Sotheby’s carries on where it left off?

In 1997, Sotheby’s stopped holding regular antiquities sales in London. The final sale was held in November 1997. Sotheby’s announced its decision had been prompted by the declining profitability of its London operation when compared New York, but it was widely believed the decision owed more to allegations that Sotheby’s was selling trafficked material. Last year, Sotheby’s looks to have revived its London antiquities sales, an indication if any is needed of the increasing importance of London as an antiquities marketplace. This year the company has scheduled for 12 June its sale of ‘Ancient Marbles: Classical Sculpture and Works of Art’.

The ever vigilant Christos Tsirogiannis has discovered in the confiscated archive of Italian dealer Gianfranco Becchina images and documentation that seemingly relate to lot 8 in the forthcoming sale, described as ‘An Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele, circa 350-340 BC’. Sotheby’s provides the following provenance:

John Hewett, Bog Farm, Kent, 1960s; New York art market, acquired from the above on 3 November 1980; American private collection; American family trust (Sotheby’s New York, 10 December 2008, lot 28), acquired by the present owner at the above sale.

The stele was also offered at Christie’s London, 24 October 2013, lot 32, but did not sell. John Hewett was a leading antiquities dealer in post-war London, friendly with Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s and advisor to the Sainsbury Collection. He was also friends with collector George Ortiz.

From his research, Christos believes the stele was most likely discovered in Greece, and that it was in Becchina’s possession from 1977 until 1990, when it was sold to George Ortiz, who died in October 2013.

It is noticeable that the name of Gianfranco Becchina, who has been tried in Italy on charges relating to antiquities trafficking, does not appear in the Sotheby’s provenance. Did Sotheby’s choose not to include him, or did they not know about his previous possession of the piece? Either way, there are problems. The proposed sale of the stele calls into question Sotheby’s policies as regards acceptable provenance and appropriate publication of provenance, or else its due diligence procedures when researching provenance.