Showing posts sorted by relevance for query freeport. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query freeport. Sort by date Show all posts

September 19, 2016

Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA addressing concerns about the trade in stolen antiquities

Google Earth View of Ports Franc
As Geneva officials at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA attempt to address previously raised concerns about the risks surrounding the trade in stolen antiquities, both in terms of money-laundering and as a potential support for arms traffickers or terrorist groups, tighter controls have been implemented today on shipments which affect everyone in the art shipping industry that handle the shipment of antiquities to this free port. 

Originally set to be implemented this past summer, the new rule requires that anyone wanting to store ancient artefacts at the sprawling facility will have to undergo checks by an independent firm of specialists hired by the über-warehouse.  This group is tasked with investigating the validity of requests and the precise origins of any antiquities before the object is approved for transport to the complex for subsequent storage.  

The new check applies to all objects classified under HS Code 9705.   HS classifications are based on standardised international codes used in shipment data as a means of classifying specific types of goods.  Goods listed under this code are deemed to be "works of art, collectors' pieces and antiques, collections and collectors' pieces of zoological, botanical, mineralogical, anatomical, historical, archaeological, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest."

According to the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website, the first step of this procedure will be a documentation check made by KPMG, one of the Big Four global consultancy firms, (along with Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers) more famous for their financial audit, tax and advisory services. What this powerhouse finance firm's experience is as auditors of artwork provenance is not clear.  There is no mention of art services on the KPMG website. 

But moving along to what the shippers need to submit. 

To complete the new due diligence check, potential customers who wish to use the facility will be required to ship, a minimum of ten days prior to the intended shipment date, "all documents in your possession (invoices, lists, certificates, export licenses, passports, etc.) as well as a good quality photograph" for inspection.  The Ports Francs website doesn't specify what the photo should be of:  the object to be stored or a passport photo of the shipper.  

The Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website further states that "an Artloss register certificate is a big asset." 

While the Geneva freeport may see a certificate from an art loss database such as London-based Art Loss Register or Art Claim (another art loss database maintained by Art Recovery International) as the owner having done their individual due diligence these types of certificates are only helpful in cases where known objects are stolen from known collections.  Such paper assurances offer no proof that the proposed antiquity is of licit origin and are ineffective in diminishing the illicit trade in archaeological remains.   

Undocumented, looted antiquities without collection histories will never appear in art loss databases.  This has been underscored over and over again. Undocumented, looted antiquities appear most often at border crossings and all to frequently launder their way up and into the art market, popping up with embarrassing regularity in museum and private collections despite sometimes having accumulated probable paperwork that on first glance tacitly legitimises them along the way.

When suspicious, rather than relying on certificates, KPMG would be better served consulting with the WCO,  academics researching in the field of illicit antiquities and the International Council of Museums (ICOM).   ICOM's “Red Lists” offer detailed descriptions of objects the auditors should be suspicious of coming from countries that may currently be or have been at risk of looting. Trusting that an object is "clean" merely because it has a stack of papers tied to it will not deter trafficking.


In 2013 Connaissances des Arts, estimated that the Ports Francs free port held around 1.2 million artworks. Its huge warehouses offers 150,000 square meters (1.6 million square feet) of storage space.  In more visual terms, that's the equivalent of 22 soccer pitches.  

While the amendment to the Swiss Customs Act, approved by the Swiss parliament on Jan. 1, 2016, and this new ruling give new power to administrators, customs authorities and contractors to monitor and control the entry and exit of goods from its tax-advantaged art-and-collectible storage facility, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Four major free ports in Switzerland dominate the market in storing high value goods. Five free ports worldwide have bet their marketshare specialising in the storage of priceless art works. The oldest is Ports Francs in the La Praille neighborhood in Geneva, Switzerland which was founded in 1850.  The others include the ultra chic Singapore Freeport which opened in 2010, the Monaco Freeport by S.E.G.E.M., in Fontvieille, just minutes away from the lucrative casinos of Monte-Carlo.

Le Freeport in Luxembourg opened its doors just two years ago, benefiting in part from the overflow of taxable goods once destined for Ports Francs in Geneva.  In the Far East the Beijing Freeport of Culture located adjacent to Beijing Capital Airport, and the much anticipated Shanghai Le Freeport West Bund, which is lated to open in 2017, both will allow the art market to store a substantial amount of art in mainland China.

In 2013, the European Fine Art Fair annual report, known in the field as the TEFAF Art Market Report cited an estimate which estimated that approximately $100 billion of art is stored in tax friendly free port facilities.  To be effective in deterring trafficking through these facilities, any inspections undertaken in free ports should be harmonised in all facilities across the globe. 

By: Lynda Albertson

March 24, 2017

Repatriation: Roman sarcophagus held at Swiss Freeport finally clears last hurdle for its return to Turkey

Image taken September 23, 2015
by the Office of the Attorney General of the Canton of Geneva - Image Credit: AFP
In December 2010, Swiss Federal Customs Administration authorities, acting under new customs legislation to combat trafficking in works of art, requested access to the inventory of Phoenix Ancient Art SA., a major supplier of museum-quality antiquities, which stores ancient works of art at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève, a freeport located in a sprawling grey industrial building on the corner of a busy junction in southwest Geneva. 

For more information about freeports as a tax free haven to store art, please see a few of ARCA's earlier blog posts here, here, and here

At the time of the audit, authorities inspected the holdings of both Phoenix Ancient Art and its warehouseman and freight forwarder, Inanna Art Services.  During this inspection, Swiss authorities discovered, but didn't physically seize, a 1-2 ton, 150-180 CE Roman sarcophagus which depicted the twelve labours of the ancient Greek war deity, Hercules. According to customs information on file for the antiquity, the sarcophagus was imported into Switzerland in the name of Phoenix Ancient Art, which often used Inanna Art Services to store its goods or to transport works of art to and from other countries. 

This extraordinary ancient funerary object, likely only one of four of this significant quality documented in the ancient art world, had little in the way of detailed provenance.  For a piece of its quality to have nothing tying it to a previously known ancient art collection; no notations of its discovery or find spot, and nothing notable in the way of published scholarly examination of its style and iconography, rang alarm bells in Switzerland. 

In a recent video, with Al Jazeera news, Ali Aboutaam claimed that the ancient funerary object had been purchased by his father and had been in their family for 25 years. While under their control, he indicated that the sarcophagus had always been stored at the Geneva freeport aside from when it was shipped to the UK for conservation treatment.   Ali Aboutam added that in 2010 the object was sold to the Gandur Foundation as a donation to the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire in Geneva and according to Phoenix Ancient Art's attorney Bastien Geiger, Sleiman Aboutaam purchased the object in the early 90s.

Phoenix Ancient Art had proposed the sarcophagus to billionaire Swiss tycoon and commodities trader, Jean-Claude Gandur in the spring of 2010 for an estimated $1 - 4 million saying that the firm was acting on behalf of a third party whom they interestingly refused to disclose.  Gandur, who made a fortune during the 1990s buying oil concessions in Africa, has long been a powerful collector of ancient art, as well as a long term patron of the Musée d’Art et d’histoire in Geneva. 

In consideration of the donation, Marc-André Haldimann, head of the archaeology department of the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire of Geneva and the director of the museum, Jean-Yves Marin, went to the freeport and inspected the sarcophagus to carry out an appraisal for consideration.  The pair however remained highly skeptical of the lack of established information on the ancient sarcophagus, which implied possible illicit origins.  

How could such a prestigious object emerge on the ancient art market having never been talked or written about previously?   

Wouldn't the archaeologist who discovered such a masterpiece have mentioned this spectacular find in his or her field notes?  

Wouldn't a scholar of some repute have compared it in an academic article with the other known artworks by the same signatory group of sculptures or other sarcophagi depicting Hercules?

The only documentation Phoenix Ancient Art produced which attested to the fundamental question of this exceptional object's past, were independently established statements attesting that the ancient work of art was part of the Aboutaam collection from 2002 onward and a certificate from Art Loss Register attesting the object had been checked against ALR's known stolen art database registry.  Ultimately the sale to the Gandur Foundation was cancelled, in no small part because of suspicions that the object had been smuggled out of its source country. 

In March 2011, the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (FOC) issued a statement that they believed the sarcophagus had originated from the general area of the famous marble quarries of Dokimion in Phrygia, the present day Antalya region of Turkey. The Dokimeian white marble sarcophagus was likely sculpted sometime during the the second century, when the area was under Roman rule. 

Based on the FOC's examination, Swiss authorities alerted their counterparts in Ankara, and Turkey in turn, issued a demand for the restitution of the rare antiquarian work by a letter rogatory of July 2011. Turkey also sent a request for mutual assistance to the Geneva court and an inquiry was formally opened in Switzerland to look into alleged violations of the Cultural Property Transfer Act (LTBC).  This act requires art market professionals keep a register for 30 years, in which the "origin of the cultural property" is to be documented. 

In order for the sarcophagus to have been in good standing in Switzerland under the LTBC, the dealers would be obliged to prove that the acquired object was in an old collection outside the source country prior to 2005 or to demonstrate that the object was not stolen or exported illicitly after 2005.

In October 2013, the case made its way through Swiss court. The Geneva Chief Public Prosecution Office and the Chief Public Prosecutor of Antalya conducted a comprehensive joint study with the Swiss magistrate in charge of the case traveling to Antalya, Turkey where Turkish Public Prosecutor Osman Şanal provided access to witnesses.   

Testimonies were heard from Professor Haluk Abbasoğlu and Professor İnci Deleman who conducted excavations in the region where the sarcophagus was illegally excavated.   The Swiss prosecutor also met with an unnamed imprisoned smuggler serving time on a separate smuggling charge in Elmalı prison.  This smuggler allegedly confirmed that the artifact had been looted and smuggled out of Turkey. 

