Tag Archives: Gianfranco Becchina

UPDATED > Sleeping Beauty: Seizure of Sarcophagus in New York Shows Value of Becchina Dossier

sleeping beauty

UPDATE: After a 13 year legal battle, Switzerland has returned to Italy the last of 4,536 looted objects that were seized from Gianfranco Becchina’s warehouse and gallery in Basel, according to a Swiss media report. (Sources have confirmed the article, which does not name the dealer, refers to Becchina.)

Federal authorities seized a $4 million Roman sarcophagus lid from a New York warehouse on Friday, alleging it had been looted, smuggled out of Italy and sold to convicted Italian antiquities trafficker Gianfranco Becchina in the 1980s before passing through a who’s who of the illicit antiquities trade.

aboutaams.jpgThe sculpture surfaced again in May 2013, when it was exhibited at the Park Avenue Armory by Phoenix Ancient Art, the antiquities dealership of Hicham and Ali Aboutaam, Lebanese brothers who have both been convicted of crimes related to trafficking in looted art. The Aboutaam’s lawyer told the New York Times that they had exhibited the sculpture on behalf of a client and played no role in its shipping or importation.

The Aboutaams would not identify their client. Records show that the sculpture was in the possession of Noriyoshi Horiuchi, a Japanese antiquities dealer with close ties to Becchina. Horiuchi was instrumental in building the antiquities collection at the Miho Museum and returned more than 300 looted antiquities to Italy after a 2008 raid on his Geneva warehouse.

UPDATE: Phoenix has confirmed to another journalist that their “client” was Horiuchi, who had been asking $3 million for the sarcophagus. The gallery claims to have conducted “comprehensive due diligence” on the sarcophagus tracing it back 30 years but did not learn that it had belonged to Ortiz and Becchina.

The seizure of the Sleeping Beauty was possible with the help of Italian investigators and their access to the Becchina Dossier – the dealer’s archive of business records and photographs documenting his several decades in the illicit antiquities trade.

Gianfranco BecchinaThe Becchina archive’s 140 binders contain more than 13,000 documents — shipping records, invoices and thousands of Polaroid images showing recently looted artifacts, including the Sleeping Beauty. It was seized in 2002 by Italian and Swiss authorities during a raid on Becchina’s Basel warehouse and gallery Palladion Antique Kunst. In 2011, Italy convicted Becchina of being a key middleman in the illicit antiquities trade. He has appealed that conviction, but the seizure of his archives was upheld by Italy’s high court in February 2012.

UPDATE: Gianfranco Becchina has released the following statement on the sarcophagus to RAI, Italy’s national public broadcaster (translated from Italian via Google): “It ‘s true that, several decades ago, the work belonged to the Gallery Palladion Antike Kunst in Basel which was the owner. Contrary to the contention of the news, the sculpture has come to me later a regular exchange transaction as evidenced by the bubble of Swiss Customs reproduced in the service of the New York Times, from which, to all evidence , information in your possession are inspired. The assertion that want to work from a theft is absolutely bizarre and devoid of any support, documentary or otherwise, of such an assumption. The transaction took place in a country, which is Switzerland, where the trade findings was totally legitimate and not subject to any restrictions except the payment of customs duties on imports. According to information provided to me by the seller , the artifact had landed in Italy from Tunisia. The assertion of my conviction relating to other events linked to the art trade, is blatantly false: no hearing has taken place, let alone have been condemned. But this is another story!”

Becchina’s archive is far more detailed that that of his more famous rival, Giacamo Medici, whose collection of Polaroid photographs sparked an international scandal and forced the return of more than 100 prized antiquities on display at American museums. As the case of the Sleeping Beauty illustrates, the Becchina Dossier provides an unprecedented roadmap of the illicit trade of Greek and Roman material looted from Italy and beyond. 

A Winding Path Through the Illicit Trade

Records from Becchina’s archive show the looted sarcophagus was first offered to Becchina by Antonio “Nino” Savoca, an Italian dealer with a shop in Munich who acquired it from looters along with a cache of other large marbles. Savoca sent Becchina a series of Polaroids showing the sarcophagus lid in two fragments. In the image below, you can see the bottom half of the sculpture showing the Beauty’s knees and feet.

IM000522.JPGA receipt dated 8/8/81 shows Becchina bought it for 7.5 million lire from Carlo Ciochetti, a frontman for Savoca in Rome.

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A Swiss customs form dated 8.14.81 shows Becchina imported the sarcophagus to Basel, where it was accepted by his shipping agent Rodolphe Haller.

