April 2, 2014

Christie's and Bonhams withdraw two objects of antiquity linked to Medici and Becchina archives

Image appears to be draft of 1987 invoice
 on sale of antiquities
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Both Christie's and Bonhams withdrew two objects -- a 2,000 year old Greek glass wine jug (called an oinochoe) and another ancient vessel (known as a pyxis)-- from their antiquities auctions this week that forensic archaeologist Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis linked to the Medici and Becchina archives.

In an email to ARCA's blog, Dr. Tsirogiannis wrote: "I am also sending you the documents related to the pyxis, which prove that Becchina sold the object to Ariadne Galleries, something that Bonhams failed to mention in the "provenance" section of their catalogue regarding this object." 

The documents, represented by the images here to the right in a bluish tinge and below in a pinkish tinge, appear to be the draft and final copy of an invoice. The pink image is a photograph of an invoice dated November 12, 1987 from U. R. Becchina to Mr. Torkom Demirjian at Ariadne Galleries Inc. at 970 Madison Avenue in New York City “(For definitive sale/no return) no return) for 23 items — 14 terracotta statuettes + 1 Pyxis, 2 Gnathian vessels, 2 Canosan Pyxides, and 4 Corinthian vessels — at a price in U.S. dollars of $21,800 plus a restoration fee of $3,700 for a total of $25,500. The invoice included: "GUARANTEE These items are of the period of the 6th to the 3rd cent. B.C. The authenticity is unconditionally guaranteed."

This is the image of the pink invoice
from Becchina to Ariadne Galleries
regarding the sale of antiquities
Peter Watson, co-author with Cecilia Todeschini of The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums (Public Affairs, 2007), wrote in The Times ("Auction houses 'handling stolen goods'", April 2):
Christos Tsirogiannis, of the Division of Archaeology at Cambridge University, and formerly a member of the Greek Task Force that oversaw the return of smuggled objects, said that the auction houses should have realised that they were handling illegal objects. “They themselves do not release all the information they have about how these objects reach the market,” he said. “These objects have no real provenance.” 
The objects are believed to be part of hauls gathered during the 1980s and 1990s by Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina, two notorious Italian dealers. Both men have been convicted of trafficking in illicit antiquities. Medici’s archive was seized in 1995 in Geneva, and Becchina’s was seized in Basle in 2002. Between them, the men supplied thousands of illegally excavated and smuggled antiquities, many of which were dug up by mechanical digger, and sold at Sotheby’s throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Some of them were priceless and many still had soil on them. They passed in their thousands through London salesrooms until the traffic was exposed, partly by The Times in 1997. Sotheby’s was forced to discontinue its sales in London. 
[...] 
Mr Tsirogiannis, who has just been awarded his PhD for a thesis on the illicit international antiquities trade, has access to two Polaroid archives of the hauls that were seized by the Italian carabinieri in Switzerland. He noticed that the two objects coming up for sale at Bonhams and Christie’s were identical to two shown in the photographs of the seized archives, in one case dirty and broken before restoration. Invoices and sales receipts also appear to confirm that the objects are illicit. He said: “The object at Christie’s was sold at Sotheby’s in 1988, and that’s all — as anyone knows in this field, that almost certainly means it came from Medici. “The Bonhams object also first surfaced in 1987 and has no provenance outside the trade. There again, that should be a warning sign that the piece was illegally excavated and smuggled. Over the past few years, I have spotted dozens of objects like this being drip-fed on to the market, testing whether the Medici scandal has been forgotten. Each time, I have informed the Italian authorities, who tell me they always contact the auction houses, asking them to withdraw the pieces. They almost never do. I think they have only acted this time because The Times is watching. At this rate, London risks regaining its unenviable position as the home of the ‘dirty’ antiquities market.”
Watson reported that Christie's said that the company would contact Scotland Yard's Art & Antiquities Unit to investigate the piece and would return it to Italy if the object was the same as the one identified in the polaroid archive confiscated from Medici.

In an email to the ARCA blog, Dr. Tsirogiannis wrote:
A spokeswoman for Christie's said, regarding Christie's ownership of the oinochoe: 
The work you are referring to was sold through another auction house in 1988. It was then sold last year by Christie’s as part of the the Saeed Motamed collection. Christie’s became the owner after the sale of the work was then cancelled due to accidental damage sustained by the work during storage. 
My comment on this would be: Christie's should have been extra careful when they were exercising their 'due diligence' before the most recent sale, since they are the consigners in their own auction: as it turns out, this is a piece which comes originally from Medici. Christie's did not mention in the 'provenance' section of their catalogue which collection this object came from only last year, nor that the object was damaged during storage. All this exposes their practices even more.
Dr. Tsirogiannis wrote in an email to ARCA:
To echo Lord Renfrew in 2010, when four other antiquities I identified were withdrawn by Bonhams (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/apr/27/bonhams-stolen-roman-sculptures-auction), "London risks regaining its unenviable position as the home of the 'dirty' antiquities market".
Here's a link to the article in BBC News "'Looted' artifacts removed from auction" (2 April 2014).

Here's a link to Dr. Tsirogiannis' post "Auction houses should do more to rooted out looted antiquities" on the website for Apollo Magazine.

0 comments:

Post a Comment