Based on the evidence gathered, on September 21, 2015 Swiss authorities ordered the repatriation of the sarcophagus. But international legal proceedings move at a snail’s pace and the return of this one object, approved by the Geneva Court of Justice on May 2, 2016, was slowed again, due to a challenge by the Swiss Federal Court. 




More on the dealers involved in this repatriation case.

Phoenix Ancient Art operates a gallery in New York city as well as in Geneva Switzerland.  Founded by Sleiman Aboutaam in 1968, the firm was incorporated in 1995.  The second-generation family business is now managed by Sleiman's sons, Hicham Aboutaam and Ali Aboutaam, who took over the firm's operation after Sleiman’s death in 1998.  The firm has been embroiled in a significant number of antiquities-related controversies. 

A sampling (not a complete listing) of other instances of concern involving this firm include:

A third-century CE South Arabian alabaster stele the brothers attempted to sell in May 2002 via Sotheby’s auction house in New York for approximately $20,000 to $30,000 in which they listed the provenance for the piece as having belonged to a private English collection. Sotheby's researchers conducting due diligence before the auction found published photographs of the stele indicating that this tablet, carved in low relief, with an image of the fertility goddess Dat-Hamin, had been stolen in July 1994 from the Aden Museum in Yemen's port city during the country's previous war.  This object was forfeited to the U.S. government in December 2003 and eventually returned to Yemen.  

Hicham Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 for smuggling a looted ceremonial drinking vessel from Iran into the US, claiming that it had come from Syria.  Hicham pled guilty to the charges in 2004, paid a fine, and the vessel was returned to the Iranian authorities.  Hicham Aboutaam stated that his conviction stemmed from a "lapse in judgment."

The Egyptian authorities have accused Ali Aboutaam of involvement with Tarek El-Suesy (al-Seweissi), who was arrested in 2003 under Egypt’s patrimony law for illegal export of antiquities. Ali Aboutaam was tried in absentia, pronounced guilty and was fined, and sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Egyptian court in April 2004.  To date, he has not served any of the Egyptian sentence. 

The Aboutaams voluntarily repatriated 251 Antiquities valued at $2.7 Million to the State of Italy in May 2009 tied to one of Italy's most notorious smuggling rings.

Advice on collecting ancient art

ARCA encourages its readers to remember that the only way to avoid looting is to pressure dealers and collectors to not participate directly or indirectly in looting through their sourcing and purchases.  Collectors of ancient art are only the most current stewards of objects with long and telling histories. The provenance, or ownership history of a piece of art is important and should detail strong proof that an object has come from a legitimately traded collection.  

Buying and trading in ancient works of art, without well documented collecting histories, simply for their beauty or for the purpose of rescuing them from countries in conflict, only encourages further looting and further laundering of smuggled illicit objects. 

ARCA strongly discourages collectors and museums from buying or accepting objects that cannot pass the 1970 test or which lack a legitimate export permit from the actual and correct country of the object's origin.

By: Lynda Albertson

October 8, 2016

UNESCO issues report on Freeports


The Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) promotes practical tools and communication to raise public awareness about trafficking in and return of stolen objects.

With its work closely tied to the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the Committee met at UNESCO's Headquarters in Paris, on September 29-30, 2016 to discus the need for better prevention, increased cooperation and awareness raising of illicit trafficking in cultural property.

As an outcome of that meeting, UNESCO issued a document which highlights the phenomenon of free ports and their implications on the illicit art market. A copy of their report, it its entirety, can be referenced directly on the UNESCO website here:

Freeport concerns are a subject that ARCA has blogged about with regularity as has Professor David Gill on the blog Looting Matters as they have long been havens for high value artwork in general and illicit art work in particular.  More recently Free ports have been springing up around the world with increasing regularity as more investors begin to store and trade physical assets at locations which provide taxation incentives.

With their state of the art security, enormous potential for tax savings and less than transparent ownership record keeping which varies from country to country and freeport to freeport, these massive storage facilities may well continue to be a convenient and secure weigh station for traffickers to park hot goods until the world gets distracted elsewhere.  










January 12, 2019

Salvator Mundi: a tale of power, intrigue, betrayal and seemingly immeasurable sums of money


When the painting, “Salvator Mundi” (Savior of the World), attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, was sold at Christie's Auction for $450.312,500 in November 2017 it had already created a stir.  Some felt the oil painting of Christ, depicted in Renaissance dress giving a benediction, was wrongly attributed. Others were simply flabbergasted by the eye-popping price the once badly-damaged artwork bought at auction.

In its recent history, the artwork, attributed to Giovanni Boltraffio and characterized as a “school of da Vinci” portrait of Christ, was purchased for a paltry £45, on June 25, 1958, by Minnie Stanfill Kuntz.  Kuntz picked up the artwork during an auction at Sotheby’s in London, of objects from the estate holdings of Sir Francis Cook.  Minnie, who along with her husband ran a furniture business back in the United States, brought the religious-themed painting home to New Orleans.

After her death in 1987 the oil on walnut painting passed into her nephew's hands, Basil Clovis Hendry Sr., of Baton Rouge.  Hendry's daughter, Susan Hendry Tureau, a retired library technician, subsequently inherited the painting upon the death of her father in June 6, 2004. A short while afterwards, she decided to sell it.

Hendry Tureau obtained an appraisal which valued the artwork at a modest $750 and sent details on the painting for sales consideration to Christie's in New York and to the St. Charles Gallery branch of New Orleans Auction Gallery.  This Louisiana gallery, which has since changed hands, is where the “Salvator Mundi” was eventually consigned.  During the gallery's April 9-10, 2005 auction, the inherited painting was listed as Lot 664, and given an estimated sale price of $1,200 to $1,800.  The artwork sold for a brisk $10,000.  

Conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini
at work in her studio. 
Image Credit : AIC
The buyers of the artwork were Robert Simon, a specialist in Old Masters from New York, and Alexander Parish.  The pair, in turn, hired Dianne Dwyer Modestini, an Old Master and nineteenth-century paintings conservator who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from l974 until l987, before moving on to further her private practice in paintings conservation in New York.

Modestini, a senior research fellow and conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, was tasked with cleaning, repairing and studying the painting.  Six years of  painstaking restoration and the removal of dirt and stains were to follow.  During this time Modestini worked her way through deciphering the clumsy overpainting and repairing the damages wrought by time to the 500 year old work of art. 

With few known paintings by the great master in existence, and with most of Da Vinci's works in museums or public collections, the painting's possible attribution drew considerable excitement, as well as controversy, even before its ultimate November 2017 sale price.  

Some connoisseurs see the artwork as an unrecognized work by da Vinci, with numerous restoration enhancements or adulturations (depending upon the eyes of the viewer).  Others believe the artwork to be a lessor-valued "school of" work, where Leonardo likely, if at all, only intervened in a few specific places.  Some believe the artwork was painted primarily by an assistant, Bernardino Luini, a work of art that would eventually become, possibly, the prototype for up to twenty Leonardesque versions, which were completed by students and followers of Leonardo and which depict this well known composition of Christ.

But the controversies surrounding the painting were not solely related to its attribution, some of the disagreements include the orchestrations surrounding its various transactions in the art market, at different stages, after its declaration as a probable work by Leonardo da Vinci was gaining momentum.

From the local antique market to the hands of the art market's elite

The market in high-end art has long had the potential to be one of the most manipulated markets in the world, and the sale of this once unknown portrait of Christ, now labeled as the work of Leonardo da Vinci, clearly illustrates this, as well as the struggle often caused by the market's opacity and interconnectedness.  As is often the case with high value works of art, price and worth are determined by the motives of both the buyers and the sellers.  Scratch below the surface of the transactional price and a clinched deal may have more to do with strategy and power than simply with the artworks innate aesthetic or genuine worth.

Bolstered by an exhibition at London's National Gallery held November 2011 through February 2012, and where the painting was listed as “an important opportunity to test this new attribution by direct comparison with works universally accepted as Leonardo’s”, the owners of the painting, Simon, Parish and Warren Adelson, president of Adelson Galleries, approached Max Anderson, and offered to sell him the “Salvator Mundi”.  This was in the Fall of 2011 and shortly before Anderson was appointed as director of the Dallas Museum of Art.

As part of their sales strategy, the dealers agreed to loan the artwork to the DMA from March through December of 2012.  As the first US exhibition of the painting, it was hoped the event would give the new director time to generate enthusiasm around its possible purchase and to buy the museum time to look for adequate funds.

Later, Anderson was quoted as saying the museum could have “snagged” the artwork for $125 million.  Yet, despite the director's best fund-raising efforts and enthusiasm, a viable deal, which satisfied the three sellers as well as the museum's board and donors, never solidified.   In December 2012, the owners rejected the museum’s final bid following considerable negotiation.

Soon after, the artwork was shipped back to New York, to be sold on the auction block.  With two well publicized exhibitions to back it up, a muted presale estimate of $100 million, with a da Vinci attribution, was srtimated.

Ironically though, in May 2013, Swiss businessman and freeport mogul, Yves Bouvier, negotiated a lower purchase price from the consortium's sellers.  After a short period of discussion, the businessman's offer of $83 million, via a privately brokered sale proposal, was accepted by the sellers.

Sam Valette, Sotheby's senior director
and vice chairman of private sales
Image Credit:  Screenshot Sotheby's video
Picasso's 'Plant de Tomates'
Their transaction was closed by Sotheby's rainmaker, Sam Valette, a senior director and vice chairman of private sales for the auction house. Known for his ability to generate large sums of money closing deals with high profile clients who seek total  discretion outside the auction hall, Valette also, on occasion, wrote assessments on artworks for Bouvier. As the Swiss art dealer was known to buy works of art from Sotheby’s in his own name in furtherance of his art sales business, Valette purportedly was not aware who Bouvier intended to sell the painting to.  This suggests that as far as the auction house was concerned, Bouvier was not, in this instance, to their specific knowledge, acting as an agent for any buyer in particular when the Da Vinci transaction was finalized.