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A receipt dated 9/15/81 shows Becchina sold the fanciulla,or maiden, to Swiss antiquities collector/dealer George Ortiz for Fr. 80,000. Sources say that in fact Ortiz provided the financing for Becchina’s purchase of the sarcophagus and the two owned it jointly for several years.

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An image attached to the Ortiz receipt shows the sarcophagus as it appeared before restoration.

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In 1982, the sarcophagus was offered for sale to the Getty Museum, which turned it down, sources say. It was also exhibited at a the Historical Museum of Bern for several months during late 1982 and early 1983 and published in a German catalog.

sleeping german pub

A list written in German and dated July 15 1986 describes “a broken sarcophagus ex Ciochetti” as the first of 24 objects jointly owned by Becchina and Ortiz. Many of the objects on the list are the same as those recently looted objects shown in the Savoca Polaroids.

IM000358.JPGIt is not clear what happened to the sarcophagus after 1986. At some point it was extensively restored, with the missing marble fragment at the break-point filled in, and acquired by Horiuchi, the Japanese dealer known to have worked closely with Becchina. When and how it was imported into the Unites States is still under investigation.  

This is the condition it was found in when federal agents discovered it in the warehouse in Long Island City, New York. sleeping beauty today

And here are images of the Sleeping Beauty’s seizure today, courtesy of ICE and Tony Aiello, a reporter at CBS New York.

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The Sleeping Beauty will be returned to Italy soon, officials said. “Whether looted cultural property enters our ports today or decades ago, it is our responsibility to see that it is returned to its rightful owners, in this case, the Italian people,” stated U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch. “We will continue to use all legal tools available to us to seize, forfeit and repatriate stolen cultural property.”

Meanwhile, thousands of other sleeping beauties whose origins are detailed in the Becchina archive remain to be found. More on those soon… 

The Getty’s Looted Amber: A Window into the Museum’s Deepening Dilemma

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In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I have a story about Getty Museum’s efforts to find the true origins of its massive antiquities collection.

Here’s how the story starts:

In the wake of a scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum is trying to verify the ownership histories of 45,000 antiquities and publish the results in the museum’s online collections database.

The study, part of the museum’s efforts to be more transparent about the origins of ancient art in its collection, began last summer, said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

“In this effort, and in all our work, when we identify objects that warrant further discussion and research, we conduct the necessary research to determine whether an item should be returned,” Hartwig said in a statement to The Times.

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The review is likely to reveal that problems in the Getty’s collection go far deeper than the nearly 50 looted objects returned since 2007according to Getty records and interviews with antiquity dealers and former museum officials.

Hundreds of objects still in the collection were acquired with false ownership histories aimed at disguising their origins in the illicit antiquities trade, records and interviews show.

The depth of its problem was underscored in November, when the Getty published a catalog of 56 carved ambers, objects that the ancient Greeks and Etruscans used in amulets for the magical properties they were believed to possess.

At first look, “Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum” represents the museum at its finest — decades of scholarship published online in an illustrated catalog that engages the public in a rarely studied artifact of the ancient world.

But records — including internal Getty files — show that the ambers were almost certainly looted from tombs in northern Italy.

medici mugThe relics passed through the smuggling network of Giacomo Medici, who has been convicted in Italy of trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. Once in the United States, they were donated to the Getty as part of a tax fraud scheme that nearly brought the institution to its knees in the 1980s.

The catalog is silent on this history, which a Getty spokesman says the museum was not aware of at the time, but it does acknowledge the consequences. Because nothing is known of the context in which the ambers were found, little can be definitively concluded about their meaning to their ancient owners.

“Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts?” writes Faya Causey, author of the catalog. “Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part.”

The ambers capture the dilemma that the Getty faces today. Having largely abandoned the purchase of ancient art, it is using its unparalleled resources to restore meaning to objects whose history it had a hand in destroying.

You can read the full LA Times story here.

The Getty’s Study Collection

This is not the first time questions have been raised about the Getty’s study collection, the tens of thousands of artifacts in the museum’s collection deemed not worthy of display but held in storage for scholarly study.

In the 1990s, hundreds of pottery sherds and votive fragments in the collection were linked to a looted archaeological site in Francavilla Maritima. Under Marion True’s leadership, the Getty conducted an exhaustive scholarly study of the material, then returned it to Italy. 

Last year, the Getty quietly returned 150 marble fragments in the collection (88.AA.140 – 88.AA.144) to Italy after evidence emerged that they joined objects found in the same looted tombs of Ascoli Satriano that produced  the Getty’s Griffins and statue of Apollo, which were returned to Italy in 2007. The objects and fragments were acquired in the 1980s from London dealer Robin Symes.

