Ancient Artifact Pulled From Christie’s Auction After Archaeologist Claims Suspect ‘Provenance’

An artifact scheduled to be auctioned during an antiquities sale in New York at Christie’s next month has been withdrawn after an expert flagged two lots linked to dealers of of looted antiquities.

Christos Tsirogiannis, an archaeologist and researcher at University of Aarhus in Denmark raised questions over the ownership records of a Greek vase and a Roman helmet, dating back to 450 B.C. and late 2nd-early 3rd century A.D., respectively.

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The vase has been withdrawn from the sale, while the copper helmet is expected to hit the auction block during Christie’s New York Classic Week sale on April 12.

An expert in forensic archeology whose research has focused on the trade of illegal antiquities dealing, Tsirogiannis claims the amphora and the helmet can each be linked to convicted antiquities dealers who had been active since the 1970s, The Art Newspaper first reported.

The Nolan amphora allegedly traces back to Gianfranco Becchina, a prolific trafficker of Italian artifacts. His inventory was recovered by Swiss police in 2001 and given to Italian authorities.

Records of the second artifact can be found in photographic archives of Robert Hecht, an American dealer who, before his death in 2012, was long suspected for selling looted classical artifacts, Tsirogiannis said. Hecht sold an illegally-sourced Greco-Roman krater to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that was returned to the Italian government in 2008. Hecht was tried in Italy over the controversy, but no ultimately not charged.

Photograph of Roman helmet

A Roman Tinned Copper Cavalry Parade Helmet, circa late 2nd-first half of 3rd century A.D.

“Incomplete provenance is unfortunately the norm in the antiquities market,” Tsirogiannis told ARTnews in an email. “But the most unfortunate element is that the laws of many countries do practically nothing about it.”

The archeologist has tracked illegally traded artifacts through a photographic archive he has compiled over the last decade. In 2018, Tsirogiannis’s research into a group of 50 objects led to a lawsuit between Sotheby’s against the Greek culture ministry.

Auction houses do not have access to Tsirogiannis’s archive, which unlike other research resources used for provenance research by dealers, has not been made available for public use. (Some of the records in Tsirogiannis’ database were obtained by authorities during cultural property seizures.)

In a statement, a Christie’s spokesperson said the house dedicates “considerable resources” to investigating provenance.

“In the case of the upcoming sale of these lots, the research we conducted gave us no reason to believe that any of these lots are from an illicit source,” the statement said. A Christie’s representative said the house is continuing to conduct research on the Roman helmet.

Tsirogiannis said that vendors in the art market should, as a matter of due diligence, reach out to international authorities to check if an object is listed in databases used to recover cultural property.

“Christie’s, too, in this instance as well, could and should have done this, months before the auction,” he said, adding that the Carabinieri have had records of the two artifacts since 2001-2002. “The public should understand that this situation is repeated in almost every antiquities sale and, therefore, such cases is not an exception, but the rule.”


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