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

September 29, 2015

While the West Seeks Tighter Curbs on the Trade in Antiquities Looted by ISIS, Italian Suspect Antiquities Continue to Appear at Major Auction Houses

Greek forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, has identified another grouping of suspect antiquities set for auction October 1, 2015 at Christie’s in London.  Each of the objects appears to have ties to former Basel-based art dealer, Gianfranco Becchina, who was accused by Italian prosecutors of being part of an antiquities trafficking network that involved tombaroli (tomb raiders) in southern Italy and suspect antiquities dealers and buyers around the globe. Becchina was convicted of antiquities trafficking in 2011.

Since 2007, Dr. Tsirogiannis has actively identified illicit antiquities depicted in the confiscated Medici, Becchina and Symes-Michaelides archives, notifying the relevant government authorities when matches are discovered.  An expert on the illicit antiquities trade, Dr. Tsirogiannis teaches ARCA's illicit antiquities course.  He also serves as Research Assistant to the Trafficking Culture Project at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research located at the University of Glasgow.

Despite having apparently “clean” collection histories, each of the antiquities listed below (Lots 6, 8 and 16) — or strikingly similar ones — appear in photographic evidence confiscated by the Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during their investigation into the network of traffickers affiliated with Gianfranco Becchina.


The three antiquities on offer at the upcoming sale at Christie’s are said to come from Professor Heissmeyer’s antiquities collection; A fourth antiquity (lot 93) was temporarily confiscated by the Swiss authorities in 2008 from the Japanese illicit antiquities dealer Noriyoshi Horiuchi and has now been put back into circulation within the antiquities market. 

Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis has notified Interpol, the Carabinieri Art Squad and Scotland Yard’s Art & Antiques Unit with the evidence for these new identifications.  

In detail, the suspect antiquities are:
Left - The oinochoe depicted in the Becchina archive.
Right - the same oinochoe on exhibition in Christie’s, London,
Image Credit C. Tsirogiannis Saturday 26 September 2015


The oinochoe’s collecting history (Provenance), as it appears in the Christie’s catalogue, is:
Private collection, Germany, acquired prior to 1990.
with Galerie am Museum Jürgen Haering, Freiburg.
Prof. H.-H. Heissmeyer collection, Schwäbisch Hall, acquired from the above in 2005 (inv. no. 32).
Beazley Archive no. 9024860.

The same oenochoe seems to be depicted in a Polaroid image from the Becchina archive. In the archival photo the vase is covered with encrustations, lying on what appears to be a plastic tray, while a handwritten note, also in the archives, states that this antiquity was sent for restoration, among other antiquities, on 1 December 1989 to Sandro Cimicchi, Gianfranco Becchina’s usual restorer.

Left - The cup depicted in the Becchina archive.
Right - The same cup on exhibition in Christie’s, London,
Image Credit C. Tsirogiannis Saturday 26 September 2015
The cup’s collecting history (Provenance), as it appears in the Christie’s catalogue, is:
Private collection, Switzerland, acquired prior to 1980.
with Galerie am Museum Jürgen Haering, Freiburg.
Prof. H.-H. Heissmeyer collection, Schwäbisch Hall, acquired from
the above in 1995 (inv. no. 17).
Beazley Archive no. 9024849.

In the Becchina archive, what appears to be the same cup is depicted in a Polaroid image, upside down and partially covered with encrustations, among three other cups. The similarities can be identified from the position of the panthers painted on the lower portion of the cup's body. A handwritten note states that the cups were bought by the middleman Raffaele Monticelli on 4 March 1993. Another handwritten note on the Polaroid states: ‘V/ Hae CH’ [sold to Hae Swiss Francs]. In 2002 Monticelli was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for conspiracy related to the trafficking of antiquities. (Isman 2011b: 50; Watson and Todeschini 2007: 292) and as recently as today had 22 million euros worth of his real estate assets confiscated by the state for his alleged involvement as an international antiquities trafficker.    

Left - The lekythos depicted in the Becchina archive.
Right - the same lekythos on exhibition in Christie’s, London,
Image Credit C. Tsirogiannis Saturday 26 September 2015
The lekythos’ collecting history (‘Provenance’), as it appears in the Christie’s catalogue, is:
Private collection, United Kingdom, acquired prior to 1980.
with Galerie am Museum Jürgen Haering, Freiburg.
Prof. H.-H. Heissmeyer collection, Schwäbisch Hall, acquired from
the above in 1992 (inv. no. 23).
Beazley Archive no. 21590.