Immediately after purchasing “Salvator Mundi”, Bouvier flipped the oil painting to his long-standing client, Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian oligarch whose fortune was built from his interests in Uralkali, one of the world's leading producers of potash fertiliser and one of Russia's largest chemical companies.  Bouvier sold the Christ painting to the Russian for $127.5 million, $44 million more than his had purchased it for.

Four years later, and in the middle of a raging feud between Rybolovlev and Bouvier, the Russian oligarch sold the painting via auction to Saudi Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud for $450.3 million.  After the buyer was announced, news reports began declaring that the painting would be publicly displayed on September 18, 2018 at the newly opened Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

Only that never happened.

Acting in the interest of the Seller and the Buyer.  Art-world luminaries aren't always who you expect them to be.

The circumstances surrounding the private deal Bouvier struck with Rybolovlev, and Rybolovlev then struck via public auction with Saudi Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, for the “Salvator Mundi” leave a trail of unanswered questions and intrigues.  Some of the details seem ripped from the pages of a Ian Fleming, 007, spy novel involving characters seemingly taken straight out of Casino Royale.


Rybolovlev

Dmitry Rybolovlev met Yves Bouvier for the first time in 2002 when the Russian billionaire paid a visit to the art storage facility Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève, to pick up a Marc Chagall painting that he had purchased titled “Le Cirque”.  The billionaire's aloof, art connoisseurship was fueled by his profits from potassium potash fertilizer (K20) business.  Potash being one of the main nutrients applied to soil in intensive cropping systems in agriculture around the world.

For Rybolovlev, art served as an investment, a portfolio diversifier, and most importantly as a transferable safe haven asset.   Portable, and not denominated in any currency, over the span of ten years, and prior to their litigious falling out, Bouvier would source and sell the Russian investor a total of 38 high value works of art.

While no comprehensive list of Rybolovlev's artistic acquisitions have been itemized, various news articles mention works of art purchased by the billionaire through the Swiss dealer.  These include art and sculpture by:

Edgar Degas
Paul Gauguin (Otahi and Te Fare)
Alberto Giacometti
El Greco (Saint Sebastian)
Gustave Klimt' (Wasserschlangen II)
René François Ghislain Magritte (Le domaine d’Arnheim)
Joseph Bonaventure Maillol
Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (Nu Couché au Coussin Bleu)
Henri Émile Benoît Matisse
Oscar-Claude Monet
Pablo Picasso (Les Noces de Pierrette, Joueur de flute et Femme Nue, Femme se Coiffant and Espagnole à l’Eventail)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
François Auguste René Rodin (L’Eternel Printemps and Le Baiser Grand Modele)
Mark Rothko (No. 1 and No. 6 )
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Au Lit: Le Baiser)
Van Gogh's (Paysage Avec un Olivier)

and of course

Leonardo da Vinci's (Salvator Mundi)

Like many former Soviet Union oligarchs, Rybolovlev made his fortune through the privatisation of Russia’s infrastructure and natural resources, just as the former Soviet economic and political system began to shift under the Perestroika movement to a fledgling market-based economy.  The son of doctors from the industrial city of Perm, in what was once the Gulag Archipelago in the Ural region between the East European and West Siberian plains, Rybolovlev's acumen and interest was for business investment opportunities, not medicine.

By the time he was in his late twenties he had begun buying up shares in Uralkali, Perm's local fertilizer firm and other former Soviet, joint-stock companies in the region.  By 1995, and before the age of thirty, Rybolovlev had been named chairman of Uralkali's board, holding the company's majority shares.   The fertilizer powerhouse had only three serious business competitors: Belarusian BPC, the Canadian PotashCorp, and the Israeli firm ICL.

But business oligarchy in the former Soviet republics is not for the risk-averse.  In post-Soviet Russia, the underworld blended with the new elite of the Yeltsin era and as State assets were bought up and privatised, businesses were sometimes forced into paying professional criminals for protection.  As communism crumbled to dust and Russia's new business-sector entrepreneurs made billions, criminals too profiteered, exploiting opportunities where they could as Russia’s cannibalistic capitalism took hold.

As the values and structures of Soviet life disintegrated, organised crime cemented itself into the vulnerable cracks of the emerging market economy. Attempts on the lives of Perm businessmen were not uncommon and to protect himself, the Potash Tzar's hired bodyguards, began wearing a bulletproof vest, and travelled by armoured car.  Fearing kidnapping or worse, he decided to relocate his family, first to Florida and then ultimately to Switzerland where the family set up residency in Geneva in the Spring of 1995.  Thereafter, Rybolovlev traveled between Geneva and the Ural region as needed for business.

In the Spring of 1996 during one of these trips, Rybolovlev was arrested on suspicion of having ordered the murder of former business partner, Evgeny Panteleymonov, the general director of AO Neftekhimik in Perm.   Neftekhimik is a joint stock chemical company in which Rybolovlev reportedly owned 40% of its shares.

Incarcerated for 11 months, Dmitry Rybolovlev was released on a 1 billion ruble bail in April 1997 when convicted murdered Oleg Lomakin, who initially fingered the oligarch as having ordered the hit, changed his story claiming to have perjured himself.  By the end of the year, the Perm Regional Court had fully acquitted the businessman.  In a later interview given to Vedomosti, the Russian-language business daily published in Moscow, Rybolovlev stated that he didn't want to comment on his period of incarceration, considering the incident an unfortunate "law enforcement mistake."

By August, 2003 Rybolovlev had bought his first painting from Bouvier, “Paysage Avec un Olivier”.  The artwork, by Vincent van Gogh, was bought for a purported $17 million and seemingly cemented the Swiss dealer's  formal, or informal, business relationship with the Russian oligarch.

By 2006 Rybolovlev indicated that he held an 80 percent stake in Uralkali as well as a 20 percent stake in Silvinit, Uralkali's rival potash producer, and by 2008 Rybolovlev's spending on art and real estate accelerated.

Around this time, Rybolovlev's wife Elena wife began gearing up for divorce and on December 22, 2008 formally filed through the court in Geneva where, according to Swiss law, she would be entitled to half of her husband’s assets.  In a worrying letter, written to the Geneva prosecutor in December 2008, Elena suggested that her husband, Dmitry, should be considered a suspect, should anything nefarious ever happen to her.

The couple's acrimonious legal battle would stretch on for years, complete with a tangled web of trust funds, created ostensibly to protect his two daughters' financial futures. Elena's attorneys contentiously speculated as to whether or not these trusts, in some cases using offshore front companies registered in the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere, were created fraudulently to thwart spousal access to her husband's diversified wealth.

Sinkhole at Berezniki
Source: ru.wikipedia.org.
That same year the already tense game of Russian fertilizer roulette grew tenser and talk began to swirl about the billionaire selling his interests in Uralkali outright.  In addition to an angry estranged wife, Rybolovlev began fending off renewed inquiries into a 2006 calamity at a Uralkali mining facility in Berezniki. This incident had caused significant structural and environmental damage to the main arteries of the city's infrastructure and properties.

With Kremlin-backed businessmen under the Putin era began pressing for their own ownership stakes in financially weakened privatized industries and regional authorities were seeking between $1.5 billion and $50 billion in damages as a result of the industrial disaster. That same year Uralkali's CEO Vladislav Baumgertner was arrested on charges of abusive exercise of power and abuse of office and Belarus authorities issued warrants for the arrest of other top Uralkali executives.

With pressure mounting on many fronts, and risking to lose a substantial chunk of his empire's fortune, Rybolovlev, began expanding his growing galaxy of tax shelters.  On July 16, 2008, through a limited liability company, the billionaire arranged for the off-market purchase of an 18 bedroom, 22 baths, 62,000 square-foot beach-side mansion, named “Maison de l’Amitie” in Palm Beach, FloridaThe property was purchased from owner Donald Trump for a reported $95 million.

515 N. County Road, Palm Beach, FL
Former Maison de L'Amitie estate
Sold by Donald Trump
Image Capture of plot lines after property
is razzed and subdivided.
Why a market savvy Russian businessman would purchased property from the future president of the United States, at a $50 million markup, during a real estate downturn, is not clear.  The French Regency-style estate once boasted a garage big enough to accommodate 50+ cars, a 30.5-metre long swimming pool, three guest houses and purportedly bulletproof windows.  But after the real estate deal closed Rybolovlev never moved in. Later, Palm Beach's newest billionaire bulldozed the entire 6.5 acre estate and split the land into three separate parcels.  Two of these barren oceanfront plots were then flipped, recouping $71 million of the Russian's initial investment. The third has reportedly not been sold.

In 2009 Rybolovlev began making arrangements to move artworks purchased and stored at Geneva's Ports Franc Bouvier's Singapore freeport, an über-warehouse was inaugurated in May 2010 and abuts Singapore's Changi International airport.

That same year, Rybolovlev's firm, Uralkali reached an eventual settlement agreement on damages for the industrial accident and payed out a relatively modest $218 million in damages for the harm it caused.

In June 2010, the mining magnate sold 53.2% of his share holdings in Uralkali to three Russian investors for $6.5 billion. The purchasers were:
  • Suleiman Kerimov, of Kaliha Finance Limited - 25% of the company's shares
  • Alexander Nesis, of Aerellia Investments Limited - 15% of the company's shares
  • Filaret Galcheva, of  Becounioco Holdings Limited - 13.2% of the company's shares
Three months later, in September of 2010, Rybolovlev bought controlling shareholder interest in the Bank of Cyprus via Odella Resources LTD, a business he registered in the British Virgin Islands, which belongs to the Trustees of a Cypriot international discretionary trust, the beneficiaries of whom are Mr. Dmitry Rybolovlev and his two daughters.  Shortly thereafter the Russian acquired Cypriot citizenship under the country's citizenship-by-investment scheme.  Rybolovlev's investment in the Cyprus bank once consisted of deposits at the BoC and €500 million euro in shares, and was reportedly lost by June 2013.  In 2014, President Trump's Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, became the Cyprus bank's chief shareholder.

