Italy tries to block sale of Bonhams antiquities linked to disgraced dealer
Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent
The London auctioneers Bonhams are under pressure to withdraw several of the prized pieces from its forthcoming antiquities sale after a senior Italian politician raised questions over their provenance.
Francesco Rutelli, the former Italian Minister for Culture and Deputy Prime Minister, told the Italian Parliament he had believed that some of the antiquities to be auctioned in London next week had been exported illegally from Italy.
In an “urgent question” to Sandro Bondi, his successor as Culture Minister, he accused the centre-right Berlusconi Government, which took power in May, of failing to take action over the illegal export of archaeological treasures.
Mr Rutelli later told reporters that he was most concerned about an elaborately decorated Apulian 4th-century BC red krater or Greek vase that forms part of the Bonhams sale.
He took the dramatic step of calling for a Rome prosecutor to block the antiquities auction by Bonhams, due to be held on October 15.
In an “urgent question” to Sandro Bondi, his successor as Culture Minister, he demanded that all auctions involving the sale of Italian treasures of “questionable provenance” should be blocked.
He called for checks to be made on the provenance of other items in the sale that he said “in all probability originated in Italy”, after discovering that the Apulian vase was owned by Robin Symes, the disgraced British dealer who was jailed for two years in January 2005 for bankruptcy. Symes was released after seven months.
Mr Rutelli’s parliamentary question read: “Since the summer of 2007 the Ministry of Culture has undertaken extra-judicial negotiations with the commission of liquidators of the Symes collection nominated by a London court, with the aim of verifying the possibility of recuperating archaeological artefacts belonging to the heritage of Italy.”
Although Mr Rutelli said that he had sent the documentation on the Bonhams auction and the Symes collection to Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the Rome prosecutor who specialises in art theft cases, Bonhams said that it was business as usual, as far as they were concerned.
A spokesman for the auctioneer said: “We have not officially heard anything from the Italian Parliament. We would obviously act the moment we receive anything requiring us legally to respond and do as we always do. If there is any question mark on something like this we either withdraw it or get into discussions … No one here was aware of the statement in the Italian Parliament.” He confirmed that the vase is believed to have been owned by Symes “prior to 1980” but that it had been through “many hands over the past 28 years”.
Mr Rutelli said that the recovery of archaeological masterpieces trafficked from Italy in recent years has brought to light the scandalous nature of commercial operations undertaken by Symes and his associates.
Symes had acquired artefacts from an Italian dealer called Giacomo Medici, and sold looted antiquities to many Western museums including the Getty, whose former curator Marion True is on trial in Rome for the alleged illegal trafficking of antiquities.
Negotiations with the Symes liquidation commission to recover Italian works have so far ended in an impasse. Mr Rutelli said that the Bonhams sale was a worrying sign that items from the Symes collection were beginning to find their way on to the market.
He praised co-operation by the Getty and other US museums, which have agreed not to trade in future in artefacts which do not have a secure provenance.
Graeme Barker, an archaeologist and director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, said: “Auction houses should be extremely careful about what they’re selling and be clear about their origins.”
Symes was jailed in 2005. A two-year sentence was imposed by a High Court judge after he disregarded orders obtained against him in a legal action by the family of his late business partner. The Greek family of the deceased Christo Michailidis conducted a four-year legal battle over the multi-million-pound assets of their business.
Mr Justice Peter Smith said that Symes, then 65, was guilty of “flouting the orders of the court to achieve financial benefits for himself”. He said that Symes was guilty of “calculated, cynical and well-understood acts of deception”.
Two years earlier, the dealer was given a 12-month suspended sentence for lying about the true value of a statue that he claimed to have sold for $1.6 million (£978,000) when the actual value was $4.5 million.
Several antiquities associated with Symes have been returned to Greece and Italy in recent years.