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Antiques PR Publicity Announcements News and Information

Roman Statue Withdrawn From London Auction

David Gill, archaeologist, reflects on the decision to withdraw a Roman statue from auction at Bonhams in London.

In 1997, the investigative journalist Peter Watson exposed the workings of the antiquities market in London. He carefully documented the way that antiquities were being stripped from archaeological contexts in Italy (and elsewhere), and then forwarded to London, often via Switzerland. Raids in the Geneva Freeport provided a major dossier of images recording the objects that had passed through the hands of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.

The Polaroid photographs have helped to identify a large number of antiquities that were acquired by North American private collectors and public museums. Some 130 objects have been returned to Italy from North America, many on the basis of the photographic evidence. These included objects from the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Shelby White collection.

In October 2008, Bonhams was forced to withdraw a number of lots from the sale of the Graham Geddes collection on the eve of the auction. Italian authorities were able to identify a number of items from the Medici archive; the pots had originally been acquired at auction in London in the 1980s.

Two of the withdrawn Geddes pieces had been sold in the December 1986 auction at Sotheby’s. Suspicions were raised when a Roman marble statue of a youth appeared in the catalogue of the April 2010 antiquities sale at Bonhams; it, too, had originally surfaced at Sotheby’s in December 1986. Christos Tsirogiannis, a researcher at Cambridge University who works with Dr Christopher Chippindale and Dr David Gill (Swansea University), was able to identify the youth in one of the Medici Polaroids. This led to Bonhams taking a decision to withdraw the piece from the sale.

This is the latest in a series of withdrawals from auctions at Bonhams. In addition to items from the Geddes collection, there was a Lydian silver wine-dipper that was removed in October 2007 after a request by the Turkish government, and an Egyptian fragment from the tomb of Mutirdis at Thebes in May 2008.

The marble youth is a reminder that auction houses and dealers need to be vigilant about the objects that they offer for sale. There is a need to develop a more rigorous due diligence process to curtail the trade in illicit antiquities.