Showing posts with label Schinoussa Archive. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Schinoussa Archive. Show all posts

June 10, 2020

A Greek Horse in the US Courts

Image Credit: ARCA
Screenshot taken 02 May 2018

A little more than two years ago, on 01 May 2018 ARCA was informed by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark that a suspect bronze Greek figure of a horse was on consignment as part of an upcoming Sotheby's auction scheduled for 14 May 2018 titled "The Shape of the Beauty: Sculpture from the Collection of Howard and Saretta Barnet." The illicit trafficking researcher had matched the 8th century BCE statuette to three photos found in the confiscated Robin Symes archive. 

Three, (3) photos from the Symes -Michaelides archive
provided by Christos Tsirogiannis
This was the second of two objects in the Barnet collection which have been discovered to have passed through the hands of dealers known for having worked with looters and middlemen.  The first, according to antiquities scholar Professor David Gill, was a 550 BCE Black-Figure Kylix attributed to the Hunt Painter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which the Barnet family donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999 and which was relinquished by the museum via a transfer in title in a negotiation completed with the Italian Ministry of Culture on February 21, 2006.

Given the multijurisdictional nature of the identification, Tsirogiannis had already sent his findings to INTERPOL given that the source country could be Italy or Greece and the object was presently up for sale in a New York auction house.  

After receiving a letter of concern from the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic on 11 May 2018, who asserted that a circa-8th century BCE bronze horse was the property of Greece, Sotheby’s withdrew the Lot from auction in order to allow the interested parties time to discuss their findings.  Unable to find a mutually satisfactory solution, the estate of Howard and Saretta Barnet and Sotheby’s together filed a lawsuit, Barnet et al v. Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic, in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York on 5 June 2018 seeking a declaratory judgment that the bronze horse had been "acquired lawfully and in good faith" by Howard and Saretta Barnet who purchased the Bronze Horse on or about 16 November 1973, for £15,000 and was, therefore, the family's property to dispose of.  The lawsuit, the first of its kind involving an auction house, aimed in some part, to hold the country of Greece responsible for the financial losses Sotheby’s and the family incurred as a result of what the litigating parties believe was an unjustified claim by the Ministry.

On 5 November 2018 Greece filed a motion to dismiss, asserting immunity from litigation, and moved to dismiss Barnet et al's Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) arguing that the U.S. District Court didn't have the jurisdiction to hear a case involving a foreign nation, per the terms of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a 1976 US law codified at Title 28, §§ 1330, 1332, 1391(f), 1441(d), and 1602–1611 of the United States Code, that establishes the limitations as to whether a foreign sovereign nation (or its political subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities) may be sued in U.S. courts.

On 21 June 2019 U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla rejected Greece’s motion to dismiss citing a small technicality in the current legal framework ruling that the formal inquiry letter from the Greek Ministry of Culture to Sotheby's, requesting that the auction house withdraw the lot until its provenance and exit from Greece could be researched, fell under the commercial activity exception, something which, if affirmed on appeal, might have ended the Greek's claim right then and there. 

By mid-July 2019 the Greek Ministry through their attorney, Leila Amineddoleh, had filed a Notice of Interlocutory Appeal and a Motion to stay litigation in the case, which Judge Failla quickly granted pending appeal. 

Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling stating in their opinion that Greece's act of sending its letter to the auction house was not in connection with a commercial activity outside of the United States and was the country's enactment and enforcement of patrimony laws which are by their very nature, archetypal sovereign activities.  The Appeals Court concluded that the District Court had erred in concluding that it had jurisdiction and the case was remanded with instructions to dismiss the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

There are many challenges posed by how the courts, and judges, interpret the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and its "commercial" and "expropriation" exceptions.  This case though had a happy ending for Greece. 

