February 25, 2017

Auction Alert and Antiquities Seizure: Second seizure at Royal-Athena Galleries, New York


On February 17, 2017 forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis alerted Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos in Manhattan that he had identified another antiquity, likely of illicit origin, apparently being laundered via the US art market.  The object in question had been listed for sale via Royal-Athena Galleries, a New York City-based gallery which is operated by Jerome Eisenberg.   Royal-Athena Galleries is the same New York gallery which relinquished an illicitly trafficked sarcophagus fragment to the country of Greece a few weeks ago. 

(Update - July 18, 2017-The link has been preserved here but is no longer active.)
Attic Red-Figure Nolan Amphora
By the Harrow Painter
Ex C.H. collection, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Exhibited: Yale University Art Museum, 2003-2015.
Price: P.O.R.  (Price on Request)

As per Tsirogiannis, this same vase appears in three images from the Gianfranco Becchina archive pictured below.


The Becchina Archive is an accumulation of records seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland.  This archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer's business.  

Becchina's records include shipping manifests, dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images.  Many of the images are not slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, crude point and shoot polaroids taken by looters and middlemen depicting recently looted antiquities. Some of these polaroids show objects immediately after their looting and show objects which often still bear soil and salt encrustations. 

In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade. While he later appealed this conviction, antiquities like this vase, traced to this network of antiquities traffickers, continue to surface years after their original looting.  Objects like this one, have resurfaced in private collections, museums and some of the world's most well know and ostentatious galleries and auction houses specializing in ancient art so it is important for collectors to remain on alert to the history of the objects they consider for purchase. 

When discussing his identifications with ARCA Tsirogiannis indicated that the photograph below, of a handwritten note by Gianfranco Becchina himself, documents that the Italian dealer had knowledge of the looted Neck Amphora's existence at least as far back as 28 February 1994.  Documents in the archive which represent the dealer's own meticulous record-keeping, shows that Becchina acquired the vase on the 15th of March 1994 and paid for the object on the 11th of April of that same year.


It is important to note that this red-figure attic vase is one of the most important styles of figural Greek vase painting.  In the Italian dealer's records, the object appears in photographs together with another object, an amphora.  This second object has been redacted from the image presented for the purposes of this blog post as the object is still in circulation.  Both antiquities seem to have come from a single Italian looter or middleman trafficker identified only as 'Robertino'. Given this information, it is plausible that the second identified piece of Attic pottery was looted at or near the same period of time, and may likely come from the same Etruscan tomb. 

It is Dr. Tsirogiannis' opinion that the two object photo ties the vase definitively to the country of Italy and that therefore, the vase should be repatriated to the Italian authorities.  

Other examples of illicit material which have passed through this New York dealer's art and antiquities firm include:



Eight antiquities stolen from museums and archaeological sites worth US$ 510,000.

And most recently, on February 10, 2017, a sarcophagus fragment depicting a battle between Greeks and Trojans looted from Greece and relinquished to the Greek Authorities.

Speaking with Dr. Tsirogiannis about this most recent identification he stated "As in the recent case of the sarcophagus fragment that has been repatriated to Greece, so in this case the identification and the evidence are sending back to Italy a valuable Greek vase. This result was achieved with the cooperation of assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos in New York who handled the seizure and the archaeologist of the Villa Giulia museum in Rome Mr. Maurizio Pellegrini who provided crucial information about the identity of the looter involved."

Given the fact that it often takes sound identifications, such as those conducted by researchers actively working on the Becchina dossier, forfeiture by art market dealers should not be misconstrued as spontaneous acts of good well. In many of such cases, the antiquities are relinquished either to avoid lengthy litigation or as a gesture by the suspect holder of the object to remove themselves from any negative publicity caused by having their name associated with having handled or purchased trafficked art.

By Lynda Albertson

1 comments:

why wasnt this piece picked up on when it was exhibited for such a long time.can we really blame the dealer hear when the piece has been doing the rounds for over two decades

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