October 22, 2017

Recovered - 200 undocumented ancient objects in Grosseto, Italy

Image Credit:  Guardia di Finanza

Four antiquities collectors in Grosseto stand accused of illicit detention and possession of property belonging to the state after officers from Italy's Guardia di Finanza seized more than 200 undocumented ancient objects uncovered during asset controls in the garden of a villa.  The search and seizure warrant was issued by the Public Prosecutor of Rome.  

Some of the pieces recovered date back to the Roman imperial age and depict various inscriptions and scenes of Mithraism. 

Image Credit:  Guardia di Finanza

In addition to these, law enforcement officers seized marble heads and busts, including the one of Jupiter pictured in the header of this article, and another of Faustina Maggiore.

Image Credit:  Guardia di Finanza

Also seized was an ancient sarcophagus, unfortunately converted into a utilitarian planter, a full-body statue of a female, attic pottery, columns, and pedestals. Many are in poor condition, perhaps due to exposure to the elements. 

Image Credit:  Guardia di Finanza

As part of this investigation, Italy's finance police raided 22 residences in three regions: Lazio, Sicily, and Tuscany. Eleven suspects have been placed under investigation.  

Image Credit:  Guardia di Finanza
Image Credit:  Guardia di Finanza

October 17, 2017

Rome: A lab which will help the force to detect and unmask fakes and forgeries.


Given the growing phenomenon in counterfeit cultural heritage, Italy's Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale and Rome's Roma Tre University have signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the establishment a “Laboratorio del Falso,” a lab which will help the force to detect and unmask fakes and forgeries and aimed at teaching and scientific research related to cultural heritage. 

In 2017 the Carabinieri seized, 783 fake objects compared to only 57 fabrications in 2016. As ever-more-elaborate forgeries hit the market, more research is needed to differentiate between what is genuine and what is counterfeit.

Signed by Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli, Commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of the World Cultural and Prof. Mario De Nonno, Director of the Department of Humanities of the University of Roma Tre the goal of the agreement and the laboratory's development is to help enhance scholarly insight and in so doing, work to alleviate the proliferation of inauthentic works in the art market. 

Motivated by the ease with which historical and visual evidence is manipulated by con artists preying on collectors, the adopted partnership will carry out studies on the artists most prone to counterfeiting and will examine and develop techniques, procedures, and systems to allow better identification of the genuine thereby helping to shine the spotlight on what is real, rather than what is a deception.

In conjunction with this initiative Italy's MiBact and the Ministry of Economic Development will present 15 lectures in different Italian cities on the problem and recognition of art forgeries, titled "L'arte non vera non può essere arte" (Art that is not authentic, isn't art".  The events will be held in the cities where the Carabinieri TPC have their regional offices and will conclude with a special event at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, (National Gallery of Modern Art --GNAM where there will be an exhibition of copies of counterfeit works of art previously confiscated by law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

The dates and locations of these events include:

Ancona - October 4, 2017, 9:00 am 
Auditorium della Mole Vanvitelliana
For information: tel. 071.201322
email: tpcannu@carabinieri.it

Perugia - October 11, 2017, 5:30 pm
Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria
For information: tel. 0754.4194
email: tpcpgnu@carabinieri.it

Palermo - October 18, 2017, 9:00 am
Palazzo Belmonte Riso of the  Museo Regionale d’Arte Contemporanea
For information: tel. 091.422825
email: tpcpanu@carabinieri.it

Udine - October 27, 2017, 6:00 pm
Palazzo Garzolini Toppo Wassermann at the Scuola Superiore dell’Universita' di Udine
For information: tel. 0432.504904
email: tpcudnu@carabinieri.it

Cosenza - November 8, 2017, 10:00 am
Palazzo Arnone, Giorgio Leone Hall at the Polo Museale della Abria
For information: tel. 0984.795540
email: tpccsnu@carabinieri.it

Turin - November 10, 2017, 9:30 am
Vivaldi Auditorium at the Biblioteca Nazionale
For information: tel. 011.5217715
email: tpctonu@carabinieri.it

Cagliari - November 15-16, 2017, 9:30 am
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Cagliari
For information: tel. 070.307808
email: tpccanu@carabinieri.it

Genoa - November 16, 2017, 11:00 am
Archivio di Stato di Genova
For information: tel. 010.5955488
email: tpcgenu@carabinieri.it

Monza - November 16, 2017, 9:30 am
Villa Reale
For information: tel. 039.2303997
email: tpcmznu@carabinieri.it

Naples - November 20, 2017, 10:00 am
Palazzo Reale
For information: tel. 081.5568291
email: tpcnanu@carabinieri.it

Venice - November 22, 2017, 10:00 am
Universita' degli Studi Ca’ Foscari - "Mario Baratto Conference Hall"
For information: tel. 041.5222054
email: tpcvenu@carabinieri.it

Bari - November 22, 9:00 am
Castello Svevo
For information: tel. 080.5213038
email: tpcbanu@carabinieri.it

Florence - November 28, 2017, 9:30 am
the Teatro del Rondo' di Bacco  of the Palazzo Pitti
For information and accreditation: tel. 055.295330
email: tpcfinu@carabinieri.it

Bologna - November 29, 2017, 10:00 am
Monticelli Hall at the Comando Legione Carabinieri “Emilia Romagna” 
For information and accreditation: tel. 051.261385
email: tpcbonu@carabinieri.it

Rome - December 5, 2017, 
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna
Details Forthcoming

October 16, 2017

Monday, October 16, 2017 - ,,, No comments

UPDATE: The two Philaeni bronzes in Libya are reported as safe.


Earlier today, alerted by news reports from Libyan environmental activist Saleh Drayagh, ARCA posted a blog report that two reclining bronze statues of the Philaeni brothers had been stolen from an archaeological site in Sultan, Libya, 60 km east of Sirte by factions loyal to the Islamic State group.

Tourist illustration
of the Arch of the Philaeni
Image Credit: Khalifa Abo Khraisse
The bronzes were all that was left of the 100 foot tall,  Marble Arch, also known as the Arch of the Philaeni (Italian: Arco dei Fileni),  which was erected during the period of the Italian occupation and officially unveiled by Mussolini in 1937.  During that time, occupying forces built the Via Litoranea, the first tarmac road around the Gulf of Sidra, and constructed the rather out of place monumental arch at the point which marked the border between the two provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica at Ras Lanuf and Al Uqaylah. 

While the arch survived the Second World War it was later blown up under the orders of  Muammar Gaddafi in 1970. Gaddafi, the deposed leader of Libya, was captured and himself killed on 20 October 2011 during the Battle of Sirte.

When first erected, the arch paid tribute to a story from long ago, when Libya was divided by still another war, the fight between the Carthaginian in the West and the Greek Cyrenaica in the East.  Legend had it that the two nations agreed to define their border with an unusual method. 

Each opposing force is said to have treated by selecting runners who were to start out running towards one another at the same time on the same day. When the runners converged, the spot would then mark the border between the two opposing nations.

Carthage chose the two Philaeni brothers, who it is said proved faster than the squad from Cyrene.  Arriving ahead of their adversaries, rumors began floating  about that the Carthaginians had cheated by allowing their runners to start earlier than the prescribed time.  As a result, the Cyrenaica refused to accept the results and honor the deal. 

Seizing the runners, the two Philaeni brothers were given a difficult choice, most likely to provoke a confession for duplicity.  The pair could either agree to be buried alive, right there on the spot and marking the new border with their tombs, or they could allow the Cyrenaica to continue to advance at their convenience to the west.


The brothers patriotically accepted the first option and the Carthaginians built two commemorative altars at their gravesite to honor their sacrifice.  On the ruins of the altars Mussolini's forces later erected the marble arch. 

