August 23, 2017

Hedge Hogs and the Art of Wealth: The Curious Background of Michael Steinhardt


Michael Steinhardt has a long standing record of making astute financial decisions, many of which have led to stellar investment performance earnings totalling in the millions on Wall Street.  Unfortunately his culture capital record: for making careful, sound, and informed decisions when purchasing antiquities for his purported $200 million private collection of art, has been anything but stellar. 

As Master of the Hedge Fund Universe, Steinhardt has the liquidity to be choosy about his art purchases. With a current net worth of $1.05 billion, according to a 2017 article in Forbes Magazine, and almost thirty years of collecting experience, he's also a member of Christie’s advisory board.  Tight with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he has had a Greek Art of the Sixth Century B.C. gallery named after him at the museum. All that to say Steinhardt should be sufficiently well informed about the social and ethical obligations of responsibly acquiring, managing and disposing of items in his burgeoning art collection. 

So why then, with access to so many of the art world's elite, has he chosen to overlook the importance of provenience (country of origin) and provenance (history of ownership) of the objects he fancied BEFORE allowing them to enter or exit his collection and comparing that information within the context of the US and international legal frameworks and abiding accordingly?

I guess traders love to gamble (more on that later) a fortune on their compulsions.

Some of Steinhardt's costly gambles:  

A fourth century BCE gold phiale


November 09, 1995, U.S. Customs agents seized a $1.2 million fourth century BCE gold phiale used for pouring libations from Steinhardt's Fifth Avenue residence on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  The financier appealed the lower court's ruling only to have the decision of forfeiture affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  Despite clear proof that the object was smuggled out of southern Italy, Steinhardt petitioned the lower court's ruling all the way to the United States Supreme Court, in the hopes of retaining the object for his collection. 

The high court found no compelling reason to rehear Steinhardt's case on the basis that the importer had intentionally undervalued the object's worth, transited the object illegally from Sicily to Switzerland, and provided false statements misrepresenting the phiale's country of origin on the objects import documentation. 

The two antiquities dealers involved in the purchase, Robert Haber and William Veres, were each given suspended sentences of one year and ten months imprisonment.  The extent of Steinhardt's culpability though was left vague in the final court filings.  Yet Steinhardt's experience as an art collector and specifically his experience with Haber, with whom he had already purchased some $4-6 million in art objects, raises considerable doubts as to his naïveté.  

The fact that the bill of sale from Haber to Steinhardt's even stipulated that if "the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser" gives the impression that both the collector and his dealer were aware of the potential for illegality in the market.

(Il)licit Excavations of Maresha Subterranean Complex 57: 
The ‘Heliodorus’ Cave


In early 2007 Michael Steinhardt acquired the so-called Heliodorus Stele from Gil Chaya, an antiquities dealers in Jerusalem, who is reportedly a nephew of the late Shlomo Moussaieff.  Moussaieff once owned one of the largest collections of biblical antiquities, many of which were unprovenanced.  After the purchase Steinhardt and his wife presented the stele to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on an extended loan.

The stele contains a magnificent 2nd century BCE Greek inscription which documents a correspondence between the Seleucid king, Seleucus IV (brother of Antiochus IV) to an aide named Heliodorus.  Unsurprisingly though, the bottom portion of the stele was missing, leaving a gap in scholarship as well as a tell-tale signature that the stele had likely been looted upon its extraction, since its base was missing. 

Earlier in 2005 and 2006 excavations at the Maresha Subterranean Complex 57 at Beit Guvrin National Park uncovered three fragments that were subsequently identified as matching the bottom of Steinhardt's stele.  These fragments were discovered in a subterranean complex by participants in the Archaeological Seminars Institute's "Dig for a Day" program.  The correlation of the fragments' epigraphy and testing of their stone and soil samples at the find site proved that the fragments were a perfect match, completing missing pieces of the stele.  

It was later determined that the stele had been stolen during a robbery at the Beit Guvrin National Park in 2005.  Tel Maresha's head archaeologist, Dr. Ian Stern verified that he remembered arriving at the site on a Sunday morning in 2005 only to find that the cave where the fragments were later found, had been “turned upside down,” apparently by looters searching for ancient objects to be sold on the black market.  

United States v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment



Despite the object's obvious Italian origin, the shipment had a customs declaration form which falsified the object's country of origin as Macedonia. The fragment was forfeited to the U.S. government and repatriated to Italy on February 24, 2015.

