though Watson (Sotheby's: The Inside Story) and Todeschini often become overly indignant when decrying their story's villains and frequently bog down the narrative with long-winded dialogue and paper trail excerpts, they are at their best when chronicling the international adventures of various investigators, such as the Carabinieri Art Squad's raids on various Italian criminals to recover lost loot.