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Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig described the voluntary returns as the result of cooperative research with Italian archaeologists:

In his letter to Director General Luigi Malnati last January, Jim Cuno said, “The Getty acquired these objects as a gift in 1988, in the hope that they would be preserved and studied and eventually reconnected with other fragments of the same objects.  Happily, careful scholarship has led to that result.  Working with colleagues in Italy, Getty curators have determined that the fragments in our possession are very likely to match with vessels from Ascoli Satriano.  It is our hope that the fragments can be examined to ascertain their pertinence, and rejoined to these vessels.” Dr. Malnati invited [Getty antiquities curator] Claire Lyons to join a committee formed as a research collaboration to examine the pieces.

01293001But the Getty’s problems are not confined to the study collection, as was demonstrated last week when the Getty announced it would return a terracotta head of Hades to Sicily. It will be reunited with the statue’s body, which was found at the archaeological site of Morgantina — the same source of the Getty’s looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned in 2010.

These returns are a reminder of the Getty’s crooked collecting practices, but they also offer some reason for hope. Each return has contributed to important new insights about archaeological sites that were despoiled by looters. The process of joint investigation and return has helped re-create some of the lost context — something Lord Colin Renfrew once described as “Post-disjunctive forensic re-contextualisation.”

Expect to see more if it in the year ahead. As noted in Saturday’s story, a large part of the Getty’s study collection was acquired in bulk donations in the 1970s and 1980s via the looting and tax fraud scheme we describe in Chapter 2 of Chasing Aprhodite. Records show that much of it passed through the smuggling networks of Medici, Hecht, Symes and Becchina, suggesting it will likely end up back in Italy sooner or later.  

The ambers are the latest tip to surface of a very large iceberg. As David Gill noted in November, “the scale of the problem for the Getty is massive.”

Dallas Museum of Art Returns Orpheus Mosaic, Five Other Looted Treasures in Announcing New Art Loans Initiative

Orpheus Mosaic

The Dallas Museum of Art has agreed to return six looted antiquities from its collection and announced a broad new initiative to exchange expertise and artwork with cultural institutions around the world.

“The problems of illegal excavation and the illicit import of cultural property require the consideration of new models of cooperation among institutions,” the museum said in a release announcing the initiative, dubbed the Dallas Museum of Art Exchange Program, or DMX.

The effort was announced Monday while signing an agreement with Turkey, the museum’s first partner, for the return of the Orpheus Mosaic, a Roman mosaic floor looted near Edessa (today’s Sanliurfa) and acquired at a Christies auction by the DMA in 1999.

Microsoft Word - Orpheus mosaic in situ.docxIn explaining the return, the museum cited compelling new evidence presented by Turkish investigators about the mosaic’s illicit origins: “Two newly recovered in situ photos of the mosaic showing it being removed by the smugglers. The photographs also show the full work with its decorative borders intact, prior to it being removed from the ground. The photographs were printed by a local photo shop in Sanliurfa and are currently evidence in a criminal investigation being carried out by the Sanliurfa Head Prosecutor in order to identify everyone involved in the crime.” The image shows the mosaic with a border that was likely removed by looters, the museum notes, adding, ” The canister visible in the lower right contains a Turkish brand of glue, which looters–not archaeologists–would have used to make repairs.”

Notably, the Dallas museum initiated the return of the mosaic instead of waiting for it to be identified by Turkish authorities, who have been on a campaign to repatriate looted antiquities. Soon after Maxwell Anderson started as director in January, he asked the museum’s antiquities curators to identify objects with troubling ownership histories. The mosaic was found to be nearly identical to several published on a website of Turkey of looted objects. Anderson told the Dallas Morning News:

the last thing he wanted was “to be the recipient of a claim by Turkey and be unprepared, seeing all of that evidence. So, I wrote to the embassy, saying if you have any information about this mosaic, please let us know. I didn’t have any specific information, but it seemed circumstantially that it was very likely that it was removed from that site.” Turkish officials came forward with the photograph of the mosaic, “which is all you need to know,” Anderson said.

In addition to the Orpheus mosaic, the Dallas museum agreed to return five antiquities to Italy in response to law enforcement requests. All five  Two of those objects were first questioned by us in a Jan. 11 email to the museum inquiring about links between the DMA and the illicit trade, including antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia. After our inquiry, the DMA contacted Italy and has now agreed to return them.

UPDATE: In February, we requested provenance information for 15 of the DMA’s recent acquisitions, including the five pieces returned this week, that we selected at random. They helpfully provided the list we posted here. We asked yesterday on Twitter whether other objects on that list might also be returned — several come from dealers who have also been implicated in the illicit trade. A museum spokeswoman now tells us: “Italian and Greek authorities have reviewed  our collections records, including the works you refer to in your recent post, and have advanced no other claims.” Of course, some of the material on the list, such as the Cycladic figurine, likely came from other countries.

The objects going back to Italy — and the DMA’s explanation for their return — offer a helpful who’s who of the illicit antiquities trade.

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Two Etruscan shields with the head of Acheloos (Etruscan 6th Century BC)

Volute Krater (Pulian, 4th Century BC). 

As we noted in February, both were purchased from  antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagià in 1998.  The museum describes Almagià as “a former New York antiquities dealer…currently named in a criminal case for conspiracy to commit the illegal export and smuggling of cultural property pending before the Public Prosecutor of Rome. Almagià has been under investigation since at least 2006, when U.S. Customs officials raided his New York apartment, confiscating photographs, documents, and archaeological material. He was also the subject of a New York Times story in 2010 that revealed he and Michael Padgett, former antiquities curator at the Princeton University Art Museum, were the focus of an investigation of the illegal export and laundering of Italian archaeological objects. The Italian government named Almagià in the criminal case for having ‘sold, donated, or lent’ nearly two dozen works looted from Italian sites to the Princeton Museum. Roughly twenty other objects are listed in the case as having been obtained illegally by Almagià and sold to other American institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, including this pair of shields.” UPDATE: The DMA incorrectly referred to Padgett as the former antiquities curator at Princeton. The Princeton Museum confirms he remains on staff there, and the DMA has corrected is post.

dma_507363As evidence that the statue and krater were looted, the museum cited “photographs provided that were seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials” and “archival evidence seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, including records of sales and correspondence currently serving as evidence in the criminal investigation and court case.”

Dallas now joins the Met and Princeton in returning objects linked to the dealer. (We’ve written about those returns here and here.) Will the other museums we’ve identified with Almagia material — including the Getty, the Boston MFA, San Antonio Museum of Art, Indiana University — now be motivated to do the same?

dma_507366A Red Figure krater (Apulia, 4th Century BC) acquired by DMA at Sotheby’s in 1996.

A Calxy Krater (Campagnia, 4th Century BC) acquired from the vases form Ward and Co. around 2005, said to be from a “Swiss private collection.” 

Both vases have been linked to Gianfranco Becchina, who the museum describes as “a Sicilian antiquities dealer who has been convicted in Italy of dealing in stolen antiquities. Becchina started dealing in antiquities from his premises in Basel, Switzerland, in the 1970s and is said to have sold to several major museums, sometimes through Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in London. In May 2002, the Carabinieri, in collaboration with the Swiss police, raided his storage facilities in Basel, recovering thousands of objects in various stages of restorations, photographs of artifacts, and other documents.”

dma_507370“The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art have both returned material to Italy that was acquired from Becchina and subsequently shown to have been illegally exported.”

“In April 2012 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized two works from Christie’s New York auction house that were associated with the investigation of Becchina. According to the Carabinieri, Gianfranco Becchina has been identified as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage, and all property that has been shown to have been illicitly trafficked by Becchina is subject to confiscation.”

You can find a list of our previous posts mentioning Becchina here.

dma_507364Etruscan head of an Antefix. Said to be from Henri Jacques of Geneva. Purchased from Robin Symes in about 1999.

A photograph linked this antefix to Giacomo Medici, who the museum describes as “a former antiquities dealer based in Rome, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland, who was found guilty of receiving stolen goods, illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic by the Italian government and sentenced to ten years in prison and a €10 million fine. In 1995 the Carabinieri, in concert with Swiss police, raided Medici’s storage space in Geneva, which contained thousands of objects, photographs (including many Polaroids), and documents relating to his business practices and connections. The Cleveland Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art have all returned objects that were acquired via Giacomo Medici. Along with Gianfranco Becchina, he has been identified by the Carabinieri as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage.”

Robin Symes, the dealer form whom the DMA purchased the objects, has also been linked to the illicit trade, the museum notes. “Symes is also accused of playing a pivotal role in the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, have already returned several objects acquired through Symes. He is known to have commercial relations with dealer Giacomo Medici, who was the ultimate source of the artifacts that would subsequently be sold through dealers or auction houses. Prior to the Medici conviction, Robin Symes had been involved in a civil court case, and in January 2005 he was sentenced to two years in prison for contempt of court for not fully disclosing his assets.”

