Sunday 12 November 2023

The dark paths of ancient treasures - 12/11/2023


The dark paths of ancient treasures

Archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis reveals to "NEA" another ancient Greek work of art that is currently illegally in a US museum

Original Greek Article published by Ioannis Andritsopoulos [Ιωάννης Ανδριτσόπουλος], «Οι σκοτεινές διαδρομές αρχαίων θησαυρών»,, 12/11/2023.

He is sitting on a stool. He is, you see, of a certain – by the standards of the time – age. He was born in Athens, but fate threw him into a foreign land: he travelled to Switzerland, possibly passed through one or two more countries, to finally cross the Atlantic and find himself an immigrant in America. With the difference that in all these places he travelled without his will.

"TA NEA" today reveals an unknown case of antiquities with the "protagonist" of an ancient Greek treasure of the 4th century BC, which, passing through various hands, ended up in the collection of a well-known museum.

“This ancient work of art is the product of poaching. It was smuggled out of Greece and is now illegally in the US. A well-known Greek antiquities smuggler, Georgios Zenebisis, was involved in its trafficking," Christos Tsirogiannis, an archaeologist who investigates international antiquities smuggling networks, who identified the object in the collection of the Michael Carlos Museum of Emory University in Atlanta [Site], told NEA.

It is an Attic tomb relief, measuring 96.5 x 59.7 x 27.3 cm., which was excavated in the wider area of Athens. It represents a seated figure – a half-naked man wearing a himation wrapped around his thighs and draped over his left shoulder – which was sculpted from Pentelic marble between 350 and 325 BC.

The Attic marble tomb relief of the 4th century BC, measuring 96.5 x 59.7 x 27.3 cm, excavated in the wider area of Athens. Today it is in the collection of the Michael Carlos Museum of Emory University in Atlanta
​ The Smugglers

“After excavating it illegally, Zenebisis sold it to another notorious antiquities smuggler: the Italian Gianfranco Becchina. Later, it came into the hands of the American art dealer Michael Ward, who sold it to the Carlos Museum in 2003," says Dr. Tsirogiannis, who has created a database of 300,000 photographs and documents contained in about 15 antiquarian archives - which he Italian prosecutor Ferri conceded to him – and identifies smuggled goods by comparing the photographs with those appearing in the archives of museums, auction houses and exhibitions.

"The museum admits that the pedigree of the object begins with Becchina in Basel, Switzerland, but without mentioning that he is a convicted - also in Greece - antiquities smuggler and that the Italian and Swiss authorities have confiscated his file" notes Tsirogiannis , who teaches the Masters course in Cultural Heritage Management at the University of Cambridge.

But how did he come to this discovery? "In researching the Becchina archive, I found four photographs showing the object, unconserved and uncleaned - soil from the excavation can be seen on it. There is also the handwritten note "OFF/ZE", i.e. "offered by Zenebisis" and underneath the numbers "1.5.9", i.e. May 1, 1989, when Becchina bought it from Zenebisis" explains Tsirogiannis, the who is also head of the Work Group on Illicit Antiquities Trafficking of the UNESCO headquarters at the Ionian University. "The relief was found in Becchina’s Antike Kunst Palladion gallery. At some point, it came into the possession of Ward, who is currently facing charges in the US for other antiquities theft cases."

The claim

The Carlos Museum does not provide information on when Ward acquired the sculpture and whether other intermediaries besides Becchina were involved. "It is obvious that the museum did not conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether it is the product of illegal trafficking, as required by international conventions for the protection of cultural property," Tsirogiannis emphasizes. Now, he continues, "Greece must initiate the process of claiming the object and the museum must honestly admit that its origin is illegal and return it to our country."

The American foundation owns three more items claimed by Greece since 2007: a marble statue of the muse Terpsichore (4th-2nd century BC), a Minoan clay urn (14th century BC) and a giant Rhodian pithos (650-600 BC). All had been smuggled by Becchina and identified 16 years ago by Tsirogiannis, who states that he is confident that the museum - which has in its collection 1,160 Greek and Roman artefacts - has other products of illegal excavation: "My research shows that there are more such objects from Greece and Italy".

The Carlos Museum did not answer the question of "NEA" if the Attic sculpture was illegally exported from Greece. Its spokeswoman was content to state that "we are committed to acknowledging concerns about our collections, to investigating the history of our acquisitions and, where appropriate, to transferring items to their countries or communities of origin." He also stated that the university "is in contact with the Greek government" about the other three objects.

How the "whitewashing" is done

According to Dr. Tsirogiannis, who has been searching for stolen antiquities since 2004 (the first four years on behalf of the Greek state), there are "if not millions, certainly hundreds of thousands of illegally exported ancient Greek artefacts around the world, scattered in museums, galleries and private collections".

He describes the route of the "laundering" of antiquities: "After they are smuggled, they are handed over to traders who pass them across the border hidden in refrigerated trucks with fruit or meat, even in bumpers and the leather upholstery of cars. They are then bought by a larger international trader. After being cleaned and preserved, they are shipped to countries where antiquities are traditionally sold, such as Britain and the US, and appear with fake pedigrees [collection histories] or no history at all. That's where their final recipients buy them: museums and collectors."

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