Showing posts with label Christie's. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christie's. Show all posts

July 1, 2020

Auction House Seizure: A Roman marble portrait head of the Emperor Septimius Severus, circa 200 CE seized at Christie's

Image Left:  Christie's Catalogue where the stolen sculpture was identified.
Image Right:  Showroom image of the stolen head of Emperor Septimius Severus

An ancient Roman marble head was seized on the basis of a search warrant requested by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office on June 24th at Christie’s auction house based on evidence provided by the Italian Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, attesting that the portrait bust had been stolen from Italy in on 18 November 1985 before eventually landing in New York.  Taken at gunpoint from the Antiquarium of the Campanian Amphitheatre in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, in the Province of Caserta, situated 25 km north of Naples in southern Italy.  The sculpture depicts Septimius Severus who served as Roman emperor from 193 to 211 CE. 

The antiquity was published in Christie's 28 October 2019 catalogue Faces of the Past - Ancient Sculpture from the Collection of Dr. Anton Pestalozzi which included two pages describing the biography of the Roman Emporer and the object's comparable likeness to other portraits of Severus in the Serapis-type style, including one at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Denmark.

For the object's provenance, Christie's stated:

◘ with Jean-Luc Chalmin, London

◘ with Galerie Arete, Zurich, acquired from the above, 1993

◘ Dr. Anton Pestalozzi (1915-2007), Zurich, acquired from the above, thence by descent to the current owner. 

According to Roman Historian Cato the Elder the site at Ancient Capua where the object originates was founded by the Etruscans around 800 BCE and is remembered most for being the site where slaves and gladiators led by the legendary Spartacus revolted 73 BCE. 

While details on this particular investigation have not yet been released to the public, one of the troubling aspects in this case - of which there are many - and the most disturbing perhaps, is the failure of anyone whose hands this object passed through to have properly investigated the provenance of this portrait head.  No one, from Jean-Luc Chalmin, to Hans Humbel at Galerie Arete to the Zurich-based lawyer-collector Dr. Anton Pestalozzi ever bothered to ascertain by reasonable inquiry that the person from whom they had obtained the artifact had the legal right to possess it.

Amphitheater Campano Santa Maria Capua Vetere
On the bright side, this third object seizure in a span of weeks should send an important message to the auction powerhouse, as well as to dealers who profit from the sales of illicit material, that the Antiquities Trafficking Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the US and Italian authorities are committed to protecting cultural heritage around the world.

Update:  A second artefact, stolen during this same armed robbery, a head portrait depicting the beloved elder sister of Roman Emperor Trajan, Ulpia Marciana (August 48 – 112) was recovered, twenty-five years ago, ten years after the theft.

May 19, 2020

Prosecutors file a civil forfeiture complaint for the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet which they say was looted from Iraq.

The Gilgamesh dream tablet, Iraq, c. 1600 BCE
while on display at Museum of the Bible

“Strange things have been spoken, why does your heart speak strangely? The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror.”  ― The Epic of Gilgamesh, N.K. Sanders translation. 
Authorities in the United States have filed a civil forfeiture complaint for a 1600 BCE cuneiform tablet featuring a dream sequence from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Acting as the Plaintiff in the case, the US authorities brought an action in rem for the tablet pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c)(1)(A).  Under this section, US law authorizes the forfeiture of any "merchandise" that is "introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States contrary to law." In this case, that's when it is believed that the property was stolen in a foreign country and imported into the United States illegally.  

In the complaint, Special Agent John Paul Labbat with the United States Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, cited that the object was stolen Iraqi property introduced into the United States contrary to 18 U.S.C. § 2314, the stolen property act.  This act serves as an independent basis for the forfeiture of any stolen property that moves in interstate or foreign commerce and which is utilized whether the object in question was stolen overseas or inside the United States.

The ancient clay object, originally part of a larger six-column tablet, contains seventy-four lines of Middle Babylonian cuneiform text, and is known to be one of only thirty known surviving fragments from the Epic of Gilgamesh created during the old and middle Babylonian periods.  Written almost 4,000 years ago, the Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known literary works in the world. The earliest parts of the poem were first discovered in the ruins of the library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, in Nineveh, Iraq in 1853. 

Based upon the facts as set out in the Verified Complaint in Rem, on July 30, 2014, Hobby Lobby wired $1,674,000 to an unnamed auction house as payment for the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, having purchased the artifact for donation or display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.  This was the same year that the company's fundamentalist president, Steve Green, persuaded the United States Supreme Court that it deserved a religious exemption from a federal requirement under which employers in the country are made to provide their workers with access to contraceptives.  It is also the same month that the Egyptian Exploration Society gave Dirk Obbink an ultimatum: cut ties with the Green family or lose his editorship of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, several fragments of which are now part of a separate ongoing investigation into another illegal sale in the United Kingdom.

Three months earlier, in April 2014 Manchester-based papyrologist Roberta Mazza had already published a blog post after visiting the Green's exhibition Verbum Domini II in Rome, Italy.  There, Professor Mazza recognized that another ill-advised Green purchase, a papyrus fragment of the Coptic codex of Galatians 2:2-4, 5-6, was one which had earlier been identified by Brice Jones and Dorothy L. King as having passed through the hands of a middleman trafficker on eBay, a gentleman going by the pseudonym Ebuyerrrrr, Yasasgroup, and later Mixantik.  As the investigations into the Green's buying habits progressed, Mazza, would be integral in determining that the Turkish middleman was Yakup Ekşioğlu, a name kept discreetly amongst researchers while investigations were undergoing.

Not long after the payment for the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was finalized, the firm affiliated with the sale shipped the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to their New York branch and then arranged for one of their representatives to hand-carry the tablet to Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma City, in order to avoid incurring a New York sales tax. The cuneiform tablet was subsequently transferred to the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, where it drew concerns with one of the Museum's curators, in the lead up to the museum's grand opening. This unnamed curator queried the parties involved in the object's history post-sale, looking for evidence that would establish the artifact's legitimacy; an act of due diligence that should have been done by the prospective buyer before the tablet was purchased, and not after.  Those involved were anything but helpful.

This likely explains one of the reasons why the cuneiform tablet, once on display on the 4th floor of the DC museum in the History of the Bibles Galleries, was displayed with no provenance information whatsoever.

On 24 September 2019, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was seized as part of this civil investigation.  As the complaint released demonstrates, the importance of export documentation, for potential owners and dealers, or the lack thereof is a useful tool for researchers, law enforcement, and customs agents who monitor and prevent the trafficking of cultural property, none of which was remotely in keeping with this particular object.

But where was the Dream Tablet before? 

As background to the case, the US document cites that the tablet was first seen by an unnamed antiquities dealer in 2001 on the floor of a London apartment belonging to antiquities dealer Ghassan Rihani originally from Irbid in northern Jordan.

Prior to Rihani's death as well as after, a substantial portion of his "collection" of Iraqi objects began appearing on the London ancient art market. Many were believed to have been illicitly exported out of Iraq during the Gulf War following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then recycled as being part of the not well documented Rihani family collection, something his son has denied in an interview with the New York Times.

By March/April 2003 the same dealer returned to London with a cuneiform expert and again viewed the tablet, this time with members of Rihani's family.  It is at this visit, where the dealer agreed to purchase the cuneiform table along with other items for a total of $50,530.  These items were subsequently mailed back to the United States and sold onward to two other dealers in ancient art for $50,000 along with a preliminary translation of the inscription.

By March 2007, false provenance documents had been created which omitted any mention of Rihani or the United Kingdom transaction.  Instead, the would-be provenance documentation proclaimed that the tablet had been purchased at a 1981 Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco, listed as LOT 1503.  All of which was blatantly untrue, as was the claim that the tablet had been deaccessioned from a small museum.

The cuneiform table would eventually make its way into the hands of Michael Sharpe, who published the object in his Rare & Antiquated Books catalog, where the object's constructed pedigree took a back seat to it's highlighted importance.



Like many cases before it, the multiple transactions surrounding the sales of the stolen Gilgamesh Dream Tablet reflects the inadequacy of the due diligence performed by intermediary dealers, the auction house, and the Green family themselves.  A simple check of the Butterfield & Butterfield auction records would have noted that LOT 1503 does not match the description of a terracotta cuneiform tablet from Iraq.  That alone should have given someone reason to pause.

At best, all of these dealers' behavior, the auction house's behavior and the collector's continued nonchalant attitude towards the object agreed to he purchase should be characterized as negligent. At worst, it shows the complicity of market actors, including those anonymously helping law enforcement post-facto, in prioritizing profits and plausible deniability as a masquerade for stewardship and collecting ethics.

As a result of this case, never shy Hobby Lobby has deflected its own ethical responsibilities towards due diligence by filing suit against Christie's, alleging fraud and breach of warranty in connection with the private treaty sale allegedly after the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet's provenance failed to stack up. This move confirms the auction powerhouse as the intermediary auction house, unnamed in the civil forfeiture complaint. That case has been listed as Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Christie's Inc. (1:20-cv-02239) to be heard in the Eastern District of New York and names Georgie Aitken, Head of the Antiquities Department at Christie's in London from 2009-2016 and Margaret Ford, the Senior Director, International Head of Group, Books and Science at Christie's.

In closing, it is interesting to note that in the past Christie's has voiced a willingness to work closely with law enforcement agencies and ministries of culture to resolve issues when suspect antiquities passing through their organization, but reading the emails detailed in the civil forfeiture complaint for this cuneiform tablet show acting employees of the firm being anything but that. Instead, Christie's appears to have been trying to extract itself from the difficult situation it found itself in, having failed to so their advance homework prior to accepting the object for consignment or at any point up to the final sale.

Yet guarding our past for the future, is also going to be a tough sell for the Oklahoma-based retailer/donor.  In 2017 Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million after federal authorities alleged that the firm bought thousands of historical artifacts that were smuggled out of Iraq.  In 2019 the Museum of the Bible deaccessioned and restituted a number of stolen EES papyrus fragments removed illegally from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri housed at the Sackler Library in Oxford and in 2020 the museum relinquished 11,500 antiquities to the Iraqi and Egyptian governments, which had been acquired with a lack reliable provenance, or ownership histories.