A Sardinian Marble Female Idol of the Ozieri Culture


November 21, 2014 Christos Tsirogiannis identified a $1 million Sardinian marble female idol dating from 2500-2000 B.C.E. scheduled for auction as Lot 85 at Christie's on December 11, 2014 as having been matched with an image he found in the archive of convicted Italian antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.

Before arriving in the collection of Michael and Judy Steinhardt, the object had previously made its way through Harmon Fine Arts and The Merrin Gallery*, both of New York.  Once part of the collection of pet food giant Leonard Norman Stern, the object was once displayed, but not photographed, in a "Masterpieces of Cycladic Art from Private Collections, Museums and the Merrin Gallery" event in 1990 where both Steinhardt and Stern were present. 

On November 27th the object was pulled from the Christie's auction for further review. Its current status has not be made known publically. 


An Anatolian marble female idol of Kiliya type, AKA The Guennol Stargazer


On April 29, 2017 at the behest of a request by the Turkish authorities and following the interim judgement of the United States District Court, Christie's applied precautionary measures regarding the sale of the 9-inch, 5,000-year-old a rare 3rd millennium BCE idol, likely looted from the Akhisar district of Manisa province in Anatolia."  Turkey's Culture Minister Nabi Avcı told the press that the auction house will abide by the Court's recommendation for a temporary 60-day hold on the antiquity while an investigation into the object’s provenance is conducted. During that time period, the purchaser’s hammer price + buyer's premium bid of $14,471,500 USD was confirmed but not collected.  As a result of the object being contested, the would-be buyer bowed out from the purchase shortly after to case broke in the international press. 

According to documents, Michael Steinhardt had purchased the Stargazer from Merrin Gallery* in August 1993 for under $2 million.  Had the sale not been halted he would have pocketed $12.7 million for the 5,000 year-old Guennol Stargazer, twice the object's pre-sale estimate.

A Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE)

Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE),
 (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Earlier this month Manhattan prosecutors took custody of a 2,300-year-old marble bull's head, that was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art over suspicions that the antiquity had been pillaged. 

The marble head of a bull was purportedly purchased by Lynda and William Beierwaltes in 1996 for more than US$1 million. The Beierwaltes in turn sold the statue on to Michael Steinhardt in 2010 who later loaned the antiquity to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  After learning that the object might be subject to seizure, Steinhardt asked that the Beierwaltes take possession of the object and compensate him for his purchase. 

The Beierwaltes have stated they purchased the object through an unnamed London art dealer. NOTE: The Beierwaltes were clients of Robin Symes and Christos Michaelides.

Six examples of high stakes "risks" overlapping with names of antiquities dealers many who analyse art crimes will already recognize.  

Yearning for Legitimacy or Repeating the Sins of the Father?

Steinhardt says the inherent risk in antiquities collecting doesn’t intimidate him. “It is a little bit dangerous, but that is what makes it exciting,” ....“But life is filled with risks, isn’t it?”

Understandably, leading a life on Wall Street makes you look at risk differently than the average person, and hedge fund overlords thrive on tightrope walking high-risk investment tactics in order to bring in lucrative returns.  In a world designed to aggressively accumulate wealth, it's not surprising that Michael Steinhardt approached his art acquisitions apparently enjoying the adrenalin-filled rush from the risk-taking he took.  

Yet with so many examples of getting it wrong; electing to overlook the provenance of the objects he collected in favor of the buy, working with dealers already known to raised eyebrows or prosecutions for undocumented artifacts, and irregular import documentation, Steinhardt's maneuvers shouldn't be interpreted as simple novice mistakes, made by a collector with more money than Midas. Despite that, Steinhardt has profited more than he has been held in account for, which shows unfortunately that the odds remain remarkably in his favor, despite the alleged illicit purchases. 

Risk vs. Payoff: Lessons from Childhood

But before the legendary Wall Street money manager stepped into the collector's ring, Steinhardt was brought up in working-class Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  He is the son of the late Sol Frank Steinhardt, a reputed gambler and jewelry fence, who was a  lieutenant of the prohibition era crime boss Meyer Lansky.  Lansky was one of the most notorious of the Jewish crime bosses and a valuable money-maker for Joe Masseria's organization which made much of their income through extortion and is reputed to have been one of the most violent gangs of the era.

