The Greek Archaeologist Going After Auction Houses for Looted Antiquities



Professor Christos Tsirogiannis, a Greek forensic archaeologist who has discovered and reported numerous cases of looted ancient artifacts in Greece and elsewhere, has become a nuisance for the wealthy auction houses of New York and London.

His investigations forced Christie’s of London to recently withdraw four Greek and Roman antiquities from the auction block. Last week, a US court ruled in favor of Greece in a bitter dispute with Sotheby’s over the sale of an exquisite ancient Greek bronze horse, in a case originally uncovered by the Greek archaeologist.

The ancient Greek bronze horse. Photo courtesy Christos Tsirogiannis

Speaking to Greek Reporter, Tsirogiannis denies he has become a thorn in the side of the lucrative global antiquities market.

“The responsibility of an archaeologist is not to go about attacking the major players in the market, but simply to notify the public about his research… It is not my responsibility to knock at the doors of Christie’s or Sotheby’s. If the truth is a thorn in their side, they have a responsibility to deal with it,” he states matter-of-factly.

Tsirogiannis says that he actually tries to look at all the stakeholders in the lucrative international fine arts market as people he could potentially cooperate with. “I consider them as potential collaborators under the condition that they will eventually become ethical and they will respect the national and international legislation for the protection of cultural property.”

Tsirogiannis, who works at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark, spotted that Christie’s had suddenly withdrawn ancient antiquities from auction after he had gathered evidence which linked the four items – a Roman marble hare, a bronze Roman eagle and two Attic vases – to convicted traffickers in stolen artifacts.

One of the Attic vases which were withdrawn from the Christie’s auction. Photo courtesy of Christos Tsirogiannis

“As an academic I am happy that my research has made an impact to the real world and helps various countries to claim and repatriate their own cultural property,” he tells Greek Reporter modestly.

Over the last fifteen years, Tsirogiannis has identified approximately 1,100 looted artifacts within auction houses, commercial galleries, private collections and museums worldwide. In alerting Interpol and other police authorities, he has played a significant role in securing the repatriation of many antiquities.

But, putting aside these important victories, the art historian says he is still disappointed. “The situation is still continuing unchanged, despite all the information and revelations available publicly regarding the antiquities trafficking. Mainly I am disappointed because I see that looted antiquities continue to be on offer without the market conducting the due diligence and transparency that they are advertising they exercise. In reality they do not.”

The second Attic vase which was withdrawn from the Christie’s auction. Photo courtesy Christos Tsirogiannis

Tsirogiannis says that the solution for companies such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s is simple: “Just send an e-mail with photographs attached to check with the relevant authorities that hold the archives of confiscated antiquities, before they compile the auction catalogs.”

“Unfortunately,” he states flatly, “they do not do that. This pattern shows that this is a deliberate policy,” he tells Greek Reporter.

“Their biggest responsibility, as they themselves claim, is the execution of due diligence. The fact that they are not doing so, and they have been caught repeatedly with illicit or even stolen antiquities, demonstrates beyond any doubt that this is deliberate.”

Still, Tsirogiannis is happy that his life’s work has had an impact, stating “I am glad as a Greek, but also as a citizen of the world, I am contributing to helping governments repatriate their cultural property.”

He tells Greek Reporter that his respect for our ancient ancestors is what drives him:

“It is the responsibility we have to our ancient ancestors and their feelings that have been brutally violated by the barbaric extraction of these objects.

“Some of these objects were buried in the tombs of the ancient people. They were dedicated to them. People grieved for their loss. They put these objects there with love and affection. Other objects were at the homes of ancient people, or they were dedicated to ancient gods, placed in sanctuaries and temples.

Tsirogiannis says “Thousands of years later, it is sacrilege for these antiquities to be looted for money and profit. This is what drives me mostly to continue my research.”