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Antiquities from Italy: the Bürki connection

Anyone following the return of antiquities will have come across the name of Fritz Bürki of Switzerland. When Boston's Museum of Fine Art returned thirteen antiquities to Italy in October 2006, the name of Bürki featured large. The most prominent piece was a marble statue of Sabina, the wife of the emperor Hadrian. This had been said to have resided in the collection of a Bavarian aristocratic family; its sale to the FMA had been negotiated by Robert Hecht. One of the other pieces was an Apulian amphora attributed to the Darius painter; it was sold by Bürki in 1991 jointly to Shelby White and Leon Levy, and to the MFA (with funds given by the Jerome Levy Foundation).

Bürki reappeared as a vendor to Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Among their collection was a Pontic amphora (identified by a polaroid seized in a raid on the Geneva Freeport). Another was an Apulian bell-krater attributed to the Choregos painter. One of the significant pieces was a fragment of wall-painting; this came from the same composition as a fragment returned to Italy by Shelby White. These Fleischman pieces were later passed to the J. Paul Getty Museum; their return was agreed in November 2006.

The J. Paul Getty Museum acquired several items from Bürki. Among them was an Attic black-figured zone cup, attributed (by J. Robert Guy) to the manner of the Lysippidies painter, purchased in 1987. A more elaborate piece was the Attic mask kantharos attributed to the Foundry painter (by J. Robert Guy) and acquired in 1985. The museum acquired an Apulian pelike attributed to the Darius painter in 1987.

Other museums have not been so forthcoming about their sources for objects that have been returned to Italy. However it was reported in November 2008 that Bürki is listed among the vendors for material returned from the Cleveland Museum of Art. Bürki is reported to have conserved the Sarpedon (Euphronios) krater before it was sold to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art by Robert Hecht.

Now the Italian police have announced that they are actively pursuing some 350 items handled by Bürki. It appears that they are circulating DVDs of the objects to dealers and auction-houses. It will certainly have the effect of dampening down the market. It appears that the objects were recorded as a result of a raid on Bürki's Zurich premises in October 2001.

The renewed interest in Bürki will once again focus on how the looting of archaeological sites in Italy has long-lasting impact on those who acquire archaeological material for public and private collections. The solution is clear: the market should only agree to handle objects that have a documented collecting history that can be traced back to the period before 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention).

Portrait of Sabina, purchased from Fritz Bürki of Zurich, through Robert E. Hecht to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1979. Returned to Italy in 2006.

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