Showing posts with label Basel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Basel. Show all posts

November 15, 2017

Assets of Gianfranco Becchina seized in relation to mafia collusion

DIA Seizing Gianfranco Becchina assets 
Most people who follow the illicit trafficking of antiquities will already be familiar with the name of Gianfranco Becchina -- a name frequently linked to Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes, and Bob Hecht and their roles in furthering the illicit antiquities trade.  Less well known perhaps, at least among the who's who list of criminals involved in art crimes, is Matteo Messina Denaro, or the details of Becchina's alleged involvement with the inner circle of this Cosa Nostra kingpin. This, despite the fact that Becchina seems to have been sent a warning message from the mob in January 2012, when someone fired shots from a shotgun at his door and left an intimidating gift of flowers.

L'omertà e la paura and the boss of bosses

With a name straight out of an Italian comic book, Matteo Messina Denaro, also known as "Diabolik", solidified his position in the mafia following the arrests of two of his predecessors, Salvatore "Totò" Riina in 1993 and Bernardo Provenzano in 2006.  He is said to command close to 1000 underlings, through 20 mafia families and white collar business associates.  This  makes his Trapani-based enterprise the defacto zoccolo duro (solid pedestal) of the Cosa Nostra, second only to the families in Palermo responsible for illicit trafficking across the Atlantic between the new generations of the American and Sicilian Cosa Nostra.

Ruthless and calculating,  Denaro earned a reputation for brutality by murdering rival Trapani crime boss Vincenzo Milazzo, and then strangling Milazzo's girlfriend who was then three months pregnant. A fugitive since 1993, he was convicted in absentia for mafia bomb attacks that killed 10 people in Rome, Florence and Milan and wounded many others.

As is common among organized crime syndicates, Denaro saught to diversify his interests.  Wiretaps obtained by prosecutors suggest that the crime boss had interests in more than 40 corporate entities and 98 properties, laundering funds through various third parties and third party entities.

In 2013 anti-Mafia task force investigators seized a prized Trapani-based olive grove in Sicily worth €20m on the basis that profits from this agricultural enterprise provided an economic support structure for the fugitive crime boss. In 2015, 16, and 17 more arrests and seizures followed as the authorities work to cut off the revenue streams of the boss on the run.

Despite being a fugitive from justice, this entrepreneur mafioso with dirty hands is thought to be hiding in plain sight somewhere in Sicily,  perhaps even in his home town, Castelvetrano, where Becchina resides and where Denaro's relatives and a daughter, conceived while on the lam, reside.

Image Credit: Bellumvider Cultural Society
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To further dismantle Denaro's operational funding, this week Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (Dia), through the Court of Trapani's penal and preventive measures section, seized all movable assets,  including real estate and corporate enterprises attributable to Gianfranco Becchina on the basis of an order issued from the District Attorney of Palermo.  This includes Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., Olio verde srl., his own olive oil production company, Demetra srl., Becchina & company srl., and Palazzo Pignatelli, once the noble residence of the family Tagliavia-Aragona-Pignatelli, which is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider (the public part is owned by the city and houses the town hall).  Investigators also seized Becchina's land, vehicles and bank accounts.

The Trapani branch of the Cosa Nostra is believed to have accumulated some portions of its wealth through the proceeds of illicit archaeological finds, many procured through grave robbers working at the isolated Archaeological Park of Selinunte, one of Sicily's great ancient Greek cities, located near Castelvetrano.  The archaeological site covers 40 hectares and includes Greek temples, ancient town walls, and the ruins of residential and commercial buildings and given its remote location, much of the site has not been formally excavated, leaving it prey to opportunistic looters.

Image Credit: Accademia degli incerti

The link from Matteo Messina Denaro to Gianfranco Becchina begins with Denaro's father,  Francesco Messina Denaro, who was the capo mandamento in Castelvetrano and the head of the mafia commission of the Trapani region. Francesco Messina Denaro was believed to have been behind the theft of the famous Efebo of Selinunte, a 3′ tall bronze statue of Dionysius Iachos from the 5th century BCE, stolen on October 30, 1962 and recovered in 1968 through the help of Rodolfo Siviero, who orchestrated a sting operation with mafia contacts by posing as the "nephew" of a Florentine art gallery that would purchase antiquities without asking too many questions about ownership.  When the mafia intermediaries tried to fence the statue in Foligno, six accomplices were arrested and the statue was returned to the Civic Museum of Castelvetrano, though not before a shootout with the authorities. 

