While some people’s job is to look for burglars or murderers, forensic archaeologists Christos Tsirogiannis spends his time searching for looted antiquities.
He has identified 1,100 such artefacts in 13 years, and accuses the major auction houses, such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bonham’s, of failing to properly check the provenance of antiquities in their catalogues. He asserts that they don’t take the necessary steps in due diligence by contacting the authorities before buying or selling antiquities.
Of course, the auction houses deny this, and insist they do work with authorities in order to establish due diligence, but that they don’t have access to the databases of seized objects, something which Tsirogiannis contests.
Be that as it may, Bonham’s has recently withdrawn an ancient Greek drinking vessel from sale amid accusations that it was illegally excavated. Tsirogiannis alerted Interpol after producing evidence linking the Bonhams antiquity to convicted traffickers in stolen artefacts. He recognised lot 95, an ancient Greek vessel from 375-350 BC, in Bonhams’ catalogue for its July 3 antiquities auction at its flagship London salesroom. The 8in-high Apulian red-figure kantharos or drinking cup was estimated to fetch between £20,000 and £30,000.
Dr Tsirogiannis has access to images confiscated in police raids and he found a picture of the vessel, still with soil on it, in archives seized from Gianfranco Becchina, convicted in Italy and Greece of illegally dealing in antiquities.
Cambridge-based Tsirogiannis also works for the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. He is determined to draw public attention to the irreparable damage done by looters of antiquities from archaeological sites.
Christos studied archaeology and history of art at the University of Athens, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, on the international illicit antiquities network.
He has worked for the Greek Ministries of Culture and Justice, excavating throughout Greece and recording antiquities in private hands, and has voluntarily cooperated with the Greek police Art Squad. He was also a member of the Greek Task Force Team that repatriated looted, smuggled and stolen antiquities from the Getty Museum, the Shelby White/Leon Levy collection, the Jean-David Cahn AG galleries, and others. In 2013, he won the annual Award for Art Protection and Security from the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.
Tsirogiannis believes that to loot and trade in stolen goods is a crime against humanity, because it is the cause of a major catastrophe: the irreparable loss of knowledge about our past. He has built a secret archive of tens of thousands of photos from the antiquities underground traffic, where illicitly dug artefacts pass from tomb raiders to smugglers to dealers and then on to museums, collectors, and auction houses. He has been given most of his images from prosecutors in Greece and Italy who have obtained them from police raids; he matches the photos with objects that surface at auctions or museums and then works to repatriate the pieces.
Tsirogiannis is somewhat of a thorn in the side of auction houses, but his work has forced them, and other dealers, take due diligence much more seriously. Nevertheless, the auction houses contend that the industry’s due diligence would benefit if the archives, which are technically owned by the Greek and Italian states, were to be made public, which so far they have declined to do. As for Tsirogiannis, he says that publishing the records could alert bad actors and push the market for illicit antiquities further underground.