A gambler, "Red" Steinhardt, as Sol was also sometimes called, partnered with Lansky in Florida and Havana on gambling rackets that helped finance the National Crime Syndicate, alongside Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo, a New York mobster and a high-ranking Capo in the Genovese crime family. 

Before long, Sol Steinhardt's dealings as a farbrekher got him arrested and in 1958 he was sentenced to 5-10 years on each of two counts for his fencing escapades.   Sol served out his sentence at Sing-Sing prison and Dannemora, the maximum security facility along the Canadian border.  According to Michael Steinhardt's autobiography, Steinhardt Sr. paid for his undergraduate education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, –most likely with ill-gotten gains.

Antiquities and Risk 

In 2005 Linda Sandler interviewed Michael Steinhardt on antiquities and risk, after his lost appeals on the gold phiale.  During the interview he said:


I guess some collectors aren't candidates for sainthood either. 

The moral question is this: Suppose you can legally gain the reward and stick other people with the risk. It is easy enough for me to tell you not to do it. But will it change your action? 

By: Lynda Albertson
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* The Merrin Gallery was started by Edward Merrin, now run by his son, Samuel Merrin and Moshe Bronstein, appears in the business records of Sicilian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina, who was charged with receiving and trafficking in looted antiquities.



August 14, 2017

Artefacts seized at Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad


Destined for Japan, customs authorities at Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad have intercepted six antiquities believed to date from the 2nd to the 5th Century CE along with ten counterfeit objects.  According to their customs declaration the items were listed incorrectly as simply “decoration items.”  

Instead, according the the Directorate General of Archaeology and Museums in Islamabad, the consignment contained contraband artifacts that come from the kingdom of Gandhara, an ancient Vedic and later Buddhist civilization from the Peshawar valley, which stretches from northern Pakistan to the Kabul River in eastern Afghanistan.

The export of antiquities was banned in Pakistan under Section 24(2) of Section 35 of the Antiquities Act, 1975.   Under this law a “protected antiquity” belongs exclusively to the government and their unauthorized removal or destruction is an offence punishable with rigorous imprisonment of three years or a fine of Rs 200,000 or both.

August 3, 2017

Opensource Reprint: Nekyia “A South Italian Bell-Krater by Python in the Metropolitan Museum of Art”

Given the recent interest in the July 31, 2017 article in the New York Times regarding the Python bell-krater depicting Dionysos with Thyros which was seized by New York authorities from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, ARCA has elected to publish Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis' original Journal of Art Crime article, in its entirety.

Originally published in the Spring 2014 edition of the Journal of Art Crime, ARCA's publication is produced twice per year and is available by subscription which helps to support the association's ongoing mission. Each edition of the JAC contains a mixture of peer-reviewed academic articles and editorials, from contributors authors knowledgeable in this sector.

We hope this article's publication will allow ARCA's regular blog readership and the general public to get a more comprehensive picture of this object's contentious origin.

Please note that Tsirogiannis' requested information from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on both the Bothmer's fund and the full collecting history of theis particular krater's recorded collection history on February 7, 2014, three years and five months before its present seizure by New York authorities.   While the researcher did not say, at the time, that the vase had been identified in the Medici archive, given the focus of Tsirogiannis' research, it is safe to assume that the museum should have had an idea why this particular researcher may have expressed an interest in the vase's provenance and its acquisition via the Bothmer Fund. 
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Nekyia
“A South Italian Bell-Krater by Python in the 
Metropolitan Museum of Art”

In five images from the Medici archive appears a Paestan bell-krater depicting Dionysos with Thyros and phials.  He is seated, along with a woman playing a double-flute with a bird on her lap, in a cart drawn by the god’s aged companion Papposilenos.  Above Papposilenos appears the bust of a woman with a thyrsos, separated from the rest of the scene by a wavy line. Between this bust and Papposilenos, in direct visual alignment with the end of the  flute played by the woman in the cart, appear the Greek letters *ΥΒΡΩΝ (*UBRŌN: the first letter is uncertain; only one roughly horizontal stroke survives, sloping slightly downward to the right at the level of the centre of the following Y). On the reverse side of the vase, two draped youths are depicted between palmettes identical to those that frame the main scene.

