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

May 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By:  Lynda Albertson

April 11, 2018

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 25, 2018

January 24, 2018: New seizure at the residence of New York Collector Michael Steinhardt

A little more than two weeks ago, following a second set of seizures at the residence and office of Michael Steinhardt in New York City, ARCA wrote a blog post outlining other antiquities from the billionaire's private collection that have raised concerns with illicit trafficking researchers.  

One of those objects was this marble Female Idol of the Ozieri Culture from Sardinia. 

Image Credit: 
Manhattan district attorney's office
This idol was seized on January 24, 2018 during the execution of a new search warrant carried out by law enforcement authorities working with the Manhattan District Attorney and HSI.  The artifact was removed from Steinhardt's New York City residence.


Image Credit:  ARCA Screen Capture 
Tsirogiannis had matched the antiquity online via Christie's web version of its sale catalog to a photo contained in the confiscated archives of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.  Having made the ID, Tsirogiannis emailed his concerns to US Federal law enforcement and Italian law enforcement authorities working towards eventual repatriation should Italy file a claim.  Additionally he notified ARCA, in hopes of drawing further attention to potentially trafficked pieces that often resurface on the licit market but which omit passages through the hands of known dealers involved in the sale of illicit objects.

The sales catalog for the Christies auction is stored online here, although the photo of the idol has subsequently been removed from the object's accompanying Lot description.  Of note is the addition of a brief entry into the "Cataloguing & details" section of the listing, which states only that the object was withdrawn from the sale.

The artifact above matches perfectly with the image below which Tsirogiannis located in the dealer's archive.   In the art dealer's records the statuette appeared atop a turquoise background and broken in multiple pieces, prior to the object's subsequent restoration.

Image of the Sardinian idol
from the Medici
archive 
Before arriving in the collection of Michael and Judy Steinhardt in 1997, the Ozieri Culture idol, also known as the Turriga Mother Goddess figure, passed through Harmon Fine Arts and the Merrin Gallery, both of New York.  Once part of the collection of Leonard Norman Stern, the object had been displayed, but not photographed, in a 1990 "Masterpieces of Cycladic Art from Private Collections, Museums and the Merrin Gallery" event where both Steinhardt and Stern were present. 

On November 27, 2014 when the contested object was pulled from the Christie's auction, it apparently was sent back to Steinhardt, where it was later re-identified as still being part of Steinhardt's collection when officers searched his New York City home on January 5, 2018 pursuant to an earlier search warrant.

By:  Lynda Albertson

January 15, 2018

IDs from the archives in the Michael Steinhardt and Phoenix Ancient Art seizures

Image Credits:
Left - Symes Archive, Middle - New York DA, Right - Symes Archiv,

Earlier today ARCA was informed by Christos Tsirogiannis of matches that he has made from the confiscated archives of Medici, Becchina and Symes-Michaelides which are related to the recent antiquities seizures made by the state of New York law enforcement authorities earlier this month.

Identifications made from these archives, confiscated by the Italian authorities (with the cooperation of the French and Swiss) and Greek police and judicial authorities, have already facilitated numerous repatriations of antiquities which have passed through the hands of traffickers whose networks are known to have plundered objects from Italy and Greece.

Of the 16 artifacts reported as seized by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office from the home and office of retired hedge-fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt and Phoenix Ancient Art, an ancient art gallery co-owned by Hicham Aboutaam in New York City, Tsirogiannis has tied 9 objects conclusively to photos in all three archives.  Several others objects might be a match, but the DA's publically released photos have been taken from differing angels or opposite sides of the objects so they remain to be confirmed.

The object at the top of this article, a Greek Attic Monumental White-Ground Lekythos used to pour ritual oils at funeral ceremonies, seized from Michael Steinhardt's property,  matches 5 images from the archive of British former antiquities dealer Robin Symes, all of which depict the vessel from various sides.


The Proto - Corinthian pottery figural representing an owl;
the Corinthian terracotta figural vessel representing a lion;
the Corinthian Bull’s Head;
the Ionian sculpture figural representing a ram’s head;
and the Attic Aryballos in the form of a Head of an African;
--were each purchased by Steinhardt in either 2009 or 2011.

