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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Another Due Diligence Lesson as Becchina Archive Produces U.S. Court Forfeiture of Antiquities from Italy

Yesterday’s order of forfeiture in the case of United States v. One Attic Red-Figure Skyphos and One Apulian Red-Figure Bell Krater (2014-cv-00448 NDNY) provides another example of why dealers and collectors must exercise stringent due diligence when acquiring antiquities.

The case involved the seizure and forfeiture of the two archaeological objects that were alleged to have been the fruits of the Gianfranco Becchina's antiquities trafficking ring. The forfeiture order issued by the federal district court in northern New York resulted from a stipulation between American and Italian authorities to turn over the archaeological material to the Italian people

The U.S. Attorney in Albany filed a seizure and forfeiture complaint this past April when information from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC) revealed that the two antiquities, valued at $55,000 in total, entered America’s border illegally. They were bound from Canada to Christie’s auction house in New York City.

American officials seized the objects from Walter M. Banko Enterprises, Ltd. of Montreal on grounds that they were stolen, smuggled, and clandestinely imported merchandise brought into the U.S. contrary to law pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c)(1)(A). They were first seized in 2011 after the TPC notified HSI that the objects had been taken unlawfully from Italy.

Federal prosecutors alleged in their court complaint that false statements were used to illegally import the antiquities into New York.  They also contended that the artifacts were stolen from Italy, referencing Italian statutes asserting title to the pieces, specifically Italian Law number 364 of 1909 governing the ownership and export of any “unmovable or movable items that have a historic, archaeological, paleontological or artistic interest” and Italian Law number 1089 of 1939 covering “moveable and immoveable property with artistic, historic, archeological or ethnographic value.”

Banko made no legal claim to the items in federal district court for the Northern District of New York. Italy did, however, so that the nation could reclaim the looted artifacts.

The prosecutors claimed that convicted antiquities trafficker Becchina had possession of the skyphos and krater. The lawyers wrote in court papers, “Banko falsely claims on the documentation provided at the time of importation to the United States that the Skyphos was acquired from the Swiss collection of Dr. Elie Borowski in Basel in 1968, adding “Becchina’s warehouse and gallery contained images of the Skyphos and documents referencing the Skyphos dated from 1982….”

Prosecutors further argued in their court complaint that the krater appeared in the Becchina archive, a dossier retrieved in 2001 by Swiss law enforcement officials containing thousands of records and Polaroids cataloging looted antiquities.

The wine vessel was not from any authorized Italian archaeological excavation, the federal lawyers wrote. “In the documents provided by Banko to HSI, Banko indicated that the Krater was acquired in the 1960s from the personal collection of Andre Matton. [Yet] Becchina’s warehouse and gallery contained images of the Krater and documents referencing the Krater dated from 1992….” The attorneys added in some detail,
Documents recovered from the search of Becchina’s gallery and warehouse reveal the occurrence of the following events: in February of 1992, Becchina purchased the Krater, in fragments, from Raffaele Monticelli. On or about October 24, 1992, Becchina delivered the Krater to Ettore Bruno who was to restore the Krater. