March 23, 2016

Do You Know Where Your Art Has Been? When the Licit Antiquities Trade Masks an Illicit Criminal Enterprise

Robin Symes, was once one of London's best-known and most successful dealers in antiquities. For 30 years, he and his partner Christo Michailidis were inseparable as two of the movers and shakers in the global antiques trade.  Collecting property in London, New York and Athens, and fancy cars as well as antiquities, the two procured ancient artefacts for, and wined and dined with, the rich and famous, including well-known antiquities collectors Leon Levy and his wife Shelby White.

Building one of the world's largest ancient art businesses, Symes and Michailidis pieces also became part of museum collections around the globe, including the J Paul Getty Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum.   At the height of their enterprise Italian authorities estimated that the pair's jointly-run ancient art business earned them an estimated 170 million euro but a series of missteps proved the dealers' undoing, literally and figuratively and in 2005 Symes served a very brief jail sentence for disregarding court orders over the sale of a £3m Egyptian statue.

Art Dealer Robin Symes
In 2006 Symes was further implicated as being part of one of the most sophisticated illicit antiquities networks in the world in a bookThe Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums” by Peter Watson and Cecelia Todeschini.  The Medici Conspiracy outlined Symes' assets which included thirty-three known warehouses encompassing some 17,000 objects worth an estimated £125 million ($210 million) as well as his ties to traffickers in Europe's illicit antiquities trade. Each of the museums mentioned above were subsequently forced to relinquish looted objects that had been laundered illegally and which at one time had passed through networks connected with  Symes.

In addition to requests for museum repatriations, the Italian government has also gone after collectors who have purchased Symes-tainted art for their individual private collections.  In November 2006 they asked Syme's client and friend New York collector Shelby White to return more than 20 objects from the Levy-White collection looted from southern Italy. An avid collector and philanthropist, White had donated $20 million to financing for the Metropolitan's expanded wing of Greek and Roman art.   That same year she made a $200 million gift of cash and real estate to New York University via the Leon Levy Foundation to finance the University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW).

After 18 months of intense negotiations, White ceded ten classical antiquities to the Italian government from the Shelby White and Leon Levy private collection.  One of the ten objects was an attic red-figured calyx-krater depicting Herakles slaying Kyknos, signed by the celebrated fifth-century B.C. painter Euphronios.  This object had once been on extended loan to the Metropolitan Museum.  Discussed in Watson and Todeschini's book, (pages 128-32) and illustrated in J. Boardman's “The History of Greek Vases, (fig. 120), the calyx-krater vessel had been laundered through the hands of tainted antiquities dealers Giacomo Medici, Bob Hecht and Robin Symes before finally coming to rest within the White/Levy collection.  Polaroids held by the Italian government used in the investigation clearly show the object broken into pieces with dirt still clinging to the vase fragments.

Another returned Shelby White and Leon Levy object was a small bronze statue purchased through Symes for 1.2 million dollars in 1990.   The bronze had been displayed during the exhibition “Glories of the Past: Ancient Art From the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection”, a presentation of over 200 objects from the couple's ancient art collection on view at the Metropolitan Museum.  Italian authorities traced this bronze to Symes via thirteen photographs seized through convicted antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici.  The photos showed the statue also covered with dirt during the early stages of its trafficking from tombarolo to the collections of the wealthy.

But despite academic pressure regarding the many tainted pieces in their collection, Ms. White has steadfastly maintained that she and her husband, who died in 2003, purchased their artifacts in good faith and had no knowledge that objects within their collection included those which were clandestinely excavated and trafficked out of source countries.   

Given White's roll in the formation of ISAW, which on its website states is "a center for advanced scholarly research and graduate education, which aims to encourage particularly the study of the economic, religious, political and cultural connections between ancient civilizations" it seems unusual that a seasoned collector of White's caliber would not have understood the implications of an object's collection history prior to purchasing high-end antiquities, especially given the hefty price tags that accompanied many of the family's ancient art acquisitions.

But back to the dealer Symes himself. 

When prosecuted for some of his offences, Symes lied to the court and claimed that he had stored his antiquities in five warehouses.  It later transpired that he had secretly stashed items in more than 30 warehouses, peppered between London, New York and Switzerland, some of which the authorities are continuing to search for. One of these storage facilities was the subject of a closed door press conference in Rome on March 22, 2016.

When seasoned officers from Italy's Art Policing division, the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale pried open forty-five large wooden shipping crates at a Port Franc freeport warehouse storage facility in Geneva in January 2016 they were shocked by the contents they found. Carefully inventoried, complete with dated newspaper wrappings, was enough ancient art to fill a museum: 5,300 objects spanning 1500 years of Italian archeology. 

