Nice work if you can get it

Howard Swains has just published a useful piece on Robin Symes containing informative commentary by my Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis. Symes was a major international antiquities dealer through the 1980s and 1990s. With Italian and Greek police hot on his trail, he was driven into bankruptcy in 2003 and after serving a short prison sentence for contempt of court in 2005 he disappeared from view. His present whereabouts remain unknown. Swains tells Symes’s story in all its sordid detail and it is well worth a read.

Just by chance, Symes figures in another news article covering the Lebanese claim for the return of a fourth-century BC marble bull’s head from the possession of US collectors Lynda and William Beierwaltes. In 1981, armed Christian militia stole the bulls head from storage in Byblos – it is a conflict antiquity. By 1996, the head was in the possession of Symes, who sold it to the Beierwaltes for $1.2 million. This sale makes Symes a purveyor of conflict antiquities.

Before his disappearance, Symes claimed to possess 17,000 objects in 29 warehouses, most of them antiquities, with a total value of $250 million [1]. It remains to be seen how many conflict antiquities are included in this total. In 2016, Roman, Etruscan and Greek South Italian antiquities from one of his storage facilities in Geneva were returned to Italy. His remaining stock is in the hands of liquidators, but its composition, value and fate remain subjects for speculation. Greek and Italian investigators suspect part and perhaps many of the objects were illegally acquired and would like full access in order to study them further and recover anything that might be stolen property. But his antiquities are being sold without such study taking place.

Until now, the location of Symes’s residual stock has been something of a mystery. Swains points out that in 2015 Companies House made the reports of Symes’s liquidators available on-line for public viewing, and interesting viewing they make too. Each year, major payments from the USD($) account are being made to a New York based storage company with a warehouse in Brooklyn. Perhaps Homeland Security Investigations would like to take a look. Similarly large payments from the GBP(£) account are being made to a separate company for storage in west London.

As Swains notes, the Companies House reports also record the ongoing unpublicised sale of unvetted material (including, presumably, some conflict antiquities) to UK dealers. He reports the concern of Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri that the sales are being conducted to recover tax for the UK government, but the reality is if anything more shameful. As the intermittent sale of material drags on year after year, any proceeds are being eaten up by storage and insurance costs and legal and other sundry fees and expenses. Everyone is making money it seems except for the creditors. No one seems worried about the probable existence of stolen or conflict antiquities. Nice work if you can get it – and if your moral compass is pointing firmly astern.


  1. Watson, Peter, 2006. Convicted dealers: what we can learn, in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and the Antiquities Trade, edited by Neil Brodie, Morag M. Kersel, Christina Luke and Kathryn Walker Tubb. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, at 94.

Christos in Germany

Christos Tsirogiannis has identified four objects in the forthcoming Gorny & Mosch auction to be held in Munich on 14 December 2016 that appear in the confiscated image archives of Robin Symes and Gianfranco Becchina. They are:




Lot 19. An Etruscan bronze figure of a youth (mid-fifth-century BC). Provenance: R.G. collection Germany; Royal-Athena Galleries, New York, catalogue 21, 2010; Sotheby’s London, 13 July 1981, lot 341.

Christos first recognised this figure in the Symes archive back in January 2011, when it was on offer at Royal-Athena Galleries, though clearly no action was taken by the relevant authorities as it has now reappeared on the market. David Gill has more to say about the figure’s provenance, showing among other things that it had been offered previously by Royal-Athena Galleries in 1985.



Lot 87. An Apulian red-figure situla of the Lycurgus Painter (360–350 BC). Provenance: James Stirt collection, Vevey, Switzerland, acquired 1997 from Heidi Vollmöller, Zurich.

This piece appears covered with soil and salt encrustations on a Becchina image, alongside other objects in the same condition. A handwritten note indicates that the images were sent from Raffaele Montichelli, a convicted antiquities trafficker, to Becchina on 18 March 1988.



Lot 88. An Apulian red-figure bell-krater of the Dechter Painter (350–340 BC). Provenance: Antike Kunst Palladion gallery, Basel; Borowzova collection, Binnigen, Switzerland, acquired 1976 from Elie Borowski, Basel.

