While in Seattle last month for a talk at Elliot Bay Bookstore, I stumbled across an interesting piece in the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection of ancient art: a marble Roman portrait head of the Emperor Claudius.
Why interesting? Here’s the provenance listed for the object: “Robin Symes Ltd.; Seattle Art Museum, Norman and Amelia Davis Collection.” That’s the same Robin Symes who brokered the sale to the Getty of the looted Griffins, Apollo and Lekanis, which the museum returned to Italy in 2007. He was also the dealer who sold the Getty its famous looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned to Italy last year. (Symes was never indicted by Italian authorities, but his name comes up repeatedly as a key player in their investigation of the looted antiquities trade.)
I asked the Seattle Art Museum for details about the object. What was known about its ownership history? Was the museum concerned about possessing an object from a dealer known to traffic in looted art?
According to museum spokeswoman Cara Egan, the Claudius was acquired in 1993 from Symes. It had not been previously published, and had no known ownership history. (The Norman Davis endowment — named for a prominent Seattle collector of ancient coins — provided the funds for the purchase.)
“We proactively contacted the Italian authorities several times beginning in 2006 to alert them about the Claudius portrait and to research the object’s provenance,” said Egan. “We have not received a response back from them.”
The museum does not have any other objects in its collection known to have come through Symes or the other prominent dealers implicated in the Italian case, Egan said. The SAM continues to actively research the provenance of the piece and welcomes new information.
Egan did not provide any details about that research. We suggest the SAM consider contacting Greek authorities, who raided Symes’ estate on the island on Schinoussa. Among the items seized during the raid were photos of dozens of likely looted objects sold by Symes.