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July 30, 2020

Restitution: Lot 448, Christie's

Early last November we wrote a blog post asking Christie's about an interesting polychrome painted 5th century BCE antefix in the form of a dancing maenad.  It had been scheduled to come up for sale in their December 4, 2019 auction and I felt the artefact deserved a closer examination regarding its legitimacy on the ancient art market.  For those who do not know, an anteflix is a decorative upright ornament, used by ancient builders along the eaves of a roof to conceal tile joints.

The provenance of the antefex was listed by Christie's as follows:


While nothing before 1994 was specified in Christie's single-line collection history, we know that before she died Ingrid McAlpine was once the wife of Bruce McAlpine, and for a time, before their divorce, both were proprietors of McAlpine Ancient Art Limited in the UK. 

While not completely identical, the Christie's antefix closely resembles another ancient Etruscan antefix in the form of a maenad and Silenus.  This one once graced the cover of the exhibition catalog "A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art from the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman" depicted to the left.  

That South Etruscan, 500-475 BCE, polychrome anteflix was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum from the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection via Robin Symes for a tidy sum of $396,000 and displayed in an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art back in 1995.  In 2007, that antefix was restituted back to Italy by the J. Paul Getty Museum after a Polaroid photo, recovered during a 1995 police raid on warehouse space rented by Giacomo Medici at Ports Francs & Entrepôts in Geneva, was matched to the artefact in the California museum's collection.

The Christie's auction dancing maenad also closely resembled another pair of suspect polychrome antefixes depicting a maenad and Silenus.  This grouping was once part of the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum.  Like with the J. Paul Getty purchase, an image of one of the Copenhagen antefix and a foot were matched with photos law enforcement seized in the dealer Giacomo Medici's business dossier.  Eventually, as with the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Danes relinquished the pair of objects back to Italy.

Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine's names also comes up with other plundered antiquities later identified as having been laundered through the licit art market and accessioned into the prestigious Museum of Fine Arts in Boston collection.   An Attic black-figured hydria, (no.3) came through McAlpine via Palladion Antike Kunst, a gallery operated by Ursula Becchina, the wife of disgraced dealer Gianfranco Becchina.  The couple's names also appear alongside Robin Symes AND (again) Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman for the donation of an Apulian bell-krater. Both of which were restituted to Italy.

In addition, former Judge Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the Italian judge who worked heavily on these looting cases, showed me a letter, seized by the Italian authorities during their investigations which was written by the staff of Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine Ancient Art Gallery.   This letter, dated 8 July 1986, tied them once again to at least one transaction with Giacomo Medici and Christian Boursaud and referred obliquely to companies the convicted dealer operated through third parties, fronts or pseudonyms. 

All of which lead me to several (more) questions.

Why was Bruce Alpine's name, and the name of his ancient art firm conveniently omitted from the provenance record published by Christie's ahead of the December 4th auction?  
Was this omission an accidental oversight on Christie's part or an elective decision, perhaps as a way to reduce the possibility of the object's previous owners connections to the above mentioned dealers drawing unnecessary attention?    
What collection history did the auction house have, if any, that shows where or with whom this artefact belonged prior to the 1994 McAlpine acquisition date to demonstrate its legitimacy in the ancient art market?

Given that three antefixes depicting satyrs and maenads had already been returned to Italy as coming from clandestine excavations I brought my concerns to other Italian experts collaborating with ARCA, and to experts from the Villa Giulia, the Louvre,  and to the Carabinieri TPC.  Each acknowledged I had a right to be suspicious.

ARCA forensic researchers and a forensic archaeologist affiliated with the Louvre Museum pointed me to examples of molds that have been discovered at Etruscan excavations which also depict maenads and helped with comparison imaging.  Researchers in Rome who worked on the Becchina and Medici case identifications with the Rome courts pointed out similar antefixes from the ancient Etruscan cities of Veii and Falerii Veteres, which are part of Rome's Villa Giulia collection.  Both zones, situated on the southern limits of Etruria, were looted extensively.

But I was running out of time and without a smoking gun photo of the object in a looted state, I was also running out of evidence and leads.

I watched the days tick down until the item went up for auction and then sold, in just under two minutes of bidding.  Frustrated, and thinking this little lady was lost for the present, I filed my research away, hoping that down the road she might reappear and that by that point the Carabinieri, MiBACT or I might have more evidence, enough to build upon to make a case for restitution.

Surprisingly, BVLGARI, the Italian luxury brand came to the aid of its country and one frustrated antiquities researcher.  They too had been watching the auction and knew of our efforts to try and bring our girl home. Unbeknownst to me the jewelry firm had purchased the antefix, and then working through cultural diplomacy channels, donated it, through the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism, to the Italian State and to the Villa Giulia specifically.

