US-auctioned Roman sculpture linked to scandalous dealer
A scholar has requested that the auction of the marble skull of Greek philosopher Antisthenes be paused.
An archaeologist is urging a US auction company to withdraw a massive Roman sculpture from the sale, alleging photographic evidence linking it to a dealer involved in illegal trading.
Prof. Christos Tsirogiannis, whose academic study focuses on antiquities and trafficking networks, believes Hindman Auctions in Chicago should cancel its Thursday sale of Antisthenes' portrait head.
The marble skull, which stands 45.7cm tall and dates from the late first to early second centuries AD, is expected to bring between $100,000 and $150,000.
Tsirogiannis claims to have three images of the identical artifact in the custody of Robin Symes, a discredited British antique dealer, and his late companion Christos Michaelides. The only difference, he explained, was that the entire nose was gone and has since been rebuilt.
The images were among the archive materials confiscated by police in Greece and Italy.
Symes was sentenced to prison in 2005 for violating court restrictions involving the sale of a £3 million ($3.75 million) Egyptian statue, with the judge rejecting his explanation as "a calculated deception."
In 2016, Italian and Swiss police seized marble sculptures and other antiquities taken from Italy and alleged Symes had stashed in the Geneva freeport in Switzerland. Symes has never faced any legal consequences for the haul and has remained out of the public limelight.
“As is standard procedure for each of our sales, we cleared this lot with both the Art Loss Register and Interpol prior to bringing it to auction … Should credible information emerge, then we would, of course, re-evaluate the piece and work to restore it to its rightful owners.” Hindman Auctions stated of the sale and Tsirogiannis' claims. "
It went on to say that the inclusion of images of the art in Symes' and Michaelides' homes "is not in itself proof that it was either owned or traded by Symes."
Tsirogiannis is an associate professor at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies and the chair of the Unesco position on risks to cultural heritage and cultural heritage-related activities at Ionian University in Greece.
Through his investigation, he gained official access to tens of thousands of pictures and other archive materials collected from persons participating in the illegal trade during police raids. Over the course of 15 years, he has identified and reported about 1,600 plundered antiques from auction houses, museums, galleries, and private collections. He has been instrumental in ensuring the return of several artifacts to their nations of origin.
Among the findings is an ancient Greek bronze horse that Sotheby's New York had intended to auction in 2018 until he informed authorities about its connections to Symes. Greece claimed ownership of the horse, and Sotheby's lost its court fight in 2020. The verdict was hailed by Greece's cultural minister as a win for countries wanting to restore their artifacts.
Tsirogiannis has often claimed that auction houses fail to do necessary checks with Greek and Italian authorities and that they fail to reveal an object's whole collecting history.
He is especially critical of the Hindman sale since, in 2013, he released facts about this piece and its "real collector history" in the Journal of Art Crime. He said that if the US House had merely searched online for the sculpture, it would have seen his article, which was "freely available."
In the narrative, he stated that the head of Antisthenes originally appeared in 1981 at Sotheby's New York, with its nose worn away. He stated that it was sold for $4,840 "without any information regarding its consigner or collecting history."
After contacting Sotheby's for more information in 2013, he received an email stating, "Sotheby’s does not disclose the names of consignors or buyers.."
He said the artwork resurfaced in 2012 at Christie's New York as part of an unidentified private collection. "In the auction catalog, the nose appears fully restored, but Christie’s failed to mention this restoration in [its] description. They also failed to mention its auction in Sotheby’s 1981 … The head was estimated at $100,000-$150,000, but apparently remained unsold." Christie's is said to have sold it as an after-sale.
While the Hindman provenance or ownership history covers the Sotheby's and Christie's auctions, it "excludes Symes-Michaelides – something that Christie’s also failed to do back in 2012" according to Tsirogiannis.
He said that there was no record of this antique prior to the Sotheby's auction in 1981 and that it might have originated "from any country that was part of the Roman empire, given the quality and knowing how much Italy has been looted”.
He has informed US officials about the situation.
Christie's stated that it follows "a rigorous process for assessing cultural property that follows international and national agreements, laws, and regulations”.