Greek Ceramics Pulled from Auction Show That Archives Should Be Made Public

Ancient Greek vase from Zimmermann Collection, photo Christie's.

Four Ancient Greek Ceramics Withdrawn From Auction

Four ancient Greek ceramics were voluntarily withdrawn from auction at Christie’s New York in early April. The auction house faced allegations of knowingly selling works linked to convicted art trafficker Gianfranco Becchina, but Christie’s denied these claims, asserting that they withdrew the lots upon learning of the alleged connection. The accusations were made by Christos Tsirogiannis, a University of Cambridge archaeologist, who stated that three of the vases had been consigned to Christie’s by Becchina under a false name for a 1979 auction in Geneva. Tsirogiannis, who has unique access to records seized by Italian police in long-closed cases against former art dealers, has gained fame as an “antiquities-hunter” by identifying objects contained in these records for nearly two decades.

The three objects identified as from Becchina, dating back to the 6th century BCE, included an Attic cup, a lid of a lekanis bowl, and a hydra water pot, with estimated values ranging from $7,000 to $20,000. Another vase, a lekythos oil jar featuring Theseus, was estimated to sell for $20,000 to $30,000. All the objects were withdrawn from the auction for further research.

Ancient Greek ceramic from Zimmermann Collection, photo Christie’s.

Tsirogiannis says that he found documents in Becchina’s seized archive indicating Becchina’s involvement in the 1979 sale by Christie’s. He claims that despite Christie’s knowledge of this connection for 45 years, they excluded it from their documentation. Tsirogiannis also noted apparent discrepancies between images of the vase in Christie’s catalogue and images from Bettina’s seized archives.

The vases were from the well-known collection of Dr. Manfred Zimmermann. Three out of the four objects removed from the auction had been exhibited for years in two different German museums without generating claims, from 2005-2018 in Zimmerman’s private museum, the Antikenmuseum im Schnoor in Bremen, Germany, and from 2018-2023 in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg.

Museum organizations, collectors, and the art trade have called for the archives in the possession of police to be made accessible to the public for provenance research for decades. Without this access, potential buyers as well as public institutions cannot confirm whether objects may be suspect of being looted.

Long Past Time to Open Archives and Share Information on Ancient Art

Thirty years ago, a trove of Polaroids, documents, and antiquities linked to Giacomo Medici were found in storerooms in the Geneva Freeport. Medici was convicted in 2004 and his archives were seized by Italian police as evidence in the looting case against him. Six years later, in 2001, numerous photographs of objects were found among the records of Gianfranco Becchina and retrieved by Swiss authorities, then later transferred to the Carrabinieri in Italy.

Since that time, information from the archives has been shared not only with police in various nations but also, very selectively, to individuals who were viewed as “helping” police authorities. The Association of Art Museum Directors has actively pressed Italy for greater transparency and asked it to make the archives publicly available. Tsirogiannis has himself complained to the international press that he has not been given the credit he deserved by Matthew Bogdanos, an Assistant Manhattan District Attorney who has also made a name for himself as an inveterate prosecutor of the antiquities trade. Uncertainty over ownership has hindered wider accessibility and fueled mistrust between archaeologists, museums and the art trade.

A number of court cases and seizures have been made based on identifications through these archives. Numerous returns of long-held antiquities have resulted because their photographs appeared in the Becchina or Medici documents. Mere association with a “known trafficker” is sufficient to taint an object, even though these dealers also dealt in antiquities circulating in the general art trade. Objects that once held pride of place in U.S. museums and educational institutions now rest in obscurity in backrooms of Italian museums already choked with artifacts.

Challenges persist in making the archives public, with uncertainties surrounding ownership rights and regarding the refusal of police to share information publicly. (Questions have even been raised about potential copyright ownership of their images and documents by Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina.)  It is long past the time in which tombaroli (tomb robbers) and a secretive antiquities trade were an accepted part of life in Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean. Museum directors and curators are spending a large portion of their working time in researching provenance and answering claims from dozens of countries around the world. Art dealers and auction houses now work in a new trade environment in which provenance is key and transparency is essential to one’s reputation. These archives are no longer of any use in making cases against the original looters. It would be in the interest of all parties to enable such jealously guarded archives to be used to resolve continuing uncertainties of title and ownership and to enable museums to exhibit, publish, and further the study of ancient objects instead.

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