Showing posts with label Gianfranco Becchina. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gianfranco Becchina. Show all posts

November 3, 2019

Dear Christie's: What's the story on your provenance on this antefix?


An interesting antefix has been published with Christie's as part of their December 4, 2019 sales event which deserves a closer examination regarding its legitimacy on the ancient art market.  For those who do not know, an anteflix is an upright ornament, used by ancient builders along the eaves of a tiled roof to conceal tile joints.

The provenance for the antiflix is listed as follows:

Provenance

While not specified in Christie's very brief collection history, Ingrid McAlpine was the wife of Bruce McAlpine, husband and wife proprietors of McAlpine Ancient Art Limited in the UK. 

While not completely identical, the soon to be auctioned anteflix on consignment with Christie's, closely resembles another ancient Etruscan antefix in the form of a maenad and Silenus.  This one once graced the cover of the exhibition catalog "A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art from the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman."   That South Etruscan, 500-475 BCE, terracotta and pigment antiflix was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum from the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection via Robin Symes for a tidy sum of  $396,000 and exhibited at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1995.  Later, in 2007, that antiquity would be relinquished to Italy by the J. Paul Getty Museum after the antefix was matched to a Polaroid photo recovered during a 1995 police raid on warehouse space rented by Giacomo Medici at Ports Francs & Entrepôts in Geneva. 

The Christie's auction antefix also closely resembles another pair of suspect terracotta and pigment antefixes depicting a maenad and Silenus.  This grouping was once on display at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum.  Like with the J. Paul Getty purchase, an image of the Copenhagen antefix showing a fragmentary antefix were matched with photos in the seized Medici dossier.  As with the Getty terracotta, this object too was eventually restituted to Italy. 

Bruce McAlpine's name also comes up with other illicit objects later identified as having been laundered through the licit art market which were later assessioned into a collection at a prestigious museum.  An Attic black-figured hydria (no.3), once on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston came through McAlpine via Palladion Antike Kunst, a gallery operated by Ursula Becchina, the wife of Gianfranco Becchina.  In addition, the Italian authorities working on these restitutions seized a copy of a letter, written by the staff of Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine Ancient Art Gallery dated 8 July 1986 which tied them to at least one transaction with Giacomo Medici via companies the disgraced dealer operated through third parties, fronts or pseudonyms. 

One final illustration of the triangulation in the world of illicit transactions


The names of Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine appear alongside Robin Symes AND Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman for the donation of an Apulian bell-krater to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. This vase too was restituted to Italy in October 2006.

All of which leads to several questions

Why was Bruce Alpine's name and the name of his ancient art firm omitted from the provenance record published by Christie's ahead of the December 4th auction?   

Was this omission an accidental oversight on Christie's part or an elective decision, perhaps as a way to reduce the possibility of the object's previous owners drawing unnecessary attention?    

What collection history does the auction house have, if any, that predates the 1994 McAlpine acquisition date?

and lastly,

What steps, if any, did Christie's take to contact the Italian authorities , in order to crosscheck whether or not this object might or might not be acceptable for sale? 
By:  Lynda Albertson

July 2, 2019

Auction Alert - Bonhams Auction House - An il(licit) Apulian red-figure janiform kantharos?

Screenshot of Bonham's website captured 01 July 2019
On July 01, 2019 ARCA was informed by Christos Tsirogiannis that he had identified a new potentially tainted antiquity scheduled to be auctioned by Bonhams auction house in London at its flagship London saleroom on New Bond Street on July 3, 2019.  This ancient Greek drinking vessel, has two faces looking in opposite directions, one of a satyr and one of a woman and has been identified as traceable to a document and photo within the confiscated Becchina archive and to two showroom photos found within the Symes-Michaelides archives.  

Since 2007 Dr. Tsirogiannis, a UK-based Greek forensic archaeologist and lecturer with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has worked to identify antiquities of illicit origin in museums, collections, galleries and auction houses that can be traced to the archives of individuals known to be involved in the illicit trade of antiquities. Tsirogiannis is also the incoming Associate Professor and an AIAS-COFUND Junior Research Fellow (2019-2022) at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Aarhus.
  

Screenshot of Bonham's website captured 01 July 2019
Vases made by the Iliupersis Painter's workshop were the forerunners to the later Apulian polychrome head vases that were produced throughout the second half of the fourth century before Christ in what is now Italy.  Yet a screenshot of the provenance/collection history listed by Bonham's is scarce and tells nothing about the vessel's discovery or its passage out of Italy.  In fact the auction house's collection history only goes back to 1991 when it appeared as Lot 161 in a Sotheby's New York auction via an anonymous seller on the 18th of June.  This and the mention of Merrin Gallery and an unnamed private collector are all the potential buyer has to go on.   No information is listed on the auction house's website regarding the ancient object's exportation from its country of origin or any checks possibly made with the Italian Carabinieri to ensure this object is not part of the Italian's known databases of suspect objects. 