But as more and more corpses pile up in Libya's modern war, specifically in the battle in Sirte against the Islamic State, the bronze bodies of corpses have luckily not become a casualty.  Instead, they have been dismounted and moved to a safe place.



October 13, 2017

Seizure - archaic marble torso of a calf bearer from the collection of Michael Steinhardt

In further identifications connected to the recent seizure and pending repatriation of a Lebanese marble bull's head, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos through the New York authorities has issued another warrant on October 10, 2017 requesting the seizure of a second antiquity also believed to have been plundered from Lebanon during its civil war.

This object, an archaic marble torso of a calf bearer, was also acquired by William and Lynda Beierwaltes and then sold to New York collector Michael H. Steinhardt, in 2015. 

Steinhardt's collecting has come under scrutiny in the past.

The seizure warrant states that the described property constitutes evidence, and tends to demonstrate the crime of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree.  

Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in Second Degree – NY Penal Law 165.52

A person is found guilty of criminal possession of stolen property in the second degree when he knowingly possesses stolen property, with intent to benefit himself or a person other than an owner thereof or to impede the recovery by an owner thereof, and when the value of the property exceeds fifty thousand dollars.

Criminal possession of stolen property in the second degree is a class C non violent felony in New York.  

The warrant document further authorises law enforcement personnel to videotape and photograph the interior of Michael H. Steinhardt's 5th avenue apartment as well as grants them permission to review stored electronic communications, data, information, and images contained in computer disks, CD Roms, and hard drives. 

A copies of the public domain record filed with New York County on this case can be found in the case review files on ARCA's website here



Lynda and William Beierwaltes against Directorate General of Antiquities of the Lebanese Republic and the District Attorney of New York County - Notice of Voluntary Dismissal


Pursuant to F.R.C.P. 41(a)(1)(A)(i) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 
the case involving plaintiffs William and Lynda Beierwaltes and a Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE) filed with the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has been voluntarily dismissed with prejudice.

Copies of the public domain records on this case, including this Notice of Voluntary Dismissal written on October 11, 2017, can be found in the case review files on ARCA's website here. 


The United States Withdraws From UNESCO - Statements from the US State Department and UNESCO DG

Issued by the United States Department of State on 10/12/2017 09:10 AM EDT.

Press Statement
Heather Nauert 
Department Spokesperson
Washington, DC

On October 12, 2017, the Department of State notified UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the organization and to seek to establish a permanent observer mission to UNESCO. This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.

The United States indicated to the Director General its desire to remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-member observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms, and promoting scientific collaboration and education.

Pursuant to Article II(6) of the UNESCO Constitution, U.S. withdrawal will take effect on December 31, 2018. The United States will remain a full member of UNESCO until that time.



After receiving official notification by the United States Secretary of State, Mr Rex Tillerson, as UNESCO Director-General, I wish to express profound regret at the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from UNESCO.

Universality is critical to UNESCO’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity.

In 2011, when payment of membership contributions was suspended at the 36th session of the UNESCO General Conference, I said I was convinced UNESCO had never mattered as much for the United States, or the United States for UNESCO.

This is all the more true today, when the rise of violent extremism and terrorism calls for new long-term responses for peace and security, to counter racism and antisemitism, to fight ignorance and discrimination.

I believe UNESCO’s work to advance literacy and quality education is shared by the American people.

I believe UNESCO’s action to harness new technologies to enhance learning is shared by the American people.

I believe UNESCO’s action to enhance scientific cooperation, for ocean sustainability, is shared by the American people.

I believe UNESCO’s action to promote freedom of expression, to defend the safety of journalists, is shared by the American people.

I believe UNESCO’s action to empower girls and women as change-makers, as peacebuilders, is shared by the American people.

I believe UNESCO’s action to bolster societies facing emergencies, disasters and conflicts is shared by the American people.

Despite the withholding of funding, since 2011, we have deepened the partnership between the United States and UNESCO, which has never been so meaningful.

Together, we have worked to protect humanity’s shared cultural heritage in the face of terrorist attacks and to prevent violent extremism through education and media literacy.

Together, we worked with the late Samuel Pisar, Honorary Ambassador and Special Envoy for Holocaust Education, to promote education for remembrance of the Holocaust across the world as the means to fight antisemitism and genocide today, including with, amongst others, the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Education at the University of Southern California and the UNESCO Chair on Literacy and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania.

Together, we work with the OSCE to produce new tools for educators against all forms of antisemitism, as we have done to fight anti-Muslim racism in schools.

Together, we launched the Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education in 2011.

Together, with the American academic community, including 17 UNESCO University Chairs, we have worked to advance literacy, to promote sciences for sustainability, to teach respect for all in schools.

This partnership has been embodied in our interaction with the United States Geological Survey, with the US Army Corps of Engineers, with United States professional societies, to advance research for the sustainable management of water resources, agriculture.

It has been embodied in the celebration of World Press Freedom Day in Washington D.C in 2011, with the National Endowment for Democracy.

It has been embodied in our cooperation with major private sector companies, with Microsoft, Cisco, Procter & Gamble, Intel, to retain girls in school, to nurture technologies for quality learning.

It has been embodied in the promotion of International Jazz Day, including at the White House in 2016, to celebrate human rights and cultural diversity on the basis of tolerance and respect.

It has been embodied in 23 World Heritage sites, reflecting the universal value of the cultural heritage of the United States, in 30 Biosphere Reserves, embodying the country’s vast and rich biodiversity, in 6 Creative Cities, as a source of innovation and job creation.

The partnership between UNESCO and the United States has been deep, because it has drawn on shared values.

The American poet, diplomat and Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish penned the lines that open UNESCO’s 1945 Constitution: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” This vision has never been more relevant.

The United States helped inspire the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention.

In 2002, one year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the late Russell Train, former Head of the US Environmental Protection Agency and founder of the World Wildlife Fund, who did so much to launch the World Heritage Convention, said: “At this time in history, as the fabric of human society seems increasingly under attack by forces that deny the very existence of a shared heritage, forces that strike at the very heart of our sense of community, I am convinced that World Heritage holds out a contrary and positive vision of human society and our human future.”

UNESCO’s work is key to strengthen the bonds of humanity’s common heritage in the face of forces of hatred and division.

The Statue of Liberty is a World Heritage site because it is a defining symbol of the United States of America, and also because of what it says for people across the world.

Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, is a World Heritage site, because its message speaks to policy-makers and activists across the globe.

Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are World Heritage sites, because they are marvels for everyone, in all countries.

This is not just about World Heritage.

UNESCO in itself holds out this “positive vision of human society.”

At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues.

At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack.

This is why I regret the withdrawal of the United States.

This is a loss to UNESCO.

This is a loss to the United Nations family.

This is a loss for multilateralism.

UNESCO’s task is not over, and we will continue taking it forward, to build a 21st century that is more just, peaceful, equitable, and, for this, UNESCO needs the leadership of all States.

UNESCO will continue to work for the universality of this Organization, for the values we share, for the objectives we hold in common, to strengthen a more effective multilateral order and a more peaceful, more just world.

October 12, 2017

Recovered: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian....Stolen


Thirteen Roman-era marble columns, two pedestals, a funerary stele, architectural capitals, amphorae and vases have reportedly been recovered by Italian authorities from INSIDE a private residence in the Santa Teresa area of Anzio, approximately 50 km from Rome. 


Given their large size, many of the objects have been temporarily transported to the Museum Villa Adele at Anzio where the larger of them remain outside the museum near its entrance.

No indications, in initial public reports, state when this seizure occurred or in whose private villa the ancient objects were initially sequestered. The large size of the artifacts, which required heavy transport vehicles to deposit them at the entrance of the museum, leave more questions unanswered than answered.   how could objects this large be stolen and transported inside a private home without raising any alarm bells along the way?









