Robin Symes and Christos Michaelides formed a duo of dealers who dominated the international antiquities market in the 1980s and 1990s. During that period they became the best suppliers of illicit antiquities to the most ‘reputable’ museums, private collections and auction houses. Many of their antiquities came from lower-level dealers such as Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina, both now convicted for their involvement in numerous cases of antiquities looted from Italy, Greece and other countries, after the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
Since the discovery and confiscation of the archives belonging to these three dealers (that of Medici in 1995, Becchina in 2001 and Symes-Michaelides in 2006), over 300 masterpieces depicted in the archives have been repatriated, mainly to Italy and Greece, from museums, private collections and individuals who consigned them in auctions. Dozens of cases are still undergoing negotiation, and the forensic archaeologists Daniela Rizzo, Maurizio Pellegrini and Christos Tsirogiannis, who were appointed as experts by the Italian and Greek governments to assess the confiscated archives, have identified a few hundred more. The Polaroid and regular-print images in the archives (over 10,000 images in total) usually depict antiquities in a poor condition, newly excavated; covered with soil, with fresh marks of impact and bearing soil and salt encrustations. Professional images in the same archives often depict the same antiquities in various stages of conservation/restoration, while tens of thousands of documents alongside the images in those archives leave no doubt about the true nature of the international antiquities market.
Since 2007 Christos Tsirogiannis has been researching the antiquities auctions of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams. Every single year he identifies antiquities that are depicted in the confiscated archives, offered for sale by one, two or all three leading auction houses. Especially in the case of Christie’s, in nearly every auction antiquities handled by Medici, Becchina and/or Symes-Michaelides are offered. Several of the antiquities identified in auctions have been repatriated to Greece and Italy; over the years Tsirogiannis has notified other countries as well (such as Egypt, Israel and Syria). Since 2010, all his identifications in auction houses, together with images from the confiscated archives have immediately been made publicly available online via pages such as ‘Looting Matters‘ (maintained by Professor David Gill), ‘ARCA blog‘ (maintained by Dr Lynda Albertson) and most recently ‘Market of Mass Destruction‘ (maintained by Dr Neil Brodie), and the blog of the Committee on Illicit Trade in Cultural Material. It is therefore possible for both experts and non-experts to have a complete, constant and unobstructed view of the on-going situation; Christos Tsirogiannis has also made available online his academic analysis of the identified cases, published in various journals.
However, even after all these revelations, auction houses continue to present the bulk of their stock without a complete provenance that extends the collecting history before 1970; moreover, they always exclude the names of Medici, Becchina and other illicit antiquities dealers from their catalogue entries. As for Symes, he is usually excluded too, although sometimes his name is mentioned, if the auction house feels that the object is safe. Indeed, according to the PhD research of Christos Tsirogiannis at the University of Cambridge on the international illicit antiquities network through the Symes-Michaelides archive, there are a few exceptions: about 6% of the antiquities depicted in the Symes-Michaelides archive indeed had a pre-1970 collecting history. However, over 93% appears to be of illicit origin, looted and/or smuggled or stolen from archaeological sites, often depicted in pieces in the Medici and Becchina archives, and a few are now recognized as fakes. To date, he has identified 733 objects from the Symes-Michaelides archive in auctions, museums, galleries and private collections.
The most recent of these identifications in the Symes-Michaelides archive involves a professional photograph depicting a Roman marble figurine of a draped goddess, on offer at the forthcoming antiquities auction of Christie’s on October 25th 2016 in New York (lot 92). Christie’s (again) fail to include Symes in the collecting history of this antiquity; the catalogue entry reads: ‘Property from a distinguished Private Collection’. ‘Provenance: With Perpitch Gallery, Paris. Acquired by the current owner from the above, prior to 1991’. The figurine is estimated at $100,000 – 150,000. Since over 93% of the antiquities that Symes sold were illicit, it would be useful to research the full collecting history and true origin of this antiquity (especially before 1991).
Christie’s and the antiquities market, in general, claim that they are exercising ‘due diligence’ on the collecting history of every antiquity they offer. The continuous matches with objects in the confiscated archives, the withdrawal of antiquities before the auctions and their repatriations demonstrate that the much-advertised ‘due diligence’ procedure is problematic, at the very least. The true picture of auction and gallery sales is one of incomplete collecting histories, unnamed sources and illicit antiquities dealers, disguised as the legitimate previous owners or consigners of antiquities on offer. In addition, the members of the market are constantly complaining that the confiscated archives are not made publicly available by the authorities, in order for the antiquities there depicted to be identified before the auctions. However, there are obvious answers to that complaint, all known to the market representatives.
First, the archives are confiscated evidence of multiple on-going investigations. Second, the market, given its negative reaction and luck of cooperation in each of the identified cases so far, is likely to continue the same non-cooperative policy if the archives were made available to everyone, while the authorities would be losing their only chance to identify the depicted antiquities once they surface for sale and the academics their chance to analyse the true nature of the market. In fact, the members of the market do not take every opportunity to have their stock checked; they refuse to send to the Italian authorities the list of the antiquities to be sold in forthcoming auctions (before compiling the printed catalogue) for fear of letting down their clients/consigners, whose identity is – nearly always – kept concealed with the protestation of ‘confidentiality’.
The Roman marble figurine of a draped goddess, lot 92 in the forthcoming Christie’s auction, is a typical example of an antiquity on offer: true commercial sources are hidden or not identified; we have an incomplete collecting history employing a chronological generalization (‘prior to 1991’) and the true country of origin – that is, the place from which the antiquity originally came/was discovered – is not identified. This analysis of the way in which this figurine is presented by the antiquities market encapsulates the state of the market and is a revelation of its deficient practices; this is the true value of this identification.
The Committee on the Illicit Trade on Cultural Material highly deplores such sales and urges every auction house to accurately verify the origin of the objects on sale, and refuse objects with doubtful provenance. In accordance with our statutes, we report any illegal activity, or trade of potentially illegally-acquired material culture. Furthermore, we aim to contribute in any form to discourage commercialisation of archaeological material.
Author: Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge
Our statement was recently published at the Homepage of the EAA.