Then there is that Galatians fragment Dr. Mazza has been asking about for years now, as well as many other pieces, have been tied back to Dr. Dirk Obbink and his private antiquities enterprises. 

At the time of the last restitution Mr. Green stated:

“One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased.” 

One would question just how many legal entanglements it will take before Mr. Green starts to acknowledge that he is a significant contributor to the problem and not merely an innocent victim.  His failure to have engaged in serious due diligence of the artifacts he has purchased has already caused the Museum of the Bible to suffer by their own hands.  Likewise, due diligence of looted antiquities, especially those that could be from conflict-based countries, must be meaningful and not superficially plausible, in the furtherance of a sale's commission.  Partially-documented histories in an object's collection background, do not necessarily always point to fresh looting or illegal export but when an antiquity's background looks murky, as is the case with this important cuneiform tablet, the art market and wealthy donor collectors need to step up their game, by no longer participating in the laundering and by allowing researchers access to past sales details so that wrongs can be righted.

By:  Lynda Albertson

April 11, 2020

Christie's admits to failing to register to collect New York and local sales tax despite legal obligation to do so


The tax collectors, unsigned
Oil on panel : 78,2 X 100 cm, 16th century
In a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, the auction powerhouse Christie's has agreed to pay up to $16.7 million in sales tax, penalties and interest over a two-year period to the state of New York.  The firms unlucky legal happenstance has been brought about by failing to register, and to collect, New York and local sales between 2013 to 2017 despite a legal obligation to do so. 

In a statement released by the New York District Attorney's Office, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Roberts Vance, Jr, praised his office's tax probe saying: “Thanks to our unique expertise and our prosecutors’ hard work, the Manhattan D.A.’s Office is again delivering millions of dollars in badly-needed revenue to the people of New York.”  In addition to thanking his team, Vance thanked  the New York State Department of Taxation & Finance, the City of London Police Department, and DANY Supervising Rackets Investigator Matthew Winters who is embedded overseas. 

While shaving a little bit here and there on taxes is without a question a known problem in the art market, this instance is a bit different that when the average schnook, agrees to participate in a so called "box trick" scam to cheat on his taxes.   In that practice a vendor, knowing that he does not need to collect sales tax on sales purchases when the object being bought is to be shipped out of state,  agrees, and sometimes even suggests, that he can whittle the price of the object down by fudging the books a bit.  To do so, the vendor agrees to allow the purchaser to take the artwork home, while documenting the sale as out of state, shipping an empty box to an address outside the state where the purchaser resides. 

Back in 2004 then contemporary art consultant Thea Westreich and her former New York company, Art Advisory Services, Inc., pled guilty to filing a false business tax return and failing to collect New York City sales tax on $5 million worth of art over a four-year period, and was sanctioned with a $250,000 fine as well as the back taxes. 

But Christie's evasion problem was more extensive. 

According to the Deferred Prosecution Agreement, Christie’s London, Christie’s Private Sales and other affiliated Christie’s entities admitted to:

failing to register to collect and to collect New York and local sales tax between 2013 to 2017 on purchases made in and/or delivered to New York despite having a legal obligation to do so. In addition, Christie’s Private Sales also admitted that once certain employees finally determined in 2015 that the entity had an outstanding obligation to register to collect and to collect New York sales tax with the New York State Department of Taxation & Finance (“NYS Tax”), it failed to register the entity to collect tax with NYS Tax because of the perceived audit risk. Subsequently, Christie’s Private Sales began collecting sales tax from its customers without registering, and Christie’s New York, who were long registered to collect sales tax in New York, falsely reported and remitted this sales tax to NYS Tax as its own.

Sales taxes are big bucks for most states, and in some, like New York, they can be the second-largest source of revenue.  For this reason this kind of tax avoidance has serious consequences. 

July 5, 2019

The value of a boy king in the form of the ancient Egyptian god Amen: All Sales Final

Engraving of Christie's auction Rome, "The Microcosm of London" (1808)
As the start of Christie's Exceptional Auction began on Thursday evening, the auctioneer present made an clipped announcement.  Those bidding on Lot 110, the 3000 year old Egyptian quartzite head of Tutankhamun portrayed as the god Amun, had to be registered bidders, a codicil she did not apply to other individuals bidding on remaining lots on offer last night.  Quickly, in less time than it takes a grim-faced Brit to drink a cup of tea, Christie's sold one off one of the most controversial items to pass through its doors.

The hammer price for the Egyptian head, a neat £4 million plus buyer’s premium, relevant fees. 

But this is not the only time that the firm has refused urgent appeals from source countries and concerned parties to remove items from auction.   

In one 2009 incident China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) protested the sale of a group of bronze animal heads, which once adorned a water clock fountain in the Chinese emperor's Summer Palace. These Chinese zodiac sculptures, on sale at Christie's in Paris, were part of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.  As the auction's presale advertising began to gather momentum, it was announced that the bronzes had been plundered during the Second Opium War which pitted the United Kingdom and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China in 1860. 

Hinting that the failure to withdraw the objects would have “serious effects” on Christie’s interests in the pronounced concerns, the source country applied pressure for the object's restitution. When that failed to achieve any desired results, a motion was formally filed through the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe (APACE) backed by a group of signatories hoping to block the sale through legal action via through the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris. 