Becchina Archive Image
According to records reviewed by Tsirogiannis, a handwritten note in the Becchina archive, possibly written by Gianfranco Becchina himself, makes mention of a ‘janiform’ purchase along with other antiquities acquired via middleman Raffaele Monticelli.  The purchase price listed is 60,000 Italian lire and the sale appears to have occurred on March 5, 1988.  All the antiquities listed in this purchase acquisition from Monticelli total 290,000 Italian lire, with the kantharos being the most expensive ancient object in the transaction.

Raffaele Monticelli's role in the illicit antiquities trade is concretised in the now famous illicit trafficking organogram which mentions key individuals associated with Italy's largest known trafficking group.  He was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to four years imprisonment at the Foggia Tribunal for conspiracy related to the trafficking of antiquities  His conviction occurred a little more than a decade after the kantharos appears to have surfaced in the US market in 1991.  

A retired elementary teacher, who gave up teaching for the more lucrative roll of middleman dealer, Raffaele Monticelli is a name well known to the Italian Carabinieri of the Cultural Heritage Protection Command of the Cosenza and Bari nuclei.  His most recent arrest occurred in 2017 in connection with clandestine excavations of archaeological sites in the Crotone area. At the time of the more recent 2014-2017 investigation, Monticelli's residence was searched and illicitly excavated objects were seized, including some ancient terracotta figurines and a biansata kylix of Greek origin. This new event shows that the trafficker continued to violate Italian law despite prior arrests and convictions well into his golden years.

But returning to the past and to the Bonhams kantharos currently set for sale later this week.

On the trafficking organogram Monticelli is listed just above the territories where he plied his trade: the regions of Puglia, Calabria, Campania, and Sicilia.  This illustrates that he was active in the region where this kantharos was likely produced.  The organogram also specifies that Monticelli was an important part of the Southern Italy cordata which lead upwards to Robert (Bob) Hecht via Gianfranco Becchina and downward to Aldo Belleza.

This connection is further confirmed by testimony given by Frédérique Marie Nussberger-Tchacos, after her arrest in Cyprus in 2002. Tchacos, who also goes by the name Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, as well as by Frida Tchacos Nussberger, once oversaw the now liquidated Galerie Nefer AG and was once a member of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA).  Speaking to Italian Prosecutor Paolo Giorgo Ferri, who issued the international arrest warrant for Tchacos and initiated the legal process for her extradition to Italy, Tchacos is quoted as having said:

Becchina Archive Photo.
“a precise triangle” referring to Bob Hecht, Gianfranco Becchina, and Raffaele Monticelli.  She further stated that Monticelli supplied “everything that could be found in the south of Italy; I think Apulian [vases], I think terracottas, I think bronzes. . . .” all of which turned out to be factually true.  Becchina's wife Ursula also affirmed that her husband obtained material from Monticelli.

Monticelli's relationship with Gianfranco Becchina was a lengthy and profitable one.   

Among the 140 folders seized in 2001 from Gianfranco Becchina, there were many suppliers, some of whom were middleman and traffickers in direct contact with those who excavated clandestinely, as well as some tombaroli who communicated directly with the Sicilian dealer.  Becchina's confiscated records contain four folders cataloging his transactions with Monticelli, many of which contain long lists of objects as well as some Polaroids such as the one depicted to the right, from which Tsirogiannis made his matching identification.

This photo depicts the kantharos unrestored, with a large chip in the rim and still covered with incrustations.  It appears to be standing on a wooden shelf in front of a barren concrete wall, possibly at Becchina's warehouse in Basel, or perhaps in a restorer's laboratory and in its entirety also depicts additional objects which have yet to be identified and may be in circulation on the market.

At some period after the object's restoration two photos of the kantharos are taken.  These are found in the Symes-Michaelides archive.  The photos showing the front and back of the object post restoration, and in keeping with the state of conservation found in the Bonhams auction photos as illustrated below.

Top Left & Bottom Left: Bonhams Photos
Top Right & Bottom Right: Symes-Michaelides archive Photos 
As is often the case with objects originating from these known dealers and middlemen one is curious as to the extent of the documentation, if any, was used by Bonhams to evaluate whether or not this particular ancient object had legitimacy on the ancient art market.

During past criminal proceedings then prosecutor Ferri spoke of the Becchina-Merrin relationship believing their involvement could possibly be part of a broader conspiracy to traffic in artifacts that involved the Americans then on trial.  As evidence lending credibility to his statement, a 1993 fax within the Becchina dossier from the Merrin Gallery to Becchina requests that photos of artifacts sent by the disgraced dealer to the Manhattan firm, used to show to potential customers, not be marked with "BEC."  In addition to that other artifacts which have been repatriated to Italy after being tied to Becchina also on occasion passed through the hands via this Manhattan gallery.  Some, later deemed illicit, were sold to various U.S. museums, including the J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles.

Shouldn't the lack of any known provenance before 1991, coupled with the name Merrin Galleries drawn some amount of cautious attention?  Curiosity?  Additional due diligence?

