February 13, 2019

Looted artworks returned to Italy via voluntary forfeiture via Christie's auction house in London


In a memorable act of rare collaboration, Italian officials have announced “the first case of such close co-operation between Italy and a private auction house” in which a number of illegally obtained and trafficked antiquities, the proceeds of clandestine excavations between the 1960s and the 1980s, were voluntarily restituted to the Italian authorities. 

In a handover event held at Italy's Embassy in London, twelve antiquities and one document were ceremoniously returned, some of which had been placed up for auction in 2014 and 2015 and which were withdrawn from sale after being determined as questionable.  Attended by Alberto Bonisoli, the Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities,  Raffaele Trombetta, the Italian ambassador to London, Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli of Italy's Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, the CEO of Christie's Guillaume Cerutti and the auction house's Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Stephen Brooks, this event represents a much needed step forward in art market's cooperation with the Italian authorities and a welcomes step towards collaboratively working with one another towards the restitution of looted objects.

The antiquities returned are: 


A marble fragment whose theft from a sarcophagus from the Catacombs of St Callixtus, on the Appian Way in Rome was reported in 1982. 


A 6th -5th century BCE Etruscan terracotta antefix used to capthe terminus of covering tiles on ancient roofs.

Its original provenance when listed in sale 10372 as Lot 102 was "Property from a London Collection
Provenance:   Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 9 December 1985, lot 273, when acquired by the present owner."


Five (5) 4th century BCE Apulian Gnathian-ware plates.


A 350-330 BCE red-figure Apulian hydria believed to be attributed to a follower of the Snub-Nose or Varrese painter.

Its original provenance when listed in sale 10372 as Lot 108 was "Property from a London Collection


A 2nd century CE Roman capitol.


A Roman marble relief depicting a Satyr with Maenad stolen from the gardens of Villa Borghese in 1985.


A 14th century promissory folio from an illuminated manuscript by the Doge Andrea Dandolo and the ducal councilors.


A 4th century BCE red-figure Faliscan stamnos vase used to store liquids.

At the ceremony, attendees underscored that the art market's ethical codes need enhancement and that greater due diligence is needed to ensure the legitimacy of objects before accepting them for sale.  With over 1 million two hundred thousand stolen objects and about 700 thousand images of stolen and looted art, the Carabinieri's Leonardo database, the largest stolen art database in the world, is a good place to start when auction houses such as Christie's consider accepting them on consignment.

During the event Christie's staff indicated that the antiquities had been acquired in the past in good faith.   Three of these however did not pass the smell test in 2014 and 2015 when they originally accepted for consignment and were placed up for auction.   All three were later withdrawn when they were identified as having passed through the hands of well known Italian dealers who have consistently been linked to trafficked antiquities.  Without the required, verifiable title, export documentation or collection history these objects had no place on the legitimate art market. 


Auction houses are not the only parties that need to be diligent when evaluating antiquities, especially when considering objects which appear to have emerged on the open market without substantiated collection histories.

Ancient art collectors should realise that their buying power and unharnessed demand for archaeological material, absent transparent ethical acquisition documentation, serves to incentivise those facing economic hardship to participate in, or tacitly condone, the looting of archaeological sites, by which illicit material enters the licit market.

If collectors in market buying nations such as the United States and UK refused to purchase undocumented artifacts, then the supply chain incentives for looting historic sites, which by proxy funds criminal enterprise, diminish.

By:  Lynda Albertson

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