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November 30, 2016

Auction Alert II: Gorny & Mosch December 14, 2016 Auction, Munich

On November 29, 2016 ARCA was informed by Christos Tsirogiannis that he had identified four potentially-tainted antiquity scheduled to be auctioned by Gorny & Mosch in Munich, Germany on December 14, 2016.  Each of the four ancient objects are traceable to photos in the confiscated Gianfranco Becchina and Robin Symes archives.

The antiquities identified by Tsirogiannis are:

Lot 19 An Etruscan bronze figure of a youth. Mid 5th century B.C.E.

Image 1 - Gorny & Mosch December 14, 2016 Auction Lot 19 

The collecting history listed with this item is stated as: 
"Ex collection RG, Germany. At Royal Athena Galleries, New York, Catalogue XXI, 2010 43. Ex Sotheby Catalogue of Antiquities 13 July 1981 341."

Jerome Eisenberg, editor of the Minerva journal and proprietor of Royal Athena Galleries in New York City is a name that has come up in the past as the purchasor or seller of antiquities with contriversial backgrounds.  Please see the following links for more information on a few of the gallery's previous aquisitions herehere, here and here

Image 2 - Symes Archive Photo
Tsirogiannis previously identified Lot 19 (Image 1) in the Symes archive (Image 2), while on offer through the Royal Athena Galleries in October 2010 along with several other antiquities whose images appeared in the Medici and the Becchina archives.  In January 2011 these identifications were presented by Professor David Gill through his 'Looting Matters' blog and publicized in the Italian press by art and curruption journalist Fabio Isman through the art publication Il Giornale dell'Arte. Each notification published a copy of the Syme's archive photo of the Etruscan figurine.

The fact that this bronze figure reappears for sale now, five years after the first identification, may mean that the Italian authorities chose not to act on this particular object or that the holder of the antiquity at that time, was able to produce sufficient evidence to eliminate it as a potentially trafficked antiquity. That information (if it exists) was not made part of the auction house collection history. 

Lot 87 An Apulian red-figure situla of the Lycurgus Painter. 360 - 350 B.C.E.

Image 3 - Gorny & Mosch December 14, 2016 Auction Lot 87

The collecting history listed with this item is stated as: 
"From James Stirt Collection, Vevey, Switzerland, acquired in 1997 Heidi Vollmöller, Zürich"

Image 4 - Reverse side of Lot 87 (left)
Becchina Archive photo of a Situla (right)
The photo provided by Tsirogiannis from the Becchina archive (Image 4) shows the vase badly encrusted with soil and salt deposits). A handwritten note included with the archive photograph indicates that the images were sent from Raffaele Montichelli to Gianfranco Becchina on 18 March 1988.

Montichelli is a convicted antiquities trafficker from Taranto who had a long-standing relationship with Gianfranco Becchina.  Montichelli's legitimate occupation was listed as a retired elementary school teacher, yet it seems he made enough money from the illicit proceeds of trafficked art, to purchase lucritive property (later seized by the Italian authorities) in some of Italy's more exclusive areas of Florence and Rome.

It is interesting to note that the passage via Becchina in this lot's collection history, pre-dates the auction house provenance written in the sale catalog by Gorny & Mosch.  Did Vollmöller leave out the purchasing history of who the situla was purchased from when placing the object on consignment or did Gorny & Mosch omit it intentionally?

Lot 88 An Apulian red-figure bell-krater of the Dechter Painter. 350 - 340 B.C.E. 

Image 5 - Gorny & Mosch December 14, 2016 Auction Lot 88
The collecting history listed with this item is stated as: 
Ex Gallery Palladion, Basel; . ex private collection of Mrs. Borowzova, Binnigen in Switzerland, acquired in 1976 by Elie Borowski, Basel

Image 6 - Becchina Archive photo
of a Bell Crater 
Palladion Antike Kunst (notice the slightly corrected name of the gallery) was managed by Gianfranco Becchina in Basel, Switzerland though the Swiss gallery was officially listed as belonging to Ursula ''Rosie'' Juraschek, Becchina's wife.

Tsirogiannis provided a photo of this krater (Image 6) from the Becchina archive which was dated APR 4 '89' (4/4/1989).  Again we see a "raw" object covered with soil and salt encrustations and missing various fragments. Note that the 1989 date on the unrestored object photo doesn't match up to the date of the object's inclusion in the Elie Borowski collection.

