A collection of Roman sculptures that was due to be sold at Bonhams auction house in London yesterday has been withdrawn amid concerns that the statues may have originally been illegally excavated.
The concerns were raised by Cambridge researcher and archaeologist, Christos Tsirogiannis and Dr David Gill from Swansea University. Bonhams's lot 137 – a first or second century AD Roman marble figure of a youth – was sold at Sotheby's in 1986, according to Bonhams in the object's collecting history.
In his Looting Matters blog, Dr Gill compares a polaroid photo taken of one of the statues illegally trafficked by the antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, with the marble figure withdrawn from Bonhams's sale. It appears - almost beyond reasonable doubt - that the statue sold in 1986 as lot 287, lot 137 withdrawn from Bonhams this week, and the looted statue that passed through Medici's hands, are all one and the same.
As Dr Gill puts it: "The issue is why didn't Bonhams suspect this sale?"
Dalya Alberge in the Guardian reports that police have seized photos of four sculptures, which include the marble statue of the youth and three Roman busts, and that Bonhams is now conducting an internal investigation into the history of the items.
The paper also quotes Lord Renfrew, a noted British archaeologist who is vociferous on the subject, as saying: “Such sales are maintaining London's reputation as a clearing house for looted antiquities.”
While objects up for sale at Bonhams are checked against the Art Loss Register (a database of stolen artworks including antiquities), this register does not provide information on antiquities that have been illegally excavated and removed from the ground.
In 2008 Bonhams withdrew 10 lots from an auction 24 hours before the sale was to go ahead after the Italian government raised questions over the provenance of the Roman artefacts.
Question marks remains over the due diligence carried out by Bonhams if looted antiquities are able slip through the net and onto its catalogues. The other three sculptures that were withdrawn from yesterday's sale are three Roman funerary busts that, according to Looting Matters, were once part of the archive of disgraced art dealer Robin Symes, who was jailed in 2005 and whose name has been linked to Giacomo Medici.
Giacomo Medici's fall from grace has been documented in the book The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini.