December 7, 2015

New Auction House Identifications With Opaque Collection Histories and Image Matches in Known Trafficker Archives

Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis has identified three antiquities related to the upcoming December 9, 2015 Christie's antiquities auction in New York which match with images originating within either the Gianfranco Becchina or Symes-Michaelides confiscated archives.

1. Lot 36: A Canosan terracotta Zeus and Ganymede, from Apulia, 3rd-2nd C. B.C.

Image of 'A Canosan terracotta Zeus and Ganymede
from the Becchina archive (provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)
This antiquity is depicted in the records of the Becchina archive. Although its collecting history - according to Christie's - starts before 1981 and Becchina is not mentioned, there is a document, in the archival record dated January 17, 1995, from a designer to Becchina, mentioning the object specifically.

The designer, Raoul Allaman, seems to have added the figure's current plexiglass base. This object has subsequently been withdrawn as of November 28, 2016 and the Carabinieri TPC in Italy have  been made aware of the identifying match.
Image of 'A Celtic Bronze Dagger and Scabbard'
from the Becchina archive 

(provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)






2. Lot 45: A Celtic bronze dagger and scabbard, 8th C. B.C. 

This antiquity is also depicted in the Becchina archive, in two professional images. The Becchina file containing the images and the lined cards on which the images are stuck, state that the object is 'Italic, Villanovan period'. This object has not been previously detected by the Italian authorities and is presently still on offer.





A Canaanite bronze enthroned deity
from the Becchina archive
(provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)




This object appears in 6 professionally taken images from the Symes-Michaelides archive, without its current base, placed on a white plasteline/clay ball, standing in front of a stone wall, which serves as a background.  This antiquity, too, is still on offer. Symes and Michaelides are not mentioned in the Christie's collecting history. Interpol, the Carabinieri, 2 ICE agents and the Embassy of Israel to the United States have been notified concerning lot nr. 101.

The theft and trafficking of cultural items deliberately stolen from archaeological sites is a practice that is older than history and remains the greatest threat to the global archaeological record. Investigating the looting of antiquities and returning pieces to their countries of origin is a long and often difficult process.   Few of the objects looted and illicitly trafficked from source countries are ever repatriated and those that are, often are a direct the result of the work of a limited number of art crime researchers and law enforcement officers who work with various cultural ministries and law enforcement authorities tracking leads when and where they find them.

Yet the ultimate culpability rests not solely with the auction houses but equally importantly with the illicitly trafficked object's purchaser.  If collectors were unwilling to acquire unprovenanced artefacts, the supply chain would have no demand client buying and the market for illicit antiquities would disintegrate.

But what is the auction house’s own internal investigation of an object’s provenance?  Should auction houses be required to inform the legal authorities when consignors present objects with questionable collection histories? In much the same way nurses and doctors are required by law to report suspect child abuse? And if so, what would the ramifications be if the auction houses started to work WITH law enforcement towards cleaning up the art market?




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