An object that appears to be the same lekythos is depicted in two professional images from the Becchina archive. A handwritten note states: ‘E Nov 78’.
Left - The lekythos depicted during its confiscation
in a photograph taken by the Italian authorities
 during the raid at Horiuchi’s warehouse in Geneva in 2008.
Right - the same lekythos on exhibition in Christie’s, London,
Image Credit C. Tsirogiannis Saturday 26 September 2015

The lekythos’ collecting history (‘Provenance’), as it appears in the Christie’s catalogue, is:
Anonymous sale; Münzen und Medaillen AG, Basel, 14 November 1986, lot 213.
Formerly private collection, Japan, acquired privately in 1997.


This lekythos was found and confiscated during the raid of the Swiss and Italian authorities at the warehouse of the Japanese dealer Noriyoshi Horiuchi in the Geneva Freeport in 2008. The Italian authorities could not prove the illicit origin of this particular lekythos and
although Horiuchi did not supply any documentation to prove the licit origin of the lekythos, the vase was returned to Horiuchi. 

In total the Italian authorities confiscated 337 antiquities from Horiuchi depicted in the Becchina, Medici and Symes-Michaelides confiscated archives. Horiuchi's name also comes up in a 2014 repatriation case involving another Becchina linked antiquity, a 1,800-year-old sarcophagus lid depicting a sleeping Ariadne.  

It should also be noted that this same lekythos also appeared at one time on offer at ‘Phoenix Ancient Art’ gallery, owned by the Aboutaam brothers, one of whom was convicted in Egypt for antiquities smuggling and the other of whom pleaded guilty to the falsification of at least one customs document. 

In relationship to that listing  the lekythos appeared as ‘SOLD’ on the ‘Phoenix Ancient Art’ gallery website. In the October sale listing Christie’s fails to state the name of the consigner, although they do so in the case of the other three lots (Professor Heissmeyer).

In the three first cases, Christie’s ‘due diligence’ seems to have stopped short of tracing the collecting history back one step further, which would have opened the window on the Becchina transactions.  In the fourth case (lot 93), Christie’s record lists the 1986 and 1997 transaction dates in the lekythos’ collecting history, but completely avoids mentioning the authorities’ raid of Horiuchi’s warehouse in Switzerland or the subsequent passage or ownership of the vase by the convicted Aboutaam brothers, through their ‘Phoenix Ancient Art’ gallery in New York and Geneva.

In total, these are just four objects in a string of tainted auctions with fairly good documentation proving their likelihood that these objects were looted.  If the art market cannot hold itself to task on objects where there is a known and extensive photographic record of illicit activity how will the art market perform its due diligence on antiquities coming from conflict countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen where no confiscated smuggler dossiers exist?

Due diligence of looted antiquities, be they Italian or conflict-based, has to be meaningful and not merely plausible, in the furtherance of a sale's commission.  Partially-documented histories in an object's collection background, do not necessarily always point to fresh looting or illegal export but when the objects background looks murky, as is the case with these objects, the art market needs to step up its game and voluntarily refuse to participate in the laundering.

UPDATE - October 01, 2015 Christie's has withdrawn the suspect antiquities prior to the auction scheduled today in London.  

Lynda Albertson






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

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.

December 7, 2015

New Auction House Identifications With Opaque Collection Histories and Image Matches in Known Trafficker Archives

Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis has identified three antiquities related to the upcoming December 9, 2015 Christie's antiquities auction in New York which match with images originating within either the Gianfranco Becchina or Symes-Michaelides confiscated archives.

1. Lot 36: A Canosan terracotta Zeus and Ganymede, from Apulia, 3rd-2nd C. B.C.

Image of 'A Canosan terracotta Zeus and Ganymede
from the Becchina archive (provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)
This antiquity is depicted in the records of the Becchina archive. Although its collecting history - according to Christie's - starts before 1981 and Becchina is not mentioned, there is a document, in the archival record dated January 17, 1995, from a designer to Becchina, mentioning the object specifically.

The designer, Raoul Allaman, seems to have added the figure's current plexiglass base. This object has subsequently been withdrawn as of November 28, 2016 and the Carabinieri TPC in Italy have  been made aware of the identifying match.
Image of 'A Celtic Bronze Dagger and Scabbard'
from the Becchina archive 

(provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)






2. Lot 45: A Celtic bronze dagger and scabbard, 8th C. B.C. 

This antiquity is also depicted in the Becchina archive, in two professional images. The Becchina file containing the images and the lined cards on which the images are stuck, state that the object is 'Italic, Villanovan period'. This object has not been previously detected by the Italian authorities and is presently still on offer.