Pending Repatriation: The Illicit Passages of 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
On Wednesday, through lawyer, William G. Pearlstein, collectors William and Lynda Beierwaltes released a formal statement on the Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE) seized by the New York District Attorney’s office on July 06, 2017 while on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art over suspicions that the antiquity had been pillaged from Lebanon during that country's civil war.   The bull's head sculpture was acquired by the couple on November 27, 1996 for US$1.2 million from one of the (now) most notorious dealers in the antiquities world, Robin Symes.

Through their attorney, the statement read:

“After having been presented with incontrovertible evidence that the bull’s head was stolen from Lebanon, the Beierwaltes believed it was in everyone’s best interest to withdraw their claim to the bull’s head and allow its repatriation to Lebanon.”

This decision was taken after the State of New York's 68-page Application for Turnover went into painstaking detail on how this plundered antiquity made its way illicitly to the United States.  That document can be read here.

In a letter to the Honorable Daniel P. FitzGerald with the Supreme Court of New York County, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos writes that the Beierwaltes have signed a stipulation consenting to the Court’s release of the Bull’s Head to the Lebanese Republic pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law §450.10 on the disposal of stolen property and the N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law §690.55 on search warrants and the disposition of seized property.

A copy of this letter can be read here. 

This voluntary forfeiture paves the way for a formal ceremony of repatriation, in which the Bull's Head will be handed to a representative to be designated by the Lebanese Ministry of Culture within 15 days.

According to a New York Times article, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos and researchers which have supported his case spotted another potentially looted antiquity, also from Lebanon.  This object, a marble torso of a calf bearer, was identified in a photograph taken inside the Beierwalteses’ home for the June 1998 special issue of of House & Garden magazine.

The photos for this magazine are included in publicly filed documents with the New York District Attorney case and can be read here.

According to an article by Colin Moynihan for the New York Times, Attorney Bogdanos has stated that this object too may have been plundered from Lebanon prior to it being acquired by William and Lynda Beierwaltes.  The article goes on to specify that the Beierwalteses then sold this object on to New York collector Michael H. Steinhardt, in 2015.

The DA's office has stated it has obtained a warrant to seize this object from Mr. Steinhardt.

October 10, 2017

Conference - Radiocarbon dating and protection of cultural heritage - C14 Meeting

Organised by: ETH Zurich and University of Geneva, with a support of the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Swiss Commission for UNESCO, Bern 

Organizing committee:
Dr. Irka Hajdas, Prof. Hans Arno Synal, Laboratory of Ion Beam Physics ETHZ
Prof. Eric Huysecom and Dr. Anne Mayor Laboratory Archaeology and Population in Africa, University of Geneva,
Prof. Marc-André Renold Art-Law Centre, University of Geneva

Date:  16-17 November 2017

Location: ETH Zürich
Rämistrasse 101
8092 Zürich, Switzerland

Workshop Fees: CHF 50.00

Invited speakers (see preliminary program (PDF, 120 KB)) will introduce the problems around the antiquities and illicit art trade. Presentations will be made by representatives of AMS laboratories sharing their experiences and practice in dating antiquities.  Allied professionals will explore the market for conflict antiquities and fake conflict antiquities as well as scientific and criminological approaches to looking at ways to combat the illicit trade in antiquities. 

For further information the organizers can be contacted here.

October 6, 2017

Recovered: Antiquities, historic weaponry and a church relic that likely dates to Pope Innocent XI

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
Today, Italy’s Guardia di Finanza unit in Foggia announced the recovery of a large stash of antiquities, antique weaponry and religious art and relics. 

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
In two separate raids between Cerignola and the provincial capital of Foggia GdF officers have recovered 350 archaeological objects including votive statues, two volute craters decorated with moulded Medusa head handles, an impressive quantity of gnathia vases, attic pottery, painted plates, pouring vessels, and ancient jewelry decorated with gold, stone and bronze elements.  

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
According to the superintendence who evaluated the finds, some of the ancient objects likely plundered  from a Roman or Samnite tomb, possibly that of a soldier.

In addition to the antiquities officers recovered a canvas painting taken a few years back from the rural church of Palazzo d'Ascoli in the countryside of Ascoli Satriano, in the province of Foggia and what appears to be slipper, attached with a note proclaiming it belonged to the Blessed Pope Innocent XI (1611-1689).

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
Also recovered were a group of antique firearms dating back to 1600 -1800, as well as modern weaponry. 

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
Two individuals, a 48-year old from Orta Nova and a 61 year old from Cerignola have been taken into custody by the financial police of the provincial command of Foggia charged with illegal possession of weapons, stolen goods and violations of the rules on the protection of cultural heritage.  The latter individual, an attorney, has been released for the present time.  

Recovered by Turkish security forces: Two artworks by "Hoca" Ali Rıza stolen from the Ankara State Museum of Paintings and Sculpture


In August 2012 Hurriyet Daily News highlighted a report produced by Turkey's Culture and Tourism Ministry that examined more than 5,000 artworks in the country's State Art and Sculpture Museum in Ankara.  In that report, the ministry identified that it was unable to account for more than 200 artworks from the museum and that several of the pieces apparently missing had subsequently been replaced with poor quality reproductions to disguise their removal.  

Some of the works stolen included artwork by highly valued Turkish artists such as Şevket Dağ, Şefik Bursalu, Zühtü Müridoğlu, Hikmet Ona, and "Hoca" Ali Rıza. 

State Art and Sculpture Museum in Ankara
When the news of the theft went public, experts and common citizens alike complained that the museum, like many in many countries, did not have an adequate inventory system in place to track and account for artworks moving in and out of the museum and the museum's storage areas.  This vulnerability, it was partially reasoned, worked in the thieves favor. 

A subsequent investigation into the scandal brought 18 individuals in for questioning and three individuals were formally charged and sentenced to prison for their involvement in the affair. 

Cross checks conducted during this investigation revealed that some of the artwork originally listed as missing had instead been loaned out by the museum to government officials to decorate various governmental ministries and unauthorized buildings without proper documentation to account for their transfer.  Adjusting the loss number for artworks later identified off-site, the total number of objects was reduced to 180, and until this week, only sixty-four have been recovered.

Recovered "Hoca" Ali Rıza drawing I 
Yesterday, two drawings by Turkish painter and art teacher "Hoca" Ali Rıza, were seized by Turkish security forces from an art gallery in Istanbul with one individual being taken into custody for questioning.  A artist from the late Ottoman era, Riza is primarily known for his Impressionist landscapes which captured Turkish neighborhoods and architectural elements.  13 of his sketches are known to have been stolen and exchanged with forged replicas.

Recovered "Hoca" Ali Rıza drawing II


Friday, October 06, 2017 - ,,, No comments

Theft: Pierre-Auguste Renoir "Portrait d'une Jeune Fille Blonde"

Image Left: Pierre-Auguste Renoir self Portrait
Image Right: Stolen "Portrait d'une jeune fille blonde" 
Image Credit: La Gazette Drouot
Painting: Portrait d'une Jeune Fille Blonde
Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Medium: oil on canvas with dimensions of 14 cm by 12.2 cm
Identifying items: AR initials in the top left of the painting.  Frame labeling: Chaussegros (Vichy), and a canvas numbering "022"
Stolen: September 30, 2017
Location of Theft: l'Hôtel des Ventes de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Yvelines)
13, rue Thiers, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

The painting was taken, unnoticed, from the wall of a gallery the Parisian auction l'Hôtel des Ventes de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Yvelines) operated by SGL Enchères/F. Laurent de Rummel where the artwork had been on display just prior to its auction.  

Image Credit:  Online Auction Catalog http://www.sgl-encheres.com/
The thief purportedly unhooked the painting and left the premises without being seen.  Value details can be seen in the screen capture from the auctioneers website above. 







