Museum-Goers Beware: That Ancient Artefact May Be Hot

An archaeological detective is shining light on the sometimes shady business behind museum collections.

 

A few years ago, Christos Tsirogiannis was looking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art's online collection when he had a flash of recognition. While studying an ancient Greek krater—a clay vase used for mixing wine—something “suddenly clicked,” he says. The vase was decorated with a painting of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. “I knew that I had seen the subject on that krater before,” he says.

As a forensic archaeologist affiliated with the University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, Tsirogiannis has access to restricted databases containing tens of thousands of photographs and documents seized during raids. Searching through the online archives, he found five photos of the Met’s Greek krater among items confiscated from Giacomo Medici, an Italian antiquities dealer convicted in 2003 of receiving stolen goods and conspiracy to traffic looted antiquities.

A photograph seized from an antiquities dealer shows a Greek vase dated to 350 B.C. still encrusted with soil and salt. The scene depicts Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and a flute-playing companion on a wheeled couch.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTOS TSIROGIANNIS

So why was an object that may have been dug up and sold by looters on display at a famous American museum, and how did it get there?

Uncomfortable questions like these are becoming more common in the digital age as museums, universities, and private collectors publish online catalogues of their collections, creating a valuable resource for anti-looting detectives like Tsirogiannis.

Greek-born archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis has identified dozens of stolen artefacts by searching the online catalogues of major museums and galleries.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY CHRISTOS TSIROGIANNIS

Although his influence is rarely acknowledged, Tsirogiannis’s tireless sleuthing has spurred major museums and auction houses in the United States, Europe, and Asia to return dozens of treasured objects to their rightful owners in Greece, Italy, and other countries.

“I always liked jigsaw puzzles as a kid,” the Greek-born researcher says. “My work now resembles a gigantic jigsaw puzzle made of thousands of smaller puzzles.”

After studying archaeology and art history at the University of Athens, Tsirogiannis earned a doctorate at Cambridge University, writing his dissertation on international networks of illicit antiquities traders. He then worked for the Greek Ministries of Culture and Justice using his expertise to date and classify looted artefacts.

Tsirogiannis spotted this stolen Etruscan amphora for sale at a Manhattan gallery and reported it to authorities. The gallery willingly surrendered the artifact, which was recently returned to Italy.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEY CYRUS R. VANCE, JR.

With a voluminous visual memory that can call to mind thousands of images of looted artifacts—and a willingness to send dozens of emails that are never answered—Tsirogiannis is actively researching hundreds of objects from museums around the world. He recently tipped off authorities in Manhattan that an Etruscan vessel displayed at a Midtown gallery was stolen, leading to its repatriation, or official return, to Italy.

"Until Someone Finds Out"

In the case of the Dionysus krater at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, photos seized from Giacomo Medici, the convicted antiquities dealer, show the vase crusted with soil and salt, literally fresh from the earth. Because Medici took Polaroid photos—a technology not available in Europe until 1972—Tsirogiannis knew that the krater was dug up after 1970, the year a major UNESCO treaty made it illegal to export cultural property from signatory nations.

In 1989 the krater turned up at Sotheby's, where it sold at auction for $90,000. Like other major auction houses, Sotheby’s doesn’t reveal the names of consignors or buyers and declined to speak on the record for this article. But the Metropolitan Museum added the krater to its collection soon after Sotheby's sold it.

The Met’s website states that the krater was acquired by the Bothmer Purchase Fund. Dietrich von Bothmer was a longtime Met curator who died in 2009. Interrogations of convicted antiquities dealers and evidence from their confiscated archives have established that Bothmer was one of their regular clients. Forty fragmentary artefacts from Bothmer’s collection at the Met have been returned to Italy since 2005.

Once Tsirogiannis identified the origin of the Dionysus krater, he promptly sent multiple emails to valid addresses at the Met. He received no reply, and the vase remains on display in Gallery 161 of the museum.

The Met’s only comment for this story was opaque: “The Museum has been in touch with the Italian Ministry of Culture regarding the Terracotta Bell Krater (1989.11.4).”

The museum’s acquisitions policy states that before purchasing an object curators will investigate “whether the work of art appears in relevant databases of stolen works and the circumstances under which the work of art is being offered to the museum.”

Tsirogiannis is sceptical about the stated intentions of the Met and other museums. “They hang on to illicit objects as long as they can, until someone finds out,” he says. “It’s all about money, fame, and ownership.”

There are approximately 10,000 fragments from the Bothmer collection that haven’t yet been published online, and the Met has declined to say when they might be published.

It’s unclear how many of the fragments might match pieces in other museums’ collections or recorded in criminal databases. But when they do go online, it’s likely Tsirogiannis and other detectives like him will be watching.

 

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