Four of the five Medici images are produced on regular photographic paper, and one is a Polaroid image. Two of the regular images are numbered in pen “4/50” and “4/51”, while the Polaroid is numbered “3/214”. The Polaroid image bears a handwritten note underneath: “H. cm 33,5 RΥΒΡΩΝ”. In all five images the krater is depicted intact, but half of the base and part of its rim are covered with soil or salt encrustations. The regular images present the krater standing on a dark red velvet surface. Also visible in these images is a creased brick-red paper stuck on a white surface leaning against the wall behind the vase; it seems that this is intended to complement the velvet base as a background.

The same south-Italian bell-krater surfaced at a Sotheby’s antiquities auction on June 23, 1989 in New York. The consigner of the krater was not named in the auction catalogue and the object was offered as lot 196, under the general title “Other Properties”. No previous collecting history of the vase was mentioned in the catalogue. The estimation price given was $50,000-80,000. The catalogue entry reads:
Paestan Red-Figure Bell Krater, circa 360-350 B.C., painted with a phlyax scene depicting Dionysos and a Maenad seated in a cart pulled by the satyr Papposilenos, the nickname “Hubris” in Greek above him, Dionysos seated and holding a phiale and thrysos [sic], the maenad playing the double-flute, a dove perched on her lap, Papposilenos’ hairy body indicated by white dots, and wearing red anklets and leopard-skin, the bust of a maenad  floating above holding a thrysos [sic], two draped youths in conversation on the reverse; details in added yellow, red, white, and brown wash. Diameter 14 1⁄2 in. (36.8 cm.) 

Attributed to Python. Cf. Mayo, Art of South Italy, no. 106, and Trendall, Red-figured Vases of Paestum, pls. 92, 98, c-f, 99, 100, c-d, 101, e-f, 105, e-f, 107, a-b; also cf. pl. 89, for a vase by Python where Papposilenos is given another appropriate nickname.

The painter Python, and his colleague and probable teacher Asteas, were the most influential of the Paestan vase painters. 

The object was sold for $90,000 (information received by email from Sotheby’s employee, Mr Andrew Gully on March 21, 2014).

Shortly after the Sotheby’s auction in New York, the vase became part of the antiquities collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (henceforth MET). It was given the accession number 1989.11.4. In the MET publication (Picon et al. 2007:239 no.184), the main scene on the obverse is described as follows:

The phlyax scene shows a youthful Dionysos, god of wine, and a flute-playing companion riding a wheeled couch. The draught is provided by an old silenos wearing a fleecy costume under a fawn skin. The inscription above his head reads “Hubris.” The drawing and polychromy, at once  fluent and disciplined, represent Python at his best.

The MET website records that the acquisition was possible due to the “Bothmer Purchase Fund”.

A Tainted Collecting History

Following my previous articles for JAC (Tsirogiannis 2013a-b, discussing antiquities which passed through the hands of Medici), I need not describe at length the implications of the first signifcant fact; the vase appears in the archive of the convicted dealer Giacomo Medici, and no earlier collecting history can be found. It is, however, worth here applying a point made in The Medici Conspiracy on p. 57: the conditions of the photographs themselves confirm that this vase is very likely to have been excavated illegally after 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention against illicit trade in antiquities). The bell-krater is photographed using Polaroid technology not commercially available until after 1972; the krater is situated not in its archaeological context with a measuring tool, but with soil encrustations, on an armchair; in the regular photographs, the vase appears against a background whose brick-red colour seems clumsily matched with the dark red velvet surface, the same surface on which Medici photographed several other antiquities which later proved to be illicit and were repatriated to Italy (e.g. the 20 red-figure plates attributed to the Bryn Mawr Painter, once offered to the Getty Museum: see Watson & Todeschini 2007:95-98, 205; Silver 2010:138-139, 143). It is profoundly clear that the bell-krater was not in a professional environment or treated in a professional way.

Sotheby’s does not disclose the names of the consigners or the buyers of objects, as the company stated when contacted in the recent past while I was researching other cases of antiquities lacking collecting history (Tsirogiannis 2013a:7). Mr. Andrew Gully stated in January 2013: “Sotheby’s does not disclose the names of consigners or buyers. In the future, please use that answer as your guide” (email on behalf of Mr. Richard Keresey, Sotheby’s International Senior Director and Senior Vice President, Antiquities). However, the association between Sotheby’s and Medici has been described at length by Watson (1998:183-193) and Watson & Todeschini (2007:27). The first book led to the permanent closure of four departments of Sotheby’s in London, including the antiquities department; the second provides a detailed image of the continuous business between Sotheby’s and Medici during the 1980s.

