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Auction houses should do more to root out looted antiquities

2 April 2014

Both Christie’s and Bonhams have withdrawn items from this week’s antiquities sales after Christos Tsirogiannis of Cambridge University raised concerns about their provenance. Tsirogiannis recognised Christie’s oinochoe (a glass wine jug) and Bonhams’ pyxis (a Greek vessel used to store jewellery or cosmetics) from photographs of antiquities looted by the notorious dealers Italian dealers Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s not the first time he’s flagged up possibly looted works in auction house catalogues:

Today’s story in The Times exposes just a fraction of what is really going on. It is worth adding that Christie’s themselves owned or co-owned the oinochoe they were about to sell. All the more reason for them to have double-checked its origins.

Every time I identify in upcoming auction house sales antiquities in the photograph archives of convicted dealers, I notify the relevant authorities. They always request the withdrawal of the identified objects, but the auction houses very rarely act (and even more rarely do they repatriate objects).

Honest ‘due diligence’ would be if the auction houses themselves directly informed the Italian, Greek and other authorities before they put up for sale objects without a documented collecting history before 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention against illicit traffic of antiquities), to verify that the antiquities are completely legitimate. Private collectors and galleries should do the same.

Since 2007 I have been identifying antiquities, depicted while not yet conserved, in these photograph archives, before the auctions take place. Since this happens several times every year, it is not usually considered ‘newsworthy’ by sources that non-experts notice, even though the estimated value of the objects I’ve identified ranges from a few thousand to several million pounds.

So far, with few exceptions, only specialised websites regularly present my identifications, such as Professor David Gill’s Looting Matters blog, the blog of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), and Artemagazine by Italian journalist Fabio Isman. It is unfortunate that people do not have the chance to be better informed every time there are identifications. Despite the publicity, I expect the situation to go on, and more revelations to come.

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6 comments

  1. Dr Tsirogiannis is being hypocritical. The auction houses DO notify people and authorities before the sale: they publish photographs in their printed and online catalogues. It is in their interests for the pieces to be widely known.

    By contrast, the archives Dr Tsirogiannis has privileged access to are closed to most other interested parties. It would be a greater service to transparency for the owners of the Becchina, Medici, and Symes archives to put them online so more people than just one or two favored scholars are able to use them.

    Sunlight – through public sales and freedom of information – is the best disinfectant.

  2. Derek J. Content Apr 3 2014 at 8:38 pm

    Dr. Tsirogannis is not only being hypocritical, he is also appointing himself judge and jury. Instead of contacting the media, his civic duty when becoming aware of what he believes to be a crime is to go to the police and file a formal complaint. By going to the media he is making a judgment that is not his to make.

  3. What an unusually abrupt and personal tone of attack in Andrew’s comment. I have no idea just who Mr.Tsirogiannis is, but I do think that him (“favored scholar” or not) raising the alarm had the wished result.
    As for the mentionned archives not being accessible on line to all, is that something we are also blaming on Mr. Tsirogiannis? Both parties seam to be preaching the same thing, but what a difference of tone.

  4. For Spearman – Dr Tsirogiannis IS a favored scholar regarding this material: he is described elsewhere as “employed as a forensic archaeologist at the Greek Ministry of Culture, the Greek Ministry of Justice and the Greek police Art Squad.” He worked on this material before as a Greek civil servant and is now successfully turning it into a research project.

    Material that has been illegally exported from its country of origin should not be sold, and the archives are vital to proving this. However it is hypocritical of Dr Tsirogiannis to say that auction houses and dealers do not perform due diligence to “verify that the antiquities are completely legitimate” when they do not have access to the research material. It should be made available to the public – researchers, dealers, auctioneers, and all. As it is, the current set up benefits Dr Tsirogiannis first and foremost.

  5. The main point of this article found by all the readers and not mentioned by either the journalist and Dr Christos Tsirogiannis is the fact that this Dr who wants to fight looted antiquities like Mr David Gill DO NOT want the general public to see the archives photos from: Medici, Becchina and Symes so everybody could do their DUE DILIGENCE. How can you do that with out the photos that Dr Christos Tsirogiannis keep for himself. I am also very angry at INTERPOL and Art Loss Register for DOING NOTHING to publish these photos or force Dr Christos Tsirogiannis to do so. It is very hypocrite indeed form all these parties.

  6. The governing legislation in the US, the Cultural Property Implementation Act of 1983 (CPIA), is not working. It is not working as Congress intended because of the bureaucracy of the State Department and the ideology shown by most archaeologists, and shared by Dr Tsirogiannis, that antiquities should not be handled (owned) by anyone outside of the academic community. This ideology has hijacked the State Department and is illustrated by Dr Tsirogiannis’ actions. There needs to be a shift toward working together, whether it is for or against the trade, by publishing these dealers’ archives and making it possible for stakeholders to perform their due diligence.

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