In my own curious searches in completion of this blog post, I asked Tsirogiannis at 07:52 this morning to look for the following object sold by Christie's auction house on June 4, 2008 in the confiscated archives.



This Apulian red-figure Lekanis, drew my attention for its equally spartan collection history but more importantly for the fact that it appears to be by the same workshop, that of the Iliupersis Painter and was aparently sold during a very active period with this particular trafficking band.

By 11:37 Tsirogiannis had found and I have confirmed, what appears to be a second matching object within the Becchina dossier, albeit the Christie's photo shows some overpainting. My impression that the red-figure Lekanis didn't pass the sniff test proved accurate.  According to Tsirogiannis' review, this antiquity comes from the same group of objects that Becchina bought from Monticelli on, you guessed it March 5, 1988!

Could this come from the same find spot?  Could Merrin have bought more of these objects from Becchina?


Let's hope that both auction houses will look into the records of the dealers consignors and purchasers affiliated with these objects.  While the Lekanis has long since been sold, it should be traceable to the current purchaser.  The second should be withdrawn from the London auction to allow the Italian and British authorities sufficient time to conduct a thorough investigation.

NB:  All Identifications have been submitted to the appropriate legal authorities.

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.

November 17, 2017

A Sicilian Mafia Primer to Organized Crime Members with apparent ties to Gianfranco Becchina


This is a list of mafia-tied individuals and cooperating mafia-tied individuals authorities have stated have associations with, or who have directly implicated, Gianfranco Becchina for Cosa Nostra involvement. 

(Note:  This list is not complete and will be updated periodically as other names and details are released.)

Giovanni Brusca - Ex Capomafia of the San Giuseppe Jato family.  Incarcerated. Also known as "U' Verru" (in Sicilian) or Il Porco or Il Maiale, (In Italian: The Pig, The Swine) or lo scannacristiani (christian-slayer; in Italian dialects the word "christians" often stands in place of human beings). The information he provided regarding Becchina has not been made public though it appears to implicate Becchina with having had a relationship with  Francesco Messina Denaro and fencing of antiquities.

Calculating and violent, Brusca is known to have tortured the 11-year-old son of a mafia turncoat or pentito to get him to retract statements made to the authorities in connection to the Capaci massacre.  After holding the boy hostage for 26 months, he strangled the child and dissolved his body in acid.  Brusca  once stated that he had killed "between 100 and 200" people with his own hands but was unable to recall exactly how many murders he had participated in or ordered.

Brusca is also responsible for detonating 100 kilograms of TNT in 1992 under the highway between Palermo and the Punta Raisi airport in a bomb attack which murdered anti-Mafia magistrate and prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, Falcone's wife and five of his bodyguards. In 1993 Brusca mounted further bombing raids throughout mainland Italy hoping to intimidate politicians into reversing decrees for tougher jail regimes for incarcerated mafiosi. This wave of bombings in Florence, Milan and Rome left 10 people dead and injured 70 others.

Later, after his arrest, and through a series of strange accords, Brusca also turned informant, though much of his testimony has, at times, appeared to be self serving.  His testimony has afforded him controversial and exceptional treatment in direct contrast with his previous level of lethality. According to some of the testimony released, Messina Denaro was given the job of picking which paintings to target in the Florence bombing that ripped through a wing of the world famous Uffizi gallery because of his knowledge of art.    He is currently sentenced to life in prison.

Rosario Cascio - Mafia Associate to several bosses in multiple families including the fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro of the Castelvetrano family.  Incarcerated.  A Sicilian building magnate known as the "cashier of Cosa Nostra." At one time had a hit put out on him by mobster Angelo Siino only to have Matteo Messina Denaro intervene on his behalf.

Cascio managed the family's economic activities and sub-contracts, and monopolized the concrete market and the sale of and construction equipment.  Through these he steered public contracts towards mafia businesses and managed an extortion racket which imposed sub contracts and labor.  In 1991 Cascio became connected with Becchina's Atlas cements Ltd., and took over as reference shareholder and director.

Vincenzo Calcara - exMafia soldier of the Castelvetrano family and collaborator of justice. Former protege of Francesco Messina Denaro.  Previously involved in international drug trafficking and money laundering which purportedly implicated the Vatican bank.  Calcara was originally tasked to kill antimafia Judge Paolo Borsellino with a sniper rifle but was arrested before he could carry out the plot. Involved in the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and political corruption. Offered a place in the witness protection program but refused.  Later Cosa Nostra determined his whereabouts and threatened his wife if she didn't get him to stop talking to authorities.  In 1992 Calcara and Rosario Spatola incriminated Becchina for alleged association with the Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano clans implying that there was a gang affiliate active in Switzerland whose role was to excavate and sell ancient artefacts on the black market.