These 5 objects along with the Rhodian Seated Monkey seized at Phoenix Ancient Art each match photographs found in the archive of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.

The Apulian Rhyton for libations in the form of a Head of an African listed in the warrant appears in a photocopied photo in the archive of antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina.

It should be noted that in the joined composite image of the archive photos above, each of the six antiquities have been photographed by someone using the same light-colored hessian (burlap) material as a neutral background.  This could indicate that the antiquities where photographed by a singular individual once the objects arrived under Medici's control. Alternatively, it could mean that the ancient objects have been photographed by a singular individual who then shopped the objects, directly or indirectly, through illicit channels to Medici, who in turn, kept the photographs in his archive as part of his inventory recordkeeping.

As demonstrated by this case, each of these dealer's inventory photos provide valuable insight into the illicit trade in antiquities and which when combined, includes thousands of ancient objects from all over the world.  Many of these objects, those without documented collection histories, likely passed through the hands of smugglers, middlemen, and antiquities dealers who "laundered” the illicit objects onto the licit market.

It would be interesting to know, from the antiquities buyer's perspective, how many private investors of ancient art, having knowingly or unknowingly purchased illicit antiquities in the past, later decide to facilitate a second round of laundering themselves, by culling the object from their collection and reselling the hot object on to another collector.  By intentionally failing to disclose the name of a known tainted dealer, these antiquities collectors avoid having to take any responsibility for the fact that they too have now become players in the game.

While staying mum further facilitates the laundering of illicit antiquities, this option may be seen as far easier to collectors who have invested large sums into their collections than admitting they purchased something, unwisely or intentionally, with a less than pristine provenance pedigree.  To admit to having bought something that potentially could be looted might bring about the loss of value to the asset.  Furthermore by confirming that the antiquity has an illicit background as verified in archives like those of these traffickers, would then render the object worthless on the licit art market.  Worse still, it is likely that their antiquity would then be subject to seizure and repatriation.

By: Lynda Albertson

January 7, 2018

More on the Manhattan billionaire Michael Steinhardt's whose private collection now faces further seizures


As mentioned previously in ARCA blog posts, Michael Steinhardt has a longstanding record of making astute financial decisions, many of which have led to stellar investment performance earnings totalling in the millions on Wall Street.  Unfortunately his culture capital record for making prudent, informed decisions when purchasing antiquities for his $200 million private art collection continues to raise eyebrows, and in Friday's case secure New York seizure warrants. 

As once-master of the hedge fund universe, Steinhardt has the liquidity to be choosy about his art purchases. With a current net worth estimated at $1.05 billion, according to a 2017 article in Forbes Magazine, as well as almost thirty years of collecting experience, he should be aware of the ethics of acquisition and the problems of acquiring objects through questionable dealers or with insufficient or dubious provenance.

Steinhardt is a member of Christie’s advisory board.  He also has a Greek Art of the Sixth Century B.C. gallery named after him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. All this to say that he should be sufficiently well informed about the ethical obligations of responsibly acquiring, managing and disposing of items in his burgeoning art collection.   When not sufficiently informed, his position of affluence and philanthropic influence affords him the ability to reach out to knowledgable art world connections, who could advise him of the regulatory structures in place and the moral economy of purchasing and collecting illicit antiquities should he have any doubts.

On Friday, January 5, 2018, Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., and assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos again initiated custody of ten antiquities, prosecutors state were looted from the countries of Greece and Italy.

Purchased in the last twelve years, the ten objects seized in last week's raid are listed as:

A) Greek Attic Monumental White-Ground Lekythos (the “White-Ground Lekythos”), used to pour ritual oils at funeral ceremonies.  Vessel attributed to the Triglyph Painter and depicts funerary related iconography featuring a woman and a youth.
Period: approximately 420 BCE.
Measurement: 18 inches tall by 4.5 inches wide.
Purchased for $380,000 in 2006.

B) Apulian Rhyton for libations (the “Apulian African Head Flask”) in the shape of the head of an African.
Period: dating to the 4th century BCE
Measurement: 7.5 inches tall by 3 inches at base.
Purchased for $130,000 in 2009.