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


August 3, 2018

Decision from the Greek Court on the Schinoussa and Psychiko seizure case

Antiquities and copies of antiquities from the 2006 Greek Seizures
In a court ruling coming in at the end of July, first reported by the blog of the Committee on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Material of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), the E (5th) 3 member Appeal Penal Court of Athens, Greece, hearing the case in first instance, has handed down their decision on members of the well-known shipping family Papadimitriou, originally accused on 22 November 2006 of illegally possessing and receiving illicit antiquities.

According to the contents of an email, apparently recieved by the State Legal Adviser's Office to the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic, relating the outcome of the 26 July 2018 hearing on the case (translated from the original Greek):

"The Court by majority found guilty Despina and Dimitri Papadimitriou for the act of embezzlement of monuments and convicted each one of them to suspended imprisonment of 4 years. It also ratified the seizure and ordered the confiscation of the seized items."
According to Greek Law No. 3028/02, “On the Protection of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in General” (article 56), destruction, damage or alteration of a monument, as well as theft or embezzlement of monuments, (articles 53 and 54 respectively) are punishable acts in Greece.

The objects which led to this reported conviction were confiscated twelve years ago from the family's villa on the Aegean island of Schinoussa as well as at a second family residence in the suburb of Psychiko, in northern Athens.

The Saint Basil area of the Island of Schinoussa.
The private peninsula owned by the Papadimitriou/Michaelides family.
Image Credit:  ARCA 2018 Google Maps screen capture
The antiquities connected to these charges were held on that occasion in accordance with Greek Law 3028/2002 on the Protection of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in General along with a significant number of photographic images, many of which represent additional antiquities, not recovered on the properties during the aforementioned Greek raids. The objects portrayed in the photos are related to the commercial transactions of antiquities dealers Christo Michaelides and Robin Symes who sold ancient art through Robin Symes Limited.

According to the book "The Medici Conspiracy" the 17 albums of photographic documentation seized, often referred to as the "Schinoussa archive" depict 995 artifacts in 2,191 photos.   The bulk of the images, shot by professional photographers.  The binders are said to be derived from the most important antiquities which are known to have passed through Symes and Michaelides' hands at some point during their business dealings from the 1980s through the 1990s.

While photographs from the Schinoussa archive do not, in and of themselves, prove that a specifically photographed antiquity is illicit in origin, the images photographed can raise disturbing questions about which middleman hands unprovenanced antiquities have passed through.  What we do know is that the Symes - Michaelides duo sold objects tied to other traffickers in completion of transactions to wealthy collectors and some of the most prestigious museums in the world.

An example of this is the recently repatriated calyx-krater mixing vessel attributed to Python, as painter which was returned to Italy. This object was purchased by Speed Art Museum through Robin Symes Limited, on the basis that the krater came from a private collector in Paris.  Instead the object was found to match photos from the Giacomo Medici archive, where the antiquity is depicted in an unrestored, and obviously looted, state.  This means the French provenance applied to the object and relayed to the museum was a fabrication.  It is for this reason, that objects represented in the Schinoussa archive and/or sold via Robin Symes Limited, in circulation within the world's thriving antiquities art market deserve careful scrutiny as they may represent antiquities derived from illegal sources.  

At the time of the Schinoussa and Psychiko villa searches, in April of 2006, the resulting haul of undocumented antiquities was considered to be the largest antiquities seizure by law enforcement in recent Greek history.  In total, some 152 undocumented ancient artworks were inventoried by investigating authorities.  Later, evaluations by two committees of experts were held in order  to determine which objects were authentic and therefore subject to seizure under existing Greek law.  The committee also looked at what might merely be fakes or reproductions.

Some of the notable objects identified on the Papadimitriou properties included two large Egyptian sphinxes made of pink granite, nine rare Coptic weavings from the fourth-to-sixth centuries C.E., multiple marble busts, Corinthian capitals, and Byzantine architectural elements.  There was even a fake statue that was once displayed at the Getty Museum.  One of the more unusual finds was the remains of an entire 17th century building which had been dismantled, perhaps to be reconstructed elsewhere at some later date.