The MET has a long history of acquiring looted and smuggled antiquities after the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The two most prominent cases were the Euphronios krater acquired in 1972 from the notorious dealer Robert Hecht during the directorship of Thomas Hoving, and the Morgantina treasure acquired in 1981, again from Hecht, during the directorship of Philippe de Montebello. On February 21, 2006, de Montebello signed an agreement in Rome to return both krater and treasure to Italy among 21 antiquities in total (Povoledo 2006). In January 2012, Italy announced the repatriation of c. 40 vase fragments from the MET; Fabio Isman revealed that the fragments matched vases already repatriated to Italy from North American museums, and noted that these fragments previously belonged to the private collection, kept in the MET, of the museum’s antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer (Italian Ministry of Culture 2012; Isman 2012).

This collection came to prominence again in 2013, when I matched a rhomboid tondo fragment of a kylix by the Euaion Painter at the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome to fragments from the Bothmer collection (Tsirogiannis & Gill forthcoming 2014). Although the MET did not reply to my email requesting the collecting history of the object (February 26, 2013), in July 2013 the Villa Giulia Museum informed me that the MET planned to return the rest of the kylix to Italy.

That match was made possible because the MET had posted (although they then withdrew) images of the fragmented kylix in the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) Object Registry, a website on which museums can post objects lacking full collecting histories before 1970. The Registry covers only objects formally acquired by museums after 2008, which explains why the Python bell-krater does not appear there (last accessed on April 6, 2014). There is no such Registry for objects acquired in the period 1970-2008 and lacking earlier collecting history, but on the basis of this new identification and published reconstruction of the bell-krater’s collecting history, the MET should accept that this object too should be repatriated to Italy, either voluntarily, following the recent example of the Euaion kylix fragments, or, if it comes to court, following the United States vs. Frederick Schultz verdict, by which U.S. law recognized foreign patrimony law (Silver 2010:249; Renfrew 2010:94).

The Need for Further Academic Research

The identification of the vase in the Medici archive, with the handwritten note below the Polaroid image, not only suggests that the vase has most likely been unlawfully removed from Italian soil, but also highlights discrepancies between published interpretations of the main scene depicted on the vase. Let us look more closely at the scholarly descriptions of the vase to which the MET refers on its website.

The MET website gives three sources of publication for the vase; two from Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC) and one from Carlos Picon et al. (2007) Art of the Classical World in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (no. 184, pp. 161, 439). The two references to LIMC turn out to be to the same paragraph, in the supplement to vol. 7, found at the end of vol. 8 (1997:1113, Silenoi no. 20a = “Tybron no. 2”). This reads:

New York, MM 1989.11.4 – Green 93 Abb4.4 - S. Tybron (oder Hybron) Zeiht Dionysos und Auletin auf einem Karren.

This description of the scene gives two readings of the writing on the vase, correctly noting that the  final two letters appear to be Ω N (ŌΝ); the writing is interpreted as a nickname for the old Silenos  figure, using the evidence of a neck-amphora attributed to Python (Trendall 1987: 142, pl.89 no.240) in which Papposilenos appears in the top right corner of an elaborate obverse scene (the birth of Helen from an egg) with the clear inscription ΤΥΒΡΩΝ above. Medici’s vase, it seems, was not known at the time of Trendall’s publication, since Trendall writes (p. 142): ‘this is the  first time [‘papposilen inscribed ΤΥΒΡΩΝ’] has been identifed, though the name is not found elsewhere’. In LIMC, the inscription on the bell-krater is the second such identification but with some uncertainty about the reading (and hence, meaning) of the name.

The LIMC entry, describing Dionysos’ companion on the cart simply as ‘Auletin’, (‘flute-player’), is more neutral in description than the source it cites, John Richard Green in his book Theatre in Ancient Greek Society (1994). Green on p. 93 describes the scene on the krater (pictured in his fig. 4.4), ‘recently acquired’ by the MET, as that of ‘an actor as papposilenos’ pulling Dionysos and ‘Ariadne’ along on a cart (for Green, the bird on her lap is ‘doubtless...a symbol of love’) on a festive occasion, while ‘a maenad keeps them company’. By ‘maenad’ he means the thyrsos-bearing figure in the upper left corner of the scene, separated from the others by a wavy line. Green characterises the vase as “splendid”, referring to it as ‘by Python’, but placing it ‘on the earlier side of the painter’s career.’