Law enforcement authorities working on this case drew information about Becchina's connection to Cosa Nostra through former traffic cop, Concetto Mariano of the Cosa Nostra Marsala family. Mariano began cooperating with justice officials two months after being arrested.  A second informant, Giuseppe Grigoli, again a cooperating Cosa Nostra prestanome told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina, to be delivered discreetly to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro, both of whom have been convicted for their own mafia collusion and have had substantial property holdings of their own confiscated.

The Dancing Satyr
Image Credit piazza Plebiscito Museum
A unnamed Marsala family informant also told law enforcement that he had been instructed by the head of his mafia command to steal the bronze statue of the Dancing Satyr, attributed by scholars to Praxiteles housed at the Piazza Plebiscito Museum in Mazara del Vallo.  The order for the theft (never executed) was said to have come directly from Matteo Messina Denaro, who would then be marketing it  through experienced Swiss channels.

Interestingly, this dancing satyr bronze was purportedly fished from the Strait of Sicily by a fishing boat from Mazara called the "Captain Ciccio" in 1997.  Mafioso Francesco Messina Denaro, also went by the name  "Don Ciccio"

Mere coincidence? 

Maybe, but along with the eight men of his crew, the captain and owner of the Captain Ciccio received a hefty reward for their fishing expedition.


Maybe, but along with the eight men of his crew, the captain and owner of the Captain Ciccio received a hefty reward for their fishing expedition.

Shipowner Toni Scilla received fifty percent; Francesco Adragna, as captain, received twenty-five percent; and the rest of the prize was divided between crew members in proportion to their job duties as boatswain, engineer, or shipmate.

UPDATE:  As of late morning a fire has broken out at Becchina's residence at Palazzo Pignatelli.   Reports say the fire occurred in his daughter's apartment during the execution of the DIA search warrant.  Investigators suspect that it was a Becchina family member intent on destroying certain documents.

No confirmation by the fire department yet as to if the fire was arson or accidental. 

October 27, 2017

Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports issue statement regarding claim on two Frieze Masters funerary vases

Image Credit:  Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport
On October 26, 2017 the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports issued a press release regarding the two flagged lekythoi identified at Frieze Masters art fair by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis.  The two Greek Attic funerary vessels were brought to London earlier this Autumn on consignment by the Basel-based art firm of Jean-David Cahn AG, acting on behalf of the Swiss canton Basel-Stadt.  Tsirogiannis had identified the vessels as being present in the Gianfranco Becchina archive, despite the fact that this passage of provenance in the objects' history had been omitted from the provenance documentation for the marble vases on hand for potential buyers at the London art fair.  


Both vases remained unsold.


The Greek ministry of Culture and Sport statement reads:

Αθήνα, 26 Οκτωβρίου 2017
ΔΕΛΤΙΟ ΤΥΠΟΥΤΟ ΥΠΟΥΡΓΕΙΟ ΠΟΛΙΤΙΣΜΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΑΘΛΗΤΙΣΜΟΥ ΔΙΕΚΔΙΚΕΙ ΤΙΣ ΚΛΕΜΜΕΝΕΣ ΑΡΧΑΙΟΤΗΤΕΣ
Δύο μαρμάρινα επιτύμβια αγγεία, έργα αττικών εργαστηρίων Κλασικών χρόνων, τέθηκαν πρόσφατα προς πώληση στην έκθεση έργων τέχνης Frieze Masters, στο Λονδίνο. Πρόκειται για μια λήκυθο με ενεπίγραφη παράσταση αποχαιρετισμού του νεκρού και μία λουτροφόρο με ανάγλυφη διακόσμηση, που χρονολογούνται στον 4ο αιώνα π.Χ. Οι εν λόγω ελληνικές αρχαιότητες διεκδικούνται ήδη από το Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού, το οποίο θα συνεχίσει τις προσπάθειες επαναπατρισμού τους αξιοποιώντας κάθε πρόσφορο μέσο.

Translated in English, the government statement reads as follows:

Athens, 26 October 2017

PRESS RELEASE

THE MINISTRY OF CULTURE AND SPORTS IS CLAIMING THE STOLEN ANTIQUITIES 

Two marble funerary vases, works of Attic workshops of the Classic period, were offered recently for sale at the art exhibition Frieze masters, in London. They are a lekythos with an inscription of farewell to the deceased and a loutrophoros, with relief decoration, dating back to the 4th century BC. These Greek antiquities are already under claim by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, which will continue the efforts to repatriate them using all appropriate means.