Lorenzo Cimarosa -  Mafia declarant and law enforcement collaborator. Deceased.  Died as the result of cancer while on house arrest. Cimarosa was married to a cousin of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro. Cimarosa told authorities about a warning message Becchina received from the mob in January 2012.  In that incident, someone fired shots from a shotgun at Becchina's door and left an intimidating gift of flowers. Cimarosa told authorities that he had heard through Francesco Guttadauro, nephew of the boss of the Castelvetrano family, that the incident was ordered by Matteo Messina Denaro himself for non-delivery of payments.  Cimorosa indicated that between 70 and 80,000 euros were paid through Becchina regularly. After his death the site where Cimorasa was buried has subsequently vandalized, perhaps as a warning to his wife and son. 

Francesco Messina Denaro - Capo Mandamento of the Castelvetrano family.  Deceased.  Died in hiding in 1998 while a fugitive from justice.  Father to Matteo Messina Denaro who took over his father's enterprise.  Francesco, also known as Don Ciccio, headed up the Castelvetrano family from 1981 until 1998 and was a member of the Cupola (Mafia Commission) of the Trapani region from 1983 until his death in 1998.  He was a close ally to the Corleone faction led by Salvatore "Totò" Riina and Bernardo Provenzano.  Purportedly had ties to Becchina relating to the theft, looting, and laundering of antiquities. 

Matteo Messina Denaro - Boss of the Castelvetrano family. Also known as "Diabolik." Fugutive.  Solidified his position in the mafia following the arrests of two of his predecessors, Salvatore "Totò" Riina in 1993 and Bernardo Provenzano in 2006.  A fugitive since 1993, he has been convicted in absentia for the Sicilian mafia's bombing campaign in the early 1990s, which killed magistrates and bystanders in Sicily, Rome and Florence which killed ten people and injured 93 others.  He once boasted "I filled a cemetery all by myself." According to Giovanni Brusca, Matteo Messina Denaro was the facilitator of the 1993 Uffizi gallery bombing in Florence.  In that incident a Fiat car packed with 100kg of explosives detonated killing six people, and destroying three paintings - two by Bartolomeo Manfredi and one by the Gherardo delle Notti.  He was also implicated in the bombing of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.  Becchina allegedly passed envelopes of money to Denaro's brother in law and sister. Investigative seizures made by authorities in connection with this Cosa Nostra boss are so extensive it is hard to tell where the economy of western Sicily stops and Denaro’s mafia-controlled empire begins.  

Patrizia Messina Denaro - Sister of fugitive Boss and Capodonna representative of the Castelvetrano family.  Incarcerated.  Serving a 14 year and 6 months sentence for acting as stand in Capo Donna for her brother.  She was found guilty of being a full member of the Mafia and not an affiliate mafia. Several firms including an olive-oil company belonging to her and her husband were impounded and a number of bank accounts frozen.

Francesco Geraci - Mafia associate to Boss of Bosses Salvatore "Totò" Riina of of the Catania Family.  Incarcerated. There are two Cosa Nostra affiliates in custody with this same name.  One is the nephew and one is son of a deceased capomafia of the mafia family of Chiusa Sclafani.  It is unclear at this time which is cooperating with authorities. 

Giuseppe Grigoli - Mafia associate to the Castelvetrano family and law enforcement collaborator. Incarcerated. Also known as "Grigg." Former owner of a chain of Despar supermarkets in Sicily, convicted of being the entrepreneurial arm of fugitive Messina Denaro’s organisation using his retail and distribution group to launder Matteo Messina Denaro's cash.  Told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina which were to be delivered to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro. These exchanges were said to have taken place in the former offices of 6Gdo, the distribution chain confiscated just at the time of his arrest. 

Concetto Mariano - Mafia Associate of the Cosa Nostra Marsala family and law enforcement collaborator. Incarcerated. Mariano began cooperating with justice officials two months after being arrested.  Implicated Becchina in a plot to steal and fence in Switzerland the bronze statue of the Dancing Satyr, attributed by scholars to Praxiteles housed at the Piazza Plebiscito Museum in Mazara del Vallo.

Vincenzo Panicola - Mafia associate. -Incarcerated.  Brother-in-Law of fugitive Castelvetrano boss, Matteo Messina Denaro. Husband of Patrizia Messina Denaro, sister of the boss.  Worked with mafia associate Mafia associate to the Castelvetrano family, Giuseppe Grigoli. Convicted in 2013 to ten years in prison. Several firms including an olive-oil company belonging to him and his wife were impounded and a number of bank accounts frozen.

Santo Sacco - Mafia associate - Incarcerated.  A former UIL trade unionist and city councillor for Castelvetrano, Sacco was  sentenced to 12 years for is affiliations with Matteo Messina Denaro in the control of various business activities, including alternative energy as well as activities in support of the families of mobsters incarcerated.  Wiretaps of conversations with Becchina show collusion towards vote fixing and influence peddling in support of the election campaigns of Giuseppe Marinello and Ludovico Corrao. 

