Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Symes sale at Bonhams

Colin Gleadell has discussed the forthcoming sale of Symes material by Bonhams ("Art Sales: the last remains of a scandal", Daily Telegraph, 28 September 2009). The sale, "The Robin Symes Collection", is due to be held in Oxford on October 7, 2009 [sale]. The sale catalogue states:
Robin Symes Ltd. is in liquidation, and the items are being sold by the liquidators who make no warranty as to title, but have been given no reason to believe that good title cannot be passed. Lots are sold strictly on this basis and, if in doubt, buyers should seek their own legal advice.
Gleadell makes an ineresting comment about this sale:
The property in the Bonhams sale is, however, undisputed, and is to be sold without a reserve price. Estimates are therefore rock bottom. The focus is on an eclectic array of art works which Symes had either in his gallery in Ormond Yard in St James’s, or in one of his homes; Bonhams is not sure. Nor does Bonhams know when or where the works were acquired. “The paperwork had all been destroyed,” says Michael Wynell-Mayow of Bonhams.
This sale does not contain antiquities (which is probably sensible given what happened in October 2008).
Antiquities collectors will be disappointed. “There are antiquities from the gallery, but we can’t touch them,” says Wynell-Mayow. Clearly ownership issues are still at play.

It is not clear what is going to happen to the antiquities from the Symes collection.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Rome Exhibition: L'Arma per l'Arte

At the end of last week I was able to visit the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome for the new exhibition, 'L'Arma per l'Arte: Antologia di meraviglie'. This show celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale. There are 60 exhibits including paintings and other works of art.

The exhibition contains a selection of the objects returned from North America as well as some other recovered antiquities:
1. Protocorinthian olpe. Formerly Princeton University Art Museum 995-149.
2. Caeretan hydria. Odysseus and Polyphemos. Formerly Shelby White collection (and on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
3. Attic black-figured cup. Symposium. Formerly Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum 87.AE.22.
4. Attic red-figured calyx-krater. Zeus and Ganymede. Eucharides painter. Formerly Shelby White collection (and on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
5. Attic red-figured calyx-krater. Orestes.  Formerly Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum 87.AE.66.
6. Apulian loutrophoros. Formerly Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum 84.AE.966.
7. Bronze statue of Victoria. From Herculaneum. Formerly Royal-Athena Galleries, New York.
8. Marble statue of Tyche.  Formerly Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum 96.AA.49.
9. Marble statue of Sabina. Formerly Boston, Museum of Fine Arts 1979.556.
10. Bronze Etruscan candelabrum. Recovered from private collection at Vulci (2005).
11. Attic red-figured calyx-krater. Death of Sarpedon. Formerly New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1972.11.10 (L.2006.10).
12. Bronze statue of Zeus. Firenze, Museo Archeologico Nazionale inv. 2291. Recovered in 1985.
13. Bronze handles from krater. Tuscania (VT), Museo Archeologico inv. 70820. Recovered in 1982.
14. Marble relief with Hercules. Napoli, Museo Arheologico Nazionale inv. 6683. Recovered in 1978.
15. Marble group of Capitoline Triad. Palestrina, Museo Archeologico inv. 80546. Recovered in 1994.
48. Etruscan bronze candelabrum. Melfi (PZ), Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Melfese inv. 110076. From Ruvo del Monte. Recovered in 1981.
49. Marble sarcophagus fragment. Amazonomachy. Roma, Antiquarium Comunale del celio, inv. Ant. Com. 34095. Recovered in 1998.

Exhibition catalogue edited by Lisa Della Volpe (ISBN 978 88 8347 488 0). [Publisher]

For a discussion of some of these returns:
  • Gill, D. W. J. 2009. "Homecomings: learning from the return of antiquities to Italy." In Art and Crime: exploring the dark side of the art world, edited by N. Charney: 13-25. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
  • Chippindale, C., and D. W. J. Gill. 2000. "Material consequences of contemporary classical collecting." American Journal of Archaeology 104: 463-511.
  • Gill, D. W. J., and C. Chippindale. 2006. "From Boston to Rome: reflections on returning antiquities." International Journal of Cultural Property 13: 311-31.
  • —. 2007a. "From Malibu to Rome: further developments on the return of antiquities." International Journal of Cultural Property 14: 205-40.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Egyptian antiquities from a family collection ...