Officers also found shipment boxes from Christie's auction house which included market transactions from 2001 through 2005.  Notably, many of the objects found during the executed search warrants were still wrapped, either having never been unwrapped, or perhaps having been rewrapped, awaiting transport elsewhere.

At the end of the committee evaluations a total 69 objects were confiscated by the authorities.  Their total estimated value:  a little more than €982,000 euros.


The largest find during the raid in Schinoussa.
A modern construction chapel dedicated to Saint Basil made up of architectural elements originating from other Byzantine temples. Photo Credit: C. Tsirogiannis
Those who follow illicit trafficking will already be familiar with the name of deceased antiquities dealer Christo Michaelides, who, prior to his death was the former partner of Robin Symes. Michaelidis lived with Symes from the 1970s until his death on 5 July 1999 as a result of a fatal fall which occurred during a dinner party in a villa in Terni, Italy hosted by the now famous American antiquities collectors, Leon Levy and Shelby White.

Michaelides descended from a Greek shipping family, run by his father, Alexander Votsi Michaelides.  His sister is Despina Papadimitriou, is one of the four original defendants charged by Greek prosecutor Eleni Raikou seven months after the Schinoussa and Psychiko seizures.  The other individuals named in this case are Despina's three adult children, Dimitri, Alexis, and Angeliki, though it appears that the court has ruled negatively on solely Despina and Dimitri.

According to the Greek indictment, the defendants unlawfully appropriated 
"ancient monuments, cultural goods dating back to prehistoric, ancient, Byzantine and post-Byzantine times until 1830." 
(Greek «ιδιοποιήθηκαν παράνομα αρχαία μνημεία, πολιτιστικά αγαθά που ανάγονται στους προϊστορικούς, αρχαίους, βυζαντινούς και μεταβυζαντινούς χρόνους έως και το 1830»)

And as stated in the hearing that referred them to the audience of the Triennial Court of Appeal of Athens: 
"There is an aim of income generation and a constant propensity to commit the crime, which is directed against the State, the embezzlement of monuments as an element of their personality."(Greek «Προκύπτει σκοπός για πορισμό εισοδήματος και σταθερή ροπή προς τη διάπραξη του εγκλήματος, που στρέφεται κατά του Δημοσίου, της υπεξαίρεσης μνημείων ως στοιχείο της προσωπικότητάς τους».)
During the proceedings the defendants disputed Greece's charges arguing that the seized property was owned by their husband/father, Alexander Michaelides, or by their brother/uncle, Christo Michaelides.  Prior to his death, Christo Michaelides spent a significant amount of time on the family estate in Schinoussa, socializing with individuals known to purchase ancient art, some with fabricated provenances, including Marion True, the former Curator of Antiquities at the J.Paul Getty Museum.

 Former Getty Curator Marion True, with
Christo Michaelides, in Greece, 1998
Image Credit:  The Medici Conspiracy


This statement is perplexing given her brother's longterm ties to his partner, Robin Symes, and the pair's business dealings with well-publicised dealers of ancient art who were already known to be involved in the handling and selling of tainted illicit antiquities.

As this court decision moves forward to the second judicial phase it is interesting to note that London lawyers on behalf of all four members of the Papadimitriou family named in this court case have sent a lengthy letter, written one day after the Court's decision, to one of the Greek state's witnesses who testified on behalf of the government during their trial. The contents of this four-page letter, written to Cambridge-based forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, might be interpreted as witness intimidation. 

The letter, written by attorney's representing the Papadimitriou family, including its sharply worded final sentence,  can be read in its entirety in the EAA blog of the Committee on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Material.

Commentary regarding the allegations made in the text of this letter to Tsirogiannis can be found on the blog of antiquities trafficking researcher Dr. Samuel Hardy here.


By:  Lynda Albertson