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.

Dallas Museum of Art Announces 6 Repatriations

The Orpheus Mosaic, once looted and now returned to Turkey

In a press conference today Max Anderson, the new director at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) announced an agreement with Turkey to return this 2nd Century AD Roman Mosaic, and other objects. The mosaic was acquired in 1999 at a public auction at Christie’s in 1999 for $85,000. According to the DMA, after noting on Turkey’s cultural heritage ministry website that there had been an Orpheus mosaic missing, Anderson contacted Turkish officials. He was given photographic evidence showing the and comparing the mosaic with a border, being removed by looters near ancient Edessa, modern Sanliurfa in Southern Turkey.

In announcing the return, Anderson also announced a new initiative called ‘DMX‘ which attempts to seek loans and exchange agreements. A move that if successful would position the museum to pioneer the ideals of a universal museum while also respecting the laws and restrictions placed on objects by their nation of origin.

But other objects were also revealed. The DMA officials also announced that they had uncovered objects in their collection from Edoardo Almagià, an on-again/off-again antiquities dealer who has been tied to looted antiquities by Italian officials. The other objects may be more interesting, including:

  • a pair of bronze shields decorated with the head of the man-bull deity Acheloos, dating from the 6th century B.C.E;
  • a red-figure krater, designed for the burial of Greek nobles in southern Italy, dating from the 4th century B.C.E;
  • the head from an antefix, dating from the 6th century B.C.E; 
  • and a calyx krater, dating from the 4th century B.C.E.
The volute krater, 4th century B.C.E. its
provenance was “English collection”

Almagià is an interesting figure. In a 2010 interview with the Princeton alumni magazine, he is boldly critical of Italy’s heritage laws, and the agreements between Italy and the United States:

You are immediately equated with a criminal nowadays by being a collector. You have in Italy hundreds of thousands of people that have antiquities at home. They might have inherited them or bought them. In my youth, there were flea markets, and you could buy every antiquity you wanted. All those people that bought things – are they all criminals? It’s like Prohibition in the United States – there’s a criminal underworld. Italian law leads to crime. By legalizing the market in antiquities, you destroy the black market and eliminate the incentive to make forgeries.

He has been investigated by the public prosecutor in Rome since 2006, and his New York apartment has also been searched by U.S. Customs officials. Chasing Aphrodite points out that the returned material has ties to the usual suspects: Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, and Giacomo Medici. And also notes other museums have similar objects. Given Turkey’s increasingly muscular calls for repatriation, the DMA has positioned itself to create favorable agreements with foreign nations, and also set itself apart from other institutions with similar material with insufficient histories. When I see these objects at a museum, with a scant or nonexistant provenance listed, I assume it must be looted. Forward-thinking museums are increasingly doing the same. And despite what value there may be in viewing the object in a ‘universal’ museum, that probable criminal history increasingly renders the display of these objects unjust.

  1. Michael Granberry, Dallas Museum of Art returns rare work of Roman art, signs memorandum of understanding with Turkish government for international exchange Center Stage, Dallas News (Dec 3, 2012).
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