Unfortunately in that case, basing their decision on  French law, there were no legal measure available to the source country, so the legal case went nowhere as French law, based on Napoleonic law,  allows a purchaser to obtain valid title to stolen cultural property if said purchaser acted in good faith and exercised due diligence. Given the length of time between plunder and sale, it was determined that Pierre Bergé, as well as those who owned the artworks before him, had each acted in good faith when purchasing the Chinese booty.

Left with no other option but to buy back their own art back, Chinese art dealer Cai Mingchao purchased the statues during the auction pledging to pay some € 28,000,000 and then sabotaged the sale by refusing to pay.  Later he admitted that he had placed his bid solely “to disrupt the sale of the items.”

The fact that registered buyers now sign agreements obligating specific responsibilities when they bid appears to be the reason for Christie's announcement requiring that all bidders on Lot 110, the Egyptian disputed antiquity, be formally registered.  By doing so, it thwarted any possibility of patriotism getting in the way of payment.

In the end, Christie's made a tidy sum off of Egypt's sorrow.  By ignoring Egypt's request for information as to the object's legitimacy, it also proves that their sensitivity to a source nation's plunder and looting is far more shallow, than their client's incredibly deep pockets.

By:  Lynda Albertson



July 3, 2019

Questions for Christie's with regards to its upcoming sale of the Quartzite head of the young pharaoh portrayed as the ancient god Amun

Unpacking some miscellaneous thoughts on the upcoming Christie's sale.

@ChristiesInc does the name Heinz Herzer sound any alarms?  

What valid paperwork does the auction house in their possession which would substantiates that the quartzite head of the young pharaoh portrayed as the ancient god Amun, left Egypt legally?

Has anyone provided the auction house with shipping, storage, customs, or insurance records of any kind documenting when and how the quartzite head left Egypt, or when and how it arrived in Munich or elsewhere during its travels?


Looking over your Resandro Head Fact Sheet the first thing that draws my eyes was not the head's innate beauty but rather it once being in the possession of a specific Munich dealer, Heinz Herzer.  As a firm champion of Italy's right to the return of  the statue known as The Victorious Youth, also known as The Getty Bronze or Atleta di Fano I am all to familiar with the fact that the very illegal, proven illicitly exported statue was acquired by Heinz Herzer in 1971.  Herzer even created a publicly traded fund called Artemis S.A., specializing in art works just to sell the bronze to either Thomas Hoving, the former Director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.or John Paul Getty for his California Museum.  


But before the statue’s sale to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Herzer’s Munich firm removed the corrosion and incrustations covering the bronze statue, meaning Herzer had knowledge of the statue’s existence during the earliest periods of its clandestine movements. 

Image Credit:  Jiri Fril
Evidence presented by the Italian state at the Tribunal in Pesaro, Italy and later at the Appellate and Supreme Court demonstrate that Artemis was created ad hoc, with the specific purpose of managing the exportation and subsequent purchase of this valuable, but illicitly smuggled statue.  As most will remember, Italy's Appellate Court, followed by its Supreme Court, ultimately affirmed that this statue was clandestinely removed from Italian territory and has issued an order for restitution of their bronze. 


But back to the Quartzite head.  Christie's documentation state that Prince William of Thurn and Taxis owned the sculpture in the 1960s and sold it to Josef Messina, the owner of Galeria Kokorian & Co., Vienna, between 1973 and 1974.  


Best I can see Galerie Kokorian & Co KG, located at Spiegelgasse 19, 1010 Wien, Austria seems to be a discretely modest paintings gallery.  An unusual place to have an Egyptian statue of this significance to say the least. 


Let's also talk about the prince for a minute.  His full name was Wilhelm Alexander Lamoral Erich Maria Josef Ignatius Von Loyola Franciscus Von Assisi Benedictus Cyrillus Quirinus.  He lived from  1919-2004.  

As a general rule, as Live Science journalist Owen Jarus stated, the prince often went by the name "Willy".  Digging through records you can find some things listed in this diminutive name which includes some generalized information about his life including his debutante ball work but nothing at all on his collecting Egyptian antiquities.  Closest he ever appears to have gotten to Italy was a brif stay in Morocco after the second World War.

There is even a strange mention of some former actress who swears that she was secretly married to him.  Her name is Ilona Medveczky.   Yet I find absolutely no mention of an art collection containing Egyptian artifacts. 

Even his grave seems to me to be a modest one....so again, I would question if he was wealthy enough to have had an important, yet for all intents and purposes, unknown, ancient art collection.  

His neice, Daria Maria Gabriele Prinzessin von Thurn und Taxis was born on 6 March 1962. She is the daughter of Franz von Assisi Prinz von Thurn und Taxis (the prince's brother) and Mafalda Theresia Franziska Josepha Maria Prinzessin von Thurn und Taxis.  She told the Live Science journalist she didn't recall her uncle having such a piece in their collection. 

Interestingly though, I find nothing linking no official sons or daughters to the prince within official peerage documents.   I did find a "Viktor" is, who is referred to in the Live Science article as Willie's son.  He lives in Vienna and goes by the simplified name of Viktor Thurn Und Taxis and manages a Vienna film company called  VTT Film Service.   Who is mother was and why he is not listed on the noble roster is a mystery to be untangled though. 

Further digging I see that the three branches of the von Thurn und Taxis family: the German, Czech and the Austrian have little or no love lost for one another.  The German branch seems to be the very very wealthy one and extremely put out by the Czech branch of the tree going so far as to file at least one lawsuit against its relatives across the border. 


But let's not stray too far from the activities of Heinz Herzer and other dealers of interesting repute in the recent past that make me speculate about the legitimacy of this stone head.   Herzer's appears to have been associated with French dealer Christophe Kunicki, who was involved in the questionable acquisition of the looted Egyptian B.C.E mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh.  

Herzer's name is also connected with Serop Simonian, an art dealer of Armenian origin, born in Egypt and a resident in Germany.  Simonian's involvement in the Nedgemankh case makes for some interesting court document reading, as does the notoriety he gained with the controversy over the disputed fake/authentic Artemidorus papyrus, which sold for €2.75 million to the Compagnia San Paolo Art Foundation in Italy in 2004. 


Herzer and Serop's names both come up alongside the French dealer Christophe Kunicki via Pierre Bergé & Associés in the provenance of a 13th Dynasty Egyptian limestone chapel-stele of Kemes, which Kunicki sold to the Metropolitan Museum in 2014. This object's provenance also connects with the same Egyptian middleman, and was purportedly purchased Feb 1969 by Uwe Schnell from Heinz Herzer Gallery in Munich.


Which brings us back to Hertzer’s name in Christies Auction of a quartzite head of the young pharaoh, which portrays him as the ancient god Amun.  Lot 110, is set to be auctioned in London tomorrow in Sale 17042 on 4 July 2019.


Yet despite statements made by noble family members that they have no recollection of the object, the potential purchaser (as well as Egyptian authorities apparently) are supposed to accept the auction house’s word that due diligence has been properly and sufficiently conducted without being privy to any of the documentation Christie's used to made their determination that this stone head is fit for sale. 


Where is the paperwork provided to the auction house which fully and clearly confirms that this antiquity left Egypt legally and was once truly part of a collection of Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis?
Image Credit of Egyptian Law
Courtesy of ICOM Red List for Egypt.
If this antiquity was removed legally from its country of origin, before the effective date of Egypt’s applicable patrimony law, the seller of the object should be able to provide something tangible to substantiate that export date.


In its statements to the Press, officials from Christie's have stated "It is hugely important to establish recent ownership and legal right to sell which we have clearly done. We would not offer for sale any object where there was concern over ownership or export."

In the interest of transparency, and good faith, and with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities making diplomatic demarches to INTERPOL, UNESCO, ICOM, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well as asking Christie’s directly to provide any concrete information on the object's validity for sale on the London market, shouldn't tomorrow's pending auction be postponed until such time as the Egyptian authorities have been given the opportunity to satisfactorily review any and all related documentation that Christie's had at its disposal when making its claim that this object is licit and not illicit?   

By:  Lynda Albertson

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

October 30, 2018

Recoverable or Not? The sale of the Assyrian gypsum relief of a winged Genius, reign of Ashurnasirpal II, circa 883-859 BCE


In March 2015, the Iraqi government formally announced that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL had purposefully destroyed much of the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II as part of their iconoclastic program of obliterating preislamic cultural heritage monuments in their original archaeological contexts.  But despite the worldwide outrage at the time of this tragedy, most of the general public had already forgotten about the losses faced by the Iraqi people by the time the Virginia Theological Seminary publicly announced, on April 13, 2018, that it would be selling one of their own objects from Nimrud.  On that date, the trustees announced that for various reasons, they had decided to sell their own seven-foot carved gypsum alabaster panel from the now-destroyed palace, a relief known as "The Bearded Winged Apukalu." It's auction is set to occur at Christie’s Antiquities Sale in New York on the 31st of October.

Image Credit:  ARCA 
Until very recently, the press hardly noticed the upcoming sale.  This despite the fact that art historian Kiersten Neumann drew attention to the upcoming event via Twitter on May 22, 2018.   The auction of this rare piece of history was also of much talk by Assyriologists and museum professionals around the world.
From ARCA's calculations there are at least 76 known public collections and 6 private collections which contain material culture from the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II.  

The last Assyrian relief to appear on the legitimate ancient art market sold to Noriyoshi Horiuchi after a bidding war between the Japanese antiquities dealer and an Italian phone bidder in 1994.  At that time, the relief sold for an eye-popping 7.7 million British pounds, a price 10 times what the auctioneers at Christie's had estimated. 

The Horiuchi-purchased bas-relief, like the one at the VTS, was excavated in the mid-19th century in what is now Iraq by British archeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard.  It was then given over to Sir John Guest, then owner of Canford Manor, who helped to pay for bringing the finds from Nimrud back to Britain.  That piece of the palace is now on display at the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan.

The public however only seems to have taken notice in the VTS relief months after the Seminary made its announcement and only after the high dollar estimate the object is likely to bring started arousing interest in the major news outlets.

