Archaeologist stunned that looted vases were offered for sale at Frieze

A Cambridge-based forensic archaeologist believes two Greek vases displayed at a prestigious art fair in London’s Regent’s Park may have been looted.

Dr Christos Tsirogiannis, a lecturer at the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), received photos of the ‘lekythoi’ from a former student who attended Frieze Masters during its run in London from 5-8 October 2017. Dr Tsirogiannis matched the 4th century BC artefacts to those contained in a photographic archive of objects handled by disgraced art dealer and convicted art trafficker, Gianfranco Becchina.

Over 5,000 stolen antiquities seized from Becchina were displayed at a press conference given by Italy’s anti-art trafficking squad, the ‘carabinieri’, in January 2015. Several looted items handled by the Switzerland-based Sicilian dealer are thought to remain in circulation in the art market. According to The Guardian newspaper, the Swiss canton of Basel-Stadt obtained permission from the carabinieri to sell the lekythoi at Frieze Masters to raise revenue following the liquidation of Becchina’s assets.

Marked price ‘upon request’, the vases were displayed on the stand of Basel-based dealer, Jean-David Cahn. There was no reference to Becchina in the documentation accompanying the vases. Although Cahn stated that he had been “very hesitant and very reluctant” to handle the objects, he agreed to offer them for sale as a broker for Basel-Stadt on the strength of reassurances from Swiss authorities.

According to the Basel-Stadt public prosecutor’s office, 1,200 of the 5,000 objects seized from Becchina were returned to Switzerland after the Italian authorities could lay no legal claim to them. Despite the public prosecutor’s admission that “where they come from and the circumstances under which they were acquired, could not be determined conclusively”, the objects were offered for sale.

The fact that these objects are being offered in such general terms, with incomplete collecting history, shows that they are absolutely tainted and therefore toxic for anyone who goes near them”, Dr Tsirogiannis said. Dr Tsirogiannis has identified several looted antiquities over the years using photographs from the Becchina archive and those of other disgraced dealers. Civilian access to these archives is highly restricted and ancient art dealers have pushed for access to enable them to identify whether they are handling illicit material.

The vases did not sell at Frieze Masters but there are no plans for Swiss authorities to return them to Greece. It remains to be seen whether Greece will file a claim for their restitution.

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