There are a number of odd elements in this interpretation; in other vases attributed to Python, busts of figures appearing at the top of the scene, surrounded by a wavy line, are given names (inscriptions above the figures) indicating that they are deities or nymphs (e.g. the red-figured bell-kraters no. GR 1890.2-10.1 and 1917.1210.1 in the British Museum); that is, the wavy line in these cases represents a nimbus and hence the separation of realms. As for ‘Ariadne’, more is needed to support this mythological identification, which is not found in Picon; unlike several Python vases, there are no names on this krater except for the inscription, not mentioned by Green, at the level of the pipes above the Silenos-figure. Finally, Green’s dating of the vase to Python’s earlier period does not find support in the elaborate shape of the palmettes framing the scene, which, detached from the fans below the vase-handles, conform to the ‘standard variety’ rather than the less-developed earlier shapes (for a chronological overview, see Trendall 1987:16). The MET publication, unlike that of Green, refers to the vase as an example of ‘Python at his best.’

Green informs us in an end-note that the vase passed through Sotheby’s in New York, the same year (1989) it was acquired by the museum (Green 1994:192, note no. 8), a fact that is not stated on the MET website. Sotheby’s catalogue is in fact the earliest published attribution of the vase to Python, and the catalogue, although it cites Mayo and Trendall for parallels, does not in this case name the authority for the attribution (as it sometimes does in other cases). While the attribution to Python is most probably correct, the vase is not signed by Python; up to 1987, only two vases signed by Python were known (Trendall 1987:137, 139). It is odd that Sotheby’s cite a parallel in Trendall 1987 (‘another appropriate nickname’ for Silenos) and yet offer the incorrect reading of the inscription as ‘Hubris’, which in turn appears to be the basis for the official description on the MET website (last accessed April 2014) and published by the MET in Carlos Picon et al. (2007:439) (the third bibliographical reference given on the website). The MET too read ‘Hubris’, although citing LIMC, in which we find ‘Tybron (oder Hybron)’. Medici, for all his lack of Greek, did represent the inscription more accurately; the first letter seems to be a T or an H rather than an R, but the fading of the paint makes it uncertain. The ending of the word is more surely ΩΝ (ŌΝ); an abstract quality such as hubris is an unlikely inscription in this context.

It is evident from this outline of the different interpretations that further professional study is required.

Conclusion

We have highlighted both the partial nature of the collecting history given in all published sources, and the differences in the scholarly analyses of the vase. The fact that the MET’s bell krater – only the second vase on which papposilenos is given another name - is not included in Trendall’s 1987 corpus of Paestum vases indicates that the vase surfaced after 1987. However, Trendall’s 1987 reading of the neck-amphora inscription seems not to be exploited either in Sotheby’s reading of the inscription on the bell-krater in 1989 or the reading by Picon et al. in 2007.

Green alone mentions all the sources published at his time. Nevertheless, apart from this vase, there appear in Green’s book images of other vases that later turned out to be illicit (e.g. Green 1994:30,  g. 2.9, an Attic red-figure calyx-krater with two members of a bird chorus about a piper, at the Getty Museum; Green 1994:46,  g. 2.21, a Terentine red-figure bell-krater with comic scene showing a slave and two choregoi with a figure of Aigisthos, formerly in the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection and, later, at the Getty museum); these were likewise depicted in Polaroid images from the Medici archive; they were repatriated to Italy (Godart, De Caro & Gavrili 2008:102-103 and 138-139, respectively).

The MET has several questions to answer. What is the ‘Bothmer Purchase Fund’? It has been proved that Dietrich von Bothmer played a crucial role in the acquisition of archaeological material, looted and smuggled after 1970, both on behalf of the MET and for his personal collection formed during the same period (Gill 2012:64; this obvious conflict of interest was overlooked by the museum; see Felch 2012, Tsirogiannis & Gill forthcoming 2014). My email to the MET (February 7, 2014), querying this point and requesting the full collecting history of the krater, remains unanswered, although it was sent to three different offices. No contact details for the Department of Greek and Roman Art are available on the museum website.