You can find our other posts mentioning Symes here.

We’ll have more on the significance of the returns and the DMA’s new loans initiative in a future post.

Castor and Pollux, Forgeries and Loot: Reflections on the Arnold Peter Weiss Case

original art by Elli Crocker (http://www.ellicrocker.com)

Looting and forgery are the Castor and Pollux of the antiquities trade, bound together by a love of murky origins.

That appears to be the lesson of the guilty plea earlier this month by coin dealer Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss, which came with a twist – the “looted” coins he was hawking at the Waldor Astoria were actually forgeries.

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

But why would Weiss brag so openly – to both a confidential informant and an undercover agent posing as a buyer, according to the complaint – that the ancient coins he was trying to sell had been recently looted in Sicily? Wouldn’t that fact lower the value of the coins and made them harder to sell?

And how could the three coins – which were proved forgeries by a scanning electron microscope only after being found authentic by several experts – fool so many, including Weiss and his Nomos partners and Herbert Kreindler, Weiss’ reported source for the coins? Who was duped, and who was complicit in the fraud?

The answers may come out as the on-going investigation unfolds in the coming months. But the case of another famous fraud, the Getty Kouros, offers some interesting hints.

The outlines of the Kouros story are well known: In 1985, the Getty paid $9.5 million for a 7-foot-tall Greek marble youth with a thoroughly detailed ownership history, amid speculation that the piece was a modern forgery. There are only a dozen such intact kouroi, making the Getty’s a truly remarkable find. The question of its authenticity has been hotly debated ever since. Today most are convinced the statue is a fake, though it remains on display at the Getty Villa, labeled “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery.”

In the opening chapter of his bestselling Blink, Malcolm Gladwell suggests Getty officials were blinded by bad science in their decision to buy the statue. In Chasing Aphrodite we revealed that science was the public reason to justify the purchase, and the one given to the Getty board. But behind the scenes, museum officials concluded the Kouros was authentic because they heard from the dealer that it had been recently looted in Sicily.

As we write in Chapter 4:

Speaking in confidence, [Sicilian dealer Gianfranco] Becchina had cautioned [Met curator Dietrich] von Bothmer to ignore the cover story about the statue coming from Greece or being in the family of a Swiss doctor. He suggested instead that the statue had been found recently in Sicily, an origin that would explain many of the stylistic anomlies that had initially troubled him. It also suggested that the piece was freshly excavated and, by extension, authentic. The statue’s suspiciously voluminous ownership history must have been forged to cover the kouros’s illicit origins. Bolstered by the new information pointing to authenticity, [Getty director John] Walsh once again recommended the purchase of the kouros.”

This illustrates the first lure of loot: In a market rife with forgeries, evidence of looting is the ultimate badge of authenticity.

It is worth noting that one of the Weiss coins in question was a silver decadrachms of Akragas. Before being confiscated by authorities, it was given a record-setting estimate of $2.5 million because it was one of only 12 known such coins. That happens to be precisely as rare as an intact Kouros. When trying to explain the appearance of a rare masterpiece out of thin air, looting is the most palpable answer. The only other is forgery.

The second lure of looting is the uncanny appeal that “fresh” antiquities have long had for collectors and museums. Few have explained this better than Bruce McNall — who coincidentally used to employ Weiss’ Nomos business partner Eric McFadden.

McNall proved prescient in our January interview  about the Weiss case:

“[As a collector in the 1980s,] any time you find something brand new, it’s sexier,” he said. “Otherwise it’s been around, it’s been seen, and maybe there’s a reason someone else hasn’t bought it…Nobody wants some old broad that’s been around on the town for too long.”

Ironically, McNall thinks that may explain the case of Arnold Peter Weiss, who was allegedly recorded by a confidential informant bragging that he knew the 4th century BC silver tetradrachm from Katane he was selling was “a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago” in Italy. Such talk is common in the coin trade, said McNall, but “90% of the time it’s just a sales tool.” McNall also finds to be credible the rumor circulating in the coin world that one or more of the coins Weiss was offering for sale may have been fakes.

Perhaps another lesson from the Weiss case, then, is that in the world of ancient coins, these two lures of loot appear to be as strong today as they were in 1985.

You can find all our coverage of the Weiss case here.

