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September 6, 2022

Museum restitutions are more than just the sum of their numbers

Image Credit - HSI - ICE

On 21 February 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Italian government signed an agreement under which the Met agreed to return 21artefacts looted from archaeological sites within Italy's borders. With that accord, the New York museum yielded its prized sixth-century BC "hot pot," a Greek vase known as the Euphronios krater.  

As part of that historic accord, the museum also relinquished a red-figured Attic amphora by the Berlin Painter; a red-figured Apulian Dinos attributed to the so-called Darius Painter; a psykter with horsemen; a Laconian kylix, and 16 rare Hellenistic silver pieces experts determined were illegally excavated from Morgantina in Sicilia.  It also included a carefully-worded clause which stated:

I) The Museum in rejecting any accusation that it had knowledge of the alleged illegal provenance in Italian territory of the assets claimed by Italy, has resolved to transfer the Requested Items in the context of this Agreement. This decision does not constitute any acknowledgement on the part of the Museum of any type of civil, administrative or criminal liability for the original acquisition or holding of the Requested Items. The Ministry and the Commission for Cultural Assets of the Region of Sicily, in consequence of this Agreement, waives any legal action on the grounds of said categories of liability in relation to the Requested Items.

Admitting no wrongdoing, where there surely was some, this unprecedented and then-considered watershed resolution, put an end to a decades-old cultural property dispute, with both sides choosing the soft power weapon of collaboration and diplomacy, complete with agreed upon press releases that enabled Italy to get its stolen property back without the need for costly and sometimes fruitless litigation.  

The signing of this 2006 agreement was thought to usher in a new spirit of cooperation between universal museums and source nations that those working in the field of cultural restitution hoped would permanently alter the balance of power in the international cultural property debate.  At the time of its signing at the Italian cultural ministry, the Met's then-director, Philippe de Montebello, said the agreement "corrects the improprieties and errors committed in the past."

Heritage advocates applauded the agreement, hopeful that museums around the globe would begin to more proactively explore their own problematic accessions and apply stricter museum acquisition policies to prevent looted material from entering into museum collections.  Coupled with collaborative loan agreements, museums and source country accords like this one, combined with strongly worded ethics advisories, like the one set forth that same year by the International Council of Museums in their ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums should have served to eliminate the bulk of problematic museum purchases and donations without the need for piece by piece requests for restitution and protracted and costly litigation. 

But has it? 

The aforementioned ICOM document clearly states: 

4.5 Display of Unprovenanced Material

Museums should avoid displaying or otherwise using material of questionable origin or lacking provenance. They should be aware that such displays or usage can be seen to condone and contribute to the illicit trade in cultural property.

8.5 The Illicit Market

Members of the museum profession should not support the illicit traffic or market in natural or cultural property, directly or indirectly.

Yet, here we are, 16 years after that signing of the Met-Italy accord, with the same universal museum [still] hanging on to and displaying material of questionable origin, long after their questionable handlers have been proven suspect. Likewise, 16 years later, and with the persistence of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit at New York District Attorney's Office in Manhattan, we see another 21 objects being seized last month from the largest art museum in the Western Hemisphere.   

In total, some 27 artefacts have been confiscated in the last year from the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  In 2022 alone, five search warrants have resulted in seizures of pieces from within the museum's collection,  demonstrating that the Met, and other universal museums like it, (i.e., the Musée du Louvre and the Louvre Abu Dhabi) have yet to satisfactorily master the concepts of “provenance” research and “due diligence”. 

Founded in 1870, the MMA's mission statement states that it "collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across time and cultures in order to connect all people to creativity, knowledge, ideas, and one another."  Yet, despite holding many problematic artefacts purchased, not only the distant past, but also in the recent, the Met still struggles with the practical steps it should be taking regarding object provenance and exercising due diligence, both before and after accessioning purchases and donated material into their collection.

As everyone [should] know by now, the concept of provenance refers to the history of a cultural object, from its creation to its final destination.  Due diligence, on the other hand, refers to a behavioural obligation of vigilance on the part of the purchaser, or any person involved in the transfer of ownership of a cultural object, (i.e., museum curators, directors, legal advisors etc.,).  This need for due diligence stretches beyond the search for the historical provenance of the object, but needs to also strive to establish whether or not an object has been stolen or illegally exported.  

So while we applaud the Metropolitan Museum of Art for having been fully supportive of the Manhattan district attorney’s office investigations, as has been mentioned in relation to the August 2022 seizure, we would be remiss to not  question why, in the last 16 years, and despite the fact that the “Met’s policies and procedures in this regard have been under constant review over the past 20 years,” the museum has still not addressed these problematic pieces head on.  

This museum is home to more than two million objects. Despite the responsibility and gravitas required for building and caring for such a large collection of the world's cultural and artistic heritage, the Met has yet to establish a single dedicated position, with the requisite and necessary expertise, to proactively address the problematic pieces it has acquired in the past, and to serve as a set of much needed set of breaks, when evaluating future acquisitions, so that the next generation of identified traffickers, don't also profit from the museum's coffers as they did with the $3.95 million dollar golden coffin inscribed for Nedjemankh and five other Egyptian antiques worth over $3 million confiscated from the museum under a May 19 court order.  

For the most part, provenance has been carried out haphazardly, and by only one or two people, working in specific departments, primarily in curatorial research rolls that only covering specific historical time frames or one or two material cultures. The lack of that comprehensive expertise brings us to apologetic press statements and a plethora of seizures like ones we have seen over the last year.  

But moving on to what was seized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 13 July 2022. The $11 million worth of objects include: 

a. A bronze plate dated ca. 550 BCE ,measuring 11.25 inches tall, and valued at $300,000.  

