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July 2, 2016

Once Upon a Time, a (possibly looted) bearded warrior wearing a short white tunic

Forensic Image I
On January 31, 2007 Christos Tsirogiannis participated as a forensic archaeologist in a raid by the Greek police's Art Squad on a house in Karavomylos, a picturesque beach village in the Fthiotida region, between Boiotia and Thessaly. The house was registered in the names of two brothers, both of whom were the nephews of the former Zürich-based Greek antiquities dealer Frieda Tchakos.  Tchakos, who also goes by the name Frédérique Marie Nussberger-Tchacos, as well as by Frida Tchacos Nussberger, once oversaw the now liquidated Galerie Nefer AG and was once a member of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA).

Earlier, in 2002, Italian prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri had put out an international arrest warrant for Frieda Tchacos-Nussberger  in connection with antiquities laundering.  She was later arrested in Cyprus in connection with a seperate unrelated antiquities theft.

An overview of several of the cases of looted antiquities that have been repatriated to Italy involving the Tchakos network have been discussed in the Medici Conspiracy (e.g. Watson & Todeschini 2007:194-195, 227) and in “From Boston to Rome: Reflections on Returning Antiquities”, International Journal of Cultural Property 13. As part of a deal between Tchacos and the Italian authorities, Frieda Tchacos was given a light sentence.

Looking closer at what was siezed.

During the Greek 2007 raid not only were numerous ancient Greek and Egyptian objects found and confiscated in accordance with Greek Law 3028/2002 on the Protection of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in General but also photographic images, some of which depicted antiquities not found in the local raid and likely of similar, dubious origin.

Given the brother's close ties to the former operator of Galerie Nefer, known to have handled tainted illicit antiquities from Greece and Italy and for its having been associated with names like Robert Hecht, Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, Christo Michaelidis and Raffaele Monticelli, the photographs provided investigators with evidentiary support that there were additional, potentially-laundered ancient artifacts already in circulation elsewhere within the world's thriving antiquities art market. 

Forensic Image II
Two of the images seized during the raid and provided to ARCA by Dr. Tsirogiannis depict an Attic Black-figured Neck-Amphora, a lidded vessel used for the storing wine and other commodities.  Forensic Image I, pictured in the blog post above, is likely a professional dealer's inventory photo.  It has been shot on an aesthetically pleasing neutral background in order to clearly emphsaize the side of the amphora which depicts a bearded warrior and his facing attendant.

The second photograph, Forensic Image II, has been cropped for confidentiality, but shows the forehead of one of the two brother's who owned the property connected to the Karavomylos raid.  In the background, the same Attic Black-figured Neck-Amphora, is pictured sitting high on a white display shelf behind the man's head.

Fast Forward to 2016

Tsirogiannis has notified ARCA and the requisite police authorities (DS Hutcheon, Head of Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Unit, the Greek police Art Squad, and Interpol) that he has made a positive match of the photographed amphora to Lot 52 in the forthcoming antiquities auction by Christie's London office.  The amphora is scheduled to come up for bidding on July 6, 2016. 

The Auction houses website describes the object as being an "Attic Black-figured Neck-Amphora attributed to the Bucci painter, Circa 540-530 B.C." and gives a detailed description of the vase's imagery and dimensions along with an extremely modest suggested sale price for a vase of this age. 

Under provenance, the auction house lists the following information:
  • Los Angeles art market, prior to 1996. 
  • Private collection, UK.

It is interesting to note that there is no mention of the object being connected to any of the members of the Tchakos family, neither Zürich-based Greek antiquities dealer Frieda Tchakos or either of her two nephews who at the time of the 2007 seizure in their Greek home, were reportedly living in London.

Shouldn't the galleries and collectors which likely held the work on consignment be listed?

Does the current vase's owner have potential liability if the provenance provided to the auction house or to the future buyer turns out to show that key passages in the vase's history were omitted by someone connected to the sales process?

The collection history (sometimes referred to as provenance) of an object is an important factor in determining its authenticity, but equally important, as is the case with antiquities, it is an important indicator of the licit or illicit nature of the object's discovery and acquisition.  

Conscientious and ethical antiquities collectors should be able to rely on the information provided by sellers.  But as this auction clearly demonstrates, an object's reported collection history doesn't always accurately reflect whose hands an antiquity has past through. 

When details of an objects past are omitted, by an owner, by an antiquities dealer or by an auction house, either intentionally or accidentally, we continue to churn trafficked antiquities through the legitimate marketplace allowing collectors to buy and sell pretty things, conveniently claiming ignorance and clinging to the negligent “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach of the past. 

By Lynda Albertson