In a wider perspective, the Python bell-krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of many similar cases. North American museums, recently found to have acquired illicit antiquities, and forced to return those objects, still have in their possession many more. The very museums which advertise their care for transparency, in practice continue to conceal the full collecting history of tainted objects they own, and wait for them to be discovered. In this regard, the story of the Python bell-krater case is absolutely typical.

ARCA's publication is produced twice per year and is available by subscription which helps to support the association's ongoing mission. Each edition of the JAC contains a mixture of peer-reviewed academic articles and editorials, from contributors authors knowledgeable in this sector.
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Author's Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Dr. Helen Van Noorden for her comments and her overall help. My thanks go to Mr Andrew Gully (Sotheby’s) for providing me with the hammer price for the bell krater in the June 23, 1989 auction.

August 1, 2017

Three years in the making: The case of “A South Italian Bell-Krater by Python in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” results in seizure.

On June 1, 2014 this blog published a distilled version of an academic investigation which heavily documented details from an article in the Spring 2014 Journal of Art Crime which highlighted the illicit origin of a possibly trafficked Bell-krater.  The author of the peer-reviewed journal article, Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, is an expert on illicit antiquities trafficking and objects identification who also teaches with ARCA's as part of our postgraduate art crime program.* 

At the time ARCA published Tsirogiannis' long-form article, the krater was on display in Gallery 161 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Attributed to the artist Python (active ca. 350 – 325 BCE) of Poseidonia (Paestan), the vase depicts Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, along with a flute-playing companion.

By comparing a series of five photos which are part of the confiscated and now infamous Medici archive, Tsirogiannis believed that the krater should be seized from the Met Museum, as the likelihood of it having been looted was quite high.

The photos reviewed by Tsirogiannis were part of the art market records of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2005 of receiving stolen goods and conspiracy to traffic looted antiquities. Given the presence of one damning polaroid in particular, it seemed very probable that this vase had passed through Medici's known network of suppliers who dealt in looted objects.

Medici polaroid of Python's bell-krater
The Polaroid SX-70 camera model was a boon in DIY photography, but the point and shoot camera did not arrive on the European market until 1972. As the new technology produced clear images with no separate negatives, its ready-in-a-instant photos could not be manipulated or altered.  They also didn't require a visit to a risky photo lab in order to develop rolls of film, making them perfect for amateur pornographers.

But the Polaroid SX-70 also became the camera of choice among many Italian looters of the period. The camera's instant photo capabilities meant traffickers too didn't have to worry about the photomat attendant making extra copies or notifying the authorities if their photos were deemed suspicious. By bypassing the film developing stage, the Polaroid photos could be shared directly between looter, middleman or antiquities dealer directly reducing the chance of detection.  This advent of this type of photography offered traffickers and their dealer counterparts with authentic and voyeuristic antiquities porn, which often memorialized the harsh reality of the looters handiwork.

Many such images, as with a Polaroid picture of Python's bell-krater, were found in Medici's confiscated business records.  In other repatriation cases, these photos have been used in evidentiary proceedings to establish object identifications and as documentation of the passages the object took from looter to dealer to the licit market.  So while the photos once were a book for the criminal they now serve law enforcement as evidence resulting in antiquities forfeiture from some of the world's most prestigious museums.

Some of the Polaroids in Medici's archive show antiquities in the trunks of cars, spread out on kitchen tables or on floors. In the photo of this particular Bell-Krater, the object appears to have been placed on a rose-coloured upholstered chair or sofa.   This same background surface can be seen in another Medici archive photo analyzed by Maurizio Pellegrini and Daniela Rizzo of Italy’s Soprintendenza Beni Archeologici Etruria Meridionale at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia. That identification involved antiquities which were later proven to be illicit and were repatriated to Italy (e.g. plates attributed to the Bryn Mawr Painter, once offered to the Getty Museum).

The 1972 date of the Polaroid SX-70 arrival in Europe is important as it proves that this object was likely dug up after the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  This international treaty was the first international instrument dedicated to the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property and made it illegal to export cultural property from signatory nations like Italy.  Despite this, the bell-krater arrived to the United States and was auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on June 23, 1989, selling for $90,000.  This is the same year that the object entered the Met’s antiquities collection, acquired by the museum via the Bothmer Purchase Fund, named for the longtime Met curator who died in 2009.**



But let's take a close look at this object and its photographic records, comparing a second Medici dossier photograph of the bell-krater with its counterpart from the Department of Greek and Roman Art collection online at the Metropolitan Museum.

