Saturday, April 28, 2012

Becchina and Montreal

Roman janiform head in Becchina archive
Source: Christos Tsirogiannis
The Roman janiform marble head that has been returned to Italy is beginning to raise further questions and issues.

First, it was consigned to Christie's by Mr and Mrs Charles W. Newhall, III. A Charles W. Newhall, III is a trustee of the Baltimore Museum of Art (and a significant financial benefactor). What sort of questions did the Newhalls ask before acquiring the head? What was the nature of their due diligence search?

Second, the Newhalls owned this janiform head for a short period of four years (2005-09). Was this acquired as an investment or out of love of owning a piece of the past?

Third, who is Walter Banko of Montreal? Is he a dealer? If he is a dealer, when did he acquire the head? How did he acquire the head? Has he received other antiquities from the same source?

Fourth, where does Gianfranco Becchina fit into this narrative? Does Becchina now have a link with Canada?

Fifth, what evidence did Christie's ask to see to demonstrate that the head had been in a Canadian private collection in the 1960s?

The return of this head to Italy reminds us that the acquisition of antiquities can be a risky investment. And potential investors would be wise to check out the authenticated documented collecting history of an object before it is purchased.

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Roman janiform head returns to Italy

The third object to be returned to Italy this week was a Roman marble janiform head. This sold at Christie's Rockefeller Plaza on December 11, 2009 for $26,250 (lot 141).

The collecting history was given as follows:
  • Canadian Private Collection, 1960s. 
  • with Walter Banko, Montreal, 2005. 
  • Property from the collection of Mr & Mrs Charles W. Newhall, III
The ICE press release states:
The second investigation tied to Becchina involved a Roman marble statue, a janiform herm that was believed to have been smuggled out of Italy into the United States via Switzerland. HSI special agents in New York initiated an investigation into the sculpture which had been auctioned and sold at Christie's for $26,250. It was later seized at Christie's pursuant to a seizure warrant obtained by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York and in May 2011, forfeited to HSI for return to Italy.
This raises the suspicion that the head was not in a Canadian private collection in the 1960s. Was this part of the collecting history fabricated? Did Christie's check the documentary evidence? What was the scope of Christie's due diligence search? Does this mean that potential buyers need to treat collecting histories provided by Christie's with caution? What action will Christie's take to ensure that the auction-house does not handle recently surfaced antiquities?

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Aegisthus painter pelike returned to Italy

Attic pelike attributed to the Aegisthus painter
Source: Alain Truong
The return of an Athenian red-figured pelike, attributed to the Aegisthus painter, to Italy yesterday will not have been a comfortable event for Christie's. ICE's statement notes:
The first investigation tied to Becchina is the case involving the two 2,000-year-old ceramic vessels. In 2009, investigators learned about the sale of an Attic red-figured pelike, circa 480-460 B.C. for $80,500, and a red-figured situla, circa 365-350 B.C. for $40,000, at Christie's New York auction house. The investigation determined that these two objects were looted from archeological sites in Italy and smuggled into Switzerland. The ownership of the objects was transferred before they arrived in a Beverly Hills, Calif., gallery and subsequent consignment to Christie's in New York. HSI special agents in New York seized the objects, and upon authentication, both were forfeited for return.
The pelike was listed in Christie's pre-sale press release: "SUPERB EXAMPLES OF ROMAN AND GREEK ART HIGHLIGHT CHRISTIE’S SPRING SALE OF ANTIQUITIES", May 4, 2009. The statement noted, "The sale is particularly strong in Greek vases including a large Attic red-figured pelike attributed to the Aegisthus Painter, circa 480-460 B.C. (estimate: $80,000-120,000)...".

The pelike was listed in the post-sale top 10 list as lot 120, "An attic red-figured Pelike, attributed to the Aegisthus painter, circa 480-460 B.C.", as it sold for $80,500. This same post-sale press release stated:
G. Max Bernheimer, International Department Head of Antiquities said: “Today’s strong results show that wonderful objects with clear provenance continue to perform exceedingly well at auction.” 
We now know that this "clear provenance" was in fact not what it seemed. Indeed the press office for Christie's described the two seized objects as "stolen".