This artefact was donated by Norbert Schimmel, a trustee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who, during his tenure, was member of the Met's acquisitions committee.  By 1982 he was known to be purchasing antiquities from Robin Symes via Xoilan Trading Inc., Geneva.  This firm shared a Geneva warehouse address (No. 7 Avenue Krieg in Geneva) with two of Giacomo Medici’s companies, Gallerie Hydra and Edition Services.

Symes is noted as being one of the leading international merchants of clandestinely excavated archeology.  His name appears in connection with four different objects in this Met seizure. 


b. A marble head of Athena, dated ca. 200 BCE, measuring 19 inches tall and valued at $3,000,000.  

This Marble Head of Athena was with Robin Symes until 1991, then passing to Brian Aitken of Acanthus Gallery in 1992.  It was then sold to collectors Morris J. and Camila Abensur Pinto, who in turn, loaned the artefact to the Met in 1995.  It was then purchased by the Metropolitan in 1996.  

Symes's name appears in connection with four different objects in this Met seizure, while Aitken's name comes up frequently as having bought from red flag dealers.  His name appears in connection with two different objects in this Met seizure. 


c. A fragmentary terracotta neck-amphora, dated ca. 540 BCE, measuring 14.75 inches tall and valued at $350,000. 

This fragmented neck-amphora was purchased by the Met from Robert Hecht (Atlantis Antiquities) in 1991.  Four years later, Hecht's name would appear in seized evidence outlining his key position at the top of two trafficking cordata on a pyramid org chart which spelled out seventeen individuals involved in one interconnected illicit trafficking network.  

Archaeological artefacts sold by Hecht have been traced to the collections of the Met, the British Museum, the Musee du Louvre, and numerous other U.S. and European institutions, many of which have been determined to have come from clandestine excavations.

Polaroids photographs of this artefact, shot after the advent of Polaroids in 1972, are among the seized materials found within the Giacomo Medici archive.  These photos  depict the neck-amphora balanced precariously on a rose-colored upholstered chair. 

As mentioned above, Hecht's name appears in connection with three different objects in this Met seizure. 


d. A terracotta red-figure kylix, dated ca. 490 BCE, measuring 13 inches in diameter, and valued at $1,200,000.

This fragmented kylix was purchased from Frederique Marie Nussberger-Tchacos in 1988 and consolidated with other terracotta fragments purchased earlier from Robert Hecht in 1979. 

In 2002 Tchacos was the subject of an Italian arrest warrant in connection with antiquities laundering.  And again, as mentioned above, Hecht's name appears in connection with three different objects in this Met seizure. 


e. A marble head of a horned youth wearing a diadem, dated 300-100 BCE measuring 14 inches tall, and valued at $1,500,000.

This marble head of a horned youth wearing a diadem passed through the ancient art collection of Nobel Prize winner Kojiro Ishiguro, another client of Robin Symes.  It was then purchased by Robert A. and Renee E. Belfer when sold by the Ishiguro family via Ariadne Galleries.  Afterwards it was gifted by the Belfers to the Met in 2012. 


f. A gilded silver phiale, dated ca. 600-500 BCE, measuring 8 inches in diameter, and valued at $300,000. 

This long-contested gilded silver phiale was purchased via Robert E. Hecht in 1994.  As mentioned previously Hecht's name appears in connection with three different objects in this Met seizure. 


g. A glass situla (bucket) with silver handles, dated ca. 350-300 BCE, measuring 10.5 inches tall, and valued at $400,000.

This unique glass situla was purchased by the Met through Merrin Gallery in 2000. Photos and proof of sale of this artefact are documented in the archive of suspect dealer Gianfranco Becchina.  Correspondence within in the Becchina Archive cache of business records shows communication between the Sicilian dealer and Ed Merrin and/or his gallery dating back to the 1980s.  In the book, The Medici Conspiracy, by Peter Watson and Cecelia Todeschini, the writers cite one letter written by Merrin Gallery to Becchina, where Becchina was asked not to write his name on the back of photos of antiquities he sent for consideration.

Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure. Merrin Gallery appears in connection with multiple objects within this seizure. 


h. A terracotta lekythos, dated ca. 560-550 BCE, measuring 5.3 inches tall and valued at $20,000.

This terracotta lekythos was purchased from Galerie Antike Kunst Palladion in 1985 the same year Becchina sold a suspect krater by the Ixion painter to the Musée du Louvre. 

As mentioned above, Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.


i. A terracotta mastos, dated ca. 520 BCE, measuring 5.5 inches in diameter and valued at $40,000.

Before he even moved to Switzerland, Gianfranco Becchina was already selling to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1975.  According to the Met's records, which we believe contain a date error, this terracotta nipple-shaped cup was purchased from Antike Kunst Palladion in 1975.  However, records show that Becchina emigrated from Castelvetrano in Sicily to Basel, Switzerland after having undergone a bankruptcy procedure in 1976 and formed the Swiss business that same year.

As mentioned previously, Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.


j. A fragment of a black-figure terracotta plate, dated ca. 550 BCE, measuring 3 by 2.5 inches and valued at $4,000.

This fragment, attributed to Lydos, was purchased by the Metropolitan from Galerie Antike Kunst Palladion in 1985. 

As mentioned above, Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.


k. A fragment of a black-figure terracotta amphora, dated ca. 530 BCE, measuring 2 by 2.6 inches and valued at $1,500.

This fragment, attributed to the Amasis Painter, was purchased from Galerie Antike Kunst Palladion in 1985.

As mentioned previously, Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.


1. A pair of Apulian gold cylinders, dated ca. 600-400 BCE, measuring 2.25 inches in diameter and valued at $10,000. 

This pair of gold Apulian cylinders was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1981 by Mr. and Mrs. Gianfranco Becchina.

As mentioned above, Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.


m. A bronze helmet of Corinthian type, dated 600-550 BCE, measuring 8.5 by 7.75 and valued at $225,000.