Looking back, with a view from the client's side of the equation:

When one wants to bid at an auction at Christie's, over the telephone, or online, a buyer has to prove that he or she is legitimate. To do so they must email the auction house a digital photo or PDF scan of a valid photo ID (eg. Driver’s Licence, Passport), and a proof of address.  For this proof, they will accept a recent utility bill or bank statement or corporate documents.  With these verifiable and valid documents, the auction house then trusts the potential buyer enough to open up an account in his or her name.

But Christie's seemed to need much less convincing paperwork before accepting the antefix of the dancing maenad for consignment.  Having reviewed the provenance paperwork for this antiquity, this antiquity came with only two, not very convincing documents, one of which had no dates whatsoever.

Those were:

1.) An undated document, which Christie's referred to as a "McAlpine stock card" for stock No. 2/114 noting a vendor in the name of ‘Kuhn’ of a "Terracotta antefix in the form of an akrotère."  

As mentioned above, an antefix, which comes from the Latin word antefigere, (to fasten before), is an architectural fixture which caps then end tiles of a tiled roof.

An akarotère is an architectural ornament placed on a flat pedestal called a plinth and is an ornamental sculpture or pedestal such as the one to the right. These sit above the pediment of a Classical temple and do not extend from the ends of roof tiles.  I also failed to find any Akarotères that picture a dancing maenad.

2.) An 8 February 1994 pricing document with no company names listed anywhere, which listed 15 carefully redacted artworks and one final artefact at the very bottom which listing item  2/156 as "an Antefix with musician, height 40 cm" with a list price of $35,000.

As with the first document, this second is puzzling.  The height of the listed object is slightly off, the stock number doesn't match, and the price indicated is three times higher than the antefix at Christie's sold for. And while the paper is dated 1994 in keeping with Christie's stated provenance, this document by no means shows that the document references the McAlpine's acquisition as it lists no company the purchase was made through and seems merely to be an price listing from some unidentified entity.  The visible item's description is also a bit puzzling.  While the Christie's maenad does depict her carrying a crotalum (a kind of clapper) in her right hand, it would be a stretch to call her a musician. Even if she could be described as a musician, generally speaking if you know the word antefix, its reasonable to assume you would be familiar with their depictions in history.  Why use the word pairing "with musician" instead of using "of a musician" or "of a maenad"?

This was all the documentation Christie's needed to consider an object valid for sale to a willing buyer?

They should be ashamed of themselves. 

Yet, at least we have a somewhat happy ending BVLGARI's donation.  Despite being auctioned and despite a long delay due to the COVID pandemic, she's finally home, and today, at 4pm, at a formal restitution ceremony, this lovely dancing lady took her place with her companions, in the Etruscan exhibition Colors of the Etruscans** at Rome's Centrale Montemartini.  

On the left the antefix as offered for sale by Christies. On the right the antefix at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia. This antefix was found in 1937 in Veii, in the course of regular excavations of the Soprintendenza at the Etruscan sanctuary of Campetti North: a site previously looted by tombaroli. It seems evident that both antefixes were cast from the same mould and decorated in the same workshop. Therefore, most probably were originally part of the decoration of a single building.

On hand for the restitution celebration were:

Claudio Parisi Presicce, Capitoline Superintendency for Cultural Heritage -Director of Archaeological and Historical - Artistic Museums

Valentino Nizzo, Director of the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia

Margherita Eichberg, ABAP Superintendent for the Metropolitan area of Rome, the Province of Viterbo and Southern Etruria

Sara Neri, Direzione Generale Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio (Service IV, Circulation)

Lt. Col.. Nicola Candido, Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage

Leonardo Bochicchio, Daniele F. Maras, curators of the exhibition

I for one am glad she's home, and to also have been a part of her journey.  She's travelled a long way, from the Etruscan city of Veii, to London, and back home again.  May her bare feet forever dance on Italian soil.

By:  Lynda Albertson

** This exhibition will be open at the Centrale Montemartini museum through 01 November 2020.

July 29, 2020

A flourishing trade in illicit antiquities despite what the market wants the public to believe

Way back in February 1998 thieves arrived at the Baroli Temples Complex on the outskirts of Rawatbhata taluk, one of the earliest temple complexes in Rajasthan.  Once there, they set to work removing an elegantly carved sculpture of Nataraj, a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as Lord of the Dance, from an ornamental niche attached to the thousand-year-old beehive-shaped Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple, the most prominent and the largest of the eight temples located at the sacred site.  

Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple in Rajasthan
A well-organized group of thieves known for targeting objects from temples or other cultural sites in India, the culprits used a jackhammer and deftly removed the statue from its centuries-old resting place.  It was then brought to Vaman Narayan Ghiya, a middleman, known to purchase stolen or looted objects from a network of intermediaries.  Ghiya had the ability to smuggle artworks out of India through a network of companies in Mumbai, Delhi, and Switzerland. 

The Nataraj in situ at the
Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple
The extent of Ghiya's three decades of operation in the illicit art biz was such that at the time of his arrest five years later, in June 2003, law enforcement officers discovered hundreds of photographs of ancient Indian sculptures, many of which depicted idols recently pried away from temple walls as well as sixty-eight glossy auction catalogues from auction powerhouses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York.