In one singular warehouse, stashed away for 15 years, the British art dealer had squirrelled away an Ali Baba's cave-worthy hoard of Roman and Etruscan treasures.  Among the objects were two exceptional sixth century BCE Etruscan sarcophagi looted from Tuscania; one of a reclining young woman with pink painted eyes and another of an elderly man. The crates were also filled with bas-reliefs and a cache of fresco fragments, some of which are believed to have come from a painted from a temple of Cerveteri, perhaps from the Vigna Marini Vitalini.  Whoever packed the crates methodically catalogued each of the box's contents, pasting a photocopy of the images of the contents to the exterior of each shipping container. Many of the art shipping containers contained an impressive quantity of attic pottery, painted plates, marble busts and bronzes.


During the press conference at the Carabinieri TPC barracks in Trastevere Italy's Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism Dario Franceschini, Italian deputy prosecutor Giancarlo Capaldo, superintendent for Southern Etruria Alfonsina Russo and the head of the Carabinieri TPC Division, praised the coordinated efforts of the Swiss and Italian investigators. General Commander of the Carabinieri TPC, Mariano Mossa estimated the value of the objects discovered in the warehouse to be worth nine million euros.  

Culture Minister Franceschini called the warehouse raid "one of the most important finds of recent decades".   Prosecutor Giancarlo Capaldo stated that the objects were stolen in the seventies, in clandestine excavations in Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia as well as looted in Etruria. At some point in the looting campaign, the antiquities were smuggled into the Geneva freeport facility where they remained untouched and unopened.  Capaldo stated that they believe that the statues, tiles and sarcophagi were to be illegally exported and sold under false papers to collectors in Germany, Japan and other various collector countries.

Stefano Alessandrini, a consultant to Italy's State Prosecutor and Cultural Ministry and a lecturer during ARCA's postgraduate program who lectures for ARCA's Art Law and Illicit Trafficking course says that it is impossible to give a precise financial figure on the value of material stolen from Italy over the last half a century, ie. from the beginning of the 1970s.   Italian authorities believe that millions of objects have been illegally excavated and trafficked and some estimate the value of lost heritage due to antiquities looting to be as high as several billion euros.

Alessandrini emphasized that when reporters ask for financial figures to indicate art's value they do not take into consideration the “priceless” aspect of an object:  the loss of its historic information about the western world and the context in which the objects were found or how the tangible remains of antiquity gives us insightful information about ancient culture and civilisations. Alessandrini stated that only a small portion of the Italy’s looted art is ever located, and when it is, it is often only repatriated to Italy following lengthy litigation or extracted negotiations between the purchasers and the authorities in source countries.

Alessandrini stated "When looted works of ancient art end up in foreign museums or are sold by auction houses and antique dealers we have a good chance to identify and recover them because we have photographs.  But many of the antiquities are still hidden in caches of traffickers like this one or in the collections of unscrupulous collectors that haven't been displayed publicly."

It is believed that the return of the this cache of looted heritage will increase pressure on Great Britain to hand over another 700 disputed artefacts linked to the same collector that are currently being held by the liquidator for Mr Symes estate following his declared bankruptcy.  The UK cache of objects includes sculptures, jewellery and vases, most of which are believed by antiquities trafficking researchers to be Etruscan in origin and to have come predominantly from the Lazio and Tuscany regions of Italy.

In selecting antiquities, individual collectors and museums have choices. They can choose to focus exclusively on the historic, aesthetic and economic benefits of their acquisitions in formulating their collections or they can add ethical and moral criteria to their purchase considerations.  It's time for private collectors to conscientiously ask themselves

Who am I buying from?

Why does a dealer or group of dealers appear to have an unending supply of archaeological material?

and

Should I spend large sums of money purchasing objects that destroy, scatter or obliterate it as a source of historical information giving us insight into the past?

and

Will my purchase further more looting, theft, smuggling, or fraud?
and 

Could the proceeds of my purchase be used for nefarious purposes such as financing terrorism, militant activity or organised crime?

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO

A partial sampling of images of some of the objects from the January 2016 Symes Geneva freeport seizure are included below.  ARCA has maintained a complete photo inventory of all objects seized for research purposes.

Copyright ARCA

Note the Newspaper date and packing materials of US Origin - Copyright ARCA

Roman Sarcophagus with added Christian elements - Copyright ARCA

Closeup of Antique Trade Gazette dating to August 1990, gives clue to date when crates were packed - Copyright ARCA

Vase and matching polaroid - Copyright ARCA

Shipping crates used by Symes as they appeared when opened by the Carabinieri TPV - Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Vase fragments with matching trafficker polaroid - Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Copyright ARCA

Syme's external inventory pasted to the outside of each crate -  Copyright ARCA









0 comments:

Post a Comment