Like with the relief purchased by Horiuchi, the VTS relief was also excavated sometime around 1845 by Sir Austen Henry Layard.   Layard in turn is reported to have sold the object to Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, a medical missionary who worked in the 1850's in Mosul.  Haskell was interested in objects from the palace as proof of biblical history, for Nimrud is known as the ancient site of Calah and is mentioned in Genesis 10:11.  Haskell in turn, passed them on to his friend Joseph Packard, then professor and later Dean at Virginia Theological Seminary and the relief was shipped to the United States where it has been housed at the Virginia Theological Seminary since 1860.

Screen Capture: Facebook
Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage 
Despite being part of the VTS collection for more than 150 years, a recent call for help and appeal from the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage has been made by Dr. Qais Hussein Rashid, Deputy Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities and President of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage asking for law enforcement intervention asking for help in stopping the sale.  Unfortunately, the evidence is quite strong that the relief was legally excavated and exported in the nineteenth century, which makes preventing the sale highly unlikely.

The three Assyrian reliefs are purported to have reached America in 1859 where their transfer to the Virginia Theological Seminary appears to have been well established.  Packard, citing Rev. J. S. Lindsay, writes that the three slabs, were so valuable that the Smithsonian Institution, on failing to purchase them, had plaster casts made of them (Packard, citing Rev. J.S. Lindsay, 1902, 305).  The relief is also documented in other academic articles including the 1976 article by Ross, J.F. "The Assyrian reliefs at Virginia Seminary", part of the Virginia Seminary Journal 28(1) pages 4-10.

The strength of the Iraqi's claim for the restitution of its heritage in this instance would likely hinge on the applicability of New York penal law, i.e. that a thief can never acquire good title.  To do so, the courts would have to prove that the Virginia Theological Seminary, was is possession of stolen property.  If that were to be the case, the New York District Attorney's office could then seize the property as evidence and then move to release the stolen property under PL §450.10(2)'s mandate that "unless extended by a court order...property shall be released...after satisfactory proof of such person's entitlement of the possession thereof." But this might be difficult, if not impossible for the Iraqi authorities to substantiate.

Despite the somewhat contentious nature of Layard’s early explorations at Nimrud, which were at first clandestine, the intervention of the British government, to gain official support for the archaeologist's excavations from the Ottoman Turkish authorities is well documented.

On 5 May 1846, the Grand Vizier of the Turkish Empire sent a letter to the Pasha of Mosul, based upon the intercession of Stratford Canning, the Viscount Stratford, who partially funded Lanyard’s explorations.  A diplomat who represented Great Britain at the Ottoman court for almost 20 years, Canning spent most of his career as ambassador in Constantinople and was influential in exerting a strong influence on Turkish policy in support of the sultan’s resistance to Russia’s attempts to increase its influence over Ottoman affairs which eventually would lead to the outbreak of the Crimean War.  Through Canning's assistance,  the Brits were able to obtain permission for Layard's excavation.

The vizier's letter reads as follows: 

There are, as your Excellency knows, in the vicinity of Mosul quantities of stones and ancient remains. An English gentleman has come to these parts to look for such stones, and has found on the banks of the Tigris, in certain uninhabited places, ancient stones on which there are pictures and inscriptions. The British Ambassador has asked that no obstacles shall be put in the way of the above-mentioned gentleman taking the stones which may be useful to him, including those which he may discover by excavations … nor of his embarking them for transport to England.

The sincere friendship which firmly exists between the two governments makes it desirable that such demands be accepted. Therefore no obstacle should be put in the way of his taking the stones which … are present in desert places, and are not being utilised, or of his undertaking excavations in uninhabited places where this can be done without inconvenience to anyone; or of his taking such stones as he may wish amongst those which he has been able to discover.

--H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria, Sidgwick and Jackson , 1984, page 305.

In order to succeed in stopping the sale in New York, Iraq as a claimant would have to first prove that they have standing to bring such a cultural claim in a US court.  If the VTS has documentation proving that Layard passed their relief on to Dr. Henri Byron Haskell with the permission of the authorities in power at that time, as the provenance in the auction seems to indicate, the seminary would likely be in the clear to move forward with tomorrow's auction. 

Unfortunately this means that unless Iraq has the liquidity to buy back its own cultural patrimony, or is able to find a generous benefactor willing to purchase the ancient relief on their behalf, this reminder of the lost Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II will unfortunately go to the highest bidder.

Update: 31 October 2018
The Assyrian gypsum relief of a winged Genius, reign of Ashurnasirpal II, sold for a USD $27,250,000 hammer price which equates to $35,903,875 including the buyer’s premium to an in-the-room buyer at Christie's New York: Paddle 811.

By:  Lynda Albertson

May 2, 2018

Auction Alert - Sotheby’s New York - a bronze Greek figure of a horse

On May 01, 2018 ARCA was contacted by Christos Tsirogiannis about a possible ancient object of concern in an upcoming Sotheby's auction titled 'The Shape of the Beauty: Sculpture from the Collection of Howard and Saretta Barnet' scheduled for 10:00 AM EST on May 14, 2018 in New York City. The antiquities researcher had also notified law enforcement authorities in New York and at INTERPOL. 