October 5, 2017

Good News: Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Unit will continue, with new permanent unit head.


After many impassioned arguments for the reinstatement of London's Art and Antiques squad London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, has confirmed that the deactivation of the New Scotland Yard unit has been solely temporary.  The squad's three officers, Detective Constables Philip Clare, Sophie Hayes and Ray Swan had been seconded to other duties temporarily as the result of unprecedented demands on law enforcement in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy.   

Later this month, a newly appointed permanent unit head, Detective Sergeant Rob Upham, will take up the post vacated by DS Claire Hutcheon who retired from the Art and Antiques unit last March.  

The Art and Antiques Squad of the New Scotland Yard is a specialised police responsible for the investigation of art and heritage crime in London.  The unit is situated within the section for Economic and Specialist Crime in the Metropolitan Police Service and is responsible for the London Stolen Art Database, a police register which stores information and images of 54,000 items of stolen property. 

October 4, 2017

Art Theft Exhibited - A unique exhibit of thirty years of art thefts in Holland

Westfries Museum director Ad Geerdink in Kiev, standing next to
the recovered painting "Lady World".  Image Credit: Westfries Museum

It was a Sunday night in October 1999 when a group of masked men entered the villa of the 84 year old lady in Bilthoven.  The fragile woman was smashed against a radiator and guarded, while other robbers emptied the walls and took seven masterpieces within fifteen minutes.  The brutal robbery had an enormous impact on her, one of which she would never recover.  It was only in 2012 when one of the paintings was offered at Christie’s and recognized by the auction house staff.  The fences were arrested and four more paintings were recovered, together with several types of drugs. For the owner, the recovery came too late.  She had died several months before.

This tragic history is one of thirty stories of art thefts in the Netherlands that together make up the unique exhibition Plunder, Art Theft in the Netherlands, opening October 15th in the Westfries Museum in Hoorn.  For the first time, art crime is the subject of an exhibition in the Netherlands, instead of the art works themselves. 

And for anyone interested in art crime, the Westfries Museum probably rings a bell.  It is the museum that was robbed in 2005, the night before it was scheduled to celebrate its 125th birthday.  Twenty four paintings were stolen, together with 70 pieces of antique silver from the museum's collection. 

In April 2016, four paintings were recovered in the Ukraine and a fifth was later voluntarily returned by its new owner.  In September that year, they were returned to the museum, some in very bad condition requiring extensive restoration.  The fifteen other paintings and silverware still remain missing. 

Through this exhibit the museum aims to highlight the phenomenon of art theft in all its facets.  From the motives of perpetrators to the suffering of victims.  Thirty objects are used to demonstrate this.  The singular thing each object has in common is the fact that they each were stolen in the Netherlands during the last few decades.  Every item tells its own story and together they provide a fascinating look into the world of art and antiquities crime. 

Even for someone familiar with art crime, the enormous diversity of the objects stolen is striking.  Examples of works of art stolen from museums are supplemented with art stolen from private residences, art dealers and even a whole truck of art and antiquities destined for an art fair.  One artist was robbed many times with a total loss of 27 bronze statues, another lost 37 of his paintings in one single theft.  The motives of the thieves are less diverse, and show the ugly reality of art theft.  In the end it usually comes down to money, even when the modus operandi may differ. 

Theft for ransom, stolen art as collateral for criminals, theft in order to sell the works at auction or to dealers, and even theft to order from a dealer are all present in one remarkable exhibition.  The latter case is especially interesting as this type of theft is often suspected but rarely proven.  

In preparing this article, I spoke with the museum about the purpose of this exhibition, in their museum that was, and still is, a victim of art crime itself.  Ad Geerdink, the director or the Westfries Museum, explains: 

We want to achieve more awareness and public outrage about this topic.  But also to ensure that owners of art and antiquities are more conscious of what they themselves can do themselves to prevent thefts. Or, in the unfortunate case a theft nevertheless happens, to ensure they have adequate documentation for police agencies and registers of stolen art.  For that reason, we decided to organise a workshop around the exhibition, in collaboration with Donatus Insurance and Kerkmagazine (Church Magazine), for administrators of religious heritage. 

Documentation, or the lack of it, is a recurring theme around art thefts. When asked about the lessons one can learn from this exhibit and art theft in general, Martin Finkelnberg also stresses the importance of documentation.  Finkelnberg is head of the Art and Antique Crime Unit, National Criminal Intelligence Division of the National Police of the Netherlands.

The takeaway to learn here is that everything of value is vulnerable and thus a potential target for criminals.  To guard against that it's very important to document every valuable object as without documentation recovery after a theft is almost impossible.  Everybody already understands that to recover from an automobile theft, the owner cannot merely state “it was a green car of a German brand”.  Why then do individuals assume that one can do this with an artwork.  How effective can police officers be if the only thing they have to go on is “it was old, multicolored and painted on wood”?

Dick Drent, associate director with Sosecure and owner of Omnirisk, a risk management firm, also points to the need for improved and more comprehensive protection of cultural heritage.  As an international protective intelligence expert on the security of cultural heritage, I spoke with him in Amsterdam about this upcoming exhibition and he had this to add:

It is a very special exhibition about a topic shrouded by sensation and even romance. But wouldn’t it be great if there would never be a sequel.  Instead we should have an exhibit about the successful protection of cultural heritage, by preventing these awful raids through pro-active security.  I already have a title: “The Netherlands - 30 years without art theft. Utopia or challenge?”. But above all, let’s not wait for another 30 years for this exhibit…

The exhibition ‘Plunder, Art Theft in the Netherlands’ will open on October 15, 2017 and run through February 12, 2018 at the Westfries Museum, Roode Steen 1, Hoorn (The Netherlands).  ARCA’s CEO Lynda Albertson will be speaking at the official opening of the exhibition, together with the Secretary of Culture of the Netherlands. 

By Edgar Tijhuis

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Check out this video of the restoration work process on the Westfries Museum paintings recovered in the Ukraine. 

Restauratie gestolen kunst Westfries Museum, deel 1 from Westfries Museum on Vimeo.



October 1, 2017

Art Crime Case Documentation


This autumn ARCA will begin working on a project to create a repository art crime related case documentation on criminal and civil proceedings relevant to researchers in the field. While national and international bodies and jurisdictional court systems offer the most comprehensive and up to date information to be found within the public domain on individual cases and the laws as they apply to those cases, researchers may find that they prefer to use other sources for reasons of functionality or comparative analysis. This is particularly true for art crime researchers looking to conduct searches in which they will be comparing cases or laws from multiple jurisdictions or nations. While this repository is at its preliminary stages, we hope that its growing list of public record documents will be of use to professionals and students interested in the study of art crime and its prosecution. Some cases which have preliminary public domain documentation include the following:

United States of America 

New York 

Lynda and William Beierwaltes v. Directorate General of Antiquities of the Lebanese Republic




September 30, 2017

Where is the world's largest hoard of looted antiquities? Syria? Iraq? Nope, London.

In deference to new readers of the ARCA blog, who may not be as familiar with  the world’s largest accumulation of illicit antiquities, ARCA has obtained the permission of London journalist Howard Swains to republish his Medium article, London’s Loot: The Legacy of Robin Symes, in its entirety. 

Swains is a journalist and feature writer with experience across print and digital titles, including The Times, the Guardian, Independent, Newsweek, the Sunday Times Magazine and CNN.

London’s Loot: The Legacy of Robin Symes
How the world’s largest accumulation of illicit antiquities got stuck in the UK, and why nobody can shift them

One morning towards the end of January last year, a white truck bearing the insignia of an Italian removals firm pulled out of the Geneva Freeport in Switzerland and began a 560-mile journey to Rome. By the time it had traversed the Alps and reached the Italian capital, the truck had shaken off its dusting of snow but had attracted a convoy of two motorcycles and two saloon cars, each topped with a flashing blue light.