Still pending divorce, Rybolovlev's continued to add to his constellation of art, businesses and properties.  Some were also purchased via trusts in the names of family members orchestrated via a company called Xitrans Finance Ltd., mentioned in the Panama Papers, an expose made up of 11.5 million documents leaked via a Panama-based law firm involving the financial dealings of shell companies many of which were created by large corporations and high net worth individuals, ostensibly for offshore, tax shelter purposes.  As some of Rybolovlev's transactions predate his divorce proceedings, the motives for these shelters he established seem to center on protection of assets in general.

By 2011 Dmitry had moved from Geneva to Monaco. Securing a 66.67 percent ownership majority in the Football club AS Monaco FC.  Likely saving the club  from bankruptcy when it was at the bottom of France’s second division list, Rybolovlev the football club's president That same year he also completed off market deals for the purchase of a Hawaiian villa from Will Smith for $20 million and purchased a 20th floor, Central Park West penthouse, once owned by Sandy Weill, the former chairman and chief executive of Citigroup, for $88 million.  Both properties were bought via trusts created in the name of his 22 year old daughter, Ekaterina Rybolovleva.

It was in this very New York apartment, in March 2013, that Rybolovlev first viewed the painting now attributed to Leonardo.  The viewing was arranged with Sotheby's, surprisingly enough, through Sam Valette, while the billionaire was visiting New York.  If the mogul was already interested in purchasing this work of art in March, it is not quite clear why he would then elect to passively wait until later to buy the painting at a much higher negotiated price via Bouvier.

The sellers of the painting, Simon, Parish and Adelson, also questioned the sequence of Rybolovlev's private viewing, crying foul formally in 2016 when news of the viewing came to light.  The sellers of “Salvator Mundi” claimed, in Manhattan federal court, that they had been shortchanged on the subsequent higher priced purchase, Bouvier orchestrated later with Rybolovlev.

Sotheby’s indicated in their own court filings that Valette didn’t realize who the Central Park potential buyer was at the time of the scheduled private viewing.  Though they conceded that he did recognize Rybolovlev from a previous sale, likely that of Gustav Klimt’s “Water Serpents II”, a painting looted in World War II and later sold for $183.8 million in 2012.  Sotheby’s eventually reached a confidential out of court settlement with Simon, Parish and Adelson though the details of their settlement agreement are private.

Image Credit:  https://www.youtube.com/watchv=ZdXsEGFOdII&t=67s
Screenshot from Video Milliardaire russe Vs marchand d'art
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the sale of the “Salvator Mundi,” it was not long afterwards, in 2014, that the relationship between the Russian and the Swiss businessmen turned sour.

Rybolovlev, by then living in a three story penthouse in une belle époque, overlooking the yacht-filled harbor of La Condamine in Monaco, took his former Swiss art advisor to court, going so far as to have him arrested on his own doorstep after summoning the Swiss dealer to Monaco to discuss an ongoing business transaction.  In court papers filed in multiple jurisdictions, Rybolovlev accuses Bouvier of defrauding him of approximately $1bn, for the works of art he purchased via the dealer over the lifespan of their business relationship.

The Russian magnate has claimed that the Swiss dealer had been working as an agent on his direct behalf, on a limited commission basis, but instead took disproportionately large commissions for himself on the art sales he negotiated.   Bouvier, on the other hand, maintains that any agreements made between the pair were never formalized in writing and therefore, as therefore, as an independent art dealer, he was at liberty to charge the billionaire whatever markup he deemed acceptable in furtherance of closing said deals.

By March 2015 Rybolovlev has filed lawsuits against Bouvier in two other countries: Hong Kong and Singapore, where the Swiss dealer was living.  As the litigation raged, the Russian billionaire sought to have Bouvier’s assets frozen.  A lengthy civil standoff between the former business acquaintances begins.

On October 12, 2015 Russian press announced that the freeport of Vladivostok, overlooking Golden Horn Bay was to be reestablished. The project would be led by Yuri Trutnev, senior adviser to Vladimir Putin, who curiously is also the former mayor of Perm.

Two and a half weeks later,  on October 20, 2015, Rybolovlev and his wife Elena jointly announce that they have reached a confidential and satisfactory settlement in their divorce, stating that this "puts an end to all legal procedures launched in different jurisdictions".  On this same date, he walks his then 26 year old daughter Katerina down the aisle to marry Juan Sartori on the now leased Onassis's private island of Skorpios. Satori is a Uruguayan entrepreneur who, in his thirties, chairs the Union Group (UG), a private firm that has significant interests in ventures related to agriculture, energy, afforestation, infrastructure, minerals, gas and oil, as well as real estate in Latin America.  Satori is now running as the Uruguay's National Party candidate for President in the 2019 elections for the Republic of Uruguay in opposition to the ruling Frente Amplio government.


In early 2017 Rybolovlev offloaded many of the 20th-century artworks he had previously purchased through Bouvier, some for strikingly high losses.

By the fall, Rybolovlev had also put the “Salvator Mundi” artwork up for auction at Christie’s through rainmaker Loïc Gouzer whose had brashly convinced the oligarch to auction the classical Old Master oil painting in the auction house's November 15, 2017 Postwar and Contemporary sale.  The painting was listed as Lot 9B, and came with a $100 million guarantee.  Surging quickly past this benchmark during the auction, two anonymous bidders battled tightly to outbid one other for twenty minutes until the threshold finally grew too rich for one of them.  Selling to the highest bidder, for $450.3 million inclusive of the 12.5% buyers premium, the artwork ranked as the single most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.

The following January (2018) Rybolovlev is named in the U.S. Treasury Department's Kremlin Report, a list of 210 officials and billionaires from Russia's ruling elite, who are expected to receive additional scrutiny in future business transactions in response to Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Russia's military involvement in Ukraine.

In 2017 Rybolovlev is charged in Monicao with "complicity in violating the right to respect for privacy" in connection with his ongoing dispute with Bouvier.

On October 2, 2018 Rybolovlev files a $380 million lawsuit in the US District Court of New York against Sotheby's alleging that the auction house “materially assisted the largest art fraud in history” in relation to sales orchestrated by Yves Bouvier.

Meanwhile,  between November 6 and 7, 2018, as the result of the same SMS messages obtained by the judicial authorities of Monaco from the phone of Tetiana Bersheda, one of Rybolovlev's previous lawyers related to the 2017 charge, the billionaire is taken into custody in Monte Carlo.   Held overnight by law enforcement, his residence is searched as part of an investigation into suspicions of influence peddling where it is suspected that Rybolovlev had been seeking to influence members of the higher echelons of power within the Principality of Monaco.  After his release the billionaire is formally named as a suspect in a graft investigation by Monaco's prosecutor general Sylvie Petit-Leclair who confirmed that Rybolovlev was under investigation for "active trading in influence" and "active bribery" involving Monaco's former interior minister Paul Masseron, three police officers, Christophe Haget, Patrick Fusari and Régis Asso, and Philippe Narmino, the Director of Judicial Services (equivalent to the Minister of Justice) as well as Narmino's wife and son.  As a result of this investigation Rybolovlev is now subject to security constraints on his movement while the court determines whether there is sufficient evidence to hold a trial.

As of 2018 civil litigation between and surrounding the business transactions between Rybolovlev and Bouvier remain ongoing in different jurisdictions including Monaco, Switzerland, Hong Kong, France and New York as does this criminal inquiry in Monaco.

Swiss Art Dealer
Yves Bouvier
Image Credit:
Bloomberg Markets Magazine 5/17/15
Bouvier

From 1997 until October 2017, through his Swiss holding company, Euroasia Investment SA, Yves Charles Edgar Bouvier served as the main shareholder in his family's company, Natural Le Coultre. Under his guidance, art and shipping magnate would build the firm into one of the largest specialty firms for the storage, packing, shipping and conservation of fine art.

At the Swiss Freeport in Geneva, Natural Le Coultre boasted a 22,000 square meter, state-of-the-art, art storage facility where art works were secured, showcased and bought and sold in a tax-free setting.  Before selling the firm to the French shipping firm André Chenuein, Natural Le Coultre offered freeport services and consultancies at Ports Francs & Entrepôts de Genève SA in Geneva, as well as in the freeports of Singapore and Luxembourg.

As a result of his shipping firm's extensive connections with international auction houses, curators, galleries, art dealers and private collectors, Bouvier, a successful entrepreneur, bought and sold art as well as consulted on the private sale and purchase of valuable art.  It was through this line of work, at Ports Franc in Geneva that Bouvier met Dmitry Rybolovlev for the first time in 2002, when the billionaire visited the Geneva Freeport regarding a Marc Chagall painting, “Le Cirque” the Russian businessman had acquired.   In that instance, Bouvier reportedly assisted the billionaire with documentation related to the artwork's purchase.

In August 2003 Bouvier went on to sell Rybolovlev the first of 38 artworks he would procure and sell to the Russian investor over the span of their business relationship.  The work was “Paysage Avec un Olivier”  by Vincent van Gogh and was sold to the Russian for upwards of $17 million. 

By October 2004 Bouvier had acquired “Les Noces de Pierrette” by Picasso from New York dealer William Acquavella, and this too was flipped to Rybolovlev for a purported $43.8 million. 

Three years later, in 2007, Bouvier would sell Rybolovlev four additional works of art, though it is unclear which four pieces were sold to the oligarch sold during this time period.

Between 2008 and 2013, Bouvier would sell Rybolovlev 28 more works of art.   Some of those include:

Rothko’s “No. 1”, sold in June 2008 for $36 million.

Picasso's “Joueur de Flute et Femme Nue”, sold in 2010 for $35 million.

Amedeo Modigliani's “Nu Couché au Coussin Bleu”, sold in 2011 for $118 million.

Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece “Wasserschlangen II”, sold sometime in 2012 for $183.8 million

Toulouse-Lautrec's “Au Lit: Le Baiser”, sold in February 2013 for €14 million.

 Picasso's “Espagnole à l’Eventail” and “Femme se Coiffant”, sold sometime in 2013 for $27 million.

Paul Gaugin’s “Otahi”, sold sometime in 2013 for $120 million.

Paul Gaugin’s “Te Fare”, sold sometime in 2013 for $85 million.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “L’Eternel Printemps, sold sometime in 2013 for $48.1 million.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “Le Baiser Grand Modele”, sold sometimes in 2013 for $10.4 million.

Rene Magritte's “Le domaine d’Arnheim”, date of sale unknown for $43.5 million;

and lastly,

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which sold in May 2013 for $127.5 million, the price he obtained being uplifted $44 million over his own negotiated purchase price that same year.

In 2014 Bouvier had also been negotiating one additional deal with Rybolovlev, the sale of Mark Rothko’s “No. 6” (Violet, Green and Red) for a purchase price of $80 million, but the pair's relationship came to a stormy end before that sale became finalized.

Bouvier was arrested in early January 2015 in Monaco on suspicion of fraud and money laundering in the Principality of Monaco. The investigation was based on Rybolovlev’s claim that the Swiss dealer had cheated him out of $1 billion by gouging him on the fees he charged for artworks purchased via the Swiss dealer.  Spending one night in jail, Bouvier was released from custody on a €10 million bail and formally indicted on February 25, 2015 on charges of fraud and complicity in money laundering.

By March 2015 Rybolovlev had also filed civil lawsuits against Bouvier in Hong Kong and Singapore, where the Swiss dealer was living, asking that the authorities freeze all of Bouvier’s assets.

The same month, Switzerland’s Federal Department of Finance began their own investigation of Bouvier on “suspicion of serious tax infractions” estimating the dealer might be responsible for as much as $175 million in unpaid Swiss income tax.

In April 2015, Bouvier resigned from his position running Luxembourg’s Le Freeport, purportedly to focus on his defence.

Picasso Watercolors:
“Femme se Coiffant” and “Espagnnole à l’eventail”
Around the same dates Catherine Hutin-Blay, the only daughter of Pablo Picasso‘s second wife Jacqueline Roque, filed a legal complaint against Bouvier asserting that two of the artists watercolours, “Femme se Coiffant” and “Espagnnole à l’eventail”, both portraits of her mother and subsequently sold by Bouvier to Dmitry Rybolovlev in 2013, were stolen.

After much back and forth the Court of Appeal of Singapore ruled in April 2017 that Switzerland was a more appropriate forum for the former partners ongoing civil lawsuit.

In October 2017 Natural Le Coultre was then sold to one of its competitors, the French shipping firm André Chenuein.

As of 2018 civil litigation between and surrounding the business transactions between Bouvier and Rybolovlev remain ongoing in different jurisdictions including Monaco, Switzerland, Hong Kong, France and New York.

Saudi Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud

“Salvator Mundi” was apparently purchased by Saudi Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud on November 15, 2017 after registering to bid with Christie's only one day before the sale.

Prince Badr is comes from the cadet branch, Al Farhan, a branch of the royal family that does not trace its lineage to the founder of the modern kingdom, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud.  As far as can be determined, he had not, publically, collected art in the past and was unknown to Christie's as a buyer, prior to registering to bid for the Leonardo work.

Badr is reportedly close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has been known to align himself with second and third generation princes, like those in the Farhan al-Saud branch, in his pursuit of cultivating a loyal cadre of loyal subordinates.

During the frenzied New York auction, and unbeknownst to the winning Saudi bidder, the paddle war that drove the price to its impressive level was with a designated representative of United Arab Emirates ruler, crown prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, (“MBZ”), who had also directed a representative to bid on the painting.

The news of Prince Badr's winning bid was revealed in a New York Times article on November 6, 2017 and included speculation that the purchase may have been made on behalf of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, (“MbS”).  This despite the fact that just two weeks earlier, on November 4, 2017, the country's extravagant ruling had as many as 500 prominent Saudi Arabian princes, government ministers, and businessmen detained and accounts frozen in what was stated to be an anti-corruption drive.

Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud holds a bachelor’s degree in law from King Saud University and was appointed as the first and current Minister of Culture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia following a major Saudi Cabinet reshuffle on June 2, 2018 at which point the Former Ministry of Culture and Information was renamed the Ministry of Information.

Prince Badr is also the CEO of the Misk institute for Arts and worked with the institute’s team under the auspices of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Misk Foundation, formed in 2011, to achieve Saudi's objectives in enabling international cultural diplomacy and art exchange.  In keeping with his present roles, by royal decree in July 2017, Badr was also been appointed to the Royal Commission for Al-Ula formed to promote tourism in the UNESCO World Heritage Al-Ula region with hopes of making its Nabataean tombs more accessible to Saudis and the world.

Prior to his present roles and responsibilities, Prince Badr was listed as the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG).

On December 6, 2017 as criticism and speculation over the Saudi purchase roiled in conservative Saudi circles the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi, made a striking announcement via twitter that the painting “is coming to Louvre Abu Dhabi.”


Two days later, on December 8 2017, the Saudi government distanced itself from reports that its 32-year-old Saudi crown prince was behind the purchase and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington DC issued the following statement:
"Due to the media reporting on the da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi purchase, the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. inquired from His Highness Prince Badr Al Saud’s office on the details related to the art piece’s purchase. Upon reaching out, the Embassy learned through information conveyed by His Highness's office that the art work was acquired by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism for display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and that HH Prince Badr, as a friendly supporter of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, attended its opening ceremony on November 8th and was subsequently asked by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism to act as an intermediary purchaser for the piece."

That same date the Louvre Abu Dhabi again tweeted, echoing the Saudi official statement that the “Salvator Mundi” had been acquired by the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi on the museum's behalf.



Why Prince Badr would bid for the UAE museum in contest with another UAE bidder has never been explained.  What is known is that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is a close ally to his counterpart in Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and quickly purchased the 26-bedroom luxury yacht known as "The Topaz", originally owned by Mansour Bin Zayed, the brother of the UAE Crown Prince, for $450 million in a swap for the painting.

On September 3, 2018 Reuters news service, reported that they had been shown a document which illustrated that Prince Badr had been authorized to purchase the artwork, on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.  Who "authorized" him, or when, is not stated in the brief news report, nor has the nature or details of this document been made public.

What is known is that the painting has still not gone on display at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi despite the earlier September 18, 2018 exhibition date announcement by the UAE museum.

Where the painting is now, remains an unsolved mystery, as no news has officially been released by either the museum or the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism since the September 8, 2018 announcement that the planned unveiling of the Leonardo at the museum had been be postponed.

In closing to this long article, a look at Prince Badr's twitter feed brings us full circle back to Russia.

On November 16, 2018 he writes:

"We accepted the invitation of our friends in Russia to participate in the St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum. It was a great opportunity to further strengthen cultural cooperation and meet with President Vladimir Putin.
@KremlinRussia @KremlinRussia_E  #SPBICF2018"


Also, Saudi's crown prince's fascination with pricey yachts, also apparently includes yachts formerly-owned by Russian billionaires.  In 2015 Crown Prince MbS purchased the Italian built, 134-meter "Serene" on the spot from exiled Stolichnaya vodka magnate, Yuri Scheffler for $458 million

From Russia, with Love.

East–West tensions, mysterious sheiks, a brewing Cold War, mixed with betrayals, and the chess games of power and influence.  If only Ian Fleming had lived to write a sequel. 

September 30, 2017

Where is the world's largest hoard of looted antiquities? Syria? Iraq? Nope, London.

In deference to new readers of the ARCA blog, who may not be as familiar with  the world’s largest accumulation of illicit antiquities, ARCA has obtained the permission of London journalist Howard Swains to republish his Medium article, London’s Loot: The Legacy of Robin Symes, in its entirety. 

Swains is a journalist and feature writer with experience across print and digital titles, including The Times, the Guardian, Independent, Newsweek, the Sunday Times Magazine and CNN.

London’s Loot: The Legacy of Robin Symes
How the world’s largest accumulation of illicit antiquities got stuck in the UK, and why nobody can shift them

One morning towards the end of January last year, a white truck bearing the insignia of an Italian removals firm pulled out of the Geneva Freeport in Switzerland and began a 560-mile journey to Rome. By the time it had traversed the Alps and reached the Italian capital, the truck had shaken off its dusting of snow but had attracted a convoy of two motorcycles and two saloon cars, each topped with a flashing blue light.

Image Credit: Carabinieri TPC
The motorcade pulled up in the Trastevere district, outside the barracks of the specialist art squad of the Carabinieri, the largest such division of a national police force in the world. Officers in stiff military-style uniforms, with black leather gloves and dark peaked caps, helped remove 45 wooden storage crates from the truck, which they gradually began to unpack.


Video Credit: Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale 
“Operazione Antiche Dimore” Rome, 22 marzo 2016

A few weeks later, the world’s press mingled around those crates with the Italian Minister of Culture, the Swiss ambassador to Italy and high-ranking national prosecutors. The crates’ contents were now balanced on top or spilled beside, as though in a shabby-chic gallery. 

Image Credit - Carabinieri TPC
To the untrained eye, many of the exhibits may have seemed unremarkable: fragments of vases and frescos; detached statue heads and limbs. But there was no mistaking the quality of the centrepiece — and not only because of the uniformed Carabinieri officers posing proudly for photographs beside it.

Image Credit: ARCA 2016
The reclining figures of an elderly man and a young woman, close to life-size and carved from Etruscan terracotta, formed the lids to two sarcophagi, dating from the second century B.C. The rest of the material was of similar age, and was, in fact, of comparable significance: Some of the frescos in the haul were thought to have been ripped from temple walls near Pompeii, or from the UNESCO-listed necropolises of Cerveteri, near Rome.

This was loot — thousands of pieces of it — most likely excavated inexpertly, in the dead of night, from Italian soil some time in the 1970s or 80s. It had then been on an uncertain, smuggled journey out of Italy and into Switzerland, via a skilled but illicit restorer’s workshop. The motorcade that swept it back to Rome was part of its ceremonial repatriation, at least 16 years since its clandestine incarceration in Geneva.

Image Credit: ARCA 2016
The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) described the items as “an Ali Baba’s cave-worthy hoard of Roman and Etruscan treasures”. The press persuaded reluctant officials to attach a monetary figure to the artefacts: They were priceless, of course, but had a market value of perhaps €9 million to those who might want to profit from such things.

My interpreter pointed to one of the sarcophagus lids and said, “You see this only under glass in a museum.” Had best-laid plans not been interrupted, that is exactly where it might have one day appeared: the endpoint of a sophisticated trafficking network that, throughout the latter part of the 20th century, transformed invaluable examples of cultural heritage into gallery pieces for the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections.

Image Credit: ARCA 2016
The individual most responsible for the gathering in Rome was also the man most notable by his absence. A British former antiquities dealer named Robin Symes was the sole suspect for having once rented the storeroom in the Geneva Freeport from which the loot had now been liberated. Symes’s handwriting was on the outside of the packaging crates; the pages of the British newspapers and the Antiques Trade Gazette that wrapped some objects were almost certainly previously read by him. His fingerprints were all over this stuff.

Once among the world’s richest and most celebrated antiquities dealers, Symes has spent the past decade as a disgraced bankrupt, exposed as a former linchpin in the networks that once traded almost with impunity in such material. But for all Symes’s proven crooked dealings, the full extent of his hidden plunder has still not yet been revealed. Furthermore, although Symes, who is now in his mid-70s, spent seven months in prison for contempt of court in 2005, he has never stood trial for illicit antiquities trading, nor been forced to reveal where he might have squirreled further contraband.

Another cache of Symes’s former stock — possibly the largest known accumulation of illicit antiquities in the world — has been stuck in a legal impasse in London for 14 years. The legacy of his known dealings is now the focus of a complicated liquidation, blighted by squabbles between at least three governments and allegations of procedural impropriety.

The ministries of culture in both Italy and Greece say that material stuck in the U.K. belongs to them, and have lodged appeals for its return. Their stance is supported by prominent archaeologists, whose academic endeavours have long been undermined by tomb-raiders and illicit excavators, turning a profit from desecrating cultural sites. Yet those with a stake in Symes’s former business, as well as a number of creditors, appear to support the sale of the former trader’s stock, insistent that there is insufficient proof of ownership to warrant giving it up.

At a time when the looting and destruction of cultural heritage has never been more prominent, archaeologists await further details not only of the items Symes may have spirited away, but the methods by which he was able to profit for so long from the sale of illegally excavated material. Everyone was talking about the same absent character in Rome, as they sometimes also do in London, Cambridge and Athens. In short, what is still to be uncovered from Symes’s former scheming? And, for that matter, where is he?
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Robin Symes’s established early biography runs as follows: He was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1939, and suffered early tragedy when his mother was murdered when he was a toddler. There are few other details about his childhood and schooling, but Symes married at 21 and had two sons, born in 1961 and 63.

At that time, he was working as a lowly antiquities trader with a shop on London’s Kings Road. But his life deviated sharply from what had seemed to be its likely path when Symes met the handsome Christo Michaelides, a Greek heir to a family of shipping magnates, some time in the 1960s. Michaelides was in his early 20s, five years Symes’s junior, but the pair immediately formed a close relationship that endured for the next 30 years.

Symmes and Michaelides were a couple in life and in business
Image Credit - D. Plichon and Iefimerida 
Symes divorced and Michaelides separated from his girlfriend. Although they never openly declared that they were a romantic couple, almost all acquaintances consider the men to have been partners in both life and business, reportedly referred to as “the Symeses”. Their business dealings were apparently bolstered by the almost unlimited finances available to them from Michaelides’s family, and they became the most revered dealers about town.

By the time Symes first came to the attention of the national press in 1979, the level of his business was such that The New York Times reported on his purchase of a Roman glass bowl at Sotheby’s in London for $1.04 million. A decade later, Symes appeared in the Times’s real estate pages, in the process of selling the so-called “Rockefeller Guest House” on East 52nd Street in Manhattan which he had owned for 11 years. “I was here 20 days a year,” he laments as the reason for the sale of the property, designed in 1949 by Philip Johnson for Blanchette Rockefeller. He manages, however, to slip in an anecdote about Greta Garbo once ringing the bell, looking for Johnson. The house sold for $3.2 million.

“Symes acquired a lifestyle to match his success in the antiquities business,” wrote Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini in their 2007 book The Medici Conspiracy. “With Christo he had homes in London, New York, Athens, and Schinnoussa [sic], a small island across the water from Naxos…Symes, who doesn’t drive, was always chauffeured in a silver Rolls Royce or a maroon Bentley.”

Symes and Michaelides lived the high life. They had a gallery in the St James’s district of London; their house in Chelsea had a sunken swimming pool, ringed by exceptional statues; the Schinoussa residence was a sprawling estate across a peninsula, surrounded by the deep blue of the Mediterranean sea.

Furthermore, Symes was a trustee of the British Museum and regularly hob-nobbed with the world’s leading curators. He seemed to have access to the finest antiquities of Greek, Italian, Egyptian and Asian origin, buying and selling through Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams; placing items in national museums across the world.

“This was before the trustees of the British Museum had rather rumbled the fact that they were buying a lot of material that had recently been looted,” says Lord Colin Renfrew, who is among Britain’s leading archaeologists and is himself a former British Museum trustee. The Museum adopted a new code of acquisitions under the directorship of Robert Anderson, between 1992 and 2002. “That was when Robin Symes was no longer so welcome at cocktail parties at the British Museum, but he had been up to that time,” Renfrew says.

Throughout the 1990s, several investigations moved into top gear in Italy, Greece and the United States into an apparent trafficking network of antiquities. The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles were only two of the high-profile institutions implicated in having received looted material that had passed through the hands of an Italian dealer named Giacomo Medici.

As detailed in great depth in Watson and Todeschini’s 2007 book, the eponymous Medici controlled a team of “tombaroli”, or tomb raiders, which fed material via a number of well-connected fences, including Symes, to auction rooms and galleries. Symes not only shared a business address with Medici in Geneva, but many of the pieces at the centre of the investigations clearly gained some of their “legitimacy” from once being in the British dealer’s possession. This became especially true after Symes had placed them in museum collections or major auctions, “washing” the items of their illicit past.

In 1988, Symes sold a statue believed to be a 5th century B.C. depiction of Aphrodite to the Getty museum for $18 million. He said it had been in the collection of a Swiss supermarket magnate since the 1930s, and had paperwork to that effect. But the documentation was forged; the statue had actually been looted in Morgantina, Italy, then trafficked via Geneva to London. Experts eventually decided the figure was most likely not Aphrodite, but the misidentification of the character it depicted was far less serious than the exposure of its fraudulent provenance. By the time the statue was sent back from Los Angeles to Italy in 2007, the museum world was in turmoil and mired in similar scandals.

In the opinions of many archaeologists and prosecutors who have studied their activities, the global Symes operation was more significant than that of Medici, whose business was confined to Italy.

“Symes was the biggest illicit antiquities dealer, with Christo Michaelides, in modern times,” says Christos Tsirogiannis, a Greek forensic archaeologist based in Cambridge, who has spent the past decade attempting to unravel the extent of Symes’s dealings and his place in what amounts to a vast global chain. “One can only imagine in the 25-plus year career of Symes and Michaelides how many objects they held and sold if their remains are 17,000 objects of the highest quality from nearly all, if not all, ancient civilisations.”

That remainder — which some people suggest may be as many as 17,000 objects — is what became confined to a number of warehouses in the London area in late 2003. They are the documented leftovers after Symes’s empire collapsed dramatically towards the end of the 20th century.

At a dinner party in Italy in July 1999, Michaelides slipped down some steps, hit his head on a radiator and died from his injuries the following day. As Michaelides’s relatives — the Papadimitriou family — grieved, they also fell into bitter dispute with Symes over the deceased’s estate. (In some form, this dispute remains ongoing.) Symes claimed that the principal business, named Robin Symes Limited (RSL), was his alone and that Michaelides was a mere employee. The Papadimitrious insisted they were entitled to half of its assets as Michaelides was an equal partner. The furious family brought a civil case against Symes in London’s High Court at which he would pay dearly for his hubris in his professional and legal dealings.

Michaelides, left, and Symes hugely under-reported the extent of his “legitimate” business matters in a bid to avoid a costly settlement with Michaelides’s estate. But the Papadimitrious’ legal team hired private detectives to track him across the world. Symes said he had five warehouses of stock; the detectives uncovered around 30. He then incensed the judge, Justice Peter Smith, with a number of lies and diversionary tactics, in particular misreporting the nature of two major sales at a time when he was obliged to share full details of his deals with the court.

Symes said he sold a statue to a company in Wyoming for $1.6 million. The company proved not to exist, and he actually sold it to the Qatari collector Sheikh al-Thani for $4.5 million. He sold a second statue to the Sheikh for $8 million, lodging the money in Liechtenstein, when he reported to the court he sold it for $3 million. (He latterly also sold a furniture collection for $14 million, $10 million more than he reported. He put the money in a bank in Gibraltar.) It turned a civil trial into a criminal conviction.

After throwing out a late claim that Symes was mentally unfit to stand trial, skewering the testimony of Symes’s personal doctor on the stand, Justice Smith sentenced Symes to two years imprisonment for contempt of court. He went to Pentonville Prison in north London, from where he was released after seven months.