Angelo Siino - Mafia associate to the San Giuseppe Jato family. Incarcerated.  Often referred to as Cosa Nostra's "ex-minister of public works".  A businessman who oversaw whose principal duties were to oversee mafia public sector affairs through the illegal acquisition of public work contracts. Siino would receive the lists of public contracts before they became publicised and through through threats and extortion, insure that these contracts would be awarded to mafia influence coalitions, thereby controlling the market for public contracts in Sicily.

Rosario Spatola - Law enforcement collaborator.  Deceased. A former drug dealer who passed information in the 1990s to Judge Paolo Borsellino on drug trafficking in Trapani area and the role of the clan led by Boss Francesco Messina Denaro.  Believed by some not to be a true member of Cosa Nostra as his father was a policeman making his membership void.  In 1992 Spatola and Vincenzo Calcara, incriminated Becchina for alleged association with the Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano clans implying that there was a gang affiliate active in Switzerland whose role was to excavate and sell ancient artefacts on the black market.  At the time much of his testimony was discounted as many were skeptical that he had actual knowledge or invented things to his own benefit.

For more details on this case please see the following to blog posts here and here

November 16, 2017

Il vento sta cambiando, updates on Gianfranco Becchina asset seizure, fire, and vote fixing.

Politics and mafia are both powers which draw life from the control of the same territory; so they either wage war or come to some form of agreement.
--Paolo Borsellino,
Italian magistrato italiano, murdered by the Mafia


Yesterday ARCA reported on the assets seizures involving 78-year-old Gianfranco Becchina, an action taken in relation to probable collusion with the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra. The disgraced Italian antiquities dealer was convicted in the first degree in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade. A portion of his accumulated business records, up until 2002, were seized earlier by Swiss and Italian authorities during raids conducted on Becchina’s Swiss art gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland. This archive of documents and photos, known as the Becchina archive, consists of some 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents and photos related to antiquities, bought and sold, which at one point or another are known to have passed through this dealer's network of illicit suppliers.


Mafia association is a formal criminal offense provided for by the Italian penal code introduced into law via article 416-ter of Law no. 646/1982, and designed to combat the spread of the Mafia.

Art. 416-ter reads: 

"Any person participating in a Mafia-type unlawful association including three or more persons shall be liable to imprisonment for 7 to 12 years. 

Those persons promoting, directing or organizing the said association shall be liable, for this sole offence, to imprisonment for 9 to 14 years. 

Mafia-type unlawful association is said to exist when the participants take advantage of the intimidating power of the association and of the resulting conditions of submission and silence to commit criminal offences, to manage or at all events control, either directly or indirectly, economic activities, concessions, authorizations, public contracts and services, or to obtain unlawful profits or advantages for themselves or for others, or with a view to prevent or limit the freedom to vote, or to get votes for themselves or for others on the occasion of an election. 

Should the association be of the armed type, the punishment shall be imprisonment for 9 to 15 years pursuant to paragraph 1 and imprisonment for 12 to 24 years pursuant to paragraph 2. 

An association is said to be of the armed type when the participants have firearms or explosives at their disposal, even if hidden or deposited elsewhere, to achieve the objectives of the said association. 

If the economic activities of which the participants in the said association aim at achieving or maintaining the control are funded, totally or partially, by the price, the products or the proceeds of criminal offences, the punishments referred to in the above paragraphs shall be increased by one-third to one-half. 

The offender shall always be liable to confiscation of the things that were used or meant to be used to commit the offence and of the things that represent the price, the product or the proceeds of such offence or the use thereof. 

The provisions of this article shall also apply to the Camorra, ‘ndrangheta and to any other associations, whatever their local titles, even foreigners, seeking to achieve objectives that correspond to those of Mafia-type unlawful association by taking advantage of the intimidating power of the association." 

To further dismantle Matteo Messina Denaro’s operational funding, Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) moved to seize Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., his olive oil company, Olio Verde srl., Demetra srl., Becchina & Company srl., bank accounts, land, and real estate properties including Palazzo Pignatelli yesterday.  Palazzo Pignatelli is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider, a separate portion of which is owned by the city of Castelvetrano and houses the town hall. 

During the execution of the seizure of assets at Palazzo Pignatelli, a fire mysteriously broke out in a first-floor study, located in Becchina's wing of of the property.  Called on the scene, fire department officials extinguished the flames yesterday and returned for a second time today, along with the DIA and scientific police to uncover any traces that would determine the cause of the fire.

The seizure of these Becchina assets comes following the cooperation of mafia associate/police informant Giuseppe Grigoli, known in wiretaps as Grig.  Grigoli once owned a chain of Despar supermarkets in northwestern Sicily, used to launder mafia proceeds into the legal economy.  Starting out in 1974 as the owner of one grocery, Grigoli parlayed his relationship with Cosa Nostra, building a business empire which was once valued as a 700 million euro enterprise. 

The Italian authorities seized Grigoli's assets when they tied him to mafia  transactions through banking documents from 1999 through 2002, when the "king of supermarkets" was at the height of his business success. The arrest and conviction of Grigoli proved to be the tip of the Trapani Cosa Nostra iceberg and served to flush out many players in the hidden network of strategic partners that facilitate the activities of fugitive Castelvetrano boss, Matteo Messina Denaro, including now, Gianfranco Becchina. 

