Robin Symes loses his heads

My Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis has just identified three pieces appearing in the Medici Archive of photographs among material returned to Italy from Switzerland.

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Male sarcophagus in Geneva warehouse. Image © Ministère public genevois

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Female sarcophagus in Geneva warehouse. Image © Ministère public genevois

On 14 January 2016, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva announced the return to Italy of ‘two Etruscan earthenware sarcophaguses and numerous other priceless works and fragments’ to Italy. The mainly Etruscan and Roman material was discovered in 45 crates during an April 2014 search of a Geneva Freeport warehouse belonging to disgraced British antiquities dealer Robin Symes. The material had been there for more than 15 years. The return was enabled by Switzerland’s ratification in 2003 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

This Geneva material is only a small part of Symes’s known stock [1]. In February 2001, Symes’s holdings were frozen by order of a civil court, and by January 2002 it was known he stored material at 33 different locations around the world. According to Symes’s own documentation, a total of 17,000 objects was valued at £125 million. Symes was declared bankrupt in 2003 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in January 2005 for contempt of court. His present whereabouts is unknown. His assets remain frozen.

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Medici photograph of male head.

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Medici photograph of female head

Between 1979 and 1986, Symes conducted at least 29 transactions with convicted Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. He also sold material through Sotheby’s London. Christos has now discovered images of two heads, one from each of the returned sarcophagi, in the Medici Archive, showing that before reaching Symes they had passed through the hands of Medici. Christos also observes that the heads in the Medici photographs appear to have been broken off from the sarcophagi, meaning that an expert conservator must subsequently have restored them. The identity of this putative conservator is unknown. Christos has also identified a fresco.

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Fresco in Geneva warehouse. Image © Ministère public genevois.

 

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Medici photograph of fresco.

Reference

Watson, Peter and Cecilia Todeschini, 2007. The Medici Conspiracy. New York: PublicAffairs, at 248-264.