This helmet is one of five Met-donated helmets identified as being part of the Bill Blass collection between 1992 and 2002.  It joined the Met in 2003.  Within the Gianfranco Becchina archive is a page of five Polaroid photographs,which depict multiple bronze helmets, including those from the Bill Blass collection which are part of this seizure. 

Also, among the Becchina archive documentary material are two business documents believed to be related to these transactions. 

The first is a 1989 multi-page export document for a grouping of objects being exported to Merrin Gallery indicating the sale of three helmets, one of which is described as "one South Italian Greek Bronze Helmet of the so-called Corinthian type, with bronze pins remaining for the attachment of the lining. "

The second is a fax correspondence from Becchina to Samuel Merrin discussing some sort of transfer regarding a single helmet and Acanthus Gallery.

As mentioned previously, Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.  Merrin Gallery appears in connection with multiple objects within this seizure. 


n. A bronze helmet of South Italian-Corinthian type, dated mid-4th-mid-3rd century BCE, measuring 7.75 inches tall and valued at $125,000.

Like the previous one, this helmet is one of five Met-donated helmets identified as being part of the Bill Blass collection between 1992 and 2002.  It joined the Met in 2003.  Within the Gianfranco Becchina archive is a page of five Polaroid photographs, which depict multiple bronze helmets, including those from the Bill Blass collection which are part of this seizure. 

Also, among the Becchina archive documentary material are two business documents believed to be related to these transactions. 

The first is a 1989 multi-page export document for a grouping of objects being exported to Merrin Gallery indicating the sale of three helmets, Two of which are described as "two South Italian Greek Bronze Helmets, both decorated with incised animals, one with restings [sic] of a plume holder on top."

The second is a fax correspondence from Becchina to Samuel Merrin discussing some sort of transfer regarding a single helmet and Acanthus Gallery.

As mentioned previously, Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.  Merrin Gallery appears in connection with multiple objects within this seizure. 

o. A bronze helmet of Apulian-Corinthian type dated 350-250 BCE, measuring 12 inches tall and valued at $175,000

Like the previous one, this is one of five Met-donated helmets identified as being part of the Bill Blass collection between 1992 and 2002.  It joined the Met in 2003.  Within the Gianfranco Becchina archive is a page of five Polaroid photographs, which depict multiple bronze helmets, including those from the Bill Blass collection which are part of this seizure. 

Also, among the Becchina archive documentary material are three paper business documents. 

The first is a 1989 multi-page export document for a grouping of objects being exported to Merrin Gallery indicating the sale of three helmets,  two of which are described as "two South Italian Greek Bronze Helmets, both decorated with incised animals, one with restings [sic] of a plume holder on top."

The second is a fax correspondence from Becchina to Samuel Merrin discussing some sort of transfer regarding a single helmet and Acanthus Gallery.

The third is a photocopy of this object with a red line through the image and v/ Me written below. While not conclusive, V/Me most likely refers to venduto (sold) Merrin.  

As mentioned previously, Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.  Merrin Gallery appears in connection with multiple objects within this seizure. 


p. A white-ground terracotta kylix attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter, dated ca. 470 BCE. measuring 6.5 inches in diameter and valued at $1,500,000.

This rare Terracotta kylix is the second highest value item of all 21 artefacts seized.  It joined the Met in 1979. Unfortunately it too was purchased via the Galerie Antike Kunst Palladion.

As mentioned above, Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.


q. A marble head of a bearded man, dated 200-300 CE, measuring 12.2 inches tall and valued at $350,000.

This marble head of a bearded man joined the Met in 1993, purchased from Acanthus Gallery operated by Brian Tammas Aitken.  Gianfranco Becchina archive documents an October 1988 sales receipt to Aitken for "3 Roman Marble heads" for 85,000 Fr.  

As mentioned above, Aitken's name comes up frequently as having bought from red flag dealers and appears on two different objects in this Met seizure. Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.


r. A terracotta statuette of a draped goddess, dated 450-300 BCE,  measuring 14.75 inches tall and valued at $400,000.

This terracotta statuette of a draped goddess was donated to the Met by Robin Symes in 2000, in memory of his deceased partner Christos Michaelides.  His name appears in connection with four different objects in this Met seizure. 


s. A bronze statuette of Jupiter, dated 250-300 CE, measuring 11.5 inches tall and valued at $350,000.

This bronze statuette of Jupiter was acquired by the Met via Bruce McAlpine in 1997. Prior to his death, UK dealer McAlpin had dealings with Robin Symes, Giacomo Medici, and Gianfranco Becchina.


t. Marble statuettes of Castor and Pollux (on loan), dated 400-500 CE, measuring 24 inches tall and valued at $800,000.

The Dioskouroi had been on anonymous loan to the Metropolitan Museum since 2008 as L.2008.18.1, .2. While the Museum's loan accession record has been removed, a Met catalogue informs us that the statues were "probably from the Mithraeum in Sidon, excavated in the 19th century". 

With a bit more digging Dr. David Gill was able to get further details from the Met itself.  They indicated the pair had come from an "ex private collection, Lebanon; Asfar & Sarkis, Lebanon, 1950s; George Ortiz Collection, Geneva, Switzerland; collection of an American private foundation, Memphis, acquired in the early 1980s".

At some point along their journey, the pair passed through the Merrin Gallery where they were published by Cornelius C. Vermeule, in Re:Collections (Merrin Gallery, 1995).

While a seemingly professional photo of these objects exists in the confiscated Robin Symes Archive, that photo depicts the object prior to restoration.  In that photo,  Castor's leg, and the leg of his horse behind him, are missing.  By the time they arrive to the Met on loan, the two limbs have been reattached. 

As mentioned above, Merrin Gallery appears in connection with multiple objects within this seizure. 


and lastly,

u. A fragment of a terracotta amphora attributed to the Amasis Painter, dated ca. 550 BCE, measuring 3.25 by 4.5 inches and valued at $2,000. 

This terracotta amphora fragment is attributed to the Amasis Painter. It is one of many examples of fragments bought via Gianfranco Becchina's gallery, Galerie Antike Kunst.  It was acquired+gifted by Dietrich von Bothmer to the Met in 1985.

Gianfranco Becchina's name or company name appears in connection with twelve different objects in this Met seizure.


But these seized pieces are more than the sum of these numbers.  They tell us a lot about this one museum's particular lethargy in dealing with or voluntarily relinquishing problematic pieces before being handed a court order.

One thing is certain though, museums reputations certainly do not benefit when dragged into adversarial, long-winded, and sometimes costly claims for restitution.  Nor do they benefit from having their name up in lights when objects are seized on the basis of investigations the museum would have been wise to have done themselves. 

Waiting until either of the above happens also runs counter to, and impedes, the essential purposes of museums, which should be about presenting their collections in innovative ways, and fostering understanding between communities and cultures. The Met would have been better off providing open and equitable discourse about their collection's problems before their hand was forced, as waiting until after says a lot about their true collecting values. 

When museums hedge their bets, hoping that the public's memory is short, or crossing their fingers that source countries are too disorganised, too undermanned or to poor to spend hours looking for problematic works they will pay the price later.  Far better to avoid the painfully slow, one seizure after another reality, and the negative spotlight and mistrust that comes with it, by doing what all museums should be doing, i.e., conscientiously conducting the necessary provenance research and due diligence on their past and potential acquisitions.

Image Credit - HSI - ICE

To close this article, we would like to announce that today, New York DA Bragg returned 58 stolen antiquities valued at over $18 million, to the people of Italy, including a goodly number of the 21 pieces mentioned above.

Image Credit - HSI - ICE

In closing, ARCA would like to thank DA Bragg, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit; Assistant District Attorneys Yuval Simchi-Levi, Taylor Holland, and Bradley Barbour, Supervising Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer, Investigative Analysts Giuditta Giardini, Alyssa Thiel, Daniel Healey, and Hilary Chassé; who alongside Special Agents John Paul Labbat and Robert Mancene of Homeland Security Investigations as well as Warrant Officer Angelo Ragusa of the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, Dr. Daniella Rizzo, Dr. Stefano Alessandrini, and Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis gave crucial contributions to the knowledge we have about when, and where, and with whom, these recovered artefacts circulated. 

ARCA would also like to personally thank Assistant District Attorney Bogdanos for the trust he puts in the contribution of forensic analysts inside ARCA and working with other organisation. He and his team's approach and openness has proven time and time again, that such collaboration is worthwhile and fruitful. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

March 12, 2021

Conference: "Violated national heritage: theft, trafficking and restitution"

 Violated national heritage: theft, trafficking and restitution
Organizer: The Society for the History of Collecting
Registration Fee:  Free with registration
Location: Virtual
Date: Tuesday, 23 March 2021
Time: 17:30 – 20:30 CET

Have you ever wondered how ancient art from countries such as Egypt, Greece and Rome came to fill European and American museums? And how did Pacific collections come into being? This conference, with a dynamic list of international speakers, will address how collecting antiquities has been regulated, circumvented and trafficked. It will also examine how the criminal orbit operates, how heritage-rich countries confront the trafficking of their patrimony and how museums are involved in such debates.

These talks will present an overall picture of the international situation with regard to patrimony laws, looting, illicit trade, faking provenance and money laundering. The dark side of the trade takes many forms and may include forgeries and falsification of provenance. Both source and receiving countries have sharpened their laws, policing and prosecutions towards restitution.

This conference, organised by Dr. Eleni Vassilika, is aimed not only at students but also art world and museum professionals, indeed anyone interested to hear the latest information, much of which is unpublished, and to learn more about the realities behind these key issues.


Chair: Dr. T. E. Stammers, Durham University

Vernon Rapley (Director of Cultural Heritage Protection and Security) & Laura Jones (Cultural Heritage Preservation Lead): The V&A’s Culture in Crisis Programme;

Eleni Vassilika, Former museum director (Hildesheim and Turin), on the operations of placing illicit Egyptian antiquities in museums;

Christos Tsirogiannis, Assoc. Prof. and AIAS-COFUND Research Fellow, Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Aarhus, formerly at the Archaeological Unit at Cambridge, as well as the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Greek Police Art Squad: on recent thefts and restitutions to Greece;

Lynda Albertson, CEO, Association for Research into Crimes against Art: Hiding in plain sight with the help of the art market's laundrymen: Reflections on the restitution and “grey” market in Italy's antiquities;

Hilke Thode Arora, Keeper Oceanic collections (Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich), on Pacific ‘gifts’;

Ian Richardson, Registrar for Treasure Trove (The British Museum), on how the TTAct functions;

Roland Foord, Senior Partner, Stephenson Harwood LLP, on procedures for restitution.

Please note that this event was meant to take place at the V&A in March 2020, but was cancelled. The Society for the History of Collecting is grateful to the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards, the V&A and the Gilbert Trust for the Arts for their support.

To register for this event, see the Society's Eventbrite page here.

June 29, 2020

Object Alert: An Illicit antiquity breezes through the windy city

Hindman Auction Catalogue - 16 June 2020
Lot 157
Most of the time, when one thinks of illicit antiquities one imagines them transiting their way through lofty auction showrooms in London, New York, or more recently, as was in the news last week, Paris.  One doesn't usually suspect a homegrown auction house, from the windy city of Chicago, as a place to spot hot art that once passed through the hands of one of Italy's most notorious bad boys, art dealer Giacomo Medici.  But the market for looted or unprovenanced cultural property in America is still going strong and plundered artefacts have the tendency to scatter farther than you think.  Sometimes, when they do, they turn up in places that we don't expect, well, at least until we do.