A former museum director was charged earlier this week with trying to sell Egyptian antiquities apparently removed from Long Island University's art museum (Kieran Crowley and Kati Cornell, "'Thief' squawks like an Egyptian", The New York Post September 17, 2009)

Barry Stern is alleged to have sold nine Egyptian antiquities through Christie's in New York, Rockefeller Plaza, for some $51,500. Some of the lots can be identified in the catalogue:


December 9, 2008
  • Lot 8: AN EGYPTIAN LIMESTONE SHABTI FOR MONTEMHET. $12,500. "Property from the collection of Barry Stern". Provenance: "Acquired by the current owner's parents, circa 1955."
  • Lot 27: AN EGYPTIAN WOOD PTAH-SOKER-OSIRIS. $8,125. "Property from the collection of Barry Stern". Provenance: "Acquired by the current owner's parents, circa 1955."
  • Lot 33: AN EGYPTIAN BRONZE IMHOTEP. $9,375. "Property from the collection of Barry Stern". Provenance: "Acquired by the current owner's parents, circa 1955."
  • Lot 36: AN EGYPTIAN LIMESTONE HEAD OF AN OFFICIAL. $3,500. "Property from the collection of Barry Stern". Provenance: "Acquired by the current owner's parents, circa 1955."
  • Lot 40: AN EGYPTIAN BRONZE APIS BULL. $10,625. "Property from the collection of Barry Stern". Provenance: "Acquired by the current owner's parents, circa 1955."
June 3, 2009
  • Lot 16: An Egyptian bronze Osiris. $5,250. "Property from the collection of Barry Stern". Provenance: "Acquired by the current owner's parents, circa 1955."

A fuller discussion can be found in a report by Kati Cornell and Joe Mollica, "LI's Pharaoh 'Phraudster' - ex-museum big nailed in Egypt-art theft", The New York Post September 16, 2009. The pieces were apparently donated to the museum in 2002.


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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Robin Symes, the furniture collection and the "shady lady"

Mark Townsend ("The dealer, the $10m and the missing art treasures: Family of trader's late partner allege new twist in decade-long fight for control of collection", The Observer September 13, 2009) has provided a fuller account of the furniture collection that was once displayed in the Chelsea home shared by Robin Symes and Christo Michaeilidis. Townsend reports:
Private investigators hired to accrue evidence against Symes now claim to have exposed a fresh trail of duplicity, double-dealing and evidence of money laundering involving the Gray artefacts, a well-known French bank and the transfer of suspicious payments to accounts in London, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar. During the course of their inquiry, detectives examined allegations involving a mystery blaze on a luxury Greek yacht and a fictitious millionairess from the Middle East.
It is reported that the furniture had been bought by the Michailidies family. The article continues:
Investigators for the Michailidis family have now allegedly accumulated evidence that Symes managed to surreptitiously sell the Gray masterpieces through a Parisian art dealer.

London law firm Bird & Bird, which represents the Michailidis family, has obtained details of Symes's bank accounts that it claims reveal a money trail emanating from the secret sale of the Gray collection. They allegedly indicate that Symes received a $10.3m payment for the collection which, it is claimed, he then tried to hide using a sophisticated pan-European laundering scam.

According to the court documents, a major French bank laundered the $10.3m through a Liechtenstein-based "front" company called Lombardi, whose sole beneficiary was Symes. The money was then deposited to an account in Gibraltar and forwarded to Symes in London. Neither the court nor the Michailidis family was informed of the payment to the antiques dealer.
Apparently the appearance of the money in Symes' account was due to a transaction from the so-called "shady lady" based in the Middle East who is said to have asked Symes to sell her jewellery. The woman - whose identity could not be revealed appears to be fictitious.

The furniture collection is now said to be in Qatar.

Townsend also notes:
A court document, dated 9 April 2009, from solicitors representing the Michailidis family accuses Symes of attempting to hide the money trail in a case that throws fresh light on the murky world of antiquities smuggling.
It would be enlightening if this trail came to light - and could indeed provide information about recently-surfaced antiquities.

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Robin Symes and the furniture collection

A report in the London press talks about a new development over Robin Symes (Peter Dominiczak, "Antiquities Dealer and a missing £18M collection", Evening Standard September 14, 2009). Apparently furniture designed by Eileen Gray - worth some £18 million - has gone missing. It is reported:
Mr Michailidis's family claim that Mr Symes discreetly sold off the collection before a court order was granted to freeze his assets. Mr Symes, 69, served a jail sentence in 2005 for disregarding court orders over the sale of a £3 million Egyptian statue.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Olympia: theft from Byzantine church

A capital from the Byzantine church built on the site of Pheidias' workshop at Olympia has apparently been stolen ("Ancient column capital missing from Ancient Olympia", Athens News Agency September 7, 2009; Hellenic Ministry of culture [press release]). The architectural fragment measures 30 cm x 30 cm x 20 cm.