Elie Borowski, whose vast collection of Mideast artifacts later formed bulk of Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, died in 2003. No stranger to the antiquities underbelly, former Getty antiquities curator Marion True told Italian authorities that Borowski, a Basel, Switzerland, antiquities dealer was also a client of Gianfranco Becchina.

Interestingly, Borowski once made a discreet trip to Gubbio to view the recently-fished Getty Bronze before it made its eventual way to Malibu, but Borowski's dip into possible skulduggery didn't stop there.  His name appears in the now famous trafficker's organigram, the handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities from the apartment of Danilo Zicchi.  His name has also been linked to possibly looted antiquities from Turkey as well.

Lot 127 A squat alabastron of the Gnathia-ware with the bust of a winged woman with sakkos. Said to be from the White Sakkos Painter. Apulia, 320 - 310 B.C.E.

Image 7 - Gorny & Mosch December 14, 2016 Auction Lot 127
The collecting history listed with this item is stated as: 
Ex Christie's London, 15/04/2015, ex 113; from the private collection of Hans Humbel, Switzerland, acquired at the Galerie Arete, Zurich in the early 1990s.

Image 8 - Becchina archive alabastron
This alabastron is also depicted in a Becchina archive photo supplied by Tsirogiannis (Image 8), alongside other antiquities in the background.  The photo's image is dated 24/9/1988 and was again sent to Gianfranco Becchina from convicted trafficker Raffaele Montichelli.

As with the previous lots, the date on the image pre-dates the collecting history listed by Gorny & Mosch leading me to hypothesize that the collection histories of all four objects have been intentionally spartan on details.

Like Lot 19 in these identifications, this is the second time Tsirogiannis has identified this particular antiquity in an upcoming auction.

But here the trail gets more interesting. 

On April 11, 2015 ARCA published Tsirogianni's original identification of the alabastron with the following provenance provided by Christies.

"Provenance with Petit Musée, Montreal, from whom acquired by the present owner in 1998."

The object was one of two vases comprising Lot 113, in Christie's April 15, 2016 antiquities auction in London and a screenshot (Image 9) taken by ARCA and used in the original April 11, 2015 identification post is reposted below.

Image 9 - Christie's website screenshot April 11, 2015
On April 15, 2015 the alabastron was withdrawn from the auction with a Saleroom Notice that read: "This Lot is withdrawn"

Clicking on the Christie's URL today, which still links to last year's sale, shows that the alabastron photo has been deleted and replaced with an alternative one (Image 10), that shows only Lot 113's piriform bottle.

Image 10 - Christie's website screenshot
November 30, 2016

Additionally, the "withdrawn" notice has been replaced with this one (Image 11)

Image 11 - Christie's website screenshot
November 30, 2016
Strangely, the Gorny & Mosch provenance lists "Ex Christie's London, 15/04/2015".

Did Christie's follow through with the April 2015 sale instead of withdrawing it?Or has Gorny & Mosch listed the unfulfilled auction to add credibility to its own listing now that the owner of the piece has decided to shop the antiquity in Germany.   Who changed out the image of the alabastron for the piriform bottle and for what motive?

And what about the object's prior Christie's provenance which listed "the Petit Musée, Montreal, from whom acquired by the present owner in 1998"?  Was that collecting history a work of fiction that later became inconvenient for the owner and current auction house?

ARCA hopes that by continuing to publicize the frequency illicit antiquities penetrate the legitimate art market, with provenance irregularities such as those seen in these identifications, will force auction houses and collectors to adhere to accurate and stringent reporting requirements on their object collection histories so that new buyers do not continually launder objects in support the illicit antiquities trade.

In closing,  since 2007 Tsirogiannis, a Cambridge-based Greek forensic archaeologist and summer lecturer with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has sought to identify antiquities of illicit origin in museums, collections, galleries and auction houses that can be traced to the confiscated Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes-Christos Michaelides and Gianfranco Becchina archives.

Tsirogiannis has notified INTERPOL of his identifications asking them to formally notify both the German and the Italian authorities.  Let's hope Gorny & Mosch withdraw the object and conduct a more thorough due diligence with the object's consignor/s.