An art dealer who post-sentence resides in an expansive seaside villa west of Rome, Giacomo Medici was convicted 13 December 2004 of participation in an organized criminal group as its principal promoter and organizer.  Men in his network plundered large swaths of Italy's territory, with the network's loot making its way into some of the world's most prestigious museums and lining the shelves of extravagant private collections.  But despite the sixteen years that have past since his conviction, Medici's ill-gotten wares continue to bubble to the surface, not unlike Italian gnocchi, one object at a time, in slow dribs and drabs and usually not even mentioning his name as was the case with this recent artefact.

This time, in late June, an investigation lead by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in collaboration with the New York District Attorney's Office and the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage turned up another one of Giacomino's antiquities, this time at Chicago's very own, Hindman Auctioneers, a firm which merged in 2019 with Ohio-based Cowan's and shortened its name from Leslie Hindman to just plain Hindman

Photographed on pages 116 and 117 of Hindman's 16 June 2020 Antiquities and Islamic Art catalogue, Lot 15, A Roman Marble Torso of a Faun with a Goose lists the artefact's provenance succinctly: 

Private Collection. London, acquired in New York in the early 1990s 
Oliver Forge & Brendan Lynch. London, 2013

What was provided to back up this claim, or what import, export, or shipping documents were submitted to demonstrate that this Italian antiquity's passages into the United States previously, then back across the sea to the UK, then back into Chicago were legitimate, leaves me curious. 

With no difficulty, and without auction consignment profits to incentivise (or disincentivise) my due diligence, I was quickly, and without too much trouble, able to find and cross-reference the 2013 sale via the Forge & Lynch Antiquities - Including the Collection of Ernst Langlotz (1895-1978) catalogue.   This sales PDF documented the previous sale of the mythological half-human, half-goat, creature with a discreet tail in a two-page spread.

Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd.,
Antiquities - Including the Collection of Ernst Langlotz (1895-1978) Catalogue - 2013

Joint proprietors of the art dealership Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd., Forge and Lynch left Sotheby’s in London in 1997 when the auction house began winding down its London antiquities sales and continued working together for their own ancient art gallery formed in the UK in July 2000.  Both art dealers are familiar with the problem children antiquities dealers of yesteryear from their Sotheby's days, and both have continued to get their reputations scorched brokering suspect art via more recent problematic dealers like Subhash Kapoor. 

So even without Medici's name clearly printed on anything provenance-y provided by the Faun's consignor to Hindman, one has to question first where Forge & Lynch themselves got the piece, and secondly, their own provenance entry for the earlier sale of this artefact, which reads: 

Probably acquired in New York, early 1990s  
Private collection, London, early 1990s-2013

This entry leads me to ask why Hindman changed the "probably acquired in New York" to definitely acquired in New York.  It is also curious why Hindman left off the non-specific "Private collection" in London which at first shakes, might appear less problematic than Robin Symes, whose name appears elsewhere in the June catalogue for LOT 83 from this sale. 

Did someone at Hindman find paperwork that changed the Faun's purported New York acquisition from probable into definite?  And what about that private collection in London from the 1990s until 2013.  Wasn't that one line, even vaguely written, not naming names worth mentioning on the big empty space of the full-page advertisement for the sculpture?  So why did Hindman elect to omit this detail?  

My hunch is that Hindman, who voluntarily relinquished the sculpture of the Faun to the authorities once evidence was presented by law enforcement, operates under the assumption that the occasional confiscation of a found-to-be-looted antiquity identified in their sales catalogues is a reasonable cost of doing business in the murky world of ancient art.  

Risks Hindman has already proved willing to take in the past and that illicit antiquities researcher Christos Tsirogiannis, cooperating with HSI-ICE, pointed out in an earlier Hindman auction, published in the auction house's Worldly Pursuits: An Adventurer’s Collection. The Estate of Steve and Peggy Fossett catalogue. In that sale, Tsirogiannis identified three antiquities which matched archival photos in the Medici and Symes archives which proved that the objects had once passed through, or been shared with the networks of Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes, and Christo Michaelides.

But let's go back to this month's Hindman, June 16th auction catalogue.  In this summer's sale, 127 objects out of 273 are listed without any provenance dates whatsoever.  Of the 146 remaining objects included in the catalogue which do list some date references:

15 show collection history dates which predate the UNESCO 1970s convention;
12 show collection history dates only to the 1970s;
85 show collection history dates only to the 1980s;
32 show collection history dates only to the 1990s;
and 2 only go back as far as the 2000s.

Knowing that illicit trafficking eyes cannot monitor every single sale, or inquire about every single object consigned to every auction house around the world, leaving out provenance details creates an environment conducive for a game of risk, with dealers more than willing to play, chalking up any losses from the occasional identified object after it has been illegally exported, as inventory shrinkage.

By limiting the details of what is written in provenance descriptions for objects being sold, dealers and auction houses create intentional impediments to those who try to research an object's legitimacy, making it more difficult to discern when an antiquity has passed through the hands of suspect dealers and when a legitimate object has simply been badly documented by a previous owner careless with their receipts.  And that's just speaking to those interested enough, and with the time to dedicate to actually monitor the previous sales of ancient artefacts.

According to a new report published to the LiveAuctioneers website, this inaugural Hindman ancient art auction brought in nearly $1M in sales, proving once again, that despite all the academics screaming about the necessity for clean provenance, buyers of ancient art, for the most part, are not unduly curious about the collection histories of their potential ancient art purchases.  Likewise, more collectors continue to be oblivious or disengaged as to whether or not the antiquities market is problematic and whether or not their lack of curiosity, and lack of due diligence before buying, acts as a catalyst for the destruction of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean world.