As a now cooperating police informant, Grigoli told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina which were to be delivered to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro.  But Becchina's mafia influence doesn't apparently stop at trafficking of antiquities and aiding and abetting a mobster on the run. 

An article written in today’s La Repubblica by journalist Salvo Palazzolo, reports that during a 2001 Carabinieri TPC wiretap into Becchina’s role in the illicit trafficking of antiquities, law enforcement authorities overheard conversations between Becchina and Santo Sacco, a former UIL trade unionist and city councillor for Castelvetrano, who was later sentenced for mafia association.

In police transcripts of those conversations Becchina implicated himself as being involved in vote fixing in support of the election campaign of Giuseppe Marinello, from the People of Freedom party, who, at the time, was running for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies representing Sciacca in Sicily.  In their conversation Sacco also boasted about his role in the campaign of Ludovico Corrao saying "But I fully carried inside an iron bell ... I'm not kidding, 6,400 votes..."  Both incidences clearly show the impact of organized crime on parliamentary elections in Sicily.

In a mysterious wrinkle to this story, ex senator Corrao was later the victim of a gruesome murder. In 2011 his throat was found cut with a kitchen knife, nearly decapitating his head, both wrists had been slashed and he was left in a bloody pool having apparently also been bludgeoned with a statuette. After the slaughter, Seiful Islam, a Bangladeshi servant, called the police and confessed to the murder.  Islam later attempted suicide while in custody and was found not guilty by reason of unsound mind and transferred to a psychiatric facility.

Illicit trafficking,
money laundering,
influence peddling,
vote fixing,
arson,
murder.

Organized crime is detrimental not just to art, but to the functioning of a society.

By:  Lynda Albertson

March 16, 2017

Repatriation: Attic Red-Figure Nolan Amphora by the Harrow Painter

Image Credit: Manhattan District Attorney’s Office
Left - Min. Plen. Francesco Genuardi, Consul General of Italy in New York
Right -  Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.
On February 25, 2017 ARCA announced a second antiquities seizure at Royal-Athena Galleries, a well known New York City-based gallery operated by Jerome Eisenberg, following object identifications made by forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis.  The item seized was an Attic Red-Figure Nolan amphora painted by the Harrow Painter, a vase painter known to have decorated column craters, oinochoai, and neck amphorae from approximately 480 until 460 B.C.E. 

A week earlier, Tsirogiannis had informed both ARCA and the Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, Matthew Bogdanos, that he had matched the ancient object to three images from the archive of disgraced Italian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina, convicted in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade. The dealer's 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. 


Presented with irrefutable evidence of the object's illicit past, the neck amphora, valued at $250,000, was quickly forfeited by the New York dealer. 

Today, in New York City, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. formally handed over the amphora to the Italian authorities during a repatriation ceremony attended by Minister Plenipotentiary Francesco Genuardi, the Consul General of Italy in New York, and the Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge of Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) New York, Debra Parker.

According to the New York County District Attorney website, the Neck Amphora will be exhibited at the Consulate General of Italy in New York for a few months in celebration of its return before ultimately going back to Italy.  Once home, the object will be placed on permanent display in one of Italy's museums which are part of the regional Polo Museale del Lazio,’ a grouping of museums in the territory near Rome, some of which are in the immediate vicinity of where the object was likely looted. 

The DA's website also mentioned that the amphora will be displayed in Italy with "a special mention of the decisive contribution of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for its repatriation."

Here is hoping there is also room on the museum's brass ID plate for the name "Tsirogiannis." It was through this diligent researcher's identification, and the earlier work of Maurizio Pelligrini from Rome's Villa Giulia, which ultimately tied this Neck Amphora to the specific group of identified traffickers, middlemen and dealers who had working relationships with Becchina.   It is his analysis of the dealer's archival records, which proved to be the critical component of the evidentiary material which ultimately paved the way for the New York DA's office through the request of attorney Matthew Bogdanos, to request that this object be seized.  This request for seizure in turn leading to the eventual "voluntary" forfeiture of the amphora.  

As a general rule, antiquities dealers do not voluntarily give up ancient works of art worth six figures unless they have to.   They do so, only when the evidence presented makes a compelling legal case which persuades them that it would probably be in their best interest to do so. 

By: Lynda Albertson

February 25, 2017

Auction Alert and Antiquities Seizure: Second seizure at Royal-Athena Galleries, New York


On February 17, 2017 forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis alerted Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos in Manhattan that he had identified another antiquity, likely of illicit origin, apparently being laundered via the US art market.  The object in question had been listed for sale via Royal-Athena Galleries, a New York City-based gallery which is operated by Jerome Eisenberg.   Royal-Athena Galleries is the same New York gallery which relinquished an illicitly trafficked sarcophagus fragment to the country of Greece a few weeks ago. 