A Canaanite bronze enthroned deity
from the Becchina archive
(provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)




This object appears in 6 professionally taken images from the Symes-Michaelides archive, without its current base, placed on a white plasteline/clay ball, standing in front of a stone wall, which serves as a background.  This antiquity, too, is still on offer. Symes and Michaelides are not mentioned in the Christie's collecting history. Interpol, the Carabinieri, 2 ICE agents and the Embassy of Israel to the United States have been notified concerning lot nr. 101.

The theft and trafficking of cultural items deliberately stolen from archaeological sites is a practice that is older than history and remains the greatest threat to the global archaeological record. Investigating the looting of antiquities and returning pieces to their countries of origin is a long and often difficult process.   Few of the objects looted and illicitly trafficked from source countries are ever repatriated and those that are, often are a direct the result of the work of a limited number of art crime researchers and law enforcement officers who work with various cultural ministries and law enforcement authorities tracking leads when and where they find them.

Yet the ultimate culpability rests not solely with the auction houses but equally importantly with the illicitly trafficked object's purchaser.  If collectors were unwilling to acquire unprovenanced artefacts, the supply chain would have no demand client buying and the market for illicit antiquities would disintegrate.

But what is the auction house’s own internal investigation of an object’s provenance?  Should auction houses be required to inform the legal authorities when consignors present objects with questionable collection histories? In much the same way nurses and doctors are required by law to report suspect child abuse? And if so, what would the ramifications be if the auction houses started to work WITH law enforcement towards cleaning up the art market?




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

January 14, 2017

Auction Alert and Antiquities Seizure: Royal-Athena Galleries, New York

On January 8, 2017 forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis alerted Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos in Manhattan and ARCA that he had identified another illicit antiquity, apparently being laundered via the US art market.  The object in question had been listed for sale via Royal-Athena Galleries, a New York City-based gallery which is operated by Jerome Eisenberg

Screen Capture - Royal-Athena Galleries 1
According to Tsirogiannis the object identified was a 64.8 x 90.8 cm. sarcophagus fragment which matches four polaroid images and three handwritten notes found in the Becchina archive. 

This accumulation of records was seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Gianfranco Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland.  The Becchina Archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer's business.  

These records include shipping manifests, dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images.  Many of the images are not slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, are point and shoot polaroids taken by looters and middlemen which depict recently looted antiquities, some of which still bear soil and salt encrustations. 

In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade and while he later appealed this conviction, looted antiquities traced to his trafficking network, like this sarcophagus fragment, continue to surface in private collections, museums and some of the world's most well know auction firms specializing in ancient art.  

In releasing his identifications to ARCA Tsirogiannis said:

"Regarding the sarcophagus fragment, each of the four Polaroid images depicting the fragment is included in a different file of the Becchina archive:

I discovered the first image (attachment no. 1) in a file that Becchina created to archive the antiquities he was receiving from a Greek trafficker termed in the archive ‘ZE’ or ‘ZENE’ (the beginning of his surname) or ‘Giorgio’ (Giorgos, his first name in Greek). This trafficker, now deceased, was well-known to the Greek police art squad.

attachment no. 1

In a separate handwritten note (attachment no. 2), Becchina records that he received the antiquity (‘1 Frto. [meaning ‘Fragment’] di sarcofago’) for 60.000 Swiss Francs on 25 May 1988. 

attachment no. 2
This antiquity is recorded as the 9th object included in the 34th group of antiquities that ‘Zene’ sent to Becchina (see attachment no. 3).

attachment no. 3
Another note (attachment no. 4), a handwritten page, lists a group of antiquities that Becchina bought from ‘Zene’, from November 1986 until October 1988, for more than $250,000, including the sarcophagus’ fragment (no. 9).

attachment no. 4
The fifth attachment is a photocopy of a Polaroid image, depicting the same antiquity; this image was attached to a blank A4 page, together with other Polaroid images depicting other antiquities that ‘Zene’ smuggled from Greece to Becchina, under the title ‘in PF’, meaning that all these antiquities were stored at the time at the P[ort] [F]ranc (the Free Port) of Basel. 

attachment no. 5
In Becchina’s list of antiquities stored in his warehouses in the Free Port of Basel, the sarcophagus fragment was number 21 (see sixth attachment, another Polaroid image).

attachment no. 6
Finally, I am sending you another handwritten note (attachment no. 7), in which Becchina is asking one of the restorers he was using, Andre Lorenceau, to clean (‘reinigen’) the fragment and to add a base (‘sockeln’), as a support (by drilling into the antiquity). I discovered this note in the Becchina file dedicated to his cooperation with the restorer Andre Lorenceau."

attachment no. 7
According to the Royal-Athena Galleries website, the sarcophagus fragment has been attributed by Dr. Guntram Koch, an academic with an expertise in Roman sarcophagoi. 

Screen Capture - Royal-Athena Galleries 2

In addition to notifying the New York authorities, Tsirogiannis informed INTERPOL and the Greek police art squad. 

The object in question was seized by US authorities at approximately January 14 2:00 pm EST.

Nearly ten years ago in November 2007 Eisenberg returned eight antiquities stolen from museums and archaeological sites worth US$ 510,000 to Italy. Given the fact that it often takes sound identifications, such as those conducted by researchers such as Tsirogiannis, restitutions by art market dealers should not be misconstrued as spontaneous. In most cases pieces are relinquished merely to avoid lengthy litigation or in order for suspect dealers to remove themselves from the negative publicity caused by being subject to criminal charges.

By: Lynda Albertson





July 2, 2019

Auction Alert - Bonhams Auction House - An il(licit) Apulian red-figure janiform kantharos?

Screenshot of Bonham's website captured 01 July 2019
On July 01, 2019 ARCA was informed by Christos Tsirogiannis that he had identified a new potentially tainted antiquity scheduled to be auctioned by Bonhams auction house in London at its flagship London saleroom on New Bond Street on July 3, 2019.  This ancient Greek drinking vessel, has two faces looking in opposite directions, one of a satyr and one of a woman and has been identified as traceable to a document and photo within the confiscated Becchina archive and to two showroom photos found within the Symes-Michaelides archives.  

Since 2007 Dr. Tsirogiannis, a UK-based Greek forensic archaeologist and lecturer with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has worked to identify antiquities of illicit origin in museums, collections, galleries and auction houses that can be traced to the archives of individuals known to be involved in the illicit trade of antiquities. Tsirogiannis is also the incoming Associate Professor and an AIAS-COFUND Junior Research Fellow (2019-2022) at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Aarhus.
  

Screenshot of Bonham's website captured 01 July 2019
Vases made by the Iliupersis Painter's workshop were the forerunners to the later Apulian polychrome head vases that were produced throughout the second half of the fourth century before Christ in what is now Italy.  Yet a screenshot of the provenance/collection history listed by Bonham's is scarce and tells nothing about the vessel's discovery or its passage out of Italy.  In fact the auction house's collection history only goes back to 1991 when it appeared as Lot 161 in a Sotheby's New York auction via an anonymous seller on the 18th of June.  This and the mention of Merrin Gallery and an unnamed private collector are all the potential buyer has to go on.   No information is listed on the auction house's website regarding the ancient object's exportation from its country of origin or any checks possibly made with the Italian Carabinieri to ensure this object is not part of the Italian's known databases of suspect objects. 

Becchina Archive Image
According to records reviewed by Tsirogiannis, a handwritten note in the Becchina archive, possibly written by Gianfranco Becchina himself, makes mention of a ‘janiform’ purchase along with other antiquities acquired via middleman Raffaele Monticelli.  The purchase price listed is 60,000 Italian lire and the sale appears to have occurred on March 5, 1988.  All the antiquities listed in this purchase acquisition from Monticelli total 290,000 Italian lire, with the kantharos being the most expensive ancient object in the transaction.

Raffaele Monticelli's role in the illicit antiquities trade is concretised in the now famous illicit trafficking organogram which mentions key individuals associated with Italy's largest known trafficking group.  He was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to four years imprisonment at the Foggia Tribunal for conspiracy related to the trafficking of antiquities  His conviction occurred a little more than a decade after the kantharos appears to have surfaced in the US market in 1991.  

A retired elementary teacher, who gave up teaching for the more lucrative roll of middleman dealer, Raffaele Monticelli is a name well known to the Italian Carabinieri of the Cultural Heritage Protection Command of the Cosenza and Bari nuclei.  His most recent arrest occurred in 2017 in connection with clandestine excavations of archaeological sites in the Crotone area. At the time of the more recent 2014-2017 investigation, Monticelli's residence was searched and illicitly excavated objects were seized, including some ancient terracotta figurines and a biansata kylix of Greek origin. This new event shows that the trafficker continued to violate Italian law despite prior arrests and convictions well into his golden years.

But returning to the past and to the Bonhams kantharos currently set for sale later this week.