But the villagers near the Baroli Temples Complex were so outraged by the theft that it is believed Ghiya quickly commissioned a replica and ordered his henchmen to leave it near the Rawatbhata Police Station police where it originally was at first mistaken to be the original. Worried that it might be stolen again, the new Nataraj was not returned to the Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple and was instead stored with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is an Indian government agency attached to the Ministry of Culture responsible for archaeological research.

During interrogation, where Ghiya was asked to flag the pieces he was involved moving, he marked nearly 700.  One, the original Nataraj, had been smuggled to England, sold to an unnamed dealer and then purchased by John"Kas" Kasmin, a British art dealer and collector.

Identified with the dealer in 2005, Kasmin agreed to return the sculpture which was still in his possession and handed it over to the Indian High Commission that same year. Since then, it has sat, in London, waiting to come home, until this week. Inspected by the ASI in 2017 in London it was, at last, confirmed that the London sculpture was indeed the original looted Natarajs and arrangements began to finally send this idol home. 

If you would like to read more about the rape of India's idols, ARCA suggests Peter Watson's  book and the BBC programme “Sotheby’s, The Inside Story”.  It goes into extensive detail explaining the work of the Rajasthan police and the investigation opened by the superintendent of police, Shri Anand Srivastava titled Operation Black Hole. 
Yogini Vrishanana

India Pride Project would like to take the opportunity of this object's homecoming to make an appeal to any collector in possession of a Yogini Vrishanana, a sister sculpture to the one depicted here.  Looted by the same gang, one was eventually restituted in 2013.   The other matching 10th-century stone sculpture has been missing for 22 years. 

July 24, 2020

Restitution in the time of COVID-19: A fertility statuette representing a mother goddess returns to Iraq

Modeled from clay and painted, this female figurine replete with voluptuous curves, and depicted naked and sitting with her arms folded under her breasts, in a pose suggestive of childbirth was discovered by officers working for the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, whose job it is to carry out surveillance of internet sales of suspect art.  

The tiny seated figurine, whose features clearly suggest fertility and the renewal of life, is typical of "mother goddess" figurines originating within the Neolithic culture of Halaf, named more than a century ago after one of the first sites where these types of figurines were found.  The people of the Halaf culture resided in the geographical regions later known as Northern or upper Mesopotamia.  Representations of these types of female figurines have been found as far west as Cilicia in Turkey, to the east along the border of Iran and Iraq, north as far as Lake Van in Turkey, and south as far as the Damascus basin in Syria. This one however made her way much farther.  She was found in fare away Udine, in northeastern Italy. 

Yesterday, in a formal handover ceremony in Rome at the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism, the Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini,  alongside General Roberto Riccardi, Commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, acknowledged the importance of this figurine as representative of the known narrative of sixth-millennium Halaf social practices.  In returning this artifact to the Iraqi people, Franceschini, in his role at Italy's Ministro per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e per il Turismo — MiBACT underscored the ministry's commitment in the field of cultural diplomacy, and the TPC Carabinieri Command's role tracking down and recovering illegally exported heritage from other vulnerable source countries found within Italy's jurisdiction.

These seated Halaf figurines in general range in size from small to tiny, and like this one, are usually less than 10 centimeters tall.  Picking it gently up, the Iraqi ambassador to Rome, Safia Taleb Al-Souhail demonstrated that it would fit comfortably in the palm of someone's hand.  It's tiny size, just 9 X 3 cm along with her suggestive imagery have made portable Mesopotamian antiquities like this one extremely popular among traffickers. So much so that an image of one, almost identical, is printed on the ICOM Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, given that the original site where these types of figurines were discovered was at Tel Halaf in Syria.

In describing the circumstances of this artefact's discovery General Roberto Riccardi, Commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage stated that the Carabinieri TPC squad in Udine first identified the suspect auction in an online sale, and working with historians affiliated with the Department of Humanities and Cultural Heritage at the Università degli Studi di Udine determined that the statuette was an authentic artefact of the Halaf culture.  The Italian authorities, in turn, worked with their Iraqi counterparts to coordinate details for this object's eventual restitution.  How the antiquity was determined to be Iraqi in origin was not discussed.

Ambassador Al-Souhail stated that she appreciated the efforts made by the Italian authorities and the Carabinieri forces in combating organized crime which involve the smuggling of Iraqi antiquities.  She also commended Italy's commitment to activate a Memorandum of Understanding which the parties signed, between both countries in that regard and to Italy's commitment to international agreements and relevant Security Council resolutions.
For those that would like to delve into the locations where seated Halaf sculptures can be found we highly recommend this paper by Dr. Ellen Belcher. In it Dr. Belcher reminds us that:

Many figurines identifiable as Halaf types regularly appear in museum collections, on Internet auction sites, and in antiquities dealers' catalogs in most cases illegally smuggled into Western countries, they can make no contribution to this contextualized study. However it is hoped that this study may prove useful for localizing the ongoing looting of Halaf sites.

Belcher also mentions (page 374) in the aforementioned paper that by the fall of 2013, there were no more ongoing scientific excavations of Halaf sites in Turkey, Syria or Iraq, highlighting that ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq had left these historic sites unprotected from looting. 

By Lynda Albertson

July 20, 2020

Auction Alert: Gorny & Mosch - four plus four more

Last Wednesday ARCA wrote about four canopic jars of Djed-Ka-Re, Vizier of Upper Egypt coming up for auction with Gorny & Mosch in Germany which at one point in history had been embezzled from Austria's Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) in Vienna.  This week it seems that another four suspect antiquities coming from Italy, have also been identified.  These artefacts, an Etruscan bronze figurine and several Greek vases, have been withdrawn from the same upcoming 22 July 2020 Antiquities & African Art auction pending further review but are known to have been linked to dealers who handled illicit artefacts.  

In addition to their incomplete provenance histories, which make many of the Lots in this upcoming sales catalogue difficult to identify as licit or illicit, all four of the current suspect objects at Gorny & Mosch have come up for auction in such a way that claims for their restitution cannot be easily asserted.  This gap in how the German market operates allows tainted foreign cultural assets to continue in circulation, moving from one auction house in one country to another auction house in another, where they are sold and resold in jurisdictions where the statute of limitations is more favorable to the seller than to the source country. 

While  Dr. Hans-Christoph von Mosch of Gorny & Mosch has been quoted as saying “Gorny & Mosch deliberately (withdrew) the four items for further research,” this action apparently only occurred after notification that there was a problem with the objects' pedigree.  One has to ask what, if any, initial research was conducted prior to listing the objects, if further research is needed now. 

ARCA hopes that by continuing to emphasize when suspect antiquities penetrate the legitimate art market, with provenance irregularities such as those seen in this Gorny & Mosch auction, art market actors might strive to act more responsibly, turning down circulating objects which are already known to be problematic, rather than allowing them to continue circulating onward to less than knowledgable collectors who the market should be actively advocating for and not taking advantage of. 

July 17, 2020

Greek Police arrest accountant for the possession of 5,533 ancient coins and other antiquities.

Image Credit:  Hellenic Police Services
On Wednesday, 15 July 2020 a 64-year-old accountant was taken into custody in Greece following a police operation involving Department of Cultural Heritage and Antiquities of the Security Directorate of Thessaloniki. The unnamed coin collector was from Dráma (Greek: Δράμα), a city in northeastern Greece in Macedonia, who is said to have amassed a substantial collection, which included 5,533 ancient coins dating to the Iron Age, the Archaic, Classical, Roman, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods as well as 70 non-monetary artefacts dating as far back as the 3rd century BCE.  Articles in Greek refer to the collector's home as seemingly a private museum.  

Image Credit:  Hellenic Police Services
Now before the coin collecting folk start to say, he was simply protecting and preserving and should be allowed to collect...

The protection of cultural heritage has long been a State responsibility since the early days of the modern Greek State. According to the Constitution of Greece, “the protection of the natural and cultural environment constitutes a duty of the State and a right of every person” (Government Gazette, 85/A/18-4-2001, Art. 24).  The Greek government has a comprehensive and detailed system of protection regarding movable and immovable monuments and artefacts. 

Image Credit:  Hellenic Police Services
As such, the legal holder or owner of movable antiquities may be recognized as a collector, and issued a license, upon application through the Minister of Culture, after an opinion by the Central Archaeological Council (KAS).  This license can be granted according to the character and the importance of the collection and upon certain conditions being met by the applicant. 

Those include providing the necessary guarantees for the protection, safeguarding and preservation of the objects forming the collection and providing the necessary guarantees for compliance with the other duties of the collector.  One thing that will surely not get you a license in Greece, is if the person in question is an antiquities dealer, or an employee or partner of a natural or legal person with a similar business.

The fact that the Greek authorities took this man into custody, likely means he failed to meet the thresholds for the above. 

July 16, 2020

In difesa della bellezza: quando la cooperazione ci restituisce un patrimonio prezioso

Martedì 24 giugno a Palazzo Pitti è stata inaugurata una nuova mostra dal titolo “Storie di pagine dipinte. Miniature recuperate dai Carabinieri” (che sarà aperta fino al 4 ottobre 2020), organizzata dalle Gallerie degli Uffizi, in collaborazione con l’Università degli Studi di Firenze e con il Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale. Alla conferenza sono infatti intervenuti gli esponenti delle tre prestigiose istituzioni: il direttore degli Uffizi Eike Schmidt, il generale Roberto Riccardi, del Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale e la prof.ssa Sonia Chiodo, curatrice della mostra e una tra i massimi esperti in Storia della Miniatura. 

La mostra è stata l’esito di un laboratorio didattico della Scuola di Specializzazione in Beni Artistici, corso biennale di alta formazione dell’Università di Firenze. Un giovane team di ricerca, composto da tredici storici dell’arte, sotto la guida appunto della prof.ssa Chiodo, hanno studiato circa sessanta pagine miniate che sono state recuperate dai Carabinieri del Nucleo Tutela. Una sinergia di forze e di competenze che hanno cooperato non solo all’allestimento espositivo e ma soprattutto allo studio, al recupero e alla valorizzazione di queste preziose opere d’arte cartacee. Le pagine manoscritte e i cuttings facevano tutti parte di corali liturgici, grandi libri dedicati ai canti della Messa e delle preghiere quotidiane, riccamente decorati di miniature. 

I corali hanno subito furti e sono stati violati nella loro integrità. Molti fogli sono stati strappati o tagliati, rubati, venduti in gruppi, completamente privati del proprio contesto e infine dispersi. Come ha precisato la prof.ssa Chiodo: 

“Le pagine recuperate sono vittime di un naufragio, ma dobbiamo tenere presente che ciò che manca non è perduto ma soltanto disperso. Da qualche parte nel mondo è ancora conservato da qualcuno, che forse inconsapevolmente, ne detiene illecitamente la proprietà”

La mostra è divisa in sei sezioni, corrispondenti ai luoghi di provenienza delle pagine dei corali: i conventi francescani di Pistoia e di Poggibonsi; la pieve di Castelfiorentino; la chiesa di Santo Stefano al Ponte di Firenze; le abbazie benedettine di San Pietro e di Montemorcino a Perugia. Lo studio storico-artistico è stato il presupposto fondamentale per le indagini e si è occupato della ricostruzione dei frammenti. Oltre che dalla bibliografia e dalle fotografie occorre partire dal dettaglio superstite per creare nuovamente l’insieme perduto, che deve essere studiato cercando di capire e di riconoscere la morfologia del corale; così come lo specchio di scrittura, articolato dalla parte musicale e da quella testuale e di ricomporre la scansione liturgica dei graduali e degli antifonari. 

Uno studio interessante che non si limita alla parte teorica della Storia dell’Arte ma che richiede di scendere in campo e di conoscere dal vivo le pagine nei luoghi in cui sono conservate. Personalmente mi sono occupata della serie di 22 corali proveniente dall’abbazia olivetana di Montemorcino a Perugia, trasferiti nella casa madre dell’Ordine a Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Asciano) il 4 agosto del 1821. Il mio gruppo di ricerca era composto da altre tre colleghe, le dottoresse Beatrice Molinelli, Giulia Spina e Alice Stivali. Ricostruire l’intera serie ormai dispersa non è stato semplice anche per la spregiudicatezza del furto, avvenuto alle prime ore del 7 maggio del 1975, che ha compromesso irreversibilmente l’unità della serie fatta di immagini, parole e musica. 

I ladri rubarono sedici pesanti corali dalla biblioteca dell’abbazia lasciandone quattro durante la fuga. Alcuni mesi dopo sono stati ritrovati i resti di questi libri nel letame, privati della legatura originale quattrocentesca, della coperta e ovviamente di tutte le miniature. La nostra ricerca si è basata sulle fotografie precedenti al furto, sulla bibliografia e sullo spoglio dei cataloghi d’asta. Il lavoro è poi proseguito con lo studio del contenuto liturgico e con l’analisi stilistica delle piccole opere d’arte miniate, fortemente influenzate dalla maniera pittorica di Perugino e Pintoricchio. 

Siamo riuscite così a individuare e ricollegare altri nuovi frammenti di questa importante serie umbra e individuare un corale, contente l’Officio dei Morti, che era considerato disperso e ora ricongiunto alla serie per cui era stato realizzato. Queste miniature sono ancora più preziose in quanto evocative di una storia perduta. Sono infatti l’unica testimonianza rimasta dell’abbazia benedettina di Montemorcino, costruita su volere del cardinale Niccolò Capocci entro il 1371, della quale resta solamente un lato del chiostro a seguito della demolizione avvenuta nel 1739. 

La mostra si presenta dunque come un esempio concreto e riuscito di come la ricerca scientifica e quella criminologica possono e devono concorrere insieme al recupero e alla restituzione del patrimonio artistico e culturale. L’auspicio è che collaborazioni di questo tipo possano perpetuarsi nel tempo ed essere un monito e uno strumento educativo affinché l’arte non venga più lesa ma possa restare un bene per l’umanità. 

Maria Eletta Benedetti, Guest Blogger, ARCA

When a church loses its Madonna can cultural diplomacy help her find her way back home?

On 9 July 1985 the Parish Church of San Felice Martire, located in S. Felice a Cancello, Italy suffered a horrendous loss.  Their gilded wooden statue, depicting the Madonna covered with a golden mantle and with the royal diadem on her head, holding the baby Jesus who is giving a blessing, was stolen.  Then in the copy put in her place was also stolen.

