Italy protests against selling antiquities to satisfy Symes’s debts

ivory mask
An ivory head of Apollo, looted in 1995 by Pietro Casasanta near the Baths of Claudius, and seized from Robin Symes in 2003 and repatriated to Italy.

Italy is making another great push for information and cooperation in recovering material from Robin Symes. Why is Italy pressuring the Government and not the estate of Symes? Because the objects may be used to satisfy a tax judgment. These illicit antiquities were seized not because they  have illicit histories—though allegedly many of them do. Rather these objects are being held for an eventual sale that may be used to satisfy tax obligations. The disagreement over the objects sets up a conflict between Italy and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs which is holding the objects. The issue is the tax bill owed by Symes’s firm which is now in liquidation. The Art Newspaper reports that the liquidator attempting to satisfy Symes’s creditors, BDO, may be considering selling the antiquities to Abu Dhabi in order to help that nation build its collection of classical antiquities. And Italy is threatening to sue the liquidating firm.

Robin Symes is an interesting figure. He once held the dubious distinction of being London’s most widely-known antiquities dealer. In a short piece for Culture in Context, Peter Watson describes the fall of Symes (hosted by the folks at Trafficking Culture). It began at a rented villa in Umbria in 1999:

At a dinner . . . hosted by (the late) Mr. Leon Levy, a noted collector of antiquities, and his wife Shelby White, Mr. Symes’s partner, Mr. Christo Michaelides, fell down some steps, hit his head on a radiator, and died in hospital the next day.

Symes and Michaelides had lived together as a couple since the 1970s, but Michaelides’s Greek family considered the men business partners as well, and sought a portion of the antiquities business. This led to a great deal of court scrutiny into Symes and the objects he was buying and selling. Watson reported in 2004:

So far, this case had been a civil case. However, during the course of the (interlocutory) hearings, it had transpired that Mr Symes, who had originally
admitted to storing his assets (mainly antiquities) in five warehouses, in fact had twenty-nine ware-houses spread across London, Switzerland and New York. Becoming sceptical of Mr Symes’s openness in disclosing his assets, the lawyers for the Greek family, Messrs Lane and Partners, began to examine some of Mr Symes’s transactions closely. Mr Symes was followed, and the paperwork for his transactions double-checked. During this scrutiny it emerged that Mr Symes had sold, or said that he had sold, a Granodior-ite Egyptian statue of Apollo to a company in America, Philos Partners, of Cheyenne, Wyoming. When Lane and Partners examined this transaction, it turned out that Philos was a fictitious company, and that the address Mr Symes had said he sent the statue to did not exist. It later transpired that the statue had in fact been sold to Sheikh Al-Tani in the Arabian Gulf.

That is only the first part of the story, which culminated in Michaelides’s family establishing that he had a legal claim to half of Symes’s assets and led Symes to declare bankruuptcy. Of interest to the Italians is the role Symes played in operating between Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici. The objects which passed through Robin Symes carry a strong suspicion of illegality. This illegality though runs up against the obligations that Symes owes to his creditors and the tax authorities. The Art Newspaper reports that Maurizio Fiorilli has requested information about 700 objects which were seized from Symes, including Greek pottery, marble sculpture, teracotta sculpture, and other objects. Archaeologists are rightfully upset that these tainted objects may be sold on the market.

Christos Tsirogiannis tells the Art Newspaper:

“It’s a scandal for the British government,” . . . . Tsirogiannis says that he requested access to the collection as part of his research for his PhD at the University of Cambridge but that BDO failed to respond to his queries. “It would be good to have official announcements from all the governments concerned about the Symes case, so that everyone can learn the whole truth about the key questions: why are the objects identified by the Italian state not being sent to Italy? Are the other governments concerned claiming any objects too? If so, how many and which are they?”


Will the ultimate sale of this material continue to embarrass the British Government? Or will Italy be able to secure repatriation of some or all of this material. I would not bet against Italy and Maurizio Fiorilli…

  1. Italy threatens to sue UK firm over ancient loot The Art Newspaper,
  2. Watson, Peter. “The fall of Robin Symes.” Culture Without Context newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, Issue 15, Autumn 2004.

One thought on “Italy protests against selling antiquities to satisfy Symes’s debts”

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