C) Italo - Corinthian pottery figural representing a duck with its head turned upwards (the “Italo-Corinthian Duck”). This style of Greek perfume holder flourished at Corinth during the Oriental period
Period: dating to the 6th century BCE
Measurement: 4 inches tall by 5.5 inches long by 2.5 wide.
Purchased for $25,000 in 2011.

D) Ionian sculpture figural representing a ram’s head (the “Ionian Ram’s Head”).
Period: dating to the 6th century BCE
Measurement: 2.5 inches tall by 4.7 wide.
Purchased for $70,000 in 2009.

E) Attic Aryballos in the form of a Head of an African (the “Attic African Head Aryballos”).
Period: dating to the 5th century BCE
Measurement: 4 inches tall.
Purchased for $150,000 on or about December 17, 2009.

F) Corinthian terracotta figural vessel representing a lion (the “Corinthian Lion Vessel”). This style of Greek perfume holder flourished at Corinth during the Oriental period
Period: dating to 600-550 BCE
Measurement: 3.5 wide.
Purchased for $25,000 on or about November 9, 2011.

G) Proto - Corinthian pottery figural representing an owl (the “Proto-Corinthian Owl”). This style of Greek perfume holder flourished at Corinth during the Oriental period
Period: dating to 650-625 BCE
Measurement: 2 inches tall by 2.2 wide.
Purchased for $120,000 on or about October 14, 2009.

H) Proto - Corinthian pottery figural representing a duck with its head turned backwards (the “Proto-Corinthian Duck”). This style of Greek perfume holder flourished at Corinth during the Oriental period
Period: dating to 650-625 BCE
Measurement: 2 inches tall by 2.7 wide.
Purchased for $130,000 on or about October 14, 2009.

I) Corinthian BUll’s Head (the “Corinthian Bull’s Head”).
Period: dating to 580 BCE
Measurement: 2.2 inches tall by 2.8 wide.
Purchased for $60,000 on or about October 14, 2009.

j) Bronze Handles (the “Bronze Handles”).
Period: unknown
Measurement: 3.6 inches tall by 9.4 wide.
Purchased for $40,000 in 1996.

Some of Steinhardt's previous risky antiquities gambles:  


2017
Sidon Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE) 
and 
a 6th century marble torso of a calf bearer

Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE) and
a 6th century BCE marble torso of a calf bearer.

Just last month the US repatriated two Eshamun Sculptures seized from Steinhardt's private collection.  Both pieces found their way onto the international antiquities black market after being stolen during Lebanon's tumultuous civil war.  Before their theft, both antiquities had been excavated at the Temple of Eshmun in 1967 near Sidon in southwestern Lebanon.

In the summer of 2017 Manhattan prosecutors seized the 2,300-year-old marble bull's head while it was on loan from Steinhardt to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Prosecutors and forensic art crime analysts also tied the bull's head to a second Steinhardt purchase, also through Lynda and William Beierwaltes.

The Beierwaltes sold the Sidon Bull's head and the Lamb Carrier torso to Michael Steinhardt in 2010 who later of whom loaned the bull's head antiquity to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  After learning that the marble head was subject to seizure, Steinhardt asked the Beierwaltes to retake possession of the object and compensate him for his purchase.

The Beierwaltes in turn relinquished all ownership claims when the illicit provenance of the objects was solidly made clear.

NOTE: The Beierwaltes were long-term clients of Robin Symes and Christos Michaelides at the time of these purchases.

2017
An Anatolian marble female idol of Kiliya type, AKA The Guennol Stargazer

Screenshot from “The Exceptional Sale,” April 2017
Image Credit: Christie’s New York

On April 29, 2017 at the behest of a request by the Turkish authorities and following the interim judgement of the United States District Court, Christie's applied precautionary measures regarding the sale of the 9-inch, 5,000-year-old a rare 3rd millennium BCE idol, likely looted from the Akhisar district of Manisa province in Anatolia.  Turkey's Culture Minister Nabi Avcı told the press at that time that the auction house will abide by the Court's recommendation for a temporary hold on the antiquity while an investigation into the object’s provenance is conducted.

During that time period, the purchaser’s hammer price + buyer's premium bid of $14,471,500 USD was confirmed but not collected.  As a result of the object being contested, the would-be buyer bowed out from the purchase, shortly after the case began being discussed in the international press. 

According to documents, Michael Steinhardt had purchased the Stargazer from Merrin Gallery in August 1993 for under $2 million.  Had the sale not been halted, Steinhardt would have pocketed $12.7 million for the 5,000 year-old Guennol Stargazer, twice the object's pre-sale estimate.

Christie's and Steinhardt issued a motion to quash Turkey's lawsuit.  While the case has not been resolved,  ultimately Turkey's fight for repatriation may hinge on two critical points: whether the country can conclusively show that the piece in question was discovered in Turkey, and whether the nation laid claim to the artifact in a timely fashion, given the length of time Steinhardt had the object in his collection.

2014
A Sardinian Marble Female Idol of the Ozieri Culture


November 21, 2014 Christos Tsirogiannis identified a $1 million Sardinian marble female idol dating from 2500-2000 B.C.E. scheduled for auction as Lot 85 at Christie's on December 11, 2014 as having been matched with an image he found in the archive of convicted Italian antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.

Before arriving in the collection of Michael and Judy Steinhardt, the Turriga Mother Goddess figure had previously made its way through Harmon Fine Arts and The Merrin Gallery, both of New York.  Once part of the collection of pet food giant Leonard Norman Stern, the object was once displayed, but not photographed, in a "Masterpieces of Cycladic Art from Private Collections, Museums and the Merrin Gallery" event in 1990 where both Steinhardt and Stern were present. 

On November 27, 2014 the contested object was pulled from the Christie's auction.  Its current status has not be made public.

2011
United States v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment


April 20, 2011 an incoming parcel was detained in Newark, New Jersey by US Customs and Border Protection authorities.  Inside the package, shipped via the Swiss firm Via Mat Artcare AG, was a fresco fragment which appeared to be a cusp or pediment of an ancient painted tomb from the Necropolis of Andriuolo at Paestum. The shipper was listed as Andrew Baker of Vadus, Lichtenstein.   The consignee was Michael Steinhardt.

Despite the object's obvious Italian origin, the shipment had a customs declaration form which falsified the object's country of origin as Macedonia. The fragment was forfeited to the U.S. government and repatriated to Italy on February 24, 2015.

2007 
(Il)licit Excavations of Maresha Subterranean Complex 57: 
The ‘Heliodorus’ Cave




In early 2007 Michael Steinhardt acquired the so-called Heliodorus Stele from Gil Chaya, an antiquities dealers in Jerusalem, who reportedly is a nephew of the late Shlomo Moussaieff.  Moussaieff once owned one of the largest collections of biblical antiquities in the world, many of which have no verifiable provenance.  After the purchase, Steinhardt and his wife presented the stele to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as an extended loan. 

The stele contains a magnificent 2nd century BCE Greek inscription which documents a correspondence between the Seleucid king, Seleucus IV (brother of Antiochus IV) to an aide named Heliodorus. Unsurprisingly though, the bottom portion of the stele was missing, leaving a gap in scholarship as well as a tell-tale clue that the stele had likely been looted shortly after its extraction, since its base was missing.  Earlier, during 2005 and 2006 excavations at the Maresha Subterranean Complex 57 at Beit Guvrin National Park three fragments were uncovered that were subsequently identified as matching the bottom edge of Steinhardt's stele.  

These fragments were discovered in a subterranean complex by participants in the Archaeological Seminars Institute "Dig for a Day" program.  The correlation of the fragments' epigraphy and testing of their stone and soil samples from the find site proved conclusively that the fragments were a match completing missing pieces of the stele. 

It was later determined that the stele had been stolen during a robbery at the Beit Guvrin National Park in 2005.  Tel Maresha's head archaeologist, Dr. Ian Stern verified that he remembered arriving on the site on a Sunday morning in 2005 only to find that the cave where the fragments were found, had been “turned upside down,” apparently by looters searching for ancient objects to be sold on the black market.

