The dark paths of ancient treasures
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», in.gr,
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.
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
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
“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.
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."
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."
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".
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
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
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."