The Getty List: 10 Objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum that Turkey Says Were Looted

Among the dozens of allegedly looted antiquities that the government of Turkey is asking American museums to return are ten objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD. From Cremna, Turkey. Purchased in 1994 for $550,000 from Varya and Hans Cohn, Los Angeles. The Cohn’s acquired the object from Elie Borowsky (Basel) in ’68. (JPGM 94.AA.22)

The Getty declined to provide a list of the objects in question, as did the Met, the Cleveland Museum and Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks. We obtained a list from Turkish authorities and asked the Getty to provide the collecting history for those objects.

Unlike those other museums, the Getty is obligated by its 2006 acquisition policy to provide the public with provenance information about objects in the collection. Thanks to that policy, we now know something about how the contested objects came to the Getty.

The most prominent are four marble Muses now on display in the Getty Villa’s Basilica Room. All four appear to come from Cremna, Turkey and were first acquired by antiquities dealer Elie Borowski sometime before 1968, the Getty records show.

Borowski, who died in 2003, had ties to the illicit antiquities trade. His name appears in Robert Hecht’s memoir as a client of convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici; it also appears on a handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities in 2001. Former Getty antiquities curator Marion True told Italian authorities that Borowski had also been a client of Gianfranco Becchina, the Sicilian antiquities dealer (also named on the org chart) who is on trial in Italy.

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD. From Asia Minor. Purchased for $10,137 from Elie Borowsky in ’71; Borowsky already owned in 1968 (JPGM 71.AA.461)

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD, from Cremna, Turkey. Purchased for $9,185 in 1968 from Sotheby’s London, November 26, 1968. lot no. 173. (JPGM 68.AA.21)

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD, from Cremna, Turkey. Purchased in 1968 for $13,122 at Sotheby’s London, November 26, 1968. lot no. 173. (JPGM 68.AA.22)


Several other Getty objects sought by Turkey came through another dealer connected to the illicit trade: Nicolas Koutoulakis, now deceased owner of the Paris gallery Segredakis. Koutoulaksi also appears in the org chart and last September, the Getty returned to Greece fragments of a grave stone it had acquired from Koutoulakis after scholars concluded they adjoined an object now in a Greek museum.

Portrait of a Man. (73.AB.8) Purchased in 1973 for  $125,326  from Nicolas Koutoulakis

Bronze bust. (71.AB.458) Purchased in 1971 for $90,000 from Nicolas Koutoulakis.

Bronze foot from “Bubon, Turkey, Asia” (72.AB.103) acquired from Nicolas Koutoulakis. (See the Cleveland bronze from Bubon here.)

Bronze bed (82.AC.94) purchased for $150,000 from Nicolas Koutoulakis; Koutoulakis purchased from Gilette’s estate; Joseph Gilette of Lausanne, ca 1936.

The final two Getty objects come from a private dealer and an auction house:

Roman Eagle (72.AB.151) purchased in 1972 for $200,000 from French & Company.

Bronze bust of Lucius Veres  (73.AB.100) purchased in 1973 for $37,701 from Spink & Son, London.

When asked for comment about Turkey’s request, Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig said, “We are in dialogue with officials from the Turkish Ministry of Culture regarding some objects in our collection. We expect those discussions to continue and while they do, we will not be getting into specifics.”

Kimbell Art Museum Responds To Questions About Ancient Cup Acquired Under Timothy Potts

Timothy Potts

The Kimbell Art Museum has decided to list one of its prized possessions — a Greek cup acquired in 2000 under then-director Timothy Potts — on a public registry of ancient art with unclear origins.

The move comes after Jason raised questions about the cup while reporting an article for Saturday’s LA Times on Potts’ role in the controversies involving American museums and the looted antiquities trade discussed in Chasing Aphrodite. This week Potts was named as the next director of the Getty Museum.

The cup in question is from the 5th century BC and was masterfully painted by the Greek artist known as the Douris Painter. The Kimbell describes it as “one of the finest surviving vases of the early Classical period.” The scene on the cup depicts the death of Pentheus, a mythical king of Thebes, being torn limb from limb by a group of drunken followers of Dionysus.

The museum lists the cup’s ownership history as follows: (Elie Borowski [1913-2003]) by 1977; sold to a Japanese oil company, probably late 1980s; (sale, Christie’s, New York, June 12, 2000, no. 81); purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 2000.

As David Gill noted in his review of James Cuno’s book Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities, the vase was published by Robert Guy in “Glimpses of Excellence: A Selection of Greek Vases and Bronzes from the Elie Borowski Collection” (Toronto Royal Ontario Museum) and highlighted in an interview with Potts for Apollo Magazine (vol. 166,October 1,2007).