NOTE:  The "See additional object information" link on this Bell-Krater, which would nominally list any and all collecting information the museum chose to document publically regarding this acquisition, was permanently removed from the Metropolitan Museum website.

Photo Left: from Medici's Archive depicting bell-krater highlighting salt encrustations
Photo Right: Archival Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
The Medici archive photo clearly shows the Python Bell-krater with salt encrustations at its base, while the vase's current restored condition in the museum's photo does not.   With this photo comparison we can hypothesize that Giacomo Medici was acutely aware of the vase's existence after 1972 and possibly in direct contact with participants connected with the vase's looting, before the object was restored.

Uncomfortable questions for uncomfortable museums

According to a New York Times article yesterday, July 31, 2017, this bell-krater has been seized by New York State authorities at the behest of an investigation initiated by New York State Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, to which Tsirogiannis provided detailed information.  A copy of the warrant can be found here.  Treading lightly in its opening photo caption, the NYT's article by Tom Mashberg delicately states that "A vessel known as a krater that the Metropolitan Museum of Art turned in to the district attorney’s office in Manhattan after a warrant was issued last week." This makes the seizure seem almost cooperative in nature, which to me seems a bit generous.

Tsirogiannis emailed the Metropolitan Museum on February 7, 2014, asking that his message questioning the object's origins be forwarded to the curatorial staff for the Department of Greek and Roman Art whose email is not available on the museum's website.  In his email he requested a full collecting history of the krater.  His email went unanswered.

The fact that this case was subsequently published in ARCA's Journal of Art Crime which outlined the museum's failure to respond, then in a blog post published on this blog, and again in a May 2017 journalistic piece in the National Geographic should have elicited some sort of public acknowledgement or rebuttal on the museum's part.   Instead the Met continued with its non-responsive stance with Tsirogiannis and failed to acknowledge the brewing conundrum in a proactive way.

In today's New York Times article Mashberg states

Officials said the museum had noticed Dr. Tsirogiannis’s published research in 2014 and, indeed, had been troubled by the reappearance of Mr. Medici’s name in connection with an artifact. They said they reached out informally to the Italian authorities then, but received no response.

It is not clear what "troubled" and "reached out informally means" or why, given the objects connection with a convicted trafficker and its likely looted state, why the museum didn't attempt to repatriate the object voluntarily.

Page 7 of the AAMD guidelines "Introduction to the Revisions to the 2008 Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art" reads:

"If a member museum, as a result of its continuing research, gains information that establishes another party’s right to ownership of a Work, the museum should bring this information to the attention of the party, and if the case warrants, initiate the return of the Work to that party, as has been done in the past. In the event that a third party brings to the attention of a member museum information supporting the party’s claim to a Work, the museum should respond promptly and responsibly and take whatever steps are necessary to address this claim, including, if warranted, returning the Work, as has been done in the past."

I guess the museum's voluntary informal notification, its only proactive gesture towards an object of concern in three years, could be commended, but to me their actions towards righting a potential wrong were insufficient.  Yes, the museum brought "this information to the attention of the party" by contacting the Italian authorities as mentioned in the NYT article.  But despite this preliminary step, they failed to respond to an academic researcher's request for further clarification on the object's provenance, then removed the object's spartan collection details from their website completely.

Museums can and should do better.  

While the AAMD is committed to the exercise of due diligence and enhanced transparency in the acquisition process, and to demonstrating that accessioned objects in museum collections are out of their country of modern discovery prior to or legally exported therefrom after November 17, 1970, the Metropolitan Museum only adhered to a fraction of the Association's recommended guidelines in its handling of this object.

Passively waiting for a law enforcement seizure, like a wait and watch approach to a potential cancer,  should not be an acceptable protocol with suspect antiquities which documentation has proved require fuller due diligence. Especially when the museum was well informed that there was a brewing issue surrounding the object in question.

By: Lynda Albertson
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*You may read Dr. Tsirogiannis’ article on this object in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime by subscribing via the ARCA website or ordering the issue through Amazon.com.

** Bothmer played a crucial role in the acquisition of archaeological material, looted and smuggled after 1970, both on behalf of the MET and for his personal collection formed during the same period.