Image Credit: Carabinieri TPC
The motorcade pulled up in the Trastevere district, outside the barracks of the specialist art squad of the Carabinieri, the largest such division of a national police force in the world. Officers in stiff military-style uniforms, with black leather gloves and dark peaked caps, helped remove 45 wooden storage crates from the truck, which they gradually began to unpack.


Video Credit: Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale 
“Operazione Antiche Dimore” Rome, 22 marzo 2016

A few weeks later, the world’s press mingled around those crates with the Italian Minister of Culture, the Swiss ambassador to Italy and high-ranking national prosecutors. The crates’ contents were now balanced on top or spilled beside, as though in a shabby-chic gallery. 

Image Credit - Carabinieri TPC
To the untrained eye, many of the exhibits may have seemed unremarkable: fragments of vases and frescos; detached statue heads and limbs. But there was no mistaking the quality of the centrepiece — and not only because of the uniformed Carabinieri officers posing proudly for photographs beside it.

Image Credit: ARCA 2016
The reclining figures of an elderly man and a young woman, close to life-size and carved from Etruscan terracotta, formed the lids to two sarcophagi, dating from the second century B.C. The rest of the material was of similar age, and was, in fact, of comparable significance: Some of the frescos in the haul were thought to have been ripped from temple walls near Pompeii, or from the UNESCO-listed necropolises of Cerveteri, near Rome.

This was loot — thousands of pieces of it — most likely excavated inexpertly, in the dead of night, from Italian soil some time in the 1970s or 80s. It had then been on an uncertain, smuggled journey out of Italy and into Switzerland, via a skilled but illicit restorer’s workshop. The motorcade that swept it back to Rome was part of its ceremonial repatriation, at least 16 years since its clandestine incarceration in Geneva.

Image Credit: ARCA 2016
The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) described the items as “an Ali Baba’s cave-worthy hoard of Roman and Etruscan treasures”. The press persuaded reluctant officials to attach a monetary figure to the artefacts: They were priceless, of course, but had a market value of perhaps €9 million to those who might want to profit from such things.

My interpreter pointed to one of the sarcophagus lids and said, “You see this only under glass in a museum.” Had best-laid plans not been interrupted, that is exactly where it might have one day appeared: the endpoint of a sophisticated trafficking network that, throughout the latter part of the 20th century, transformed invaluable examples of cultural heritage into gallery pieces for the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections.

Image Credit: ARCA 2016
The individual most responsible for the gathering in Rome was also the man most notable by his absence. A British former antiquities dealer named Robin Symes was the sole suspect for having once rented the storeroom in the Geneva Freeport from which the loot had now been liberated. Symes’s handwriting was on the outside of the packaging crates; the pages of the British newspapers and the Antiques Trade Gazette that wrapped some objects were almost certainly previously read by him. His fingerprints were all over this stuff.

Once among the world’s richest and most celebrated antiquities dealers, Symes has spent the past decade as a disgraced bankrupt, exposed as a former linchpin in the networks that once traded almost with impunity in such material. But for all Symes’s proven crooked dealings, the full extent of his hidden plunder has still not yet been revealed. Furthermore, although Symes, who is now in his mid-70s, spent seven months in prison for contempt of court in 2005, he has never stood trial for illicit antiquities trading, nor been forced to reveal where he might have squirreled further contraband.

Another cache of Symes’s former stock — possibly the largest known accumulation of illicit antiquities in the world — has been stuck in a legal impasse in London for 14 years. The legacy of his known dealings is now the focus of a complicated liquidation, blighted by squabbles between at least three governments and allegations of procedural impropriety.

The ministries of culture in both Italy and Greece say that material stuck in the U.K. belongs to them, and have lodged appeals for its return. Their stance is supported by prominent archaeologists, whose academic endeavours have long been undermined by tomb-raiders and illicit excavators, turning a profit from desecrating cultural sites. Yet those with a stake in Symes’s former business, as well as a number of creditors, appear to support the sale of the former trader’s stock, insistent that there is insufficient proof of ownership to warrant giving it up.

At a time when the looting and destruction of cultural heritage has never been more prominent, archaeologists await further details not only of the items Symes may have spirited away, but the methods by which he was able to profit for so long from the sale of illegally excavated material. Everyone was talking about the same absent character in Rome, as they sometimes also do in London, Cambridge and Athens. In short, what is still to be uncovered from Symes’s former scheming? And, for that matter, where is he?
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Robin Symes’s established early biography runs as follows: He was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1939, and suffered early tragedy when his mother was murdered when he was a toddler. There are few other details about his childhood and schooling, but Symes married at 21 and had two sons, born in 1961 and 63.

At that time, he was working as a lowly antiquities trader with a shop on London’s Kings Road. But his life deviated sharply from what had seemed to be its likely path when Symes met the handsome Christo Michaelides, a Greek heir to a family of shipping magnates, some time in the 1960s. Michaelides was in his early 20s, five years Symes’s junior, but the pair immediately formed a close relationship that endured for the next 30 years.

Symmes and Michaelides were a couple in life and in business
Image Credit - D. Plichon and Iefimerida 
Symes divorced and Michaelides separated from his girlfriend. Although they never openly declared that they were a romantic couple, almost all acquaintances consider the men to have been partners in both life and business, reportedly referred to as “the Symeses”. Their business dealings were apparently bolstered by the almost unlimited finances available to them from Michaelides’s family, and they became the most revered dealers about town.

By the time Symes first came to the attention of the national press in 1979, the level of his business was such that The New York Times reported on his purchase of a Roman glass bowl at Sotheby’s in London for $1.04 million. A decade later, Symes appeared in the Times’s real estate pages, in the process of selling the so-called “Rockefeller Guest House” on East 52nd Street in Manhattan which he had owned for 11 years. “I was here 20 days a year,” he laments as the reason for the sale of the property, designed in 1949 by Philip Johnson for Blanchette Rockefeller. He manages, however, to slip in an anecdote about Greta Garbo once ringing the bell, looking for Johnson. The house sold for $3.2 million.

“Symes acquired a lifestyle to match his success in the antiquities business,” wrote Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini in their 2007 book The Medici Conspiracy. “With Christo he had homes in London, New York, Athens, and Schinnoussa [sic], a small island across the water from Naxos…Symes, who doesn’t drive, was always chauffeured in a silver Rolls Royce or a maroon Bentley.”

Symes and Michaelides lived the high life. They had a gallery in the St James’s district of London; their house in Chelsea had a sunken swimming pool, ringed by exceptional statues; the Schinoussa residence was a sprawling estate across a peninsula, surrounded by the deep blue of the Mediterranean sea.

Furthermore, Symes was a trustee of the British Museum and regularly hob-nobbed with the world’s leading curators. He seemed to have access to the finest antiquities of Greek, Italian, Egyptian and Asian origin, buying and selling through Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams; placing items in national museums across the world.

“This was before the trustees of the British Museum had rather rumbled the fact that they were buying a lot of material that had recently been looted,” says Lord Colin Renfrew, who is among Britain’s leading archaeologists and is himself a former British Museum trustee. The Museum adopted a new code of acquisitions under the directorship of Robert Anderson, between 1992 and 2002. “That was when Robin Symes was no longer so welcome at cocktail parties at the British Museum, but he had been up to that time,” Renfrew says.

Throughout the 1990s, several investigations moved into top gear in Italy, Greece and the United States into an apparent trafficking network of antiquities. The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles were only two of the high-profile institutions implicated in having received looted material that had passed through the hands of an Italian dealer named Giacomo Medici.

