October 23, 2017

Further information on the flagged lekythoi identified at London's Frieze Masters art fair

Image Left:  Christos Tsirogiannis, Frieze Masters 2017
Image Right: Gianfranco Becchina Archive
On October 22, 2017, the Guardian newspaper reported on two ancient Greek marble lekythoi identified as having once passed through the hands of convicted antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina.   The identifications were made via forensic archaeologist Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis with the help of photographs obtained by a concerned individual in London.  Tsirogiannis notified the authorities of his findings on October 16, 2017.

Since 2007, Dr. Tsirogiannis has actively identified illicit antiquities as they have come up for sale on the art market, matching corresponding objects to material found in the confiscated Medici, Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides archives.

During this research, Tsirogiannis informed ARCA that he had found two photocopied images and two Polaroid images of a lekythos which depicts an image of a dead warrior with his relatives, which also has an inscription.  Reviewing copies of the images he sent in confirmation, the photographs of the lekythos show the object in pre-sale condition in two different spaces in storage depots. 

Tsirogiannis also identified a single photograph in the Becchina archive of the second lekythos mentioned in the Guardian article.  This photograph, unlike the others, was a professional black and white image and may have been used by the dealer for sale catalogue purposes.

ARCA has joined two of the archive photographs with their Frieze Masters counterpart to show that Tsirogiannis' identifications match perfectly.

Image Left:  Christos Tsirogiannis, Frieze Masters 2017
Image Right: Gianfranco Becchina Archive
In addition to the photographic evidence, the Becchina archive also contained written documentation from 1988 and 1990 which showed Becchina and George Ortiz as co-owners of the lekythos, with the image and inscription. One of those documents also referenced the object in an earlier 1977 Becchina list of antiquities.

The two lekythoi were brought to London this Autumn on consignment – price “upon request” by the Basel-based art firm Jean-David Cahn AG, a gallery which specializes in ancient Greek and Roman art. 

They were exhibited in Regent's Park during Frieze Masters, a Frieze London spin-off art fair that features hundreds of leading modern and historical galleries from around the world, many with pricey, museum quality objects.  Both objects did not sell. 

According to Guardian journalist, Howard Swains, the consignor of the two lekythoi is the Swiss canton of Basel-Stadt.  Each canton in Switzerland has its own constitution, legislature, government, and courts and in this case it appears that the Basel-Stadt judiciary had greenlighted the brokering of the objects through the Swiss intermediary as part of their liquidation of Becchina's remaining unclaimed art assets from his business dealings in Basel.

Sixteen years earlier, Italian authorities had requested assistance from Swiss law enforcement in their longstanding investigation into Gianfranco Becchina's operations.  As a result of the joint Italian-Swiss operation, an international illicit trafficking ring was dismantled and 5,800 objects were seized from three Becchina warehouses under suspicion of having been plundered.

The largest portion of these ancient objects were repatriated to Italy after a lengthy identification process.  Unfortunately, hundreds of orphaned objects, whose countries of origin were not verified, remained in limbo, under the jurisdiction of the Swiss authorities.

It is important to note that in agreeing to broker the sale of the lekythoi in London, Jean-David Cahn AG elected to omit the Becchina and Ortiz passages in the object documentation published for the Frieze Masters event.  That literature can be seen in the photos below.  While each carries a lengthy description of the object, there is only spartan mention of their provenance, stating only “Formerly Swiss art market, October 1977.”



As Dr. David Gill points out, "These two items are objects that were created in Attica for display in Attic cemeteries. They are from Greek, not Italian, soil."

While it remains unclear if the Greek authorities know about these two particular antiquities, and if they somehow failed to file a claim at the time of their seizure,  the absence of any documentable provenance is a strong indicator that both artifacts, orphaned or not, were acquired through individuals connected with Becchina's trafficking network.

The fact that antiquities dealers continue to market antiquities, selectively omitting problematic passages in an object's provenance is a longstanding issue.  In cases like these, it also underscores why many heritage protection experts — who monitor the antiquities trade and antiquities trafficking — believe the art market is unwilling or incapable of policing itself, especially if the seller believes that sharing the object's complete history might diminish its chances of finding a buyer.

Also worthy of note:

In 2006, Jean-David Cahn voluntarily returned a marble male head from its stock which had been stolen from the Temple of Eshmun in Lebanon.

Excerpt from the State of New York Application for Turnover - Bulls-Head-Case
In 2007, Jean-David Cahn returned a marble statue of the Lykeios Apollo that had been stolen from the archaeological site of Gortyna in Crete in 1991. 


Then in 2008, after a series of negotiations, Jean-David Cahn returned a different Attic marble funerary lekythos, also identified by Christos Tsirogiannis, to Greece as part of an out-of-court settlement.  That object had been pinpointed during the TEFAF Maastrict art fair in March 2007.

  
While the heritage community continues to advocate strongly for responsible collecting and informed due diligence from collectors before they make purchases as a means of curbing the trade in looted artifacts, one has to also ask what the ethical responsibility of dealers and governments is, who knowingly place questionable origin objects up for sale, intentionally misleading potential buyers by not giving them all the collecting history information at their disposal.

Hypothetically Speaking...

What if a buyer had been interested in purchasing either of these antiquities?

Somewhere down the road, said buyer might find themselves in the awkward position of not being able to donate, or sell, or recoup their previous investment because the potentially illicit origin of the object was not made clear to them at the time of purchase.

Food for thought.

By: Lynda Albertson

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