Should Hindman have known better with this artefact and should they have been more forthcoming with all of the collection histories listed for this $1M sale's catalogue? Yes and yes.

Hindman Auctioneers was founded by Leslie Hindman in Chicago in 1982.  The firm was not born yesterday, therefore they should be aware of the problems of illicit material infiltrating the ancient art market.  Thomas Galbraith who took over from Leslie Hindman as CEO of the company she founded, (she remains on the board) previously worked as Artnet’s director of global strategy and as interim CEO for Google Venture's start-up Twyla, an online sales platform for art, meaning they both are experienced in art world sales. Given the people at Hindman's helm, and the company's sales presence on the Live Auctioneers sales portal, it also stands to reason that the Chicago auction house has employees with sufficient technical abilities and talent to Google the legitimacy of the objects they accept on consignment and the names of dealers which are problematic.  Given that neither Galbraith nor Hindman are new to the problems of the world, one can assume that their lack of transparency when it comes to collection publishing collection histories for the objects they auction is a conscious choice.

But despite all this, the windy city seems to be gaining ground in the art market. Phillips and Bonhams, both based in London, having opened there, alongside already existing Christie's, and Sotheby's, to keep Hindman company. And browsing through the names of important London and New York ancient art dealers like Charles Ede Ltd., and Royal Athena Galleries whose's pieces were selling in this June's Hindman catalogue, it seems apropos to remind collectors of ancient art (once again) of the need to open their eyes and ask for proof of legitimacy, before simply forking over cash for what might turn out to be tomorrow's new seizure. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

June 10, 2020

A Greek Horse in the US Courts

Image Credit: ARCA
Screenshot taken 02 May 2018

A little more than two years ago, on 01 May 2018 ARCA was informed by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark that a suspect bronze Greek figure of a horse was on consignment as part of an upcoming Sotheby's auction scheduled for 14 May 2018 titled "The Shape of the Beauty: Sculpture from the Collection of Howard and Saretta Barnet." The illicit trafficking researcher had matched the 8th century BCE statuette to three photos found in the confiscated Robin Symes archive. 

Three, (3) photos from the Symes -Michaelides archive
provided by Christos Tsirogiannis
This was the second of two objects in the Barnet collection which have been discovered to have passed through the hands of dealers known for having worked with looters and middlemen.  The first, according to antiquities scholar Professor David Gill, was a 550 BCE Black-Figure Kylix attributed to the Hunt Painter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which the Barnet family donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999 and which was relinquished by the museum via a transfer in title in a negotiation completed with the Italian Ministry of Culture on February 21, 2006.

Given the multijurisdictional nature of the identification, Tsirogiannis had already sent his findings to INTERPOL given that the source country could be Italy or Greece and the object was presently up for sale in a New York auction house.  

After receiving a letter of concern from the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic on 11 May 2018, who asserted that a circa-8th century BCE bronze horse was the property of Greece, Sotheby’s withdrew the Lot from auction in order to allow the interested parties time to discuss their findings.  Unable to find a mutually satisfactory solution, the estate of Howard and Saretta Barnet and Sotheby’s together filed a lawsuit, Barnet et al v. Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic, in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York on 5 June 2018 seeking a declaratory judgment that the bronze horse had been "acquired lawfully and in good faith" by Howard and Saretta Barnet who purchased the Bronze Horse on or about 16 November 1973, for £15,000 and was, therefore, the family's property to dispose of.  The lawsuit, the first of its kind involving an auction house, aimed in some part, to hold the country of Greece responsible for the financial losses Sotheby’s and the family incurred as a result of what the litigating parties believe was an unjustified claim by the Ministry.

On 5 November 2018 Greece filed a motion to dismiss, asserting immunity from litigation, and moved to dismiss Barnet et al's Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) arguing that the U.S. District Court didn't have the jurisdiction to hear a case involving a foreign nation, per the terms of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a 1976 US law codified at Title 28, §§ 1330, 1332, 1391(f), 1441(d), and 1602–1611 of the United States Code, that establishes the limitations as to whether a foreign sovereign nation (or its political subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities) may be sued in U.S. courts.

On 21 June 2019 U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla rejected Greece’s motion to dismiss citing a small technicality in the current legal framework ruling that the formal inquiry letter from the Greek Ministry of Culture to Sotheby's, requesting that the auction house withdraw the lot until its provenance and exit from Greece could be researched, fell under the commercial activity exception, something which, if affirmed on appeal, might have ended the Greek's claim right then and there. 

By mid-July 2019 the Greek Ministry through their attorney, Leila Amineddoleh, had filed a Notice of Interlocutory Appeal and a Motion to stay litigation in the case, which Judge Failla quickly granted pending appeal. 

Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling stating in their opinion that Greece's act of sending its letter to the auction house was not in connection with a commercial activity outside of the United States and was the country's enactment and enforcement of patrimony laws which are by their very nature, archetypal sovereign activities.  The Appeals Court concluded that the District Court had erred in concluding that it had jurisdiction and the case was remanded with instructions to dismiss the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

There are many challenges posed by how the courts, and judges, interpret the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and its "commercial" and "expropriation" exceptions.  This case though had a happy ending for Greece. 

February 16, 2020

Christies Auction Identification and Restitution: A Roman Marble Sarcophagus Fragment of Sidmara Type

Christie's, London, 4 December 2019
Catalog Cover and Lot 481 – Description
Note:  This blog post has been revised with further information on 17 February 2019.

While I was focused on the provenance of an Etruscan antefix in Christie's antiquities auction last December, more on that outcome in another article at a later date, the Turkish authorities were interested in another ancient object which was on consignment in the same auction. In the auction house’s catalog, the marble artefact was listed as: a Roman Marble Sarcophagus Fragment of Sidamara Type, Circa 2nd-3rd Century B.C.