A police investigation is now underway.

Image
Church on the site of the workshop of Pheidias, Olympia © David Gill


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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Reflecting on the Significance of Operation Blackhole

Back in 1991 the British press was full of investigations relating to a particular auction house. Among the stories was the London dealer who denied that he had hidden in a wardrobe during a police raid in India (Sarah Jane Checkland, "Sotheby's expert denies hiding", The Times (London) November 28, 1991).

Now 18 years is a long time ... but something caught my eye. In 2007 Patrick Radden Keefe wrote up the issue of Indian antiquities ("The Idol Thief; Inside one of the biggest antiquities-smuggling rings in history", The New Yorker May 7, 2007). It starts with the June 2003 arrest of Vaman Narayan Ghiya in Jaipur, India. The article, well worth a read, eventually turns to Peter Watson's investigations of the mid 1990s and documented in Sotheby's: Inside Story (1997). Watson records the way that a former employee of the auction house, James Hodges, disclosed information. Keefe puts it like this:
Hodges explained that Ghiya was "a kind of Indian Medici," whose relationship with Sotheby's was so close that he would stop at Hodges's house in Shepherds Bush on his way into London from the airport to drop off antiques he had carried on the plane.
Think of the impact that Giacomo Medici has had on the world of classical antiquities: museum after museum returning antiquities to Italy ... and who knows what other 1000s (literally) of items have yet to identified.

So Ghiya's role in supplying Indian antiquities is compared to Medici. Keefe continued with the account of Operation Blackhole and the work of Indian superintendent of police, Anand Shrivastava, who is tracking down the looters.

But Keefe dropped in a really interesting comment and observation:
A regal Jain Tirthankara that the police say Ghiya's men stole from Krishna Vilas, an Archaeological Survey-protected site in Rajasthan, turned up as Lot 135 in Sotheby's September, 2000, catalogue, with an estimated price of twenty-five thousand to thirty-five thousand dollars. (A Sotheby's spokeswoman told me that the auction house has "not knowingly sold any items" consigned by Ghiya since 1997, and has "the most rigorous due diligence program in the art market." She also said that Lot 135 was consigned by a New York dealer who to her knowledge has no connection to Ghiya.)
Lot 135 in the "Indian and Southeast Asian Art" sale of Friday September 22, 2000 was described as follows:
An Indian red sandstone figure of a Jina circa 12th century
standing naked on a block pedestal containing a pair of guardian lions, his hands pendent by his sides, and quadrapartite chest ornamented with a diamond shaped srivatsa, his circular face with serene expression and smiling mouth with recessed corners, wide heavy-lidded eyes, delicately arched eyebrows, attended by two smaller figures, the upper section with a pair of apsaras beneath a pair of rampant elephants flanking a prostrate central figure surmounting a tiered canopy
height 56 in. (142.2 cm.)
Its estimate was $25000-$35000. It remained unsold. There is no mention of collecting history.

The piece appears to have been mentioned in an earlier report (Antony Barnett, "Sotheby's faces probe on sales of temple loot: The arrest of an Indian millionaire on charges of stealing antiques has raised questions about the role of a famous British auction house in the sale of rare artefacts", The Observer July 6, 2003).
On 22 September 2000, there was a major auction of Indian art and antiques at Sotheby's in New York. One lot in the catalogue was a twelfth-century red sandstone figure that was priced at Dollars 35,000 (pounds 21,000).

Indian police now confirm that this valuable sculpture was stolen from the Vilasgarh temple in September 1999. The theft had been recorded at the local police station.

'Ghiya purchased these idols for one million rupees (pounds 13,000) and smuggled them out of India,' said Srivastava.
Barnett's article finished with a statement from Sotheby's:
The spokeswoman said: 'Sotheby's requires all its consignors to warrant that they have legal title to sell items consigned by them and we do not accept for sale items where there is any reason to think that this warranty may not be true. If we were ever subsequently provided with information suggesting that any items, sold or to be sold, had been stolen, we would always cooperate with the authorities and/or any claimants.'
Why am I interested in this story? Why should I be curious about Indian antiquities that surfaced without documented histories on the New York market in 2000?

What will be scale of the fallout from the "Ghiya Conspiracy"?


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