As detailed in great depth in Watson and Todeschini’s 2007 book, the eponymous Medici controlled a team of “tombaroli”, or tomb raiders, which fed material via a number of well-connected fences, including Symes, to auction rooms and galleries. Symes not only shared a business address with Medici in Geneva, but many of the pieces at the centre of the investigations clearly gained some of their “legitimacy” from once being in the British dealer’s possession. This became especially true after Symes had placed them in museum collections or major auctions, “washing” the items of their illicit past.

In 1988, Symes sold a statue believed to be a 5th century B.C. depiction of Aphrodite to the Getty museum for $18 million. He said it had been in the collection of a Swiss supermarket magnate since the 1930s, and had paperwork to that effect. But the documentation was forged; the statue had actually been looted in Morgantina, Italy, then trafficked via Geneva to London. Experts eventually decided the figure was most likely not Aphrodite, but the misidentification of the character it depicted was far less serious than the exposure of its fraudulent provenance. By the time the statue was sent back from Los Angeles to Italy in 2007, the museum world was in turmoil and mired in similar scandals.

In the opinions of many archaeologists and prosecutors who have studied their activities, the global Symes operation was more significant than that of Medici, whose business was confined to Italy.

“Symes was the biggest illicit antiquities dealer, with Christo Michaelides, in modern times,” says Christos Tsirogiannis, a Greek forensic archaeologist based in Cambridge, who has spent the past decade attempting to unravel the extent of Symes’s dealings and his place in what amounts to a vast global chain. “One can only imagine in the 25-plus year career of Symes and Michaelides how many objects they held and sold if their remains are 17,000 objects of the highest quality from nearly all, if not all, ancient civilisations.”

That remainder — which some people suggest may be as many as 17,000 objects — is what became confined to a number of warehouses in the London area in late 2003. They are the documented leftovers after Symes’s empire collapsed dramatically towards the end of the 20th century.

At a dinner party in Italy in July 1999, Michaelides slipped down some steps, hit his head on a radiator and died from his injuries the following day. As Michaelides’s relatives — the Papadimitriou family — grieved, they also fell into bitter dispute with Symes over the deceased’s estate. (In some form, this dispute remains ongoing.) Symes claimed that the principal business, named Robin Symes Limited (RSL), was his alone and that Michaelides was a mere employee. The Papadimitrious insisted they were entitled to half of its assets as Michaelides was an equal partner. The furious family brought a civil case against Symes in London’s High Court at which he would pay dearly for his hubris in his professional and legal dealings.

Michaelides, left, and Symes hugely under-reported the extent of his “legitimate” business matters in a bid to avoid a costly settlement with Michaelides’s estate. But the Papadimitrious’ legal team hired private detectives to track him across the world. Symes said he had five warehouses of stock; the detectives uncovered around 30. He then incensed the judge, Justice Peter Smith, with a number of lies and diversionary tactics, in particular misreporting the nature of two major sales at a time when he was obliged to share full details of his deals with the court.

Symes said he sold a statue to a company in Wyoming for $1.6 million. The company proved not to exist, and he actually sold it to the Qatari collector Sheikh al-Thani for $4.5 million. He sold a second statue to the Sheikh for $8 million, lodging the money in Liechtenstein, when he reported to the court he sold it for $3 million. (He latterly also sold a furniture collection for $14 million, $10 million more than he reported. He put the money in a bank in Gibraltar.) It turned a civil trial into a criminal conviction.

After throwing out a late claim that Symes was mentally unfit to stand trial, skewering the testimony of Symes’s personal doctor on the stand, Justice Smith sentenced Symes to two years imprisonment for contempt of court. He went to Pentonville Prison in north London, from where he was released after seven months.

By then, having been unable to pay legal costs of up to £5 million, he declared himself bankrupt and receivers seized the official stock of RSL that could be located and then handed it to liquidators. Symes’s own figures, which are possibly inflated, puts the stock’s value at £125 million.

It is this stock that continues to cause controversy and keeps Symes under discussion in the U.K., Italy and Greece. The Papadimitriou family lodged claims of $50 million on the dissolved company, representing Michaelides’s share. Britain’s Inland Revenue was the largest listed creditor, claiming £40.3 million (nearly $70 million in December 2003) in unpaid tax.

Given the nature of Symes’s dealings, the stock almost certainly contains items of highly dubious provenance, and the cultural ministries of at least Italy and Greece have submitted requests for illegally trafficked items to be returned to them. Yet the stock is also the principal asset through which the liquidators could get anywhere near raising the required capital to satisfy creditors. Arguments over it have come to reflect many of the common disputes in dealing with antiquities: there are apparently unresolvable issues over transparency, provenance and proof of ownership. There are also complaints of a lack of cooperation between jurisdictions, and issues with differing laws between countries.

In contrast with stolen material, which might be documented and will be missed if it vanishes, illegally excavated items, by their very nature, are unknown to anybody before the point that they are dug up. Unscrupulous antiquities traders and collectors have long insisted disputed pieces were merely located in dusty attics or storerooms, where they had lain untouched for centuries. Until the UK passed the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act in 2003, which introduced the notion of a “tainted cultural item” and shifted the burden of proof to the dealer, it would have been all but impossible to gain a conviction in criminal court for trading in looted property.

Symes accumulated his stock prior to 2003, but the liquidators, a British firm named BDO, are now operating under the closer scrutiny of the modern era, and also since the exposés that clearly linked Symes to looted property. Nonetheless, in 2013, 10 years after the liquidation began, rumours began circulating within the industry that items from the RSL stock were being sold in the Middle East, now the home of some of the wealthiest private collectors of antiquities. Since HMRC, the British government’s tax and revenue service, was the largest creditor with claims on the company, an easy narrative emerged: Was the British government selling looted cultural property to pay back taxes?

Paolo Ferri, a former district judge in Italy, who led the successful prosecution of Medici, told me that he considered any sales of material from the company’s frozen stock was “very scandalous”. He says, “They are selling those items for tax purposes. It’s equal to selling drugs to recover taxes.”

Although now retired, Ferri keeps a keen eye on developments related to Medici’s former associates, and recalls several run-ins with both Symes and the British authorities. Ferri brought Symes as a witness in the Medici trial, but was unable to persuade British police to collect sufficient evidence to put him in the dock. (Before the passing of the 2003 law, British police had no reason to pursue Symes.)

Every six months since December 2004, the liquidators of RSL have filed a report with Companies House, which is the British government’s registrar of corporate documentation. The reports are a matter of public record but only became freely available in June 2015, when Companies House re-launched its website. Although not especially detailed, the documents nonetheless offer the only overview of business matters pertaining to the frozen RSL stock, split between operations in both the United Kingdom and USA.

In the early months and years following the liquidators’ appointment, “realisations” (i.e., incoming payments) include the sale of property, furniture and motor vehicles, as well as a number of sales of unspecified antiquities to buyers in London, Switzerland and the USA. “Disbursements” (i.e., outgoings) include storage and security costs, as well as mounting legal and administrative fees.

The number of realisations have slowed in recent years, but the RSL documents clearly show that there have been numerous sales from the company’s stock. A variation on the name Sheikh al-Thani appears as the purchaser of at least five consignments, costing £326,000, £248,000, £143,300, £127,750 and £57,494 between 2007 and 2010, and there are two entries from January 2014, of £150,000 and £188,000, bearing only the word “Sheikh”. (Al-Thani was the buyer of the material that Symes misreported to the High Court and resulted in his contempt action.)

Other listed buyers include a sizeable list of British and American dealers and collectors, who may be either buying for themselves or as agents for other unknown parties. In June 2015, a consignment costing £52,900 went to a London antiquities trader. The same dealer bought an unspecified consignment in November 2015 for £75,000. They represent the most recent confirmed sales.

By some measure, the largest single sale is listed from November 2008, where two entries apparently refer to the sale of an item described only as “Head of K”. (Other sales rarely have even this much detail.) It appears to have fetched £875,000 ($1.25 million), which remains a significant amount for an antiquity.