The original fourteenth-century ecclesiastical treasure, venerated by the Sanfelicians, soon found its way into the international underground and was smuggled out of Italy.  A short while later, in 1988 it popped up on the German art market. Yet, like thousands of other stolen Italian treasures, retrieving stolen art in Germany is no easy task, especially once that artwork has been laundered into the hands of a private individual as the country's laws try to balance the interests of the victim of theft of art and the interests of the good-faith acquirer.

Despite international letters rogatory, Italy's claim was rejected as inadmissible by the German authorities and, in 2000, Interpol Wiesbaden confirmed to the Italians that the current holder had bought the work in good faith, closing the door to the possibility of restitution.

According to the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, abbreviated BGB, which is the civil code of Germany § 935 there is no good-faith acquisition of title for stolen bewegliche cache ("movable property") as the owner (in this case the church) has not parted with his direct possession deliberately, so that the third person (thief) shall not have the benefit of the appearance of entitlement through possession under such circumstances.  However, anyone who acquires said property in good faith and has maintained this work in his or her possession for at least 10 years, while continuing to be in good faith, automatically acquires valid title. 

Likewise in Germany if the thief, upon his or her death was not in good faith but his heirs "inherit" the stolen property unknowingly and in good faith, the heir also can also acquire legal title after 10 years from the point of inheritance.  Legal title of a stolen work of art can also transfer to the good-faith acquirer if the work of art is sold in public auction (section 935(2), CC).

All this to say that the push by Italy's parliamentarians Margherita Corrado, Vilma Moronese, Luisa Angrisani, Danila De Lucia, Bianca Laura Granato, Vincenzo Presutto and Orietta Vanin made in April to Dario Franceschini,  Italy's Minister for Cultural Goods and Activities and Tourism (MiBact), encouraging him to engage directly with Monika Grütters, Germany's Commissioner for Culture and the Media, to honor the request of the patrons of church of San Felice Martyr,  is, for now, purely an exercise in cultural diplomacy.  Whether or not this soft parliamentary request will go farther than the transnational judicial one did remains to be seen.  

July 15, 2020

Auction Alert: Gorny & Mosch - four canopic jars of Djed-Ka-Re, Vizier of Upper Egypt

Lot 278, Set of four canopic jars of Djed-Ka-Re, Vizier of Upper Egypt
was once in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM), now on auction with Gorny & Mosch
ICOM Österreich in Vienna has reported that the German auction house Gorny & Mosch Gorny is offering a set of suspect Egyptian canopic jars in its upcoming Auction 272: Ancient Art, Africa, Asiatica (among others from the Dr. Wiedner collection which is scheduled to take place on 22 July 2020. 

Traditionally, the four canopic jars would have been used to hold the embalmed viscera removed from the body of the Egyptian vizier during his mummification process. Made of alabaster, each of the suspect artefacts have individualized lids, carved with the heads of the four sons of the god Horus: Qebehsenuef with a falcon head, Hapi with a baboon head, Imsety with a human head, and Duamutef with a jackal head. Each jar served as a funerary guardian to a separate internal organ of the deceased.

These antiquities were removed from Austria's Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) in Vienna, where they were documented as part of the museum's inventory as far back as 1824.  The jars are believed to have been sold out the back door, likely during the period when Hans Demel was the museum's collections manager, and who is believed by some to have practiced "imaginative inventory management."

Yet, despite being notified by the KHM in December 2018 that the consigned artefacts were illegitimately sold without the museum's actual authorization, Gorny & Mosch's Frau Dr. M. Nollé omits the museum altogether in this company sales video.  Here Frau Nollé states only that the artefacts were once privately owned by Franz Joseph I the Emperor of Austria, failing to mention the Austrian claim or that the objects were ever part of the embezzled Kunsthistorisches Museum collection.  In fact, she goes to great lengths to talk about Egyptian burial practices and completely skips over this key passage in the pedigree of these antiquities. 

A check of Gorny & Mosch's website mentions the museum obliquely, without naming it specifically but in a hodge-podge of words that makes it sound like their sale was legitimate.

"Provenance: These four canopies come from the possession of the Austrian imperial family and were for the first time by E. von Bergmann in the Recueil des travaux relatifs à la philologie et larchéologie égyptiennes et assyriennes, Volume IX, Paris 1887, pp. 57-59 No. 33 , published. They are also mentioned A. Weil in 1908 in his work Die Veziere des Pharaonenreichs, p. 148, with the storage instructions of Canopic Jars, Vienna. After the First World War, the jugs probably entered the art trade, where they were sold in 1958 by the Frankfurt coin dealership E. Button. The canopic jars come from the so-called old inventory of the imperial collection and are already mentioned in the inventory from 1824. In the inventory from 1875 they are listed under inv. 3580-3583 registered. The canopic jars have been published several times or mentioned in scientific articles, but there are no photos of the objects. From 1913 to 1951, Dr. Hans Demel, director in the Egyptian-Oriental collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. After his death in 1951, his successor, Dr. Egon Komorzynski carried out a general revision of the inventories from 1952 to 1967, in which it was found that numerous objects were missing. These were officially removed from the inventory in 1967, including the canned set of Djedkare (inv. No. 3580-3583)."