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

The earliest documented owner of the cup, Elie Borowski, has been linked to the illicit trade by Italian and Greek investigators. His name appears  in Robert Hecht’s memoir as a client of convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici and on a handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities in 2001 (on right). Marion True told Italian authorities that Borowski had also been a client of Gianfranco Becchina, the Sicilian antiquities dealer (also named on the chart) who is now on trial in Italy.

In correspondence with Potts and the Kimbell, we asked why they were confident the cup was not the product of an illicit excavation after 1970.

Kimbell spokeswoman Jessica Brandrup initially said: “The Museum has not been contacted by the Italian or the Greek government in regards to works in the Museum’s permanent collection. The purchase of the Greek vase was legitimate and remains a highlight in the Kimbell’s permanent collection.”

Potts said via email, “We did due diligence on the object and were confident that it fell within the AAMD and other U.S. guidelines then in force.” (Worth noting: Four years after the acquisition of the cup, Potts played a central and somewhat controversial role in re-writing those AAMD guidelines, as we note in Saturday’s LA Times story.)

When we pushed the Kimbell for additional information about the cup, we received this statement:

“When the Douris cup was purchased at auction in 2000, the Kimbell Art Museum, like most US museums, held antiquities to the standard of the US 1983 ratification of the 1970 UNESCO treaty.

We believe that the piece can be documented as being outside its country of finding before 1983. Subsequent to its purchase, the AAMD recommended in 2008 that museums apply the 1970 standard instead.

We don’t have information on the cup’s whereabouts between 1970 and 1977, as is evident in the provenance described on our website. To further comply with the AAMD recommendations, we will post it on the AAMD Registry of New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art.

Thank you for calling this discrepancy to our attention.”

The AAMD object registry was created in 2008, when American museum directors decided the 2004 policy championed by Potts and others was not adequate. As described on AAMD’s website, the 2008 changes sought “to affirm more clearly and tangibly its members’ commitment to helping protect and preserve archaeological resources worldwide, and to strengthen the principles and standards used in making decisions regarding the acquisition of archeological materials and ancient art.”

The AAMD’s object registry lists recent acquisitions of ancient art whose ownership histories cannot be traced back to 1970, the date of the UNESCO anti-looting treaty. The goal is “to make information about such objects freely available to students, teachers, visitors, source countries, officials, as well as possible claimants.”

The registry also contains 10 objects acquired by the Chicago Institute of Art, many of then under director James Cuno, who is now Getty Trust CEO.

New Wave of Returns: Hundreds of Looted Antiquities Recovered from the Met, Princeton and Others

On Jan 20, the Italian art squad announced the return of more than 200 antiquities from US museums, companies, collectors and dealers — all the product of illegal excavation or theft.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned forty pieces belonging to a deceased private collector who has been identified as the museum’s former antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer. Von Bothmer was known to have a large private collection of vase fragments and was fond of reuniting these fragments with vases in known collections. Fabio Isman reports that several of the returned fragments match vases already returned by American museums, including the Getty’s Onesimos kylix, which was potted by the famous Euphronios.

Question: What of the rest of the von Bothmer collection and his considerable personal archive, which no doubt contains a fascinating history of the illicit antiquities trade over the past 50 years? Is it, as this return suggests, in the possession of the Met, and will its contents be made public?

Princeton University Art Museum returned 170 objects and fragments, including: an askos-shaped talus; two statues of women, including one playing a tambourine and the other a lyre; a white pithos with red figures representing animals;  and 166 fragments from vases and architectural elements. The returns appear to be related to the investigation of Edoardo Almagià, the Princeton alum and antiquities dealer who, along with Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett, are targets of an investigation by Italian authorities.

The release states [via Google translation] that the objects “were identified in previous surveys conducted by the [Carabinieri] of the possessions of an Italian-American citizen, resident of New York, who has been the subject of the seizure of numerous archaeological finds, in New York and Rome, and copious documentation with photographic material pertaining to sales and loans made ​​by him.” These seized documents have allowed investigators to trace looted antiquities to prestigious American museums like the Met and Princeton, the release says, adding that the Carabinieri “have thus established, irrefutably, the origin of the objects from illicit excavations made ​​in Italy.” Works from Almagia have also been traced to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the San Antonio Museum of Art; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Tampa Museum of Art; the Indiana University Art Museum, The New York Times has reported.

Question: It appears we can now add the Almagia Archive to the trove of documents, photographs and objects that Italian investigators have seized from antiquities dealers Robin Symes, Robert Hecht, Gianfranco Becchina and Giacomo Medici. Given that only Medici has been convicted in Italian court, will these archives, which provide an unprecedented record of the illicit trade, ever be released publicly by Italian authorities?