(Update - July 18, 2017-The link has been preserved here but is no longer active.)
Attic Red-Figure Nolan Amphora
By the Harrow Painter
Ex C.H. collection, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Exhibited: Yale University Art Museum, 2003-2015.
Price: P.O.R.  (Price on Request)

As per Tsirogiannis, this same vase appears in three images from the Gianfranco Becchina archive pictured below.


The Becchina Archive is an accumulation of records seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland.  This archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer's business.  

Becchina's records include shipping manifests, dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images.  Many of the images are not slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, crude point and shoot polaroids taken by looters and middlemen depicting recently looted antiquities. Some of these polaroids show objects immediately after their looting and show objects which often still bear soil and salt encrustations. 

In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade. While he later appealed this conviction, antiquities like this vase, traced to this network of antiquities traffickers, continue to surface years after their original looting.  Objects like this one, have resurfaced in private collections, museums and some of the world's most well know and ostentatious galleries and auction houses specializing in ancient art so it is important for collectors to remain on alert to the history of the objects they consider for purchase. 

When discussing his identifications with ARCA Tsirogiannis indicated that the photograph below, of a handwritten note by Gianfranco Becchina himself, documents that the Italian dealer had knowledge of the looted Neck Amphora's existence at least as far back as 28 February 1994.  Documents in the archive which represent the dealer's own meticulous record-keeping, shows that Becchina acquired the vase on the 15th of March 1994 and paid for the object on the 11th of April of that same year.


It is important to note that this red-figure attic vase is one of the most important styles of figural Greek vase painting.  In the Italian dealer's records, the object appears in photographs together with another object, an amphora.  This second object has been redacted from the image presented for the purposes of this blog post as the object is still in circulation.  Both antiquities seem to have come from a single Italian looter or middleman trafficker identified only as 'Robertino'. Given this information, it is plausible that the second identified piece of Attic pottery was looted at or near the same period of time, and may likely come from the same Etruscan tomb. 

It is Dr. Tsirogiannis' opinion that the two object photo ties the vase definitively to the country of Italy and that therefore, the vase should be repatriated to the Italian authorities.  

Other examples of illicit material which have passed through this New York dealer's art and antiquities firm include:



Eight antiquities stolen from museums and archaeological sites worth US$ 510,000.

And most recently, on February 10, 2017, a sarcophagus fragment depicting a battle between Greeks and Trojans looted from Greece and relinquished to the Greek Authorities.

Speaking with Dr. Tsirogiannis about this most recent identification he stated "As in the recent case of the sarcophagus fragment that has been repatriated to Greece, so in this case the identification and the evidence are sending back to Italy a valuable Greek vase. This result was achieved with the cooperation of assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos in New York who handled the seizure and the archaeologist of the Villa Giulia museum in Rome Mr. Maurizio Pellegrini who provided crucial information about the identity of the looter involved."

Given the fact that it often takes sound identifications, such as those conducted by researchers actively working on the Becchina dossier, forfeiture by art market dealers should not be misconstrued as spontaneous acts of good well. In many of such cases, the antiquities are relinquished either to avoid lengthy litigation or as a gesture by the suspect holder of the object to remove themselves from any negative publicity caused by having their name associated with having handled or purchased trafficked art.

By Lynda Albertson

February 10, 2017

Repatriation: Stolen Greek sarcophagus fragment heading home

Image Credits: ARCA
Sarcophagus fragment depicting battle between Greeks and Trojans
Just one month after an illicit sarcophagus fragment was reported to Matthew Bogdanos, Assistant District Attorney for New York in Manhattan, the object is heading back to its rightful home in Greece.  

Pictured in the four photographs above, the fragment of this sarcophagus was laundered through the licit art market, making its way to New York via Italian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina and ultimately to the gallery windows of Royal-Athena Galleries, a New York City-based gallery operated by Jerome Eisenberg which specialises in ancient Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Egyptian art.

Details on the supporting documentation which reflects the object's looting and laundering gathered together and presented to authorities by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis can be found in an earlier ARCA blog post here

Gianfranco Becchina is a name well known to those who follow the trade of illicit antiquities.  His role in the trafficking of looted objects first drew Italian prosecutors interest following the death of Pasquale Camera, a former captain of the Guardia di Finanza turned middle-man trafficker, who lost control of his car on Italy’s Autostrada del Sole, Italy's north-south motorway, as he approached the exit for Cassino, a small town an hour and a half south of Rome.  Smashing into a guardrail and flipping his Renault on its roof, Camera’s automobile accident not only ended his life but set into motion a chain reaction that resulted in the identification of one of the world's most well known antiquities trafficking networks. one responsible for the systematic spoliation of the artistic heritage of Southern Italy and Greece. 

The Greek sarcophagus fragment was handed over by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Assistant District Attorney to Dr. Constantine Koutras, the Consul General of Greece in a formal ceremony in New York today.