This pelike does not appear to be listed in the Beazley Archive database, though I note that of the four pelikai that are listed, three were found in Italy: Vulci, Adria and Locri.

Does this return herald the start of a new series of investigations into the Becchina archive? If so, we are likely to see a new series of returns to Italy (and other countries).

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Antiquities returned to Italy from New York auction-house

Detail from Apulian situla.
In October 2009 I noted that antiquities had been seized from a New York auction house. Two of the items were an Apulian situla and an Attic pelike. The US ICE has now issued a press statement about the return of the antiquities including a marble head ("ICE returns stolen and looted art and antiquities to Italy", April 26, 2012). All three items had passed through Christie's Rockefeller Plaza in June and December 2009 and, according to the statement, had been derived from Gianfranco Becchina ("Two of the four investigations have been linked to Gianfranco Becchina, an Italian national allegedly associated with Italian organized crime and a competitor of the Giacomo Medici smuggling organization").

Christie's made an elusive press statement at the time. It is also worth quoting my comment from the time:
If the seized Apulian situla and the Attic pelike are indeed the ones appearing at Christie's in June 2009 then it makes the quote from G. Max Bernheimer, International Department Head of Antiquities, all the more significant: “Today’s [sc. June 3, 2009] strong results show that wonderful objects with clear provenance continue to perform exceedingly well at auction.”
It would now appear that the "clear provenance" was in fact the stock of Becchina.

The seizure has already been noted by me in the Journal of Art Crime (Spring 2010) 83 and in more detail in an article, "Polaroids from the Medici Dossier: Continued Sightings on the Market", co-authored with Christos Tsirogiannis in the Journal of Art Crime (Spring 2011) [abstract].

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Something needs to be done about Madrid

Attic black-figured amphora now in Madrid.
Source: Schinoussa archive,
courtesy of Christos Tsirogiannis
Italian journalist Fabio Isman has written a piece on the Madrid antiquities for Il Messaggero ("Antichita’, I tesori che l'Italia non rivendica", April 21, 2012). Isman estimates that while Italy has repatriated approximately $1 billion worth of antiquities from North American museums, private collectors, galleries and auction-houses, the pursuit of the 22 objects in Madrid has rather come to a halt.

These 22 objects can be identified from photographs in the archives seized from Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina, as well as that of the UK based dealer Robin Symes.

Will Spain co-operate with a fellow European nation and return the disputed pieces? Spanish museum curators should act in a professional way and contact their Italian counterparts to resolve the matter.

Isman also rehearses the collecting history of an Etruscan amphora acquired in 2009 by the Art Institute of Chicago (inv. 2009.75) [AAMD Registry]. The amphora had been sold by Christie's in New York in 2008 for $116,500 (lot 225).

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Cambridge theft

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has announced that it has suffered a major theft of Chinese antiquities worth £18 million ("Fitzwilliam Museum theft: Chinese jade art 'worth millions'", BBC News April 18, 2012; "Fitzwilliam Museum theft: Public questioned one week on", BBC News, April 20, 2012).

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dealer pleads guilty over Egyptian antiquities

Source: ICE
Dealer Mousa Khouli has pleaded guilty to the charge of "smuggling ancient Egyptian treasures" and for "making a false statement to law enforcement authorities" ("Dealer admits smuggling Egyptian treasures to US", Agence France Presse April 18, 2012). Khouli could be facing up to 20 years in prison.

The objects were imported via Dubai. The case will no doubt be of serious concern to those private collectors and public museums who have been purchasing material from Khouli.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Art: a Conversation

Readers of "Looting Matters" are welcome to attend a celebration in Ipswich (England) of the Outstanding Public Service Award by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). The evening (2 May 2012) will take the form of a conversation with BBC journalist Mark Murphy.