By Lynda Albertson


its all well and good identifying pieces that were looted 30/40 years ago but what about the pieces coming out of the ground now.some kind of antiquities register should be established with every piece having a batch code that is stored in an antiquities registry.i would "pardon" all the orphaned pieces already out of the ground and make it illegal to trade any pieces not registerd.that would help stop the looting going on now,its no good Tsirogiannis identifying the horse after it has already bolted.
ps i would make the auction houses,dealers pay for the register and have a lower limit of say every piece with a value of aprox £500 and more has to be registered.

Hi Kyri, Thanks for writing! It’s nice to find a real message in the comments and not merely blog spam.

You bring up some interesting points.

Have you seen Israel’s Antiquities Authority (IAA) registration program? That is a single art market version of what I think you are describing, in term of registering every object with the added piece being they also want to register every collector and every dealer.

It has not been a smooth sailing process for the country and its art market so far and it is still too early to see if the new regs will clean up the illicit traffic that has always flowed through their merchants, but it is a start. From what I understand the workload of registering everything was a hardship for many smaller dealers, but I (personally) think it is a worthy step in the right direction to cleaning up Israel’s market which has long been problematic. Unfortunately, some shops have simply closed up and others have forgone their physical shops for virtual ones, making it more difficult to police.

The problem with trying to implement a program like this on a larger scale is getting all the collectors and dealers on board in a given country with the idea that a system is needed. But developing one would have to be regulated country to country, so getting some kind of uniformity would be an enormous undertaking.

Just trying to get a unified import and export document so people know if the one attached to their object is real or fake has been and remains a huge work in progress.

Have you seen the number of comments on the recent USA/Egypt MOU that just made its way through CPAC and on to signing by John Kerry and Sameh Shoukry? I think it gives a pretty good indication that US professional dealers and long-standing collectors are not in favor of restrictions and/or regulation.

Anyway, this long chatter of a reply isn’t meant to pick on ethical dealers even if you know how I feel about unethical ones. I do think getting source countries like Italy, Greece, Syria, Egypt and Libya to agree to pardon past crimes would likely never happen, firstly because national laws would have to be rewritten and I don’t think any of these countries are inclined to do so given the problems they have with looting. Italy has already come a long way in it’s give-us-everything-back approach to now establishing some long term loans (rather than demand repatriation) though so far this approach has only been extended to special case museums.

For the private collector, it is a much more perilous walk.

This is why I stress that collectors in 2017 need to be making modern day purchases only from well-researched known collections with known and verified collecting histories. Its also why I recommend that collectors double-check everything a dealer tells them, even if its someone they trust.

I know that doesn’t help for people who have already spent big money on sketchy antiquities during the cowboy days of yesteryear and that holding these pieces in their private collection, watching them devalue, isn’t very palatable. That to me is the biggest reason these pieces keep recycling through the market. Its not simply because Medici or Becchina or Symes sold so many (though they sold enough). It’s a factor of collectors who already hold some of these pieces wanting to offload their own “hot pots” in order to recoup their investment.

thanks for the reply,i have read some of the comments on the MOU and i follow a few pro collecting blogs as well as many like this.your right it is a bit of a minefield and it is hard to find some kind of middle ground between the two camps.the israeli authorities have taken the bull by the horns and it will be interesting to see how that develops.Germany to have introduced new laws,with the auction houses simply handing over the costs of the extra paperwork[export certificates ect] to the buyers.sadly there are to many greedy people out there and its plain to see that self regulation doesnt.if you take the piss out of the system, as the israili dealers have been doing for decades,in the end it will lead to legislation and come back and bite you in the ass.

Kyri, Happy to know there are informed voices still trying to find middle ground who realize that it's not an easy task to find/create/ and maintain real solutions. Grazie!

The point is that these pieces appear to have surfaced post the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Italy should decide on what should happen to these pieces.

Hi David,of course your right but do the Italians want to open litigation to try and repatriate these pieces,we are not talking about the Euphronios krater hear.some of the pieces were already identified in a christies sale,they just seem to be doing the rounds with the Italians not showing any interest and who can blame them.sadly i fear that if these pieces remain unsaleable they may be broken up,i have seen a few dealers selling sherds of greek pottery which is always alarming.