Christie's Withdraws Greek Vases Linked to Convicted Dealer

Christie's Withdraws Greek Vases Linked to Convicted Dealer

In a surprising turn of events, Christie's, the renowned auction house, has pulled the plug on the sale of four ancient Greek vases scheduled for its upcoming auction in New York. The decision came after evidence emerged linking these artifacts to a convicted antiquities dealer, Gianfranco Becchina.

Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, an archaeology lecturer at the University of Cambridge, unearthed damning evidence within Christie's own correspondence with the dealer. This evidence, seized by the police, revealed the connection between the vases and Becchina, who was convicted in 2011 for illegal dealing in antiquities.

The controversy revolves around the auction house's failure to disclose the vases' true origins in their catalog. While Christie's stated that three of the vases were sold in a 1979 Geneva auction, they omitted the fact that Becchina consigned them to the auction house. This lack of transparency has raised concerns about the integrity of the art market.

Among the disputed antiquities is an Attic cup dating back to around 570-560 BC, adorned with intricate depictions of warriors and other figures. Another item, the lid of a lekanis decorated with sphinxes from about 570-550 BC, also faced withdrawal from the auction. Additionally, an hydra featuring Dionysos with a drinking horn, estimated to be from circa 530-520 BC, was removed from the catalog.

Dr. Tsirogiannis, known for his expertise in identifying looted antiquities and trafficking networks, has flagged over 1,700 such artifacts in the past 18 years. He emphasized the need for greater vigilance within the art market to prevent the circulation of illicit items.

Despite being based in Cambridge, Dr. Tsirogiannis leads research on illicit antiquities trafficking for the Unesco chair on threats to cultural heritage at the Ionian University in Greece. His collaboration with law enforcement agencies, including Interpol, has been instrumental in combating the illegal trade in antiquities.

The late Paolo Giorgio Ferri, an Italian public prosecutor who pursued traffickers in looted antiquities, valued Dr. Tsirogiannis's research highly. He provided Tsirogiannis with access to tens of thousands of images and archival materials seized in police raids, shedding light on the extent of the illicit trade.

Documents retrieved from Becchina's seized archive revealed that the vases in question were consigned to Christie's by the dealer himself. Despite attempts to mask the true ownership under the guise of a fictitious name, further investigation exposed the deception.

One of the withdrawn vases, a lekythos depicting the Athenian hero Theseus and dated to 500-490 BC, also raised suspicions. While Christie's claimed that the vase was acquired from a German dealer in the early 1990s, Dr. Tsirogiannis discovered evidence suggesting its connection to Becchina.

The auction house's spokesperson reiterated their commitment to thorough provenance research and transparency in cataloging. However, critics argue that the omission of crucial information about the vases' origins undermines the credibility of the auction house.

The incident underscores the challenges faced by the art market in combating the illicit trade in antiquities. Despite efforts to regulate the industry, loopholes remain that allow traffickers to exploit the system for personal gain.

Moving forward, there is a growing call for increased collaboration between auction houses, law enforcement agencies, and experts like Dr. Tsirogiannis to ensure the integrity of the art market. Transparency and due diligence are crucial in preserving the cultural heritage of nations and preventing the plundering of archaeological sites.

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