Illicit antiquity in Royal-Athena Galleries, New York

A Roman marble fragment currently on sale at the Royal-Athena Galleries, owned by Dr. Jerome Eisenberg, New York, has a more than doubtful history.

The fragment of this sarcophagus, which presents a battle between Greeks and Trojans, is depicted in four Polaroid images (see below) and is referred to in three handwritten notes, in the archive confiscated in Basel, Switzerland, by the Italian and Swiss authorities, from the Italian illicit antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina in the early 2000s. Becchina has been already convicted, both in Italy and in Greece, for receiving and trafficking stolen art. Dozens of antiquities depicted in his confiscated archive have been already repatriated to Italy, and a couple of others have been repatriated to Greece.

Royal-Athena Galleries were offering for sale antiquities stolen from the Museum in Corinth (raided by thieves in 1990) and Italian museums. Jerome Eisenberg returned to Italy antiquities that had been identified in the confiscated archives. As Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, affiliated researcher at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow, proved in his PhD research at the University of Cambridge, Eisenberg was a regular client of Gianfranco Becchina in acquiring antiquities looted from Italy and Greece.

Regarding the sarcophagus fragment, each of the four Polaroid images depicting the fragment is included in a different file of the Becchina archive (see image below):

Roman marble from the Becchina-archives currently on sale at Royal-Athena Galleries, New York

Roman marble from the Becchina archive currently on sale at Royal-Athena Galleries, New York. Depicted are notes and pictures concerning the Roman marble from the archive.

Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis discovered the first image (no. 1) in a file that Becchina created to archive the antiquities he was receiving from a Greek trafficker termed in the archive ‘ZE’ or ‘ZENE’ (the beginning of his surname) or ‘Giorgio’ (Giorgos, his first name in Greek). This trafficker, now deceased, was well-known to the Greek police art squad.

In a separate handwritten note (no. 2), Becchina records that he received the antiquity (‘1 Frto. [meaning ‘Fragment’] di sarcofago’) for 60.000 Swiss Francs on 25 May 1988. This antiquity is recorded as the 9th object included in the 34th group of antiquities that ‘Zene’ sent to Becchina (see no. 3).

Another note (no. 4), a handwritten page, lists a group of antiquities that Becchina bought from ‘Zene’, from November 1986 until October 1988, for more than $250,000, including the sarcophagus’ fragment (no. 9).

The fifth picture is a photocopy of a Polaroid image, depicting the same antiquity; this image was attached to a blank A4 page, together with other Polaroid images depicting other antiquities that ‘Zene’ smuggled from Greece to Becchina, under the title ‘in PF’, meaning that all these antiquities were stored at the time at the P[ort] [F]ranc (the Free Port) of Basel. In Becchina’s list of antiquities stored in his warehouses in the Free Port of Basel, the sarcophagus fragment was number 21 (see sixth image, another Polaroid image).

Finally, there is another handwritten note (figure no. 7), in which Becchina is asking one of the restorers he was using, Andre Lorenceau, to clean (‘reinigen’) the fragment and to add a base (‘sockeln’), as a support (by drilling into the antiquity). Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis discovered this note in the Becchina file dedicated to his cooperation with the restorer Andre Lorenceau.

According to Eisenberg, the sarcophagus fragment has been attributed by Dr. Guntram Koch, an academic with an expertise in Roman sarcophagoi. The fragment belongs to a sarcophagus similar to a sarcophagus featuring a battle between Greeks and Amazons, in the Thessalonike Museum (Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli (1971) Rome, the Late Empire, p. 300 fgs. 277-278). Royal-Athena Galleries state: ‘Our piece is probably from the same workshop’.

As Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis has always done with similar cases he identified in the past, he has already notified INTERPOL and, in this case, the Greek police art squad and the District Attorneys Office in New York County.


2 thoughts on “Illicit antiquity in Royal-Athena Galleries, New York

  1. Pingback: Royal-Athena Galleries, New York: sarcophagus seized | EAA-Committee on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Material

  2. Pingback: US/GREECE: ancient sarcophagus fragment returned to Greece nearly 30 years after smuggling | EAA-Committee on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Material

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