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.

Christos in Germany

Christos Tsirogiannis has identified four objects in the forthcoming Gorny & Mosch auction to be held in Munich on 14 December 2016 that appear in the confiscated image archives of Robin Symes and Gianfranco Becchina. They are:

 

lot-19-symes

 

Lot 19. An Etruscan bronze figure of a youth (mid-fifth-century BC). Provenance: R.G. collection Germany; Royal-Athena Galleries, New York, catalogue 21, 2010; Sotheby’s London, 13 July 1981, lot 341.

Christos first recognised this figure in the Symes archive back in January 2011, when it was on offer at Royal-Athena Galleries, though clearly no action was taken by the relevant authorities as it has now reappeared on the market. David Gill has more to say about the figure’s provenance, showing among other things that it had been offered previously by Royal-Athena Galleries in 1985.

 

lot-87-in-becchina

Lot 87. An Apulian red-figure situla of the Lycurgus Painter (360–350 BC). Provenance: James Stirt collection, Vevey, Switzerland, acquired 1997 from Heidi Vollmöller, Zurich.

This piece appears covered with soil and salt encrustations on a Becchina image, alongside other objects in the same condition. A handwritten note indicates that the images were sent from Raffaele Montichelli, a convicted antiquities trafficker, to Becchina on 18 March 1988.

 

lot-88-in-becchina

Lot 88. An Apulian red-figure bell-krater of the Dechter Painter (350–340 BC). Provenance: Antike Kunst Palladion gallery, Basel; Borowzova collection, Binnigen, Switzerland, acquired 1976 from Elie Borowski, Basel.

Antike Kunst Palladion was Becchina’s gallery in Basel. The krater appears on an image from the Becchina archive looking freshly excavated with soil and salt encrustations. The date printed on the image reads ‘APR 4 ’89’ (4 April 1989), raising questions about the alleged ownership of Elie Borowski 13 years earlier in 1976. The Gorny & Mosch provenance also notes that the krater was attributed to the Dechter Painter by A.D. Trendall.

 

lot-127-in-becchina

Lot 127. A Gnathia ware squat alabastron with the bust of a winged woman with sakkos, and said to be from the White Sakkos Painter (Apulia, 320–310 BC). Provenance: Christie´s London, 15 April 2015, lot 113; Hans Humbel collection, Switzerland, acquired from the Galerie Arete, Zürich in the early 1990s.

This alabastron appears on an image sent to Becchina by Raffaele Montichelli, alongside several other objects, dating to 24 September 1988. Christos previously identified this alabastron a year and a half ago as one of two vases comprising lot 113 in the Christie’s London 15 April 2015 sale. The alabastron was one of four identifications made by Christos in the Christie’s sale and subsequently withdrawn. Lynda Albertson adds that the provenance provided in the 2015 Christie’s catalogue entry states that the piece had been acquired by the consignor from the Petit Musée, Montreal, in 1998.

 

Lynda Albertson has also very helpfully provided a German-language description of the material.

 

Christie’s welcomes work of Christos Tsirogiannis shock

My colleague Christos Tsirogiannis suggests two objects that were offered for sale in the 12 April Christie’s New York Antiquities auction had most likely passed through the hands of convicted antiquities dealers.

Photograph of hydria found in possession of Giacomo Medici

Photograph of hydria, found in possession of Giacomo Medici

Lot 36: A Greek black-glazed hydria, with an estimate of $8,000 – $12,000. The catalogue entry states that this hydria is from the collection of Charles Brickbauer of Baltimore, who bought it from Royal Athena Galleries of New York in 1988. Before that, it had been sold at Sotheby’s London on 10 December 1987 (lot 243). Christos discovered a photograph of the hydria among those seized from convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici. Christie’s subsequently withdrew the lot from sale.

Photograph of head found in the possession of Gianfranco Becchina

Photograph of head, found in the possession of Gianfranco Becchina

Lot 70: A Roman marble janiform Herm head, with an estimate of $40,000 – $60,000. The catalogue entry describes the head as the ‘property of a lady’, with a provenance ‘New York, Boston & Texas, acquired prior to 1995; thence by descent to the current owner’. Christos identified the head on a photograph seized from the convicted antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina. Christie’s subsequently withdrew the lot from sale.

Interpol, the Italian Carabinieri, and relevant US authorities have all been notified.

By coincidence, Mike Pitts has just published an article in the May-June issue of British Archaeology about other identifications made by Christos. The article draws attention to an on-line piece written by a Christie’s specialist which suggests that ‘The ideal provenance traces the movement of an object from the point of excavation, sometimes as early as the 16th century, to the present day’. That hardly ever happens, of course. As the British Archaeology article shows, most objects offered for sale at auction have a provenance that can be traced back to between 1970 and 2000 but no further.

The date of 2000 is an important one. It is an open secret that Christie’s and perhaps other auction houses have adopted 2000 as a provenance cut-off, and are offering for sale objects with a collecting or trading history that can be demonstrated to stretch back to sometime before that date, but with no attempt being made to reconstruct a complete provenance. The danger of adopting the 2000 cut-off is that Christie’s leaves itself vulnerable to accepting objects that have been traded by Medici, Becchina or others of their ilk. Perhaps the company believes that the appearance of a couple of questionable objects in an occasional sale causes very little financial or reputational harm and considers it an acceptable cost of doing business. If that is the case, it is a poor reflection on its idea of ‘corporate social responsibility’, whereby it claims to support ‘the honourable and legal market in ancient art’. Christos will be pleased to learn, however, that Christie’s does see his own work as indispensable for the creation of a ‘legal market’, when it says that ‘we positively welcome and encourage scrutiny of our catalogues by museums, archeologists, collectors, law enforcement and government agencies’. Christie’s will surely join me in saying ‘thank you Christos, for your continuing efforts in creating a legal market and cleaning up the antiquities trade’.

David Gill has asked whether Charles Brickbauer will be returning the hydria to Italy, while Lynda Albertson has discussed the identifications in the context of statements made by representatives of the art market at a recent UNESCO meeting.