Christie's had listed the provenance for Lot 481 in the December 4, 2019 sale as follows:

German private collection. The Property of a German private collector; Antiquities, Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989, lot 112. with Atelier Amphora, Lugano, acquired at the above sale. 

They also gave a lengthy description to illustrate how a Sidamara sarcophagus might have ended up with an Italian ancient art dealer in Lugano, Italy.

Their description read:

Sidamara type sarcophagi were decorated in high relief on all four sides and usually placed in the centre of a tomb in an open burial ground so they could be viewed in the round. The decoration featured complex architectural designs with figures placed in arched niches separated by fluted columns. Despite their monumental dimensions and weight, they were exported all over Asia Minor and even to Greece and Italy, with several examples found on the coast at Izmir, which was probably the shipping point to the West. A Sidamara-type sarcophagus, similar to the present example, while no doubt sculpted in Asia Minor, was excavated near the town of Rapolla in Southern Italy, and is now in the Museo Nazionale del Melfese, in the Castle of Melfi. The type was also copied in the West, probably being produced by Asiatic sculptors who migrated to Italy.

While a review of the earlier Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989 description for Lot 112 is pretty much the same in terms of origin, the sale entry had no provenance details listed whatsoever.

Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 112 - Description
And the Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989 auction has other similar fragments including:

Lot 83
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 83 - Image and Description

Lot 84
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 84 - Image

Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 84 - Description
Lot 111
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 111 - Image
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 84 - Description
But let's take a closer look at who the dealer was who operated Atelier Amphora

The owner of Atelier Amphora was Mario Bruno, a prominent intermediary dealer, known to have handled illicit antiquities covering a swath of Italy in the 1980s and 1990s.  Before his death, in 1993, his name could be found, front and center, on many antiquities ancient art transactions from that period.  Several other objects with Atelier Amphora were also up for auction in the same December Christie's sale.

Bruno's first initial and last name also featured in the now famous Medici organigram.  Listed mid-way down the page on the left, the creator of the org chart listed the territories Bruno covered: Lugano, Cerveteri, Torino, North Italy, Rome, Lazio, Campania, Puglia, Sardinia, and Sicily.

In an article in the Journal of Art Crime (Spring 2013) Christos Tsirogiannis writes of Bruno's history saying: 

"According to the Becchina archive (CD 1, pagina 5, foto 1375), Mario Bruno -- who was known as a "receiver of stolen goods" (Watson & Todeschini 2007:86) and "a major grave-robber" (Isman 2008:30) sold 12 antiquities to Gianfranco Becchina, on 22 August 1987. "

Bruno also is known to have played a role in the fencing of one of Italy's most important recoveries, the Capitoline Triad, a representation of the central pediment of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.  This marble sculpture is known to have been illegally excavated in 1992 by a well-known tombarolo from the town of Anguillara Sabazia named Pietro Casasantawho brokered a deal with Mario Bruno to sell the Triad, with the Lugano dealer as the primary middleman between the looter and a Swiss buyer.

Documents and imagery also attest that Bruno handled a substantial Etruscan terracotta sarcophagus, the lid of which depicted a sculpted couple lying on the triclinium, similar to only two others, artifacts now held in the Louvre Museum in Paris and in the Villa Giulia in Rome. (Isman 2009)  That looted Etruscan antiquity has unfortunately never resurfaced.

All this to say that the fact that something stolen or looted, or something as big and heavy as portions of an illicit sarcophagus, having passed through this Bruno's hands is not at all surprising. What is provocative is that we again have an contemporary example of a major auction house, who prides itself on the legitimacy of their offerings, organizing the sale of a poorly vetted ancient object which dates to the Roman period, with no other provenance recording its presence on the licit market before its December 1989 sale, on consignment by a long-dead suspect dealer.

Fast forward to 2019 

Staff working with Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism identified the sarcophagus fragment while cross-checking the catalog Christie's had prepared for their December 4, 2019 auction in London. (T.C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı 2020) By now the Turkish authorities were aware of the 1989 Sotheby's sale in the UK and were alert for this and another fragment’s reappearance in the London market.  Having identified their artifact the Ministry of Culture contacted their INTERPOL National Central Bureau (NCB) and Europol affiliates through established law enforcement procedures and began voicing their concerns with the Metropolitan Police in London. The Turkish authorities then provided their British counterparts with documentation which substantiated their claim that sarcophagus fragment was the property of Turkey and Scotland Yard officers spoke with the auction firm.  Christie's in turn agreed to have the object withdrawn from the sale, pending an investigation. 

But where did the sarcophagus come from? 

The sarcophagus was first identified and documented as having been discovered, broken into five fragments, by the Isparta Göksöğüt Municipality in the 1980s.  At some point later, the pieces were moved from their original find spot to the Municipality where they were then photographed in 1987 by Mehmet Özsait.  In 1988 the finds were transferred to the Isparta Museum Directorate but were recorded as consisting of only three large marble fragments along with a few smaller pieces. How the object was moved out of Turkey is not known or has not been disclosed.
However, two years after the photo was taken, the two missing fragments had already made their way to London and were published in a Sotheby's catalog.  The object fragments were then sold at auction on December 11, 1989, to two different buyers.

It wasn't until 2015 when German classical archaeologist Volker Michael Strocka, researching a specific sub-genus of Asian sarcophagus, referred to as columnar sarcophagi, helped to reconcile that two of the fragments represented in the archival photographic record were unaccounted for.  Given sufficient evidence that the marble sculpture had been illegally smuggled out of Turkey and into the U.K., all parties involved worked together to successfully mediate the object's return through discreet negotiations with the consignor.  This is the same methodology used by London’s Metropolitan Police for the restitution of the a Post-Gupta, seated Buddha in the Bhumisparsha Mudra pose identified in 2018 which was stolen in 1961, appeared for sale at TEFAF in 2018, and upon identification, was voluntarily relinquished by the consignor back to the source country. 