The press release, which is quite brief, does not specify when Greece filed their repatriation claim.


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

February 5, 2015

Pieter Paul Rubens, “The daughters of Cetrops find the serpent-shaped baby”

Posted originally in its entirety with permission from the author and Plundered Art. 

The daughters of Cetrops find the serpent-shaped baby, Rubens
by Marc Masurovsky

What’s in a provenance? According to one saying, it is all in the eye of the beholder. Should it be? After all, there are those who believe, truly believe, that a provenance is optional and is a mere adornment for the art object being offered for sale, traded, loaned or otherwise donated. The art market has learned that an “interesting” provenance can enhance the value of the art object being offered up, especially if it has survived the vagaries of war and genocide.

Still, others think that a provenance is the closest thing to a legal document. Now, why would these “others” say such a thing? Well, for one thing, a provenance should give those who come to museums to view, who go to auction houses and galleries to acquire, some basic information about where the object came from, who the current owner is, who the previous owners were. Shouldn’t the provenance meet some or all of those requirements? And if so, how complete should it be? After all, we don’t want to give the wrong impression about an object, we surely don’t want to rewrite its history, we don’t want to lie about the true history of an object. Do we?

For the sake of the exercise, let’s use a painting by Pieter Paul Rubens, “The daughters of Cetrops find the serpent-shaped baby Erichthonius, 1615, an oil on panel, painted by the 17th master in 1615 or so we think.

The online art historical database of the world-renown “Rijksbureau V. Kunsthistorische Documentatie” (RKD), a fascinating softly interactive collection of information about Dutch paintings and their collectors, proves to be most useful and the departure point for our exercise.

According to the RKD, the provenance reads as follows:

Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Luzern, 1934-11-30, lot nr. 40 
niet verkocht (volgens veiling cat. 7-8 december 2011)
Hans W. Lange, Berlijn, Collection B., Vienna, 1938-11-18 - 1938-11-19, lot nr. 180
Lange, Hans W. (Berlijn) 1938-11-18, lot nr. 180 
, het betreft hier de gedwongen verkoop van de collectie van Victor Bloch
Lempertz (Keulen) 2006-11-18, afb. colour reproduction, lotnr. 1133 
, met opgave van herkomst en literatuur
Sotheby's (Londen (Engeland)) 2011-12-07 - 2011-12-08, afb. colour reproduction, lot nr. 198 
, met opgave van herkomst en literatuur;
Dorotheum (Wenen) 2012-04-18, afb. colour reproduction, lot nr. 606 .

private collection Colas de Marolles, Frankrijk
private collection Viktor Bloch, Wenen 1938 waarschijnlijk in 1934 niet verkocht. In 1938 in Berlijn verkocht als ' collectie B., niet-arische collectie', d.w.z. joods (zie Held 1980)
Particuliere collectie / Private collection 1938 - sinds de late jaren 1930 (volgens veilingcat. 7-8- december 2011)
Hans W. Lange, Berlin
Galerie Jean-François Heim, Parijs/Bazel 2014 - Shown at the European Fine Arts Fair, Maastricht, March 2014

The Lempertz auction house in Köln, Germany, which is a habitual reseller of Holocaust-era plundered art objects, provided the following information for the Rubens painting in its sales information on November 18, 2006:

Slg. Victor Bloch, Wien;
Auktion XVIII, Gilhofer u. Ranschburg, Luzern, 30.11.1934, Lot 40;
Auktion H. W. Lange, Berlin, 18./19.11.1938, Lot 180;
seit dem Ende der Dreißigerjahre in einer westdeutschen Privatsammlung.

The Sotheby’s auction house sold the painting on December 7, 2011. Its sales catalogue included the following information about the Rubens painting:

Dr. Victor Bloch, Vienna;
His sale, Lucerne, Gilhofer and Ranschburg, 30 November 1934, lot 40, where unsold;
His forced sale ("Collection B. Vienna"), Berlin, H.W. Lange, 18-19 November 1938, lot 180;
In the possession of the family of the present owner since the end of the 1930s.

It added: “This work is sold pursuant to a settlement agreement between the current owner and the heirs of Victor Bloch...At the time of the sale in 1938, this work was accompanied by the expertise of Max J. Friedländer and Gustav Glück.”

The Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, Austria, sold the Rubens painting on April 18, 2012 and disclosed no provenance information.

We know from the RKD provenance that the Rubens painting ended up with the gallery of Jean-François Heim in Basel, Switzerland. Mr. Heim’s gallery provided the following information online:
Colas de Marolles heraldic symbol
Colas de Marolles family Collection
Probably Van Schorrel Sale, Antwerp, 1774
Dr. Victor Bloch Collection, Vienna (as Peter Paul Rubens) Sale XVIII, Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Lucerne, 30/11/1934, lot 40
Sale H. W. Lange, Berlin, 18-19/11/1938, lot 180
From the end of the 1930s in a private collection in West Germany
Sale Lempertz, Cologne, 18/11/2006, lot 1133 (as Peter Paul Rubens)

To sum things up, as far as the extant literature allows us to conclude, the oldest owner to be identified for the 1615 painting by Rubens was a French collector by the name of Colas de Marolles who presumably acquired the painting in 1774 at the van Schorrel sale in Antwerp. Jean-François Heim is the only one who mentioned this XVIIIth century historical tidbit. The painting ended up in the collection of Dr. Victor Bloch, of Vienna, at an unknown date. Dr. Bloch tried to sell the painting on November 30, 1934 at Gilhofer and Ranschburg, in Lucerne, Switzerland, as lot No. 40. But the painting failed to find a buyer, a fact noted by Lempertz, Sotheby’s and Heim.

The Nazis annexed Austria in an Anchluss on March 10, 1938. Dr. Bloch, being of Jewish descent, was subject to anti-Jewish racial laws. The Hans W. Lange auction house in Berlin, Germany, a veteran of “Jew auctions”, the swift liquidation or “forced sale” of movable property belonging to persons of Jewish descent. The property of Dr. Bloch was listed in the Lange catalogue as non-aryan, a tip-off to the potential buyer that this sale was a fire sale. Lange sold the Rubens without the consent of Dr. Bloch, to an unknown buyer on November 18-19, 1938 as Lot No. 180, a fact noted by the RKD and Sotheby’s. The Lempertz auction house and Heim failed to indicate in their provenances for the Rubens painting the fact that the Bloch sale, a non-Aryan sale, a forced sale, occurred within the context of Nazi anti-Jewish policies of economic and racial persecution aimed at dispossessing all persons of Jewish descent of their property, movable and immovable. Anyone reading their provenances would have to assume that the sale at Lange was licit and the buyer who acquired the Rubens painting had obtained it in good faith despite the fact that the Lange sale was well-advertised as involving non-Aryan property, code for Jewish, code for persecuted, code for forced sale.

The Lempertz auction house sold the Rubens painting on November 18, 2006, misleading the acquiring public into believing that the painting had been sold licitly in good faith by Lange in November 1938. For 68 years, the Rubens painting was owned illegally. In other words, Lempertz passed bad title to the next possessor who thought that he/she was acquiring the painting in good faith. On December 7, 2011, Sotheby’s in London, UK, accepted the Rubens painting on consignment from the possessor who had acquired it at Lempertz. Since December 1998, the art world has had to take heed of the so-called Washington Principles, drafted and adopted at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets. These non-binding principles serve as an ethical and moral checkpoint for the art market and cultural institutions in their treatment of art objects that have been misappropriated between 1933 and 1945. These said institutions and players are advised to do their utmost to resolve ownership disputes pertaining to these plundered objects and to reach “fair and just solutions” with the victims of the thefts and the current possessors.

Sotheby’s indicated in its sales catalogue that a settlement agreement had been reached with the heirs of Victor Bloch, meaning that the sale was going to proceed and the family of Dr. Bloch was strongly advised to accept a certain sum of money to preserve title in the hands of the seller and to close their claim for the painting. The sale proceeded. The buyer at Sotheby’s sold the Rubens a year later at the Dorotheum in Vienna on April 8, 2012. Jean-François Heim’s gallery displayed the painting at the Maastricht Art fair in 2014.

This “provenance exercise” is meant to serve as a cautionary tale regarding how art market players interpret the history of ownership of an object being displayed or offered for sale. It also shows how gallery owners and auctioneers are apt to select facts about the history of an art object. In other words, the history of objects is (re)constructed to serve, no doubt, the interests of the house. The provenance ends up being an exercise much like docudramas and historical reenactments on television, where fact and fiction coexist and interlace to produce a new narrative that masks the harsh realities of history.