On the trafficking organogram Monticelli is listed just above the territories where he plied his trade: the regions of Puglia, Calabria, Campania, and Sicilia.  This illustrates that he was active in the region where this kantharos was likely produced.  The organogram also specifies that Monticelli was an important part of the Southern Italy cordata which lead upwards to Robert (Bob) Hecht via Gianfranco Becchina and downward to Aldo Belleza.

This connection is further confirmed by testimony given by Frédérique Marie Nussberger-Tchacos, after her arrest in Cyprus in 2002. Tchacos, who also goes by the name Frieda 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).  Speaking to Italian Prosecutor Paolo Giorgo Ferri, who issued the international arrest warrant for Tchacos and initiated the legal process for her extradition to Italy, Tchacos is quoted as having said:

Becchina Archive Photo.
“a precise triangle” referring to Bob Hecht, Gianfranco Becchina, and Raffaele Monticelli.  She further stated that Monticelli supplied “everything that could be found in the south of Italy; I think Apulian [vases], I think terracottas, I think bronzes. . . .” all of which turned out to be factually true.  Becchina's wife Ursula also affirmed that her husband obtained material from Monticelli.

Monticelli's relationship with Gianfranco Becchina was a lengthy and profitable one.   

Among the 140 folders seized in 2001 from Gianfranco Becchina, there were many suppliers, some of whom were middleman and traffickers in direct contact with those who excavated clandestinely, as well as some tombaroli who communicated directly with the Sicilian dealer.  Becchina's confiscated records contain four folders cataloging his transactions with Monticelli, many of which contain long lists of objects as well as some Polaroids such as the one depicted to the right, from which Tsirogiannis made his matching identification.

This photo depicts the kantharos unrestored, with a large chip in the rim and still covered with incrustations.  It appears to be standing on a wooden shelf in front of a barren concrete wall, possibly at Becchina's warehouse in Basel, or perhaps in a restorer's laboratory and in its entirety also depicts additional objects which have yet to be identified and may be in circulation on the market.

At some period after the object's restoration two photos of the kantharos are taken.  These are found in the Symes-Michaelides archive.  The photos showing the front and back of the object post restoration, and in keeping with the state of conservation found in the Bonhams auction photos as illustrated below.

Top Left & Bottom Left: Bonhams Photos
Top Right & Bottom Right: Symes-Michaelides archive Photos 
As is often the case with objects originating from these known dealers and middlemen one is curious as to the extent of the documentation, if any, was used by Bonhams to evaluate whether or not this particular ancient object had legitimacy on the ancient art market.

During past criminal proceedings then prosecutor Ferri spoke of the Becchina-Merrin relationship believing their involvement could possibly be part of a broader conspiracy to traffic in artifacts that involved the Americans then on trial.  As evidence lending credibility to his statement, a 1993 fax within the Becchina dossier from the Merrin Gallery to Becchina requests that photos of artifacts sent by the disgraced dealer to the Manhattan firm, used to show to potential customers, not be marked with "BEC."  In addition to that other artifacts which have been repatriated to Italy after being tied to Becchina also on occasion passed through the hands via this Manhattan gallery.  Some, later deemed illicit, were sold to various U.S. museums, including the J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles.

Shouldn't the lack of any known provenance before 1991, coupled with the name Merrin Galleries drawn some amount of cautious attention?  Curiosity?  Additional due diligence?

In my own curious searches in completion of this blog post, I asked Tsirogiannis at 07:52 this morning to look for the following object sold by Christie's auction house on June 4, 2008 in the confiscated archives.



This Apulian red-figure Lekanis, drew my attention for its equally spartan collection history but more importantly for the fact that it appears to be by the same workshop, that of the Iliupersis Painter and was aparently sold during a very active period with this particular trafficking band.

By 11:37 Tsirogiannis had found and I have confirmed, what appears to be a second matching object within the Becchina dossier, albeit the Christie's photo shows some overpainting. My impression that the red-figure Lekanis didn't pass the sniff test proved accurate.  According to Tsirogiannis' review, this antiquity comes from the same group of objects that Becchina bought from Monticelli on, you guessed it March 5, 1988!

Could this come from the same find spot?  Could Merrin have bought more of these objects from Becchina?


Let's hope that both auction houses will look into the records of the dealers consignors and purchasers affiliated with these objects.  While the Lekanis has long since been sold, it should be traceable to the current purchaser.  The second should be withdrawn from the London auction to allow the Italian and British authorities sufficient time to conduct a thorough investigation.

NB:  All Identifications have been submitted to the appropriate legal authorities.

By:  Lynda Albertson