1995
A fourth century BCE gold phiale


November 9, 1995, U.S. Customs agents seized a $1.2 million fourth century BCE gold phiale used for pouring libations from Steinhardt's Fifth Avenue residence on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  The financier appealed the lower court's ruling, only to have the decision of forfeiture affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  Despite clear proof that the object was smuggled out of southern Italy, Steinhardt petitioned the lower court's ruling all the way to the United States Supreme Court, in the hopes of retaining the object for his collection. 

The high court found no compelling reason to rehear Steinhardt's case, basing their decision on the basis that the importer had intentionally undervalued the object's worth, transited the object illegally from Sicily to Switzerland, and provided false statements misrepresenting the phiale's country of origin on the object's import documentation. 

The two antiquities dealers involved in the purchase, Robert Haber and William Veres, were each given suspended sentences of one year and ten months imprisonment.  The extent of Steinhardt's culpability though was left vague in the final court filings.  Yet Steinhardt's experience as an art collector and specifically his experience with Haber, with whom he had already purchased some $4-6 million in art objects, raises considerable doubts that his error in purchase could be chalked up to naïveté.  

The fact that the bill of sale from Haber to Steinhardt even stipulated that"if the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser" gives the impression that both the collector and his dealer were each fully aware of the potentiality for illegality in the market, possibly with this object specifically.

Each of the aforementioned examples outlined above highlight questionable pedigrees in relation to previous high risk acquisitions made by Steinhardt in relation to his antiquities collection.  Several purchases in fact, overlap with antiquities dealers and middlemen with well known histories of dealing in illicit antiquities.  Each of these purchases demonstrate how little, if any, due diligence was conducted in providing a reasonable assurance that the objects being acquired were not, within the legal statutes of the time, illegally exported from their country of origin.



November 20, 2017

Is art crime understudied? We think so, but you can help us change that.


Who studies art crime?

ARCA's Postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection is now accepting applications.

In 2009, ARCA started the first of its kind, interdisciplinary, approach to the scholarly study of art crime. Representing a unique opportunity for individuals interested in training in a structured and academically diverse format, the summer-long postgraduate program is designed around the study of the dynamics, strategies, objectives and modus operandi of criminals and criminal organizations who commit a variety of art crimes.  

Turn on the news (or follow this blog) and you will see over and over again examples of museum thefts, forgeries, antiquities looting and illicit trafficking of cultural goods.  Intentional heritage destruction during armed conflict, once a modern-day rarity, now affects multiple countries and adds to regional instability in many areas of the globe.  Looted art, both ancient and Holocaust-related, finds its way into the galleries of respected institutions, while auction houses and dealers continue to be less than adept at distinguishing smuggled and stolen art, from art with a clean provenance. Thus making dealing with art crime an unrelenting problem and one without any easy solution.

Taken incident by incident, it is difficult to see the impact and implications of art crime as a global concern, but when studied across disciplines, looking at the gaps of legal instruments, country to country, one begins to have a clearer picture of the significance of the problem and its impact on the world's collective patrimony.

The world's cultural heritage is an invaluable legacy and its protection is integral to our future. 


Here are 11 reasons why you should consider joining us for a summer in Amelia, Italy for ARCA's 10th edition of its postgraduate program. 

At its foundation, ARCA's summer-long program in Italy draws upon the overlapping and complementary expertise of international thought-leaders on the topic of art crime – all practitioners and leading scholars who actively work in the sector. 

In 2018, participants of the program will receive 220+ hours of instruction from a range of experts actively committed to combatting art crime from a variety of different angles.

One summer, eleven courses.

Taught by:

Archaeologist, Christos Tsirogiannis from the University of Cambridge, whose forensic trafficking research continues to unravel the hidden market of illicit antiquities.  His tireless work is often highlighted on this blog and reminds those interested in purchasing ancient art, be it from well-known dealers or auction houses, that crimes committed 40 years ago still taint many of the artifacts that find their way into the illicit art market today.

London art editor and lecturer Ivan Macquisten who eloquently paints a picture of the burgeoning business which is art, whilst examining the interplay between our cultural obsession with risk and collecting.  Macquisten disentangles the paradoxical alliances between the financially lucrative art market and the collector relationships that feed upon the art market's unregulated trade, sometimes profiteering from the lack of transparency in its transactions.