Columnar sarcophagi in the Roman Empire came from Docimium, an ancient city in Phrygia, in the west central part of Anatolia, or what is now known as Asian Turkey.  Known for their famous marble quarries, Sidamara type sarcophagi were also shipped to other areas of the Roman Empire, including Italy, just as Christie's stated.  But in the case of this particular object, the artefact returning home to Turkey seems to be a very close match to other Phrygia fragments still in Turkey that I was able to find quite easily with only a few hours research.

One set of fragments I found photographs of are a part of the Isparta Museum's collection though I am not yet sure if these come from the same sarcophagus Volker Michael Strocka matched the missing pieces to.  Interestingly, as recently as 2018, another group of 100 kilo pieces were seized by the gendarmerie when smugglers were caught trying to sell them showing that the climate for looting costly ancient artifacts similar to this restituted piece has not changed much between 1987 and 2018. Yet how the objects came to be in Bruno's hands, and who he was working with in Turkey, is worth exploring in the future. As are any other items which come up for sale with this dealer's thumbprint.

Similar fragments from Sidamara type sarcophagi found at Sarkikaraagac in the district of Isparta and now located at the Isparta Archaeological Museum
Image Credit: by Roberto Piperno

For now, the fragment has made its way home, arriving on the 15th of February 2020 along with another identified stolen antiquity via special arrangements with Turkish Airlines. The sculpture will now be presented to the press at a formal ceremony at the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara, along with the other recently recovered object, which will be attended by Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, Turkey's Culture and Tourism.

By: Lynda Albertson

January 21, 2020

Marc Masurovsky returns to Amelia this summer to teach "Provenance Research, Theory and Practice” at ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection

By Edgar Tijhuis 

This year, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will be held from May 29 till August 12 in the heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy. In the months leading up to the start of the program, this year’s professors will be interviewed. In this one, I am speaking with Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. 

Can you tell us something about your background and work? 

I was born and raised in Paris, France, of American artists, one figurative, the other abstract. I took an early interest in history and especially in the politics and economics of fascism and national socialism. My interest further increased as I was able to work at the Office of Special Investigations in Washington, DC, investigating the past of suspected Axis war criminals who acquired US citizenship. Then I was hooked. My independent research focused on the economics of genocide and the recycling of all kinds of assets looted from Jewish victims and the near-absence of postwar justice against those who executed, abetted and profited from those crimes against humanity. I eventually found myself involved with class action lawsuits against Swiss banks which led, inevitably, to the looted art issue with which I have been associated for the past two decades. I am a co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and have taught a number of workshops focused exclusively on provenance research as it applies to Nazi/Fascist-era dislocations of Jewish-owned property.

What do you feel is the most relevant aspect of your course?

I teach one course, provenance research. I view it more as a training than as an academic exercise.

What do you hope participants will get out of the course?

I hope that those who take the provenance research workshop, (that’s really what it is), never look at an artistic, cultural, or ritual object, again with the same eyes as they had before they took the course. I want them to become skeptical of everything that they read about the history of those objects and to develop an insatiable curiosity for understanding where those objects come from and the what/where/when/why/how of their pasts by whom and with what.

What would a typical day be like in your classroom?

Every day is different but a main component of the workshop is to ask questions, remain inquisitive and be able to think outside of the proverbial box.

While each year participants are very enthusiastic about your courses, is there anything you learn from them in class?

Each participant comes from a very different background and he/she has his/her own unique relationship towards art objects, culture and history. The gift they bring me is their story, and the way they apprehend the topics that we tackle each hour of every day and, hopefully, be part of the transformation that they go through when confronted with evidence, inquiry, and research.

In anticipation of your courses, what book, article, or movie would you recommend to participants? 

There is no real way to get ready but it would help if participants were a bit savvy about the history of modern Europe, the basic dates, times, and places of major events that provoked these displacements of property. Lynn Nicholas, Hector Feliciano, Jonathan Petropoulos, are some of the authors who produced significant monographs on Nazi plunder, but there are also special investigative reports produced in the early 21st century in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Italy, on Nazi looting. HARP's own Plundered Art blog will provide a more argumentative and polemical approach to the issues of plunder and restitution, while suggesting how research can be conducted on objects with dubious pasts.

Which other course in the program would you love to follow yourself and why?

I enjoyed sitting in on Dick Drent’s course because it humbled me on my ignorance of security issues in museums. Perhaps Christos Tsirogiannis’ course would interest me because of his fierce approach towards the art market and his ability to ferret out looted antiquities. But, seriously, I don’t have any favorites out of fairness to the other professors.

Is there anything you can recommend for future participants to do in Amelia or Umbria?

They should leave their prejudices and assumptions at home and come prepared to be challenged in a small town in central Italy. The structure of the workshop allows them to grow. But they can only grow if they allow themselves to be vulnerable, to listen and to question. The questioning is only credible if it is anchored in evidence. As you know, it’s too easy to say: Why? You need to justify your questions and to challenge based on your own research and be prepared to hear that perhaps you are wrong and be prepared to realize that perhaps you are right. That is part of learning and growing...


For a detailed prospectus and application materials or for general questions about the 2020 postgraduate program please contact us at 

In addition to the postgraduate program, the provenance course is also offered as stand-alone course. ARCA and the US-based Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) have teamed up to offer its 4th annual stand-alone provenance course which tackles the complex issues of cultural plunder. More information can be found here on our website.

Edgar Tijhuis is Academic Director at ARCA and visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection. Since 2009, Edgar Tijhuis has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program.