By then, having been unable to pay legal costs of up to £5 million, he declared himself bankrupt and receivers seized the official stock of RSL that could be located and then handed it to liquidators. Symes’s own figures, which are possibly inflated, puts the stock’s value at £125 million.

It is this stock that continues to cause controversy and keeps Symes under discussion in the U.K., Italy and Greece. The Papadimitriou family lodged claims of $50 million on the dissolved company, representing Michaelides’s share. Britain’s Inland Revenue was the largest listed creditor, claiming £40.3 million (nearly $70 million in December 2003) in unpaid tax.

Given the nature of Symes’s dealings, the stock almost certainly contains items of highly dubious provenance, and the cultural ministries of at least Italy and Greece have submitted requests for illegally trafficked items to be returned to them. Yet the stock is also the principal asset through which the liquidators could get anywhere near raising the required capital to satisfy creditors. Arguments over it have come to reflect many of the common disputes in dealing with antiquities: there are apparently unresolvable issues over transparency, provenance and proof of ownership. There are also complaints of a lack of cooperation between jurisdictions, and issues with differing laws between countries.

In contrast with stolen material, which might be documented and will be missed if it vanishes, illegally excavated items, by their very nature, are unknown to anybody before the point that they are dug up. Unscrupulous antiquities traders and collectors have long insisted disputed pieces were merely located in dusty attics or storerooms, where they had lain untouched for centuries. Until the UK passed the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act in 2003, which introduced the notion of a “tainted cultural item” and shifted the burden of proof to the dealer, it would have been all but impossible to gain a conviction in criminal court for trading in looted property.

Symes accumulated his stock prior to 2003, but the liquidators, a British firm named BDO, are now operating under the closer scrutiny of the modern era, and also since the exposés that clearly linked Symes to looted property. Nonetheless, in 2013, 10 years after the liquidation began, rumours began circulating within the industry that items from the RSL stock were being sold in the Middle East, now the home of some of the wealthiest private collectors of antiquities. Since HMRC, the British government’s tax and revenue service, was the largest creditor with claims on the company, an easy narrative emerged: Was the British government selling looted cultural property to pay back taxes?

Paolo Ferri, a former district judge in Italy, who led the successful prosecution of Medici, told me that he considered any sales of material from the company’s frozen stock was “very scandalous”. He says, “They are selling those items for tax purposes. It’s equal to selling drugs to recover taxes.”

Although now retired, Ferri keeps a keen eye on developments related to Medici’s former associates, and recalls several run-ins with both Symes and the British authorities. Ferri brought Symes as a witness in the Medici trial, but was unable to persuade British police to collect sufficient evidence to put him in the dock. (Before the passing of the 2003 law, British police had no reason to pursue Symes.)

Every six months since December 2004, the liquidators of RSL have filed a report with Companies House, which is the British government’s registrar of corporate documentation. The reports are a matter of public record but only became freely available in June 2015, when Companies House re-launched its website. Although not especially detailed, the documents nonetheless offer the only overview of business matters pertaining to the frozen RSL stock, split between operations in both the United Kingdom and USA.

In the early months and years following the liquidators’ appointment, “realisations” (i.e., incoming payments) include the sale of property, furniture and motor vehicles, as well as a number of sales of unspecified antiquities to buyers in London, Switzerland and the USA. “Disbursements” (i.e., outgoings) include storage and security costs, as well as mounting legal and administrative fees.

The number of realisations have slowed in recent years, but the RSL documents clearly show that there have been numerous sales from the company’s stock. A variation on the name Sheikh al-Thani appears as the purchaser of at least five consignments, costing £326,000, £248,000, £143,300, £127,750 and £57,494 between 2007 and 2010, and there are two entries from January 2014, of £150,000 and £188,000, bearing only the word “Sheikh”. (Al-Thani was the buyer of the material that Symes misreported to the High Court and resulted in his contempt action.)

Other listed buyers include a sizeable list of British and American dealers and collectors, who may be either buying for themselves or as agents for other unknown parties. In June 2015, a consignment costing £52,900 went to a London antiquities trader. The same dealer bought an unspecified consignment in November 2015 for £75,000. They represent the most recent confirmed sales.

By some measure, the largest single sale is listed from November 2008, where two entries apparently refer to the sale of an item described only as “Head of K”. (Other sales rarely have even this much detail.) It appears to have fetched £875,000 ($1.25 million), which remains a significant amount for an antiquity.

None of the dealers I contacted would talk on the record about their purchases from the RSL stock. BDO has also never commented on the liquidation of RSL and turned down my request for an interview. There is no clear evidence that any of the transactions are improper: The argument runs that Symes did not deal only in illicit objects and the company’s stock would also include plenty of material that was not subject to proprietary claims. However, only a relatively small number of the sales have taken place in a public auction, where it might reasonably be expected they would fetch the highest price. This lack of transparency continues to infuriate those who condemn the opaque nature of the antiquities trade, while archaeologists contend that ethical dealers would reject on principle any stock that had once been handled by Symes. They say that the refusal to publicise the details of the items makes it impossible to determine their true provenance, nor where they will end up.

Few people have a better idea than Tsirogiannis about the true nature of Symes’s dealings. In 2006, while working for the Greek Cultural Ministry, he accompanied Greek police in a raid on the property in Schinoussa that uncovered, among other valuable objects, a photographic archive of around 1,300 items that had once been in Symes’s hands. Similar photographic archives were found in the Geneva offices of Medici and a fellow dealer named Gianfranco Becchina, often showing antiquities fresh from the ground, still with soil encrustations on them.

These photographic archives are as close to a smoking gun as investigators get in this field, and access to them is closely restricted. Forensic archaeologists working in Italy used the Medici and Becchina archive to secure convictions against the two former dealers, proving they had sold illicit material. Meanwhile Tsirogiannis, who is one of few people outside a police department or government ministry with full access to the archives, still scours the catalogues of antiquities auctions and museum shelves and regularly identifies items that are depicted, pre-restoration, as recently being in the hands of the convicted dealers.

Image Credit: Howard Swains
I took a number of photographs of the seized Symes stock displayed at the press conference in Rome and forwarded them to Tsirogiannis. The Carabinieri also released an official video showing their officers handling various objects found in Geneva. We met in Cambridge soon after, when Tsirogiannis showed me 12 positive matches he had made between items in the photographs from Rome and those previously in the possession of Medici or in the seized Schinoussa archive. The items in my pictures, as discovered in the storage crates hidden by Symes, were clean and restored; ready for sale in a high-end gallery. The same items in the Polaroids from the Medici and Schinoussa archives were cracked, dirty and often incomplete, broken apart to facilitate easy transportation. The identifications proved beyond any doubt that Symes dealt habitually in loot. This much had been agreed by the Italian and Swiss authorities as a precursor to the repatriations.

Tsirogiannis has repeatedly offered his services to the liquidators, both directly and via the Metropolitan Police, to examine the RSL stock in London and determine what among it is obviously illicit. The offers have consistently been ignored, leading Tsirogiannis to the assumption that the liquidators would rather sell the items than return them. (The liquidators did not respond to these accusations.)

Allegations of impropriety are sternly rejected by James Ede, a British antiquities dealer and former chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, who has been working with BDO as a valuer and industry expert. Ede is a frequent commentator on the antiquities trade, often providing the lone voice in defence of an industry that he says has cleaned up a great deal since Symes’s heyday.

Ede denies that the liquidation is being conducted behind a shroud of secrecy. He told me in an email that “the liquidation is being carried out entirely properly with due reference to all interested parties”. He agreed during a subsequent telephone conversation that his italics suggested a concern for the creditors on the RSL account who have still not seen even a small fraction of the money they have claimed.

Ede also says, however, that he is not permitted to answer questions about the contents of the warehouses, the complexities of the issues facing the liquidators, nor to address the particularly controversial subject of sales. “There is a perfectly reasonable desire sometimes to have confidentiality in ones business dealings, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says.

The name of Ede’s company, Charles Ede Ltd., which was established by James Ede’s father, features prominently on the liquidators’ documents at Companies House, most notably alongside the “Head of K” sale. However, Ede told me that neither he nor his company has made any purchases from the stock, leaving it unclear why the company name would appear in the “Realisations” column. The implication appears to be that the object has gone to a third party, who would rather not appear on official documentation.

One dealer with close knowledge of sales from the stock, but who did not want to talk on the record, told me that sales are accompanied with long and detailed paperwork indemnifying BDO against subsequent proprietary claims. Wherever the items are ending up — and nobody was prepared to speculate — the liquidators appear to be making sure that they do not latterly face legal reprisals, should allegations emerge that cast doubt on the material’s provenance.

The liquidation clearly still has some way to go. Over 17 years, the documents show total disbursements from the RSL account of approximately £13.35 million and realisations of £13.72 million, a net gain of slightly less than £400,000. In the 12 years since the liquidators have been submitting invoices, fees for their services run to more than £3 million.

The documents also suggest that significant material still appears to be in the liquidators’ possession. The most recent filings, covering the 12 months up to June 2017, reveal £34,356 was spent on insurance and £63,421 (plus VAT) went on storage. Fees from previous years are higher, but the general trend points to an attempt to consolidate the hoard in fewer locations. (US dollar exchange rates, which will have fluctuated, were calculated in September of this year.)

The contents of the warehouses remain a mystery to all but a select few. In Rome, I visited an Italian prosecutor named Maurizio Fiorilli, who now represents the Italian state in its negotiations with BDO over the RSL stock. Italy claims that there are items in the warehouses that were looted from its soil and therefore should be returned to the country. Fiorilli, like his friend and former colleague Paolo Ferri, is a veteran of battles to protect Italian cultural heritage and keeps on his bookshelf a photograph of the two men posing beside the so-called “Euphronios krater,” one of the most exquisite — and notorious — antiquities in existence.