Antike Kunst Palladion was Becchina’s gallery in Basel. The krater appears on an image from the Becchina archive looking freshly excavated with soil and salt encrustations. The date printed on the image reads ‘APR 4 ’89’ (4 April 1989), raising questions about the alleged ownership of Elie Borowski 13 years earlier in 1976. The Gorny & Mosch provenance also notes that the krater was attributed to the Dechter Painter by A.D. Trendall.



Lot 127. A Gnathia ware squat alabastron with the bust of a winged woman with sakkos, and said to be from the White Sakkos Painter (Apulia, 320–310 BC). Provenance: Christie´s London, 15 April 2015, lot 113; Hans Humbel collection, Switzerland, acquired from the Galerie Arete, Zürich in the early 1990s.

This alabastron appears on an image sent to Becchina by Raffaele Montichelli, alongside several other objects, dating to 24 September 1988. Christos previously identified this alabastron a year and a half ago as one of two vases comprising lot 113 in the Christie’s London 15 April 2015 sale. The alabastron was one of four identifications made by Christos in the Christie’s sale and subsequently withdrawn. Lynda Albertson adds that the provenance provided in the 2015 Christie’s catalogue entry states that the piece had been acquired by the consignor from the Petit Musée, Montreal, in 1998.


Lynda Albertson has also very helpfully provided a German-language description of the material.


Christos never sleeps

christos-sleeps-1My colleague Christos Tsirogiannis has just revealed that lot 92 in the forthcoming 25 October Antiquities sale at Christie’s New York appears in the Robin Symes archive of confiscated photographs. Greek police seized the photographs during a 2006 raid on Robin Symes’ villa on the island of Schinoussa. Described as a Roman marble draped goddess, the provenance provided for the piece by Christie’s says only that it is property ‘from a distinguished private collection’ and that it was acquired by the current owner from the Perpitch Gallery, Paris, sometime before 1991.

Before accepting an object for sale, Christie’s requires documentary evidence that it was out of its country of origin before a specified date. The date is that of an MOU with the USA, the start of a conflict, or 2000, whichever is most appropriate. Thus for the present piece, presumably the company’s due diligence was limited to establishing the pre-2000 date of acquisition, and failed to uncover the earlier involvement of Symes.

Christie’s has withdrawn the piece from sale.

Robin Symes loses his heads

My Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis has just identified three pieces appearing in the Medici Archive of photographs among material returned to Italy from Switzerland.

Symes 3

Male sarcophagus in Geneva warehouse. Image © Ministère public genevois

Symes 4

Female sarcophagus in Geneva warehouse. Image © Ministère public genevois

On 14 January 2016, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva announced the return to Italy of ‘two Etruscan earthenware sarcophaguses and numerous other priceless works and fragments’ to Italy. The mainly Etruscan and Roman material was discovered in 45 crates during an April 2014 search of a Geneva Freeport warehouse belonging to disgraced British antiquities dealer Robin Symes. The material had been there for more than 15 years. The return was enabled by Switzerland’s ratification in 2003 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

This Geneva material is only a small part of Symes’s known stock [1]. In February 2001, Symes’s holdings were frozen by order of a civil court, and by January 2002 it was known he stored material at 33 different locations around the world. According to Symes’s own documentation, a total of 17,000 objects was valued at £125 million. Symes was declared bankrupt in 2003 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in January 2005 for contempt of court. His present whereabouts is unknown. His assets remain frozen.

Symes 6

Medici photograph of male head.

Symes 5

Medici photograph of female head

Between 1979 and 1986, Symes conducted at least 29 transactions with convicted Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. He also sold material through Sotheby’s London. Christos has now discovered images of two heads, one from each of the returned sarcophagi, in the Medici Archive, showing that before reaching Symes they had passed through the hands of Medici. Christos also observes that the heads in the Medici photographs appear to have been broken off from the sarcophagi, meaning that an expert conservator must subsequently have restored them. The identity of this putative conservator is unknown. Christos has also identified a fresco.

Symes 7

Fresco in Geneva warehouse. Image © Ministère public genevois.


Symes 8

Medici photograph of fresco.


Watson, Peter and Cecilia Todeschini, 2007. The Medici Conspiracy. New York: PublicAffairs, at 248-264.