On June 9, 2017 forensic archaeologist Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, wrote to ARCA and to the Art and Antiques Unit of London’s Metropolitan Police (New Scotland Yard), INTERPOL and the Greek police Art Squad reporting that he had identified an Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele coming up for auction in Sotheby’s June 12, 2017 London auction which he had traced to the archive of convicted Italian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina.
This accumulation of records was seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland. The Becchina Archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer’s business.
These dealer records include shipping manifests, antiquarian dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images. Many of which are not the slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, point and shoot Polaroids taken by looters and middlemen. This latter type of image often depicts looted antiquities in their recently plundered state, some of which still bear soil and salt encrustations.
|Two of the identifying Polaroid images of the object
located in the Becchina archive.
In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade and while he later appealed this conviction, he is currently under investigation by Italy’s Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) who moved to seize his cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., his olive oil company, Olio Verde srl., Demetra srl., Becchina & Company srl., bank accounts, land, and real estate properties including Palazzo Pignatelli in November 2017.
Looted antiquities traced to Becchina’s trafficking network, like this attic marble anthemion, continue to surface in private collections, museums and some of the world’s most prestigious auction firms specializing in ancient art and are frequently identified by Tsirogiannis, archaeologists working with Italy’s Avvocatura dello Stato, the Italian Carabinieri and the Greek police.
In his email, Tsirogiannis stated that he had identified the attic marble anthemion in three professional and two Polaroids images as well as in four separate documents found in the confiscated Becchina business records. The dealer’s documentation indicated that the stele appeared to have been in Becchina’s hands from 1977 until 1990, when it was then sold on to George Ortiz, a collector and heir to the South American Patiñho tin fortune who lived in Geneva and whose name has appeared with regularity on this blog tied to purchases of objects of illicit origin. Ortiz’s name has long been associated with this trafficking network as his was one of the names found on the network organigram found in Pasquale Camera’s personal possessions.
Interestingly both Becchina and Ortiz were never mentioned in the ‘Provenance’ section given by Sotheby’s. During the sale, the object’s collection history was listed simply as follows:
- John Hewett, Bog Farm, Kent, 1960s
- New York art market, acquired from the above on November 3rd, 1980
- American private collection
- American family trust (Sotheby’s New York, December 10th, 2008, no. 28, illus.)
- acquired by the present owner at the above sale
Possibly as a result of Tsirogiannis’ identification, the 340 B.C.E. object (thankfully) failed to sell. Eleven months later, in a May 7th 2018 issue of the Times, the newspaper reported that Sotheby’s, not Tsirogiannis, had discovered that they had a false collecting history on the stele at which point “by way of a voluntary goodwill gesture” handed the stele over to the Metropolitan Police in London. The Greek Embassy in London working with the Greek The Ministry of Culture authorities via the Directorate for the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Property, followed up with the legal claims necessary for restitution and on June 27th, 2018 Christos Tsirogiannis testified at the Greek consulate in London as to his findings. Subsequent to the above, the object was formally handed over on September 8, 2018.
After its return to Greece, yesterday, the column has been delivered to the Epigraphical Museum of Athens, Greece.