Princeton and the Met have not yet acknowledged the returns. We’ll post details when they do. In response to a previous request for information, Princeton Museum spokeswoman Cass Cliatt took pains to distance the museum from the Padgett/Almagia case: “The[re] were not and have not ever been any allegations against the University related to the current investigation, and the Italian authorities at no point contacted the University about the current investigation. Great care should be taken about implying a connection.” It is not clear how a criminal investigation into the museum’s curator and a major donor (and alum) have nothing to do with the museum, and these returns only raise further questions. We’ve asked Cliatt for more information and will post it here when it comes.

Other returns announced in the release:

Humana, a Fortune 100 health insurance provider, returned two statues that had graced the lobby of its Louisville headquarters. The first, a second century sculpture depicting the goddess Fortuna, was stolen in October 1986 from an opera house in Rome. The second, a first century marble statue, was illegally excavated in Lazio, Italy and has been linked to the convicted antiquities trafficker Giacomo Medici. The release says Humana acquired the statues in 1984 from a New York Gallery and cooperated fully with Italian investigators.

A New York antiquities dealer has returned a bronze statue known as the Venus of St. John Perareto, which was stolen from a museum in Rimini in 1962. UPDATE: Jerome Eisenberg of Royal-Athena Gallery in New York confirms that he is the dealer. In an email, he said he bought the small Venus from an unnamed dealer in Freiburg, Germany in 1982 and was offering it for $22,500.

An ancient parchment stolen from Bari was identified and returned with the help of FBI officials in Chicago. And bronze grave goods from the first century were returned “a genuine gesture of respect for the Italian people” by contemporary artist Edward Giobbi, who had inherited them from his father.

Hat-Tip: David Gill at Looting Matters first brought the returns to our attention.

ALSO: Fabio Isman has a story on the returns in Il Messagero.

The Becchina Dossier: A New Window into the Illicit Trade

Italian culture reporter Fabio Isman has an important story in the current issue of the Art Newspaper [no link available yet] about Gianfranco Becchina, the retired Sicilian antiquities dealer who now faces trial in Rome for conspiracy to traffic in looted art.

Sicilian dealer Gianfranco Becchina gives the authors a tour of his renovated pallazzo in Castelvetrano, Sicily.

While reporting our book, Italian authorities told us that Becchina’s role in the illicit antiquities trade may have exceeded that of his now notorious rival, Giacomo Medici, who was convicted in 2004 in the biggest looting case in Italian history. Becchina, now 72 and retired from the trade in his native Sicily, is appealing a February 2011 conviction for illegal dealing and has denied pending conspiracy charges, Isman writes.

Becchina is perhaps best known as the dealer who sold the Getty its famous fake marble kouros. (See Chaps 4 and 5 of Chasing Aphrodite.) But that was just one sale in a 30-year career that Becchina meticulously archived in 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents. The archive was seized by Swiss authorities in 2001, along with 6,315 antiquities and 8,000 photographs of objects, many of which appeared recently excavated, Isman reveals. The dossier shared with Italian investigators, who needed two months just to digitally photograph it.

The Getty bought the kouros in 1985 for $10 million. Today it is believed to be fake.

Today, the Becchina Dossier forms the center of Italy’s continuing investigation of the international trade in looted antiquities, which began in 1995 with the seizure of a similar cache  of records and Polaroids belonging to Medici. Like the Medici files, the Becchina Dossier provides a striking record of the illicit trade, showing the path of thousands of looted objects from tombs across the Mediterranean to the display cases of leading museums around the world.

Becchina has previously admitted to providing objects to the Getty, the Boston MFA, the Met and museums at Yale, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Washington, as well as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and museums in Japan. The archives reveal an even broader reach, Isman reports, including “the clandestine investigation of a million artifacts and police investigations into the affairs of 10,000 people.”

Among those tied to Becchina are the Toledo Museum of Art, the Miho Museum in Japan, the Lourve in Paris, the Merrin Gallery in New York, collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White and a large cast of middle men and looters familiar to those who have studied the illicit trade.

Italian investigators Maurizio Pellegrini and Daniella Rizzo have been combing the Becchina Dossier for several years.

Italian investigators Daniella Rizzo and Maurizio Pellegrini have had the painstaking task of combing through the dossier since its seizure, matching objects described there to known collections. Their work continues today. Isman’s revealing story is the first of what will likely be several uncovering the contents of the Becchina Dossier.

We too have reviewed the Becchina Dossier and will write more about it in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for that and stories about Becchina, who the authors visited in 2006 while reporting on the book.