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News: Antiquities Trafficking
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A view of some of the vases on Cahn’s stand. Photo Credit: Dr Christos Tsirogiannis/The Guardian.
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by Archaeology Newsroom

Suspected looted ancient Greek vases for sale at London art fair

From an antiquities trafficker's confiscated collection

Two ancient Greek vases on sale at London art fair are considered looted antiquities by experts. The two marble lekythoi, offered for sale at London Frieze Masters art fair in Regent’s Park were identified by Christos Tsirogiannis, forensic archaeologist and an expert on locating stolen antiquities.

The two vases were put on sale by the Swiss canton of Basel-Stadt, which is liquidating assets of Gianfranco Becchina, a former resident and convicted illegal antiquities trafficker, after they had received permission to do so by the Italian police. Tsirogiannis, who is a lecturer at the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (Arca) and the American Centre for Archaeology at Mycenae, identified the lekythoi in photographs sent to him by a former student of his at Arca and compared them with photographs from the Becchina archive. He also said that he identified in the attempted sale a usual pattern, since no one involved in the transaction could actually prove where the antiquities originated. Evidence was also provided that at least one of the vases was looted in Athens and sent to Becchina in the 1970s.

The London-based Art Loss Register had initially cleared the sale of the objects, but now they say they will reconsider their position. The broker on behalf of the Canton, Jean-David Cahn, who put the antiquities on sale said that at first he was very reluctant to handle the material, but he proceeded with the selling process after he was reassured of the artefacts’ legality by the Swiss authorities and he also provided documents to support his claims.

What is particularly unusual in this case is that the sellers did not mention the link to Becchina until they were challenged, but insisted instead that the items had been cleared for sale by the Italian authorities, who also have access to the confiscated archive of photographs. The Italian authorities, on the other hand, after having confiscated over 5,000 objects from Becchina’s warehouse returned about 1000 of them to Switzerland saying they have no claim over them. They did state, however, that they could not conclusively state what their origin was.

Although the vases were not sold at the fair, the authorities in Basel-Stadt have not publicly stated that they plan to return them to Greece. The Greek Ministry of Culture has been alerted by Interpol as to the lekythoi’s presence, so it can submit an ownership claim should it wish to do so.

NOTES