The krater, which is a terracotta vase-cum-bowl used for mixing wine and water in the ancient world, is the only known complete example decorated by the master painter and potter known as Euphronios, who was active in Athens between 520–480 B.C. In 1972, the Metropolitan Museum in New York bought the krater from an American dealer named Robert Hecht for $1 million, which was then a record for an antiquity. However, Hecht had fudged the provenance documentation, disguising that he had obtained it from Giacomo Medici. After a lengthy legal tussle, in which Fiorilli was prominent, the museum gave up the krater in 2006.

Fiorilli’s discussions with BDO over the Symes hoard focus specifically on a list of around 1,000 objects submitted by the liquidators to the Italian Cultural Ministry as being potentially of interest. Fiorilli says he knows of no sales from this specific list of disputed items, but details a frustrating series of obstacles and delays that have drawn out negotiations and precluded any repatriations.

In October 2007, Fiorilli was granted access to some of the warehouses holding the RSL stock, which he toured in the company of lawyers of the liquidators, an appointed gallery expert and an officer from the Metropolitan Police. Fiorilli says that what had been scheduled to be a three-day visit was cut short, without explanation, at the end of the first day. He says he was also asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibits him from answering specific questions about what he saw.

Nonetheless, Fiorilli invited me to look at the computer screen in his office as he opened a folder of 421 photographs labelled “Symes Depository”. He flicked apparently at random through images of statue fragments, small figurines, vases and reliefs; a collection not dissimilar to the items displayed at the Carabinieri’s press conference. One scrap of paper bore the name “Von Bothmer”, almost certainly Dietrich Von Bothmer, who was formerly a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, with a specialisation in Etruscan vases. Fiorilli also said he saw closed boxes in the warehouses that seemed to have come from the Met, but was not permitted to open them. Another fragment of paper bore the single, hand-written word, “Euphronios”. Fiorilli shrugged when I asked what it might refer to.

“The negotiations were interrupted several times because of more and more questions by liquidators and ever new demands for a revision of what has been agreed,” Fiorilli says. “The negotiations have lasted for nine years and the liquidators have had evidence for over seven years that the objects included in the lists provided by them belong to the Italian cultural heritage.” (This conversation took place in April 2016.)

Lord Renfrew openly pondered whether any sales from the RSL stock could be regarded as in violation of the 2003 law that prohibits dealing in “tainted” material. Renfrew, who sits in the House of Lords in the British parliament, is keen for the country’s lawmakers to step in and halt the sales on behalf of the Inland Revenue. “The British government needs to be prodded to come into the open on all this shady dealing,” Lord Renfrew told me. “It’s not clear they’re breaking the law but they really are behaving unethically, even by the government’s own ethical standards.”

I attempted to speak with representatives of the Department for Culture Media & Sport in both the present and former governments, but no one admitted any knowledge of the Symes warehouses nor discussions to repatriate items.
According to a professional liquidator I interviewed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as she is not permitted to comment on specific cases, it is not quite accurate to say that any sales from the stock will go directly to pay taxes. Although HMRC is owed more than £40 million from the dissolved company, it is only one of a number of creditors and will receive no preferential treatment. However, the liquidator questioned the lack of public auctions, and expressed her surprise that the impasse could last this long with no obvious benefactor.

The London-based lawyers representing the estate of Christo Michaelides told me that they consider matters to be largely out of their hands. They have a number of cost orders outstanding but do not expect significant, if any, financial remuneration, even though the Papadimitriou family are known to have spent many millions in pursuing Symes. The family also remains the second-largest creditors with claims on the RSL stock and, in 2005, the family’s Greek lawyer told a documentary that if expenses began to escalate “it will be obliged to liquidate the objects in auctions.”

The London lawyers said these matters were entirely in the hands of the liquidators. Although they keep a “watchful eye” on activities related to Symes and RSL, they have little contact with BDO beyond receiving a letter once every six months.

More pertinently, perhaps, Fiorilli says that the delays in permitting the tainted material to return to Italy has allowed the statute of limitations to pass on any crimes allegedly perpetrated by Symes. Both Ferri and Fiorilli have previously been keen to prosecute Symes in Italy for crimes related to looting, smuggling and theft but the law requires key evidence to be in the country in order to secure a conviction. Referring to crucial documentation, photographs and items currently in the possession of BDO, Fiorilli told me, “If we had this, in the time limit, Symes would go to jail.” He added, “The interest of the Italian Government was and is exclusively cultural. The interest of the liquidators is purely commercial.”

I received conflicting reports during the reporting of this story as to whether Symes remains a wanted man. Tsirogiannis showed me an email sent by Fiorilli in September 2013 in which the Italian prosecutor said he had heard that the Greek government had issued a warrant for Symes’s arrest. The Greek ministry of culture told me that they have assembled a committee to oversee all matters pertaining to Symes, including its claims on the RSL stock. But the ministry had still not replied to my written questions more than 18 months after I first submitted them, despite a long email correspondence with its press department. Fiorilli did not offer further comment on this specific point.

London’s Metropolitan Police told me that it has “no current investigations in this matter”, even though Tsirogiannis showed me another email in which the head of the force’s recently-disbanded Art and Antiques Unit asked him whether he knew of any tainted antiquities anywhere in London. In his reply, Tsirogiannis mentioned the RSL warehouses, which he is certain contain numerous illicit items. The email chain ended there.

Renfrew is now the co-chair of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, which has been established in the British parliament in response to reports of recently looted material from Iraq and Syria arriving on the domestic antiquities market. Both Renfrew and Tsirogiannis have made specific mention to Symes in the group’s meetings, which have entered the official minutes. They note that the absence of claims on the RSL stock from Iraq and Syria does not mean looted property from those countries is not already in the UK, but it would pre-date the Bashar al-Assad and ISIS era.

The archaeologists remain angry that the disputes over the RSL stock have denied authorities the opportunity of fully exploring the world in which Symes operated, leaving the market murky enough, in their opinion, that illicit material can still find a way through the networks.

“Because of the lack of cooperation, communication among various stakeholders, authorities, governments, museums and so on, we will never know any of these different sectors regarding Symes’s activities,” Tsirogiannis says. “This is our only chance…to understand and highlight a small part of this huge area that is called ‘antiquities market’…Either we use this evidence and we use it quickly, now, or we are losing the best opportunity we ever had.”

Understanding the illicit trade is seen by archaeologists as more important even than the repatriation of items. As with all improperly excavated objects, the damage is already done the moment they are taken out of the place they had lain for thousands of years. The value to research lies in understanding how the items were used in antiquity; clandestine excavation immediately eliminates all possibility for contextual analysis. To archaeologists any residual “beauty” of an item is an irrelevance.

The unrest in the Middle East of recent decades — in particular the plundering of Syria and Iraq by all of ISIS, other rebel groups and troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad — will almost certainly fuel a fresh interest in antiquities, and flood a new market. Archaeologists contend that many of the smuggling networks established in Symes’s era remain intact, and say that politicians’ recent rhetoric condemning cultural destruction is empty given their unwillingness to deal adequately with items previously stolen from overseas territories.

Symes himself is no longer considered a prime target. I encountered limited enthusiasm from archaeologists and authorities alike to see the former dealer return to the dock. The general consensus is that other warehouses are likely still scattered across Europe and the USA, but that even he will have no idea where. Most people I spoke with seemed to suggest belated prosecution, even if it were possible, would serve little purpose.

One dealer told me he heard that Symes now lived “above a fish and chip shop”. Another said he’d heard rumours that Symes was “close to death”. The lawyers representing the Michaelides estate said they last served papers on Symes in 2010 when he was living behind a church in east London, occupying himself with copper etchings. They said he had now moved.

Peter Watson spoke to Symes while reporting The Medici Conspiracy in 2006, and Symes also agreed to meet a Greek documentary film crew at his lawyers’ office in the same year, but pulled out of the interview at the last moment. The documentary crew filmed the last known pictures of him arriving to the lawyer’s London office — a healthy-seeming, smart man in a dark suit jacket, with short, grey hair, clutching a bag under one arm, with an overcoat draped over the other — before vanishing inside.

Screenshot from Greek documentary “The New Files”

A former Scotland Yard detective named Dick Ellis, who had previously interviewed Symes in the 1990s, says he believed the former dealer was now living “among friends”. Ellis says that he would be able to locate Symes quite easily if anybody had a will, and the finances, to do so. (Symes’s former wife died in 1995 and one of his sons two years later. His surviving son, Innes, runs a construction company in Bristol, but told a Daily Mail reporter in February 2016 that he had not seen his father for 10 years.)

A tour of Symes’s London is a lonely exercise these days. His former gallery in the affluent St James’s district in the centre of the city is now a private office, from which the marble-effect plate bearing the former tenant’s name has long been removed. His preferred warehouse in Battersea, close to the former smugglers’ passages that flanked the River Thames in its mercantile pomp, is a characterless structure on a modern trading estate behind fierce anti-climb railings. Symes once brought the curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum there to show her the disputed Aphrodite statue ahead of its $18 million sale.

Meanwhile the residence in Chelsea, which Symes shared with Michaelides, still oozes wealth from behind its shuttered windows and wrought-iron fence. But it is an impenetrable compound, where Symes would be most unwelcome: The name on the most recent electoral register for the adjacent property is Nicolas Papadimitriou, Michaelides’s brother-in-law, who financed the civil litigation that sent Symes to prison.

Symes gave a remarkable interview to the Los Angeles Times from his cell in Pentonville in 2005, in which he continued to portray himself as some kind of rock-star. Symes described himself as a “legend” and remembers the moment an unknown “fan” planted a kiss on his mouth in a nightclub, for no reason beyond the fact that “You are Robin Symes…You’re to the world of art dealers what the Beatles are to music.”

Wherever he is now, Symes’s rock-star days are over. But the squabbles over his unfortunate legacy remain fresh, and maybe more relevant to contemporary culture than ever before.