Christie’s withdraws ‘looted’ Greek and Roman treasures | Culture

Christie’s has quietly withdrawn four Greek and Roman antiquities from auction this month amid allegations they had been looted from illicit excavations.

The items were in the original brochure catalogue but later taken from the online site with no explanation.

Prof Christos Tsirogiannis, a leading archaeologist who spotted their removal from the auction, said he had evidence that linked the four items – a Roman marble hare, a bronze Roman eagle and two Attic vases – to convicted traffickers in stolen artefacts.

He is outraged that leading auction houses and dealers are repeatedly failing continually to make sufficient checks with the authorities about whether certain antiquities were taken illegally from their country of origin.

Tsirogiannis said: “It’s amazing. It’s the same pattern. These companies advertise due diligence and transparency – and in practice it’s exactly the opposite. As an archaeologist, my first responsibility is to let people know about my research and findings.”

Tsirogiannis, a former senior field archaeologist at Cambridge University, is associate professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. Because his academic research has focused on antiquities and trafficking networks, Greek and Italian authorities gave him official access in the early 2000s to tens and thousands of images and other archival material seized in police raids from individuals mixed up in illicit trade.

Photograph: Christie’s

Included in that were photographs and documents seized by the authorities from Gianfranco Becchina, who had been convicted in Greece for illegally dealing in antiquities.

Tsirogiannis was shocked to discover apparent links to Becchina in the four antiquities offered in a three-part Christie’s auction that ends on 16 June. He downloaded the original printed catalogue, but later found that those four objects were subsequently taken from the online site with no explanation.

The Roman marble hare, for example, originally appeared as lot 49, dated to the 2nd to third century AD with an estimate of $20,000 (£15,900) to $30,000. Now lot 48 simply jumps to lot 50.

Tsirogiannis said: “The hare is depicted in the Becchina archive with its ears broken, but at least one of these is depicted lying as you’re watching sculpture. It was clearly restored later to its original position.

“According to a Becchina document, the hare was bought for 13,000 Italian lire, from a looter called ‘Tullio’ in 1987, which predates the ‘provenance’ given by Christie’s. Tullio sold several other – also unrestored – antiquities to Becchina at the same time.”

Tsirogiannis also recognised the bronze Roman eagle, from across the second to the third century AD and originally lot 25 in the Christie’s sale, from the Becchina archive.

He also had undoubtedly that the former lot 121, an Attic red-figured pelike dated around 430-420 BC, was “definitely the same piece as the Becchina one,” and that lot 113, an Attic black-figured band cup, from around 540-530 BC, was most likely the same as one in the Becchina archive.

He SAID: “Its Polaroid is stuck on an A4 page together with other Polaroids depicting other wonderful antiquities, also pre-restoration, that were supplied to Becchina by Raffaele Monticelli, a convicted middleman and one of the main suppliers of Becchina of illicit antiquities from south Italy.” Monticelli was sentenced in 2002 to four years in prison for trafficking illicit antiquities.

Over 15 years, Tsirogiannis has identified about 1,100 looted artefacts within auction houses, commercial galleries, private collections and museums. In alerting Interpol and other police authorities, he has played a significant role in securing the repatriation of many antiquities.

A Christie’s spokeswoman said: “Christie’s can confirm that lots 25, 49, 113 and 121 were withdrawn from the auctions following the provision of new information by the appropriate authorities from archives currently still unavailable to our researchers. We take our research very seriously. We always act appropriately on additional information when provided, particularly where we don’t have access to helpful archives, and the number of lots affected by such situations remains very few.”

But Tsirogiannis believes auction houses have a responsibility to make effective checks with the archives. He said he had again and again told them that it absolutely was possible to send photographs of any antiquity to the Italian or Greek authorities to be checked. If they’d done this, he said, “they would have found these objects depicted in those archives before they compiled the catalogue”.

Among other antiquities identified by Tsirogiannis is an ancient Greek bronze horse, which Sotheby’s New York decided to sell in 2018 until he notified Interpol and the US authorities of its links to the disgraced British antiquities dealer Robin Symes. Last week, Sotheby’s lost its legal challenge and Greece’s culture minister hailed the court’s ruling as an important victory for countries fighting to reclaim antiquities.

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