Further details here. Please note that you are asked to reserve a place.

Ipswich is just over 1 hour on the train from London Liverpool Street, and 1 hour 20 minutes from Cambridge. University Campus Suffolk is a 15 minute walk from the station. [Map]

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Turkey and the Düver Frieze

Detail from part of the Düver frieze.
Source: University of Ottowa
It now appears that Turkey is stepping up its claims on archaeological material that has left the country illegally subsequent to its national legislation relating to antiquities. The Roman portrait sculptures from Bubon seem to be high on the list, as well as pieces of Late Antique silver plate.

It strikes me that one of the most notorious examples of looting from the same period as Bubon and the Lydian hoard is the extensive removal of terracotta architectural fragments from a sixth century BC temple at Düver. These were dispersed on the London market and have found their way into numerous European and North American collections.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

SLAM: "We don't have any interest in possessing a stolen object"

David Linenbroker, the attorney for the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM), has spoken about the legal ruling over the Egytian mummy mask acquired by the museum ("Judge: 3,200-year-old mummy mask can stay in Mo.", AP, April 5, 2012).
We don't have any interest in possessing a stolen object ...We've been facing all this innuendo for years.
I am delighted that SLAM does not want to "possess" stolen objects.

The same report states:
Museum officials have said they researched the mask's ownership history before buying it and had no indication there were questions about how it arrived in the U.S. The museum's research showed the mask was part of the Kaloterna private collection during the 1960s, before a Croatian collector, Zuzi Jelinek, bought it in Switzerland and later sold it to Phoenix Ancient Art of New York in 1995. The art museum purchased the mask from Phoenix Ancient Art.
It is now clear that the mask could not have entered the "Kaloterna collection" in the early 1960s as the object was still in Egypt. The collecting history for the mask appears to be seriously flawed. Why? What could be the motive?

What does Linenbroker understand by "innuendo"? Perhaps he could produce the authenticated documentation demonstrating the full collecting history of the mask. Perhaps he could explain the apparent fact that the mask was still in Egypt at the time that the museum claimed it was in a private collection in Switzerland.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Turkey to act on Bubon bronzes

It is now clear that Turkey is seeking to reclaim the major series of imperial Roman bronzes that were removed from the Sebasteion at Bubon in southern Turkey. The statue bases were left in situ and have been recorded.

I have discussed this notorious act of cultural property removal elsewhere in the American Journal of Archaeology [JSTOR].

There are implications for the Ny Carlsberg Glypotek in Copenhagen, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the private collector Shelby White.

It would be a great achievement if Turkey could reunite the bronzes, marble sculptures and their related inscriptions from this single structure.

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St Louis Art Museum Mask: implications for Swiss dealer

I have noted earlier this week that the collecting history ("provenance") for the Egyptian mummy mask acquired by the St Louis Art Museum was seemingly flawed. It cannot have been given to the excavator (who died in 1959). It cannot have been in Brussels in 1952. It cannot have been in the "Kaloterna collection" in 1962. The reason for this is the apparently undisputed statement that the mask was known to be in Egypt in 1966 and recorded in Cairo.

The collecting history for the mask was allegedly supplied by the vendor, Phoenix Ancient Art. One of the owners of the gallery apparently supports the repatriation of antiquities to the country of origin. What was the basis for the mask's collecting history as supplied by Phoenix Ancient Art? Who created the collecting history?

It now appears that SLAM's due diligence process prior to the acquisition was flawed. The collecting history, as it was understood at the time of acquisition, no longer appears to be secure.

Will the director of SLAM, who is a member of the AAMD, make the appropriate professional and ethical response by opening up negotiations with the Egyptian authorities?

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

St Louis Art Museum: "we would do the right thing"

i was very struck by the 2010 words of St Louis Art Museum spokeswoman Jennifer Stoffel when talking about the dispute between SLAM and Egypt over the mummy mask that was excavated at Saqqara:
we would do the right thing ... if there was something that refuted the legitimacy of the provenance.
The Missouri legal decision over the mask should raise serious concerns for the museum authorities. The legal statement demonstrates at that the mask's presence was documented up to 1966, and that it seems to have gone missing by 1973.