Duncan Chappell, the Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence in Policing and Security. Chappel is a national award winner for his lifetime achievements in criminology and will be lecturing on the growing number of bilateral, regional and global legal agreements that reflect a growing realization that transnational art crime has to be addressed through international cooperation, and that just as criminal groups operate across borders, judicial systems must consequently do the same.  

Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of HARP, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project who will lecture on the variations among countries’ historical experiences and legal systems, as well as the complexities of provenance research and the establishment of claims processes. Focusing not only on the implementation of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated art but also on modern-day examples that underscore the difficulties facing any heir in recovering their property, Masurovsky underscores the need for fully trained provenance experts within museums and auction houses. 

Richard Ellis, private detective and the founder of the Metropolitan Police-New Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Squad.  His law enforcement background reminds us that trafficking in art and antiquities provides criminals with an opportunity to deal in high value commodities that are often poorly protected, difficult to identify and easy to transport across national boundaries. Ellis' lectures paint a little-talked-about portrait of the motley cast of characters who operate in the high-stakes world of the art crime.  His course introduces students to sophisticated criminal organizations, individual thieves, small-time dealers and unscrupulous collectors who don't just dabble in hot art, but who also may be involved in other crimes, such as the smuggling and sale of other illicit commodities, corruption or money-laundering.

Criminal defense attorney and criminologist Marc Balcells, whose animated lectures on the anatomy and etiology of art crimes will illustrate that even if every art crime is unique unto itself, often the underlying causes of criminal behaviors fit into certain established patterns.  With Edgar Tijhuis, students will explore various theories of crime causation each of which are key to understanding the crime and the criminal as well as evaluating its danger to our cultural patrimony.

Museum security and risk management expert Dick Drent, whose role in the recovery of two Van Gogh paintings from a Camorra reminds us that finding stolen works of art is much harder than protecting them in the first place, especially when organized crime is involved. In Drent's course students will learn about safeguarding culture before it goes missing, analyzing practical approaches to securing a collection, using risk and decision analysis as a form of analytics to support risk-based decision in museums, galleries and reference institutions around the globe.

New Zealand District Court Judge and founding trustee of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust, Arthur Tompkins who gives us a fast-galloping 2000-year romp through the history of art crimes committed during war and armed conflict. Tompkins reminds us that armed conflict, whether interstate or intrastate, poses various threats to cultural monuments and cultural property and that while laws have been enacted in an attempt to prevent or reduce these dangers; better laws are also needed to sort matters out after the fact.

Independent art & insurance advisory expert Dorit Straus, who serves as a member of AXA ART Americas Board of Directors and Presidential appointee to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) explores the worlds of specialist fine art insurers and brokers, who underwrite the risks associated with the fine art market.  As the former Vice President and Worldwide Specialty Fine Art Manager for Chubb & Son, she knows firsthand the active, financially-motivated role insurance firms play in analyzing the risks involved in owning, dealing, buying, transporting or displaying art to the public.  While art insurance expertise is sometimes overlooked as a less-than-sexy side of the art world, insurers have served to make galleries, museums and private collector's collections safer, as their oversight and contract stipulations have produced a dramatic reduction in attritional losses.

ARCA's founding director, Noah Charney who draws upon his knowledge of art history and contemporary criminal activity to explore several of the most notorious cases of art forgery. Emphasizing that art forgery not only cheats rich buyers and their agents, ruining reputations, his course illustrates how crime distorts the art market, one which once relied heavily on connoisseurship, by messing with its objective truth.

Valerie Higgins, archaeologist and Program Director for the master's in art management program at the American University in Rome examines material culture as the physical evidence of a culture's existence, illustrating that through objects; be they artworks, religious icons, manuscripts, statues, or coins, and through architecture; monumental or commonplace, we can and should preserve the powerfully potent remains which truly define us as human.

For more information on the summer 2018 postgraduate professional development program, please see ARCA's website here.

To request further information or to receive a 2018 prospectus and application materials, please email:
education (at) artcrimeresearch.org

Interested in knowing more about the program from a student's perspective?

