It would be easy to miss Lot 16’s absence from a recent Christie’s sale of arms and armor from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, which closed last year.
According to Le Monde, the missing item from the January 30 sale, held at the house’s New York branch, was a Roman bronze breastplate dating from the Hellenistic period (300 BCE). It was quietly withdrawn by Christie’s earlier this month “as part of ongoing provenance research”.
The item had been offered by British collector Christian Levett as part of a six-part sale by the auction aimed at funding a new museum dedicated solely to women artists.
Greek archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis told the French publication that his research showed that the breastplate belonged to Gianfranco Becchina, a Sicilian antiques dealer based in Basel who was convicted in 2011 for trafficking looted objects.
Tsirogiannis, who heads a working group against illicit antiquities trafficking at UNESCO, discovered in 2007 that Becchina had consigned the breastplate with Sotheby’s for a sale in 1985. The notice at the time did not mention any provenance details. The object ended up in the extensive weapon collection of the German industrialist Axel Guttman before it was resold to Levett in 2010.
“The auction house and the collector had apparently not done all the necessary research ,” Tsirogiannis told Le Monde. “They should have questioned the Italian authorities before putting the collection up for sale.”
Le Monde also reported that retired Roman archaeologists Maurizio Pellegrini and Daniela Rizzo also found traces of the breastplate in Becchina’s archives when they were confiscated by the Italian police in 2002.
This is not the first time Levett has dealt with provenance issues. In 2019, the former commodities trader returned a set of ancient bronze warrior helmets to Spain. Levett had legally purchased the items, made between 400 BCE and 200 BCE, but then learned they had been taken illegally from an archaeological site in a northern part of the country in the 1980s.
According to the Guardian, Levett signed an act of voluntary surrender and worked with the country’s ambassador for the helmets’ return after reading about what happened to them in the Spanish media.
Christie’s did not respond to ARTnews‘s request for comment.