None of the dealers I contacted would talk on the record about their purchases from the RSL stock. BDO has also never commented on the liquidation of RSL and turned down my request for an interview. There is no clear evidence that any of the transactions are improper: The argument runs that Symes did not deal only in illicit objects and the company’s stock would also include plenty of material that was not subject to proprietary claims. However, only a relatively small number of the sales have taken place in a public auction, where it might reasonably be expected they would fetch the highest price. This lack of transparency continues to infuriate those who condemn the opaque nature of the antiquities trade, while archaeologists contend that ethical dealers would reject on principle any stock that had once been handled by Symes. They say that the refusal to publicise the details of the items makes it impossible to determine their true provenance, nor where they will end up.

Few people have a better idea than Tsirogiannis about the true nature of Symes’s dealings. In 2006, while working for the Greek Cultural Ministry, he accompanied Greek police in a raid on the property in Schinoussa that uncovered, among other valuable objects, a photographic archive of around 1,300 items that had once been in Symes’s hands. Similar photographic archives were found in the Geneva offices of Medici and a fellow dealer named Gianfranco Becchina, often showing antiquities fresh from the ground, still with soil encrustations on them.

These photographic archives are as close to a smoking gun as investigators get in this field, and access to them is closely restricted. Forensic archaeologists working in Italy used the Medici and Becchina archive to secure convictions against the two former dealers, proving they had sold illicit material. Meanwhile Tsirogiannis, who is one of few people outside a police department or government ministry with full access to the archives, still scours the catalogues of antiquities auctions and museum shelves and regularly identifies items that are depicted, pre-restoration, as recently being in the hands of the convicted dealers.

Image Credit: Howard Swains
I took a number of photographs of the seized Symes stock displayed at the press conference in Rome and forwarded them to Tsirogiannis. The Carabinieri also released an official video showing their officers handling various objects found in Geneva. We met in Cambridge soon after, when Tsirogiannis showed me 12 positive matches he had made between items in the photographs from Rome and those previously in the possession of Medici or in the seized Schinoussa archive. The items in my pictures, as discovered in the storage crates hidden by Symes, were clean and restored; ready for sale in a high-end gallery. The same items in the Polaroids from the Medici and Schinoussa archives were cracked, dirty and often incomplete, broken apart to facilitate easy transportation. The identifications proved beyond any doubt that Symes dealt habitually in loot. This much had been agreed by the Italian and Swiss authorities as a precursor to the repatriations.

Tsirogiannis has repeatedly offered his services to the liquidators, both directly and via the Metropolitan Police, to examine the RSL stock in London and determine what among it is obviously illicit. The offers have consistently been ignored, leading Tsirogiannis to the assumption that the liquidators would rather sell the items than return them. (The liquidators did not respond to these accusations.)

Allegations of impropriety are sternly rejected by James Ede, a British antiquities dealer and former chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, who has been working with BDO as a valuer and industry expert. Ede is a frequent commentator on the antiquities trade, often providing the lone voice in defence of an industry that he says has cleaned up a great deal since Symes’s heyday.

Ede denies that the liquidation is being conducted behind a shroud of secrecy. He told me in an email that “the liquidation is being carried out entirely properly with due reference to all interested parties”. He agreed during a subsequent telephone conversation that his italics suggested a concern for the creditors on the RSL account who have still not seen even a small fraction of the money they have claimed.

Ede also says, however, that he is not permitted to answer questions about the contents of the warehouses, the complexities of the issues facing the liquidators, nor to address the particularly controversial subject of sales. “There is a perfectly reasonable desire sometimes to have confidentiality in ones business dealings, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says.

The name of Ede’s company, Charles Ede Ltd., which was established by James Ede’s father, features prominently on the liquidators’ documents at Companies House, most notably alongside the “Head of K” sale. However, Ede told me that neither he nor his company has made any purchases from the stock, leaving it unclear why the company name would appear in the “Realisations” column. The implication appears to be that the object has gone to a third party, who would rather not appear on official documentation.

One dealer with close knowledge of sales from the stock, but who did not want to talk on the record, told me that sales are accompanied with long and detailed paperwork indemnifying BDO against subsequent proprietary claims. Wherever the items are ending up — and nobody was prepared to speculate — the liquidators appear to be making sure that they do not latterly face legal reprisals, should allegations emerge that cast doubt on the material’s provenance.

The liquidation clearly still has some way to go. Over 17 years, the documents show total disbursements from the RSL account of approximately £13.35 million and realisations of £13.72 million, a net gain of slightly less than £400,000. In the 12 years since the liquidators have been submitting invoices, fees for their services run to more than £3 million.

The documents also suggest that significant material still appears to be in the liquidators’ possession. The most recent filings, covering the 12 months up to June 2017, reveal £34,356 was spent on insurance and £63,421 (plus VAT) went on storage. Fees from previous years are higher, but the general trend points to an attempt to consolidate the hoard in fewer locations. (US dollar exchange rates, which will have fluctuated, were calculated in September of this year.)

The contents of the warehouses remain a mystery to all but a select few. In Rome, I visited an Italian prosecutor named Maurizio Fiorilli, who now represents the Italian state in its negotiations with BDO over the RSL stock. Italy claims that there are items in the warehouses that were looted from its soil and therefore should be returned to the country. Fiorilli, like his friend and former colleague Paolo Ferri, is a veteran of battles to protect Italian cultural heritage and keeps on his bookshelf a photograph of the two men posing beside the so-called “Euphronios krater,” one of the most exquisite — and notorious — antiquities in existence.

The krater, which is a terracotta vase-cum-bowl used for mixing wine and water in the ancient world, is the only known complete example decorated by the master painter and potter known as Euphronios, who was active in Athens between 520–480 B.C. In 1972, the Metropolitan Museum in New York bought the krater from an American dealer named Robert Hecht for $1 million, which was then a record for an antiquity. However, Hecht had fudged the provenance documentation, disguising that he had obtained it from Giacomo Medici. After a lengthy legal tussle, in which Fiorilli was prominent, the museum gave up the krater in 2006.

Fiorilli’s discussions with BDO over the Symes hoard focus specifically on a list of around 1,000 objects submitted by the liquidators to the Italian Cultural Ministry as being potentially of interest. Fiorilli says he knows of no sales from this specific list of disputed items, but details a frustrating series of obstacles and delays that have drawn out negotiations and precluded any repatriations.

In October 2007, Fiorilli was granted access to some of the warehouses holding the RSL stock, which he toured in the company of lawyers of the liquidators, an appointed gallery expert and an officer from the Metropolitan Police. Fiorilli says that what had been scheduled to be a three-day visit was cut short, without explanation, at the end of the first day. He says he was also asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibits him from answering specific questions about what he saw.

Nonetheless, Fiorilli invited me to look at the computer screen in his office as he opened a folder of 421 photographs labelled “Symes Depository”. He flicked apparently at random through images of statue fragments, small figurines, vases and reliefs; a collection not dissimilar to the items displayed at the Carabinieri’s press conference. One scrap of paper bore the name “Von Bothmer”, almost certainly Dietrich Von Bothmer, who was formerly a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, with a specialisation in Etruscan vases. Fiorilli also said he saw closed boxes in the warehouses that seemed to have come from the Met, but was not permitted to open them. Another fragment of paper bore the single, hand-written word, “Euphronios”. Fiorilli shrugged when I asked what it might refer to.

“The negotiations were interrupted several times because of more and more questions by liquidators and ever new demands for a revision of what has been agreed,” Fiorilli says. “The negotiations have lasted for nine years and the liquidators have had evidence for over seven years that the objects included in the lists provided by them belong to the Italian cultural heritage.” (This conversation took place in April 2016.)

Lord Renfrew openly pondered whether any sales from the RSL stock could be regarded as in violation of the 2003 law that prohibits dealing in “tainted” material. Renfrew, who sits in the House of Lords in the British parliament, is keen for the country’s lawmakers to step in and halt the sales on behalf of the Inland Revenue. “The British government needs to be prodded to come into the open on all this shady dealing,” Lord Renfrew told me. “It’s not clear they’re breaking the law but they really are behaving unethically, even by the government’s own ethical standards.”

I attempted to speak with representatives of the Department for Culture Media & Sport in both the present and former governments, but no one admitted any knowledge of the Symes warehouses nor discussions to repatriate items.
According to a professional liquidator I interviewed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as she is not permitted to comment on specific cases, it is not quite accurate to say that any sales from the stock will go directly to pay taxes. Although HMRC is owed more than £40 million from the dissolved company, it is only one of a number of creditors and will receive no preferential treatment. However, the liquidator questioned the lack of public auctions, and expressed her surprise that the impasse could last this long with no obvious benefactor.

The London-based lawyers representing the estate of Christo Michaelides told me that they consider matters to be largely out of their hands. They have a number of cost orders outstanding but do not expect significant, if any, financial remuneration, even though the Papadimitriou family are known to have spent many millions in pursuing Symes. The family also remains the second-largest creditors with claims on the RSL stock and, in 2005, the family’s Greek lawyer told a documentary that if expenses began to escalate “it will be obliged to liquidate the objects in auctions.”

The London lawyers said these matters were entirely in the hands of the liquidators. Although they keep a “watchful eye” on activities related to Symes and RSL, they have little contact with BDO beyond receiving a letter once every six months.

More pertinently, perhaps, Fiorilli says that the delays in permitting the tainted material to return to Italy has allowed the statute of limitations to pass on any crimes allegedly perpetrated by Symes. Both Ferri and Fiorilli have previously been keen to prosecute Symes in Italy for crimes related to looting, smuggling and theft but the law requires key evidence to be in the country in order to secure a conviction. Referring to crucial documentation, photographs and items currently in the possession of BDO, Fiorilli told me, “If we had this, in the time limit, Symes would go to jail.” He added, “The interest of the Italian Government was and is exclusively cultural. The interest of the liquidators is purely commercial.”

I received conflicting reports during the reporting of this story as to whether Symes remains a wanted man. Tsirogiannis showed me an email sent by Fiorilli in September 2013 in which the Italian prosecutor said he had heard that the Greek government had issued a warrant for Symes’s arrest. The Greek ministry of culture told me that they have assembled a committee to oversee all matters pertaining to Symes, including its claims on the RSL stock. But the ministry had still not replied to my written questions more than 18 months after I first submitted them, despite a long email correspondence with its press department. Fiorilli did not offer further comment on this specific point.

London’s Metropolitan Police told me that it has “no current investigations in this matter”, even though Tsirogiannis showed me another email in which the head of the force’s recently-disbanded Art and Antiques Unit asked him whether he knew of any tainted antiquities anywhere in London. In his reply, Tsirogiannis mentioned the RSL warehouses, which he is certain contain numerous illicit items. The email chain ended there.

Renfrew is now the co-chair of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, which has been established in the British parliament in response to reports of recently looted material from Iraq and Syria arriving on the domestic antiquities market. Both Renfrew and Tsirogiannis have made specific mention to Symes in the group’s meetings, which have entered the official minutes. They note that the absence of claims on the RSL stock from Iraq and Syria does not mean looted property from those countries is not already in the UK, but it would pre-date the Bashar al-Assad and ISIS era.

The archaeologists remain angry that the disputes over the RSL stock have denied authorities the opportunity of fully exploring the world in which Symes operated, leaving the market murky enough, in their opinion, that illicit material can still find a way through the networks.

“Because of the lack of cooperation, communication among various stakeholders, authorities, governments, museums and so on, we will never know any of these different sectors regarding Symes’s activities,” Tsirogiannis says. “This is our only chance…to understand and highlight a small part of this huge area that is called ‘antiquities market’…Either we use this evidence and we use it quickly, now, or we are losing the best opportunity we ever had.”

Understanding the illicit trade is seen by archaeologists as more important even than the repatriation of items. As with all improperly excavated objects, the damage is already done the moment they are taken out of the place they had lain for thousands of years. The value to research lies in understanding how the items were used in antiquity; clandestine excavation immediately eliminates all possibility for contextual analysis. To archaeologists any residual “beauty” of an item is an irrelevance.

The unrest in the Middle East of recent decades — in particular the plundering of Syria and Iraq by all of ISIS, other rebel groups and troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad — will almost certainly fuel a fresh interest in antiquities, and flood a new market. Archaeologists contend that many of the smuggling networks established in Symes’s era remain intact, and say that politicians’ recent rhetoric condemning cultural destruction is empty given their unwillingness to deal adequately with items previously stolen from overseas territories.

Symes himself is no longer considered a prime target. I encountered limited enthusiasm from archaeologists and authorities alike to see the former dealer return to the dock. The general consensus is that other warehouses are likely still scattered across Europe and the USA, but that even he will have no idea where. Most people I spoke with seemed to suggest belated prosecution, even if it were possible, would serve little purpose.

One dealer told me he heard that Symes now lived “above a fish and chip shop”. Another said he’d heard rumours that Symes was “close to death”. The lawyers representing the Michaelides estate said they last served papers on Symes in 2010 when he was living behind a church in east London, occupying himself with copper etchings. They said he had now moved.

Peter Watson spoke to Symes while reporting The Medici Conspiracy in 2006, and Symes also agreed to meet a Greek documentary film crew at his lawyers’ office in the same year, but pulled out of the interview at the last moment. The documentary crew filmed the last known pictures of him arriving to the lawyer’s London office — a healthy-seeming, smart man in a dark suit jacket, with short, grey hair, clutching a bag under one arm, with an overcoat draped over the other — before vanishing inside.

Screenshot from Greek documentary “The New Files”

A former Scotland Yard detective named Dick Ellis, who had previously interviewed Symes in the 1990s, says he believed the former dealer was now living “among friends”. Ellis says that he would be able to locate Symes quite easily if anybody had a will, and the finances, to do so. (Symes’s former wife died in 1995 and one of his sons two years later. His surviving son, Innes, runs a construction company in Bristol, but told a Daily Mail reporter in February 2016 that he had not seen his father for 10 years.)

A tour of Symes’s London is a lonely exercise these days. His former gallery in the affluent St James’s district in the centre of the city is now a private office, from which the marble-effect plate bearing the former tenant’s name has long been removed. His preferred warehouse in Battersea, close to the former smugglers’ passages that flanked the River Thames in its mercantile pomp, is a characterless structure on a modern trading estate behind fierce anti-climb railings. Symes once brought the curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum there to show her the disputed Aphrodite statue ahead of its $18 million sale.

Meanwhile the residence in Chelsea, which Symes shared with Michaelides, still oozes wealth from behind its shuttered windows and wrought-iron fence. But it is an impenetrable compound, where Symes would be most unwelcome: The name on the most recent electoral register for the adjacent property is Nicolas Papadimitriou, Michaelides’s brother-in-law, who financed the civil litigation that sent Symes to prison.

Symes gave a remarkable interview to the Los Angeles Times from his cell in Pentonville in 2005, in which he continued to portray himself as some kind of rock-star. Symes described himself as a “legend” and remembers the moment an unknown “fan” planted a kiss on his mouth in a nightclub, for no reason beyond the fact that “You are Robin Symes…You’re to the world of art dealers what the Beatles are to music.”

Wherever he is now, Symes’s rock-star days are over. But the squabbles over his unfortunate legacy remain fresh, and maybe more relevant to contemporary culture than ever before.