I have rehearsed the collecting history of the mask elsewhere. Laura Elizabeth Young has also had access to the documentation at SLAM.

Let me repeat the alleged history of the mask here (as it is presented by SLAM and the Swiss dealer that sold the mask):
b. The mask was given to an official associated with the excavations. There appears to be no paperwork to support this. (Indeed Goneim in his report, The Buried Pyramid (1956), thanked the Department of Antiquities of the Egyptian Government, Cairo. The implication is that at the time of going to press the mask was in a government store.) 
The following sequence is based on documentation provided by Phoenix Ancient Art:
c. Mask seen in 1952 at an antiquities dealer in Brussels. This depends on the testimony of a Swiss national, Charly Mathez made in February 1997. SLAM contacted Mathez in 1999 but he could not remember the details or the name of the gallery. Could he really be certain that the mask he claimed to see in Brussels 45 years earlier was indeed the same one? 
d. Mask purchased "by a private collector" in approximately 1962 ("ten years later"). This is named as the "Kaloterna Collection". 
e. The private collector sold the mask to "an unnamed Swiss citizen, in whose private collection it would remain for 40 years". It is noted that the "Swiss collector requested anonymity". The Riverfront Times identified the individual as "Zuzi Jelinek of 84 Quai de Cologny, Geneva, Switzerland"; they confirmed that a "Suzana Jelinek-Ronkuline" lived at that address. (Her son is said to have offered the information that the Aboutaam brothers once rented a property on Quai de Cologny belonging to his mother. The Riverfront Times then reported, "Hicham Aboutaam directed the Riverfront Times to a woman identifying herself as Suzana Jelinek, of Zagreb, Croatia. 'I bought the mask many many years ago, and I sold it many many years ago,' says Suzana Jelinek when reached at her Zagreb home. 'I have so many things in my collection that my children don't know what all I have.'")
If we accept the Missouri legal version of the collecting history of the mask that confirms its presence in 1966 we need to conclude:
1. The mask was not given to an official connected with the excavation. We should also note that the excavator died in 1959. 
2. The mask was not at an antiquities dealer in Brussels in 1952. The testimony of Charly Mathez appears to be mistaken. 
3. The mask was not in the "Kaloterna Collection" in 1962.
This raises questions about when the mask entered the "collection" of Zuzi Jelinek. How reliable is her testimony?

The legitimacy of the "official" collecting history ("provenance") of the mask seems to have been brought into question by the court case. SLAM has stated that they would "do the right thing" if the legitimacy of the provenance was flawed.

Will the museum now do the ethical and professional "right thing" and return the mask to Egypt?


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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Proclaim liberty for cultural property!

© David Gill
In a surprise move, the Walford Campanological Society based in London's East End has requested the return of the so-called "Liberty Bell" currently displayed in Philadelphia. Recent research in the National Archives has suggested that some of the cost is still outstanding.

Spokesperson Phil Mitchell gave a statement: "This 'Auntie Nell' forms part of the East End's history. It needs to be put on display where it belongs: and that is in Walford."

A local historian, Albert Cubey, found the key documents while writing a history of bell-foundries in London's East End. "The correspondence was bound into a leather ledger for the foundry. It appears that part of the final payment was never made, and requests for the bell's return were ignored."

A spokesperson for the US National Parks Service said that she was unable to comment on installations linked to national security, but added that the bell was of cosmopolitan significance and should therefore be displayed in Philadelphia. She added that the return of the bell would set a dangerous precedent and lead to the potential returns of cultural property to source nations.

The UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) declined an interview and suggested that all would be revealed in the documentary that had been prepared.

A programme about the Walford project will be shown on BBC1 at 8.00 pm tomorrow (Monday).

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