Here are some blog posts from and by students who have attended in 20162015, 2014, and in 2013.



October 27, 2017

Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports issue statement regarding claim on two Frieze Masters funerary vases

Image Credit:  Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport
On October 26, 2017 the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports issued a press release regarding the two flagged lekythoi identified at Frieze Masters art fair by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis.  The two Greek Attic funerary vessels were brought to London earlier this Autumn on consignment by the Basel-based art firm of Jean-David Cahn AG, acting on behalf of the Swiss canton Basel-Stadt.  Tsirogiannis had identified the vessels as being present in the Gianfranco Becchina archive, despite the fact that this passage of provenance in the objects' history had been omitted from the provenance documentation for the marble vases on hand for potential buyers at the London art fair.  


Both vases remained unsold.


The Greek ministry of Culture and Sport statement reads:

Αθήνα, 26 Οκτωβρίου 2017
ΔΕΛΤΙΟ ΤΥΠΟΥΤΟ ΥΠΟΥΡΓΕΙΟ ΠΟΛΙΤΙΣΜΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΑΘΛΗΤΙΣΜΟΥ ΔΙΕΚΔΙΚΕΙ ΤΙΣ ΚΛΕΜΜΕΝΕΣ ΑΡΧΑΙΟΤΗΤΕΣ
Δύο μαρμάρινα επιτύμβια αγγεία, έργα αττικών εργαστηρίων Κλασικών χρόνων, τέθηκαν πρόσφατα προς πώληση στην έκθεση έργων τέχνης Frieze Masters, στο Λονδίνο. Πρόκειται για μια λήκυθο με ενεπίγραφη παράσταση αποχαιρετισμού του νεκρού και μία λουτροφόρο με ανάγλυφη διακόσμηση, που χρονολογούνται στον 4ο αιώνα π.Χ. Οι εν λόγω ελληνικές αρχαιότητες διεκδικούνται ήδη από το Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού, το οποίο θα συνεχίσει τις προσπάθειες επαναπατρισμού τους αξιοποιώντας κάθε πρόσφορο μέσο.

Translated in English, the government statement reads as follows:

Athens, 26 October 2017

PRESS RELEASE

THE MINISTRY OF CULTURE AND SPORTS IS CLAIMING THE STOLEN ANTIQUITIES 

Two marble funerary vases, works of Attic workshops of the Classic period, were offered recently for sale at the art exhibition Frieze masters, in London. They are a lekythos with an inscription of farewell to the deceased and a loutrophoros, with relief decoration, dating back to the 4th century BC. These Greek antiquities are already under claim by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, which will continue the efforts to repatriate them using all appropriate means.

The press release, which is quite brief, does not specify when Greece filed their repatriation claim.


October 23, 2017

Further information on the flagged lekythoi identified at London's Frieze Masters art fair

Image Left:  Christos Tsirogiannis, Frieze Masters 2017
Image Right: Gianfranco Becchina Archive
On October 22, 2017, the Guardian newspaper reported on two ancient Greek marble lekythoi identified as having once passed through the hands of convicted antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina.   The identifications were made via forensic archaeologist Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis with the help of photographs obtained by a concerned individual in London.  Tsirogiannis notified the authorities of his findings on October 16, 2017.

Since 2007, Dr. Tsirogiannis has actively identified illicit antiquities as they have come up for sale on the art market, matching corresponding objects to material found in the confiscated Medici, Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides archives.

During this research, Tsirogiannis informed ARCA that he had found two photocopied images and two Polaroid images of a lekythos which depicts an image of a dead warrior with his relatives, which also has an inscription.  Reviewing copies of the images he sent in confirmation, the photographs of the lekythos show the object in pre-sale condition in two different spaces in storage depots. 

Tsirogiannis also identified a single photograph in the Becchina archive of the second lekythos mentioned in the Guardian article.  This photograph, unlike the others, was a professional black and white image and may have been used by the dealer for sale catalogue purposes.

ARCA has joined two of the archive photographs with their Frieze Masters counterpart to show that Tsirogiannis' identifications match perfectly.

