An archaeologist is asking a US auction house to remove a monumental Roman sculpture from sale, saying it has photographic evidence of its direct link to a dealer involved in the illicit trade.
Professor Christos Tsirogiannis, whose academic research focuses on antiquities and trafficking rings, said Hindman Auctions in Chicago should cancel its auction of the portrait head of Antisthenes, the Greek philosopher, scheduled for Thursday.
The marble head, larger than life at 45.7cm high, dates from the late 1st to early 2nd century AD and is expected to cost between $100,000-$150,000 (£80,000-£120,000) .
Tsirogiannis has three photographs which he claims show the same piece in the possession of disgraced British antiquities dealer Robin Symes and his late partner Christos Michaelides. The only difference was that the entire nose was missing and had apparently since been fixed, he said.
The photographs were part of the archives seized by the police and held by the Greek and Italian authorities.
In 2005, Symes served a prison sentence for ignoring court orders over the sale of a £3million Egyptian statue, with the judge dismissing his explanation as “a calculated deception”. In 2016, Italian and Swiss police recovered marble statues and other treasures stolen from Italy, which they believe had been stored by Symes at the free port of Geneva in Switzerland. Symes never faced any action from the authorities in connection with the transport and remained out of public view.
Asked about the sale and Tsirogiannis’ allegations, Hindman Auctions said: “As is standard procedure for each of our sales, we cleared this lot with both the Art Loss Register and Interpol before releasing it to auction… If credible information emerges, then we will. , of course, reassessing the coin and working to return it to its rightful owners.
He added that the presence of photos of the work in the home of Symes and Michaelides “is not in itself evidence that it was owned or traded by” Symes..
Tsirogiannis is Associate Professor at the Aarhus Institute for Advanced Studies and Head of the Illicit Antiquities Trafficking Working Group of the Unesco Chair on Threats to Cultural Heritage and Cultural Heritage Related Activities, Ionian University , Greece.
Through his research, he gained official access to tens of thousands of images and other archival material seized during police raids on individuals involved in the illicit trade. In 15 years, he identified nearly 1,600 antiquities looted from auction houses, museums, galleries and private collections, and notified to authorities. He played a major role in securing the repatriation of many antiquities to their country of origin.
The recoveries include an ancient bronze Greek horse that Sotheby’s New York had planned to sell in 2018, until it informed authorities of its ties to Symes. Greece claimed the horse as its national property, and in 2020 Sotheby’s lost its legal challenge. Greece’s culture minister hailed the court’s decision as a victory for countries seeking to recover their antiquities.
Tsirogiannis has repeatedly argued that auction houses do not perform adequate checks with Greek and Italian authorities and criticized their failure to disclose an object’s full collection history.
He is all the more critical of the Hindman sale as he published details of the object and his “true collector’s story” in the Journal of Art Crime in 2013. He argued that if the house American had simply searched online about the sculpture, she would have found her item “freely available”.
In the text, he writes that the head of Antisthenes first appeared at Sotheby’s New York in 1981, with a worn nose. He said it was offered “without any information regarding its sender or collection history” and sold for $4,840. In 2013, after contacting Sotheby’s for details, he received an email stating: “Sotheby’s does not release names of shippers or buyers”.
He said the sculpture reappeared at Christie’s New York in 2012, as part of an unnamed private collection. “In the auction catalog the nose appears fully restored, but Christie’s failed to mention this restoration in [its] the description. They also failed to mention its auction at Sotheby’s in 1981… The head was estimated at $100,000-150,000, but apparently went unsold. It is believed to have been sold by Christie’s as an aftermarket.
Tsirogiannis said that while Hindman’s provenance or ownership history includes Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions, it “excludes Symes-Michaelides – something Christie’s also did not do in 2012”.
He said there was no record of this antiquity before Sotheby’s sale in 1981, and that it could have come “from any country within the Roman Empire, given the quality and knowing how much Italy has been plundered”.
He informed the American authorities of this affair.
Sotheby’s has been approached for comment. Asked about the marble head, Christie’s said it has “a rigorous cultural property appraisal process that adheres to international and national agreements, laws and regulations.”