During the event District Attorney Vance stated:

“Trafficked antiquities often acquire a veneer of legitimacy after the passage of time or changes in ownership.....Galleries, auction houses, and art collectors, however, should be on alert that my office and our partners in law enforcement are closely following the listing and sale of items of suspicious or dubious provenance. As looting becomes more common, collectors must exercise greater scrutiny when it comes to evaluating whether an item may have been unlawfully acquired. To do otherwise is to implicitly endorse an unacceptable practice through willful ignorance. I thank our partners for their commitment to ending the trade of stolen antiquities, and today, I am gratified to return another treasured artifact to its rightful owner, the Hellenic Republic and people of Greece.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance told reporters at the repatriation ceremony that as the owner of the gallery, unnamed during the press conference, had forfeited the sarcophagus voluntarily when presented with the evidence of its provenance, and nobody from the gallery will face prosecution.

This is not the first time that Royal Athena Galleries has been made to forfeit looted antiquities as can be noted here, here, and here.

ARCA would like to extend its heartfelt appreciation to Dr. Tsirogiannis.  His identification of this fragment made its repatriation possible.  

January 14, 2017

Auction Alert and Antiquities Seizure: Royal-Athena Galleries, New York

On January 8, 2017 forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis alerted Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos in Manhattan and ARCA that he had identified another illicit antiquity, apparently being laundered via the US art market.  The object in question had been listed for sale via Royal-Athena Galleries, a New York City-based gallery which is operated by Jerome Eisenberg

Screen Capture - Royal-Athena Galleries 1
According to Tsirogiannis the object identified was a 64.8 x 90.8 cm. sarcophagus fragment which matches four polaroid images and three handwritten notes found in the Becchina archive. 

This accumulation of records was seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Gianfranco Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland.  The Becchina Archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer's business.  

These records include shipping manifests, dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images.  Many of the images are not slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, are point and shoot polaroids taken by looters and middlemen which depict recently looted antiquities, some of which still bear soil and salt encrustations. 

In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade and while he later appealed this conviction, looted antiquities traced to his trafficking network, like this sarcophagus fragment, continue to surface in private collections, museums and some of the world's most well know auction firms specializing in ancient art.  

In releasing his identifications to ARCA Tsirogiannis said:

"Regarding the sarcophagus fragment, each of the four Polaroid images depicting the fragment is included in a different file of the Becchina archive:

I discovered the first image (attachment no. 1) in a file that Becchina created to archive the antiquities he was receiving from a Greek trafficker termed in the archive ‘ZE’ or ‘ZENE’ (the beginning of his surname) or ‘Giorgio’ (Giorgos, his first name in Greek). This trafficker, now deceased, was well-known to the Greek police art squad.

attachment no. 1

In a separate handwritten note (attachment no. 2), Becchina records that he received the antiquity (‘1 Frto. [meaning ‘Fragment’] di sarcofago’) for 60.000 Swiss Francs on 25 May 1988. 

attachment no. 2
This antiquity is recorded as the 9th object included in the 34th group of antiquities that ‘Zene’ sent to Becchina (see attachment no. 3).

attachment no. 3
Another note (attachment no. 4), a handwritten page, lists a group of antiquities that Becchina bought from ‘Zene’, from November 1986 until October 1988, for more than $250,000, including the sarcophagus’ fragment (no. 9).

attachment no. 4
The fifth attachment is a photocopy of a Polaroid image, depicting the same antiquity; this image was attached to a blank A4 page, together with other Polaroid images depicting other antiquities that ‘Zene’ smuggled from Greece to Becchina, under the title ‘in PF’, meaning that all these antiquities were stored at the time at the P[ort] [F]ranc (the Free Port) of Basel. 

attachment no. 5
In Becchina’s list of antiquities stored in his warehouses in the Free Port of Basel, the sarcophagus fragment was number 21 (see sixth attachment, another Polaroid image).

attachment no. 6
Finally, I am sending you another handwritten note (attachment no. 7), in which Becchina is asking one of the restorers he was using, Andre Lorenceau, to clean (‘reinigen’) the fragment and to add a base (‘sockeln’), as a support (by drilling into the antiquity). I discovered this note in the Becchina file dedicated to his cooperation with the restorer Andre Lorenceau."

attachment no. 7
According to the Royal-Athena Galleries website, the sarcophagus fragment has been attributed by Dr. Guntram Koch, an academic with an expertise in Roman sarcophagoi. 

Screen Capture - Royal-Athena Galleries 2

In addition to notifying the New York authorities, Tsirogiannis informed INTERPOL and the Greek police art squad. 

The object in question was seized by US authorities at approximately January 14 2:00 pm EST.

Nearly ten years ago in November 2007 Eisenberg returned eight antiquities stolen from museums and archaeological sites worth US$ 510,000 to Italy. Given the fact that it often takes sound identifications, such as those conducted by researchers such as Tsirogiannis, restitutions by art market dealers should not be misconstrued as spontaneous. In most cases pieces are relinquished merely to avoid lengthy litigation or in order for suspect dealers to remove themselves from the negative publicity caused by being subject to criminal charges.

By: Lynda Albertson