Image Left:  Christos Tsirogiannis, Frieze Masters 2017
Image Right: Gianfranco Becchina Archive
In addition to the photographic evidence, the Becchina archive also contained written documentation from 1988 and 1990 which showed Becchina and George Ortiz as co-owners of the lekythos, with the image and inscription. One of those documents also referenced the object in an earlier 1977 Becchina list of antiquities.

The two lekythoi were brought to London this Autumn on consignment – price “upon request” by the Basel-based art firm Jean-David Cahn AG, a gallery which specializes in ancient Greek and Roman art. 

They were exhibited in Regent's Park during Frieze Masters, a Frieze London spin-off art fair that features hundreds of leading modern and historical galleries from around the world, many with pricey, museum quality objects.  Both objects did not sell. 

According to Guardian journalist, Howard Swains, the consignor of the two lekythoi is the Swiss canton of Basel-Stadt.  Each canton in Switzerland has its own constitution, legislature, government, and courts and in this case it appears that the Basel-Stadt judiciary had greenlighted the brokering of the objects through the Swiss intermediary as part of their liquidation of Becchina's remaining unclaimed art assets from his business dealings in Basel.

Sixteen years earlier, Italian authorities had requested assistance from Swiss law enforcement in their longstanding investigation into Gianfranco Becchina's operations.  As a result of the joint Italian-Swiss operation, an international illicit trafficking ring was dismantled and 5,800 objects were seized from three Becchina warehouses under suspicion of having been plundered.

The largest portion of these ancient objects were repatriated to Italy after a lengthy identification process.  Unfortunately, hundreds of orphaned objects, whose countries of origin were not verified, remained in limbo, under the jurisdiction of the Swiss authorities.

It is important to note that in agreeing to broker the sale of the lekythoi in London, Jean-David Cahn AG elected to omit the Becchina and Ortiz passages in the object documentation published for the Frieze Masters event.  That literature can be seen in the photos below.  While each carries a lengthy description of the object, there is only spartan mention of their provenance, stating only “Formerly Swiss art market, October 1977.”



As Dr. David Gill points out, "These two items are objects that were created in Attica for display in Attic cemeteries. They are from Greek, not Italian, soil."

While it remains unclear if the Greek authorities know about these two particular antiquities, and if they somehow failed to file a claim at the time of their seizure,  the absence of any documentable provenance is a strong indicator that both artifacts, orphaned or not, were acquired through individuals connected with Becchina's trafficking network.

The fact that antiquities dealers continue to market antiquities, selectively omitting problematic passages in an object's provenance is a longstanding issue.  In cases like these, it also underscores why many heritage protection experts — who monitor the antiquities trade and antiquities trafficking — believe the art market is unwilling or incapable of policing itself, especially if the seller believes that sharing the object's complete history might diminish its chances of finding a buyer.

Also worthy of note:

In 2006, Jean-David Cahn voluntarily returned a marble male head from its stock which had been stolen from the Temple of Eshmun in Lebanon.

Excerpt from the State of New York Application for Turnover - Bulls-Head-Case
In 2007, Jean-David Cahn returned a marble statue of the Lykeios Apollo that had been stolen from the archaeological site of Gortyna in Crete in 1991. 


Then in 2008, after a series of negotiations, Jean-David Cahn returned a different Attic marble funerary lekythos, also identified by Christos Tsirogiannis, to Greece as part of an out-of-court settlement.  That object had been pinpointed during the TEFAF Maastrict art fair in March 2007.

  
While the heritage community continues to advocate strongly for responsible collecting and informed due diligence from collectors before they make purchases as a means of curbing the trade in looted artifacts, one has to also ask what the ethical responsibility of dealers and governments is, who knowingly place questionable origin objects up for sale, intentionally misleading potential buyers by not giving them all the collecting history information at their disposal.

Hypothetically Speaking...

What if a buyer had been interested in purchasing either of these antiquities?

Somewhere down the road, said buyer might find themselves in the awkward position of not being able to donate, or sell, or recoup their previous investment because the potentially illicit origin of the object was not made clear to them at the time of purchase.

Food for thought.

By: Lynda Albertson

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?
---
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.