Frankfurter Münzhandlung E Button, was managed by Elisabeth Button, who took over the family-run coin company of Adolph E. Cahn in 1935, two years after the National Socialists seized power in Germany.  The remaining Cahn family members Herbert Adolph Cahn and Erich Cahn had by then fled to Switzerland, along with their mother Johanna Neuberger.  But the truth is, how or when the jars arrived in Ms. Button's hands does not wash them clean, and the auction firm has a duty to inform its clients of the Austria museum collection history and the fact that Austria wants these antiquities back. 

Piecing together the story of the Egyptian artefacts' removal, all roads appear to lead back to collections manager Hans Demel, who is known to have dealt closely with a distasteful man named Rudolf Raue, someone some Jewish World War II-era claimants refer to as "a parasite of the worst kind". 

Raue instead referred to himself as an independent merchant, or art dealer, or excavation specialist, and by 1944, was conducting sales via the Dorotheum. That auction house, in turn, asked the NSDAP Gauleitung Vienna (the local affiliate to the Nazi Party) for a political certificate of good conduct for Raue which was then endorsed by the head of the Gaupersonalamt.  

As the first country annexed by Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938, Austria set the stage for the implementation of Aryanizations in other territories that Germany would later occupy and it was initially under the provisional administration of the NSDAP that Rudolf Raue became the sub-authorized representative for three Jewish-owned shops which were subsequently "aryanized": Josef Berger & Sohn at Mollardgasse 10 in the sixth district, and the antique shops of Adolf Löwy located on  Rauhensteingasse 7 and Richard Klein at 4th, Karlsgasse 16.

Brought to trial after the war along with several other individuals involved in the "Aryanization" of Austria's Jewish-owned businesses,  Raue was never formally charged, and according to the Central Business Register, he continued to practice the art and antique trade until December 29, 1961. 

During that time of Raue's business dealings he is known to have had dealings with Oxan Aslanian, a collector and art dealer born in Armenia who operated out of Berlin.  In addition to selling and collecting, Aslanian was a forger of exceptional Egyptian fakes, some of which deceive experts even today.  Given Raue's ability to sell off the property of displaced and murdered jews without blinking an eye,  and his rapport with a forger, one would not be surprised if he was also willing to serv as an intermediary to embezzled museum pieces handed over by a crooked museum employee. 

If the name Gorny & Mosch rings a bell, it's because their lack of transparency and due diligence is nothing new and has been discussed with regularity on ARCA's blog.

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 8, 2020

When the market incentivises plunder: Unravelling the laundering of the Eldarir family legacy.

For the last two days I have been pouring over the known objects that have sales "fingerprints" which demonstrate a likelihood of possibly being touched by Ashraf Omar Eldarir, the US citizen, recently indicted for smuggling Egyptian antiquities.  Yesterday I added more suspect antiquities to that list and today I will add some more, putting the objects in chronological order as best I can, based on what we know so far as it helps to show how these objects moved from one dealer to another creating what at face value would appear to be a plausible collection history, except it isn't.  

I'd like to thank Paul Barford for his own public efforts at compiling his own version of this list as well as two confidential sources who have helped illustrate a few more of these passages.

Barford's hypothesis that this is not all of the Eldarir artefacts is a valid one,  as this list will demonstrate multiple instances where provenance details were omitted, either earlier on in the "whitening" cycle, or to not show catalogues flooded with objects over and over again coming from one single source. 

What this list will demonstrate is that the demand for objects from 2012 until 2020, and the ease at which they were absorbed into the licit market and resold, sometimes for high sums, is likely to have served to incentivise the accused, who now, alone, faces charges in the US Courts.   

Having said that, now on to the slightly more organized and ever-growing list identified objects up through 08 July 2020 that have been found to be circulating with ancient art dealers in the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Austria with provenance we believe directly pertains to Ashraf Omar ELDARIR.

Date of Publication Unknown 

Ezeldeen Eldarir's name appears with this Egyptian Wood Painted Sarcophagus Mask with Howard Nowes at Art for Eternity.

 05 December 2012 

Christie's LOT 94. This is the first appearance of the Roman Marble Portrait Head of a Man.  Its provenance makes no mention of Eldarir.  It is listed simply as "Acquired by the grandfather of the current owner and brought to New York, prior to 1948; thence by descent" and sold for $52,500.

Ezeldeen Eldarir's name appears for the first time with this pair of Ancient Egyptian Bronze Eyes with Trocadero via Mark Goodstein at Explorer Ancient Art.

01 May 2013

Eldarir sold four Egyptian limestone relief fragments for Wahibrenebahet through Bonhams in London for €31,766 claiming they were from his personal collection, inherited through his grandfather who was a friend of Prince of Egypt Omar Tosson.

04 May 2014 

This Egyptian limestone relief associated with the cult of Amun which was sold through Gabriel Vandervort at Ancient Resource LLC.

