Italy threatens legal action after British Government refuses to return artefacts seized from disgraced London art dealer

Sculptures of marble heads, a bronze bust of Alexander the Great and bronze statuettes of the gods form part of the collection

For three decades, Robin Symes was once one of London’s most successful antiques dealers, with a thriving business and a glamorous lifestyle of chauffeur-driven Bentleys to take him to and from his sprawling properties in London, New York and Athens.

But it all came crashing down when his his business partner and long-term companion, Christo Michaelides, was killed in 1999 by an accidental fall at a villa in Umbria. A bitter dispute with Mr Michaelides’s Greek family and a lawsuit left Symes bankrupt. He was later sent to prison and, in 2006, a book linked him to an illicit antiquities network. Now, as liquidators wind up Symes’s company to pay taxes owed to HM Revenue and Customs, a row is threatening to break out with Italy over the restitution of 700 ancient treasures in the firm’s collection.

Maurizio Fiorilli, the Italian state legal counsel who is overseeing the case, said: “The reality is the 700 objects are Italian and we have proved they are Italian. The Italian government intends to ask for their restitution.”

Italy says it will begin legal action if BDO, the accountant winding up Robin Symes Ltd, does not respond by the end of the month. “These objects were taken from illegal excavations carried out in Italy. We have the appropriate paperwork,” Mr Fiorilli said. “The liquidators must tell us if they intend to return the objects.”

The lawyer has worked on recovering the objects, with expert help, since 2007. Mr Fiorilli attempted to contact the liquidators by letter in 2012, detailing which objects should be returned, but had no substantive response. “This is not about money; it is about bringing back culturally important pieces back to their rightful home,” he added.

The Italian prosecutors could take on the liquidators in the UK under the Dealing in Cultural Offences Act. “This is a crime in Britain,” Mr Fiorilli said, adding that he would not wait for the prosecutor’s verdict before pushing ahead with a civil case.

The 700 disputed objects were excavated illegally and then sold “illicitly”, the lawyer claimed. The objects, including sculptures, jewellery and vases, were largely ancient Etruscan treasures from the Lazio and Tuscany regions.

Sculptures of marble heads, a bronze bust of Alexander the Great and bronze statuettes of the gods form part of the collection, which also includes a large terracotta statue of a seated goddess holding a dove and a pomegranate.

Rome claims the 700 disputed items were excavated illegally (EPA) Rome claims the 700 disputed items were excavated illegally (EPA)
“For all this archaeological material, neither Symes nor the liquidators have the proof of provenience or the legal documents allowing them into the UK,” Mr Fiorilli said, adding that Symes was believed to have destroyed many documents relating to the objects. The Italian lawyers believe they have presented documentary evidence that proves the origin of the objects. “The twin of one of the vases is in a public collection here. You cannot contest some of these objects’ provenance,” Mr Fiorilli said.

Initially, relations were cordial as Italy sent over archaeologists to study the collection, with help from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. As a mark of cultural collaboration, Mr Fiorille said, Italy would be willing to lend some of the objects to interested institutions in the UK.

“We want to provide a sign that our interest isn’t economic, it’s an interest in protection of our culture. In protecting that culture we still want collaboration. We hope the UK Government behaves accordingly,” he said.

Christos Tsirogiannis, an archaeologist who helped the Greek government with its own investigation into the Symes collection, described the affair as a “scandal for the British Government”. He told The Art Newspaper: “It would be good to have official announcements from all the governments concerned about the Symes case, so everyone can learn the whole truth about the key questions: why are the objects identified by the Italian state not being sent to Italy? Are the other governments concerned claiming any objects too? If so, how many and which are they?”

The Italian lawyers are understood to have become concerned recently by rumours that the liquidators may have looked to sell off the objects. Yet BDO insisted that it would “not take steps to sell antiquities subject to claims by third parties”. A spokeswoman for the company said: “The joint liquidators do not intend to comment on their activities in the liquidation, nor on their dialogue with any parties expressing an interest in the liquidation proceedings.”

Today was the ninth anniversary of Symes being sentenced to two years in jail. His fall from grace was written up the 2006 book The Medici Conspiracy by investigative journalist Peter Watson.

It traced the network of those illicitly raiding archaeological sites and those who were allegedly involved in selling them on. Symes had lived with his partner Mr Michaelides since the 1970s, with a house in London, flats in New York and Athens and a property on the Greek island of Schinoussa.

After Mr Michaelides died, questions about the provenance of objects in the Symes collection surfaced. In 2008, Bonhams auction house had to withdraw a disputed item from sale. Two years later, Italian police recovered 337 antiquities worth more than €15m from Symes in Geneva, where he had emigrated following his release from jail.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea