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Antiquities for auction could be illicitly sourced, archaeologist claims

·3-min read

Etruscan bronze attachments in Sotheby’s sale and and Bonhams’ Sardinian lamp said to match items in convicted dealers’ archives


The auction houses Sotheby’s and Bonhams are facing a call to withdraw two antiquities from sale in London today from an archaeologist who raised “serious suspicions” that the items came from illicit excavations.

Lot 68 in the Sotheby’s sale is a pair of decorative Etruscan bronze attachments, dating from circa early fifth century BC, expected to fetch between £50,000 and £70,000. Lot 83 in the Bonhams sale is a Sardinian bronze boat-shaped lamp, circa eighth century BC, estimated between £2,000 and £3,000.

Prof Christos Tsirogiannis, a leading archaeologist, said the auction houses would not have offered for sale these antiquities if they had made adequate checks with the relevant authorities about whether they were taken illegally from their country of origin.

Bonhams and Sotheby’s disputed this. Bonhams said the items were not unlawfully obtained or illegally exported to the best of its knowledge. Sotheby’s said it was a “legitimate market participant” and called on Tsirogiannis to share the information he holds.

Tsirogiannis said he has photographic evidence which shows the antiquities were at one time owned by discredited dealers linked to the illicit trade.

The photos are among tens of thousands of images and other archival documents given to him by Italian prosecution authorities after their seizure in police raids because his academic research focuses on antiquities and trafficking networks, Tsirogiannis told the Guardian.

That material includes the archives of Gianfranco Becchina, who was convicted in 2011 of illegally dealing in antiquities, and of the British antiquities dealer Robin Symes, who served a jail sentence in 2005 for disregarding court orders over the sale of a £3m Egyptian statue and whose explanation was described by the judge as “a calculated deception”. In 2016, Italian and Swiss police recovered marble statues and other treasures stolen from Italy that were allegedly stored by Symes at the Geneva Freeport in Switzerland, Italy’s culture ministry said at the time.

The provenance or history given by Sotheby’s for lot 68 goes no further back than 1978. It mentions that its New York sale room sold the same items in 2010. Tsirogiannis claimed: “The same objects I have in the Symes archive. I have two images: one colour, one black and white.”

He claimed he also has images of the Bonhams lamp in the Becchina archive. “One of those images … has the date [1993], the price [60,000 Swiss francs], the exact dimensions that Bonhams is giving,” Tsirogiannis added.

A former senior field archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, Tsirogiannis is now an associate professor at the institute of advanced studies at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

Over 15 years, he says, he has identified more than 1,550 looted artefacts within auction houses, commercial galleries, private collections and museums. He helps to secure the repatriation of antiquities by alerting Interpol and other authorities.

Of the two London auctions today, he claimed, if he is right, that: “It shows no one is checking with the authorities … It’s amazing … This was unacceptable even in the 1970s. It’s shocking that it’s still happening in 2021.”

A Bonhams spokesperson said: “To the best of our knowledge, the items we accept for sale … are legitimately on the market and have not been unlawfully obtained or illegally exported from their country of origin. We work as closely as possible with all the relevant authorities.”

A Sotheby’s spokesperson said: “Sotheby’s and its fellow legitimate market participants have been asking for years that Tsirogiannis make his ‘archives’ available to us, but those materials remain totally inaccessible to all of us … The Symes archives contain numerous photos of objects that are and have been legitimately held by collectors and museums for decades.”

Tsirogiannis has argued that, if the auctioneers had made sufficient checks with the relevant authorities, which he claims have the same images, they would not need access to his archives.

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