Nice work if you can get it

Howard Swains has just published a useful piece on Robin Symes containing informative commentary by my Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis. Symes was a major international antiquities dealer through the 1980s and 1990s. With Italian and Greek police hot on his trail, he was driven into bankruptcy in 2003 and after serving a short prison sentence for contempt of court in 2005 he disappeared from view. His present whereabouts remain unknown. Swains tells Symes’s story in all its sordid detail and it is well worth a read.

Just by chance, Symes figures in another news article covering the Lebanese claim for the return of a fourth-century BC marble bull’s head from the possession of US collectors Lynda and William Beierwaltes. In 1981, armed Christian militia stole the bulls head from storage in Byblos – it is a conflict antiquity. By 1996, the head was in the possession of Symes, who sold it to the Beierwaltes for $1.2 million. This sale makes Symes a purveyor of conflict antiquities.

Before his disappearance, Symes claimed to possess 17,000 objects in 29 warehouses, most of them antiquities, with a total value of $250 million [1]. It remains to be seen how many conflict antiquities are included in this total. In 2016, Roman, Etruscan and Greek South Italian antiquities from one of his storage facilities in Geneva were returned to Italy. His remaining stock is in the hands of liquidators, but its composition, value and fate remain subjects for speculation. Greek and Italian investigators suspect part and perhaps many of the objects were illegally acquired and would like full access in order to study them further and recover anything that might be stolen property. But his antiquities are being sold without such study taking place.

Until now, the location of Symes’s residual stock has been something of a mystery. Swains points out that in 2015 Companies House made the reports of Symes’s liquidators available on-line for public viewing, and interesting viewing they make too. Each year, major payments from the USD($) account are being made to a New York based storage company with a warehouse in Brooklyn. Perhaps Homeland Security Investigations would like to take a look. Similarly large payments from the GBP(£) account are being made to a separate company for storage in west London.

As Swains notes, the Companies House reports also record the ongoing unpublicised sale of unvetted material (including, presumably, some conflict antiquities) to UK dealers. He reports the concern of Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri that the sales are being conducted to recover tax for the UK government, but the reality is if anything more shameful. As the intermittent sale of material drags on year after year, any proceeds are being eaten up by storage and insurance costs and legal and other sundry fees and expenses. Everyone is making money it seems except for the creditors. No one seems worried about the probable existence of stolen or conflict antiquities. Nice work if you can get it – and if your moral compass is pointing firmly astern.

Reference

  1. Watson, Peter, 2006. Convicted dealers: what we can learn, in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and the Antiquities Trade, edited by Neil Brodie, Morag M. Kersel, Christina Luke and Kathryn Walker Tubb. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, at 94.