18 May 2015 

This Limestone Stele fragment with no clearly named provenance can be found with Howard Rose in his 18 May 2015 Arte Primitivo sales catalogue. It will later turn up again in 2016 with Alexander Biesbroek.

NOTE: Several other Egyptian pieces in this catalogue DO NOT specify Eldarir but have the same "exported to the USA in XXXX" phrasing as the Eldarir pieces.


The Limestone Relief Fragment reappears, this time with Ashraf Eldarir provenance.  It sells for £28,750 via Alexander Biesbroek at Alexander Ancient Art.

30 June - 6 July 2016 

Page Screenshot as Charles Ede Ltd., has removed this item
from their website as of 8 July 2020
Ezeldeen Eldarir's name appears with this Egyptian hieroglyphic relief fragment that is with James Ede at Charles Ede Ltd.

06 March 2017 

This Egyptian Standing Wooden Overseer with Ezeldeen Eldarir provenance can be found with Howard Rose in his 06 March 2017 Arte Primitivo sales catalogue.

NOTE: Several other Egyptian pieces in this catalogue DO NOT specify Eldarir but have the same "exported to the USA in XXXX" phrasing as the Eldarir pieces.

31 October 2018 

Christie’s LOT 49 First appearance of the Over-Lifesized Greek Marble Head, Provenance: "Acquired by the grandfather of the current owner and brought to New York, prior to 1948; thence by descent".  Sold for $52,500.

05 December 2018 

Ezeldeen Eldarir's name appears with this Wood & Gesso Sarcophagus Mask with Bob and Teresa Dodge at Artemis Gallery.

23 March 2019 

Ezeldeen Eldarir's name appears with this 26th Dynasty, Egyptian wood sarcophagus bust, with Washington DC dealer Sue McGovern at Sands of Time Ancient Art.

16 September 2019

Multiple pieces with Ezeldeen Eldarir provenance can again be found with Howard Rose in his 16 September 2019 Arte Primitivo sales catalogue including the previous pair of Ancient Egyptian Bronze Eyes previously advertised on Trocadero via Mark Goodstein at Explorer Ancient Art in 2012.

NOTE: Several other Egyptian pieces in this catalogue DO NOT specify Eldarir but have the same "exported to the USA in XXXX" phrasing as the Eldarir pieces, including the above Mudbrick and Plaster Painted Fragment #485 which will appear on the market again WITH Eldarir provenance via a Tennessee dealer on eBay in 2020.

2 December 2019 

Ezeldeen Eldarir's name appears again with the same Egyptian Pottery Jar with 70 Ushabtis with Howard Rose in his December 2019 Arte Primitivo sales catalogue.


Ezeldeen Eldarir's name also appears with Two Diorite Poppy Bead Amulets, an Amulet of a Wadj Sceptre with a Lotus Flower, a Lapis Lazuli Heart Amulet, a Hematite Heart Amulet and for the second time, the collection of 230 Faience Ushabtis,  and this Wooden Standing Figure of a Manat with Christoph Bacher Archäologie Ancient Art GmbH.

The wood figurine and the ushabtis were previously with Howard Rose in 2017 and 2019 respectively.

12 February 2020 

Ezeldeen Eldarir's name also appears with this Wooden Ushabti with Harlan J. Berk in his February 2020 HJB 210th Buy or Bid Sale sales catalogue.

07 March 2020 

Izz al-Din Tah al-Darir Bey's name (different spelling) appears on two objects sold earlier through Christie’s with the Eldarir name. One is now listed as the Ptolemaic Royal Portrait, possibly of Ptolemy III Euergetes and the other as the Portrait Head of the Emperor Severus Alexander. Both were with Jean-David Cahn at TEFAF in Maastricht at Stand 422 when we took pictures but neither object is now on Cahn’s website.

Both of these pieces passed through Christies before arriving to Cahn in Switzerland. The head on 05 December 2012 and the mask on 31 October 2018. 

04 March 2020 

Ezeldeen Eldarir's name also appears with this Egyptian Large Terracotta Isis-Aphrodite with Howard Rose on his website.

04 June 2020 

Ezeldeen Eldarir's name also appears with this Egyptian Polychrome Gesso Coffin Lid, these Egyptian Ptolemaic Papyrus Scrolls, Demotic Script and these other Egyptian Ptolemaic Papyrus Scrolls with Bob and Teresa Dodge at Artemis Gallery. 

July 2020

Ezeldeen Eldarir's name also appears with this Egyptian Polychrome Wall Painting being sold on eBay by "tassbunch2".

The next question is, sure the authorities seem to have caught a potential smuggler with at least 1025 objects circulating hither and thither.  But what about all the actors before and after him in this illicit supply chain of merry-go-round suitcases?

It is only when foreign buying agents, among them representatives from the United States, the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria, looking to cash in on padding out private collections back home that smuggling Egypt’s patrimony became such a lucrative money-making business.

By:  Lynda Albertson