Since 2007 Tsirogiannis, a Cambridge-based Greek forensic archaeologist has drawn attention to and identified antiquities of potentially illicit origin in museums, collections, galleries auction houses, and private collections that can be traced to the confiscated Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes-Christos Michaelides and Gianfranco Becchina archives.  Tsirogiannis teaches as a lecturer on illicit trafficking with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.

Image Credit: ARCA
Screenshot taken 02 May 2018
Dr. Tsirogiannis noted that Lot 4 of the sale, a bronze Greek figure of a horse, lists the object's collecting history as:
Münzen und Medaillen AG, Basel, May 6, 1967, lot 2
Robin Symes, London, very probably acquired at the above auction
Howard and Saretta Barnet, New York, acquired from the above on November 16, 1973 .

For its literature, the auction house mentions the following text: Zimmermann, Les chevaux de bronze dans l'art géométrique grec, Mainz and Geneva, 1989, p. 178.

Through my own explorations I found that Scholar Paul Cartledge, in The Classical Review 41 (1):173-175 (1991), stated:

"Like Archaic Greek bronze hoplite-figurines (CR 38 [1988], 342), Greek Geometric bronze horse-figurines are eminently marketable (and forgeable) artefacts for which private collectors, chiefly in New York, London, Geneva and Basel, are prepared to part with a great deal of hard currency. Their (al)lure is undeniable; I have myself trekked halfway across Europe in pursuit of their elusive charm."

As if to underscore their allure, both past and present, Tsirogiannis sent along three photos of the object on auction which he conclusively matched to photos found in the confiscated Robin Symes archive. 

Three, (3) photos from the Symes -Michaelides Archive
provided by Christos Tsirogiannis

Saretta Barnet died in March of 2017.  Her husband had passed away in 1992. Collecting for more than 4 decades, the couple's collection included everything from pen and brown ink landscapes by Fra Bartolommeo, works by Goya, François Boucher, Lucien Freud, tribal art and a noteworthy collection of antiquities.  

In a December 01, 2017 article in the Financial Times, discussing this upcoming sale, their son, Peter Barnet, indicated that “his late parents bought carefully and took their time to make decisions. For that reason, they preferred not to buy at auction but from dealers.”  Apparently though, not all of those purchases were carefully vetted. 

Screenshot:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bulletin 3269091
In 1999 the family of Howard J. Barnet donated a Black-Figure Kylix, ca. 550-525 B.C.E attributed to the Hunt Painter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That object according to an article by Dr. David Gill, was relinquished by the museum via a transfer in title in a negotiation completed with the Italian Ministry of Culture on February 21, 2006 and returned to Italy in one of the first repatriation agreements between Italy and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

While the Barnet's may have been selective in the quality of the pieces they purchased for their collection, their relationships with dealers known to have dealt in plundered antiquities such as Symes, as well as collecting transactions with private collectors such as George Ortiz, who is also known to have purchased tainted objects, leaves one to question how carefully the Barnet's vetted the objects they acquired.

Given that the bronze Greek figure of a horse appears in photographs found in the Symes archive and the fact that at least one other object donated by the Barnet's was tied to illicit trafficking and was repatriated to its country of origin, this statue deserves a closer look.  With further research, the object and its past collecting history might lead to a link in the trafficking chain that has not yet been fully explored or considered. 

Take the provenance listed in this sales event for example.  If the object's listing of a sale at Münzen und Medaillen AG, Basel in May 6, 1967 is not a fabrication, then exploring this sale in Switzerland, determining who the consignor was, might give us another name name in the looting/trafficking/laundering chain which could help us determine the country of origin and be worthwhile for law enforcement in Switzerland and New York to explore. 

At the very least, this upcoming auction notice seems to indicate that the auction house did not contact Greek or Italian source country authorities before accepting the object on consignment.  This despite the object's passage through the hands of a British antiquities dealer long-known to have been a key player in an international criminal network that traded in looted antiquities. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

April 11, 2018

Auction Alert - Christie's Auction House - an Etruscan 'Pontic' black-figured neck-amphora and a Roman bronze boar

ARCA has been informed by Christos Tsirogiannis that he had identified two potentially tainted antiquities, scheduled to be auctioned by Christie's auction house in New York on 18 April 2018.  The antiquities researcher had notified law enforcement authorities in late March.

On April 11th, 2018 one of these objects is now listed as withdrawn from the auction.

Lot 26, an Etruscan 'Pontic' black-figured neck-amphora attributed to the Paris Painter, Circa 530 BCE. was listed in the auction documentation, before its withdrawal with an estimated sale price of $30,000-50,000 USD.


The provenance published with this object is: 
"with Galerie Günter Puhze, Freiburg.
Acquired by the current owner from the above, 1993."

The second item, Lot 48, is a Roman Bronze Boar, Circa 1st-2nd Century CE., is currently still listed with an estimate sale price of $10,000-15,000 USD.


The provenance published with this object is: 
"with Mathias Komor, New York, 1974. Christos G. Bastis (1904-1999), New York. The Christos G. Bastis Collection; Sotheby’s, New York, 9 December 1999, lot 159."

Photo from the Gianfranco Becchina archive
Exhibited: 
"The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Antiquities from the Collection of Christos G. Bastis, 20 November 1987-10 January 1988."

Tsirogiannis matched the black-figured neck-amphora with two Polaroid images found pasted onto a 22 June 1993 document located within the confiscated archive of Sicilian antiquity dealer Gianfranco Becchina. The white piece of paper describes the scene depicted on the object, while the two photos pasted to the document show the same antiquity prior to its restoration.  In this image, the vase is still broken into many fragments and is seen with soil and salt encrustations.   The dealers handwritten notes on the page include numeric notations and refer to an individual named "Sandro."

Becchina's archive, an accumulation of business records, seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002, consists of some 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents related to antiquities, bought and sold, which at one point or another are known to have passed through Becchina's network of illicit suppliers.

As those who are familiar with Peter Watson's and Cecilia Todeschini's book, The Medici Conspiracy may recall, numerous handwritten notes and lists of antiquities, invoices, and etc., found in the Becchina archive refer to Sandro Cimicchi, an artifact restorer based in Basel, Switzerland.

This is interesting in that one of the supply chain elements in Becchina's enterprise frequently foresaw a first phase of restoration on the plundered artwork, then the subsequent creation of false attestations on the antiquity's origin, made possible also through the artificial attribution of ownership to associated companies.

Cimicchi's name also appears on a comprehensive hand-written organisational chart written by dealer/trafficker Pasquale Camera which was recovered by the Italian authorities in September 1995 during a Carabinieri raid.  This ‘organigram’ has been useful to Italian investigators and cultural researchers in piecing together members of this well known trafficking TOC group.  Starting from the bottom and working your way up, this document references everyone from tombaroli, to intermediaries, to restorers, to mid-level Italian dealers (Gianfranco Becchina and Giacomo Medici), and lastly, to wealthy international dealers Robert E. Hecht and Robin Symes.

Cimicchi name has consistently been connected with illicit antiquities dealers and had been noted to have been Gianfranco Becchina's usual restorer. 

Becchina was convicted in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade yet, this antiquity's passage, through or between Becchina and Cimicchi, has not been listed in the provenance details which were published by the Christie's auction house for its upcoming sale.

Tsirogiannis informed me that the second object, the Roman bronze boar, is depicted in two separate professional images in the business archive records of Robin Symes and Christos Michaelides,  two other high-profile art dealers we have written about in detail. 


The Becchina and Symes-Michaelides archives were presented publicly by the Italian judicial and police authorities during the trials of Giacomo Medici, Gianfranco Becchina, Robert Hecht, and dozens of Italian tombaroli in Rome from 2000-2011. Like the Becchina archive, this Greek file features a stash of images seized during a raid on the Greek island of Schinousa, that once formed the stock of Robin Symes and Christo Michaelides.

Unfortunately, neither Symes nor Michaelides appear in the provenance documentation published by Christie's for the upcoming sale on the Roman bronze boar.

With regularity, objects such as these, connected to tainted antiquities dealers, known to have profited from the trafficking of illicit antiquities, appear on the licit market.  Since 2006 Tsirogiannis, a Cambridge-based Greek forensic archaeologist, affiliated researcher and summer lecturer with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has, with some regularity, identified antiquities of suspect origin in museums, collections, galleries and auction houses, liking passages in their collection histories to Giacomo Medici, Fritz Bürki, Gianfranco Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides. 

As part of a rigorous due diligence process, auction houses are encouraged to check with the Italian or Greek authorities to ensure that the antiquities going up for auction are clean, so as not to pass tainted objects on to new owners.  Yet dealers in the art market sometimes forgo this due diligence step, as talking with the  law enforcement authorities, means they would likely be required to provide the name of the consignor, should the archive control, come up with a matching incriminating photo.  

As this poses problems of confidentiality for dealers, this step, is too frequently omitted, leaving the only way for matches to be made being when pieces like this  ancient vase, or bronze boar, or marble statue, or Roman glass bottle, eventually comes up for sale during a public auction. Given that TEFAF's newly released report states that there are more than 28,000 auction houses trading world-wide, the task of monitoring them all becomes gargantuan. 

In UNESCO's recent “Engaging the European Art Market in the Fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property”  I suggested to personnel of the art market on hand for the meeting that the legal conundrum of client confidentiality could be circumvented by auction houses and dealers implementing a policy whereby the consignor themselves contacts the Italian and Greek authorities for a check of the the Medici, Bürki, Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides archives before the auction house agrees to list these topologies of antiquities up for auction when the provenance the client has is short on clarity. This would eliminate the auction house's liability for disclosing a confidential client. 

While it might slow down the proposed sales cycle, or be an uncomfortable proactive step for good faith purchases who may have unfortunately purchased a suspect antiquity in good faith in the past, it would be the market's ethical step towards not furthering the laundering by selective omission and it would begin to help collectors understand that their purchases and eventual sales now need to be ethical ones given the onus for ethical behavior being placed on them. 

ARCA hopes that by continuing to publicize the frequency illicit antiquities penetrate the legitimate art market, with provenance irregularities such as these seen in these two identifications, will encourage auction houses or collectors themselves to adhere to more accurate and stringent reporting requirements when listing their object's collection histories.  It is only in this way that new buyers do not continue to launder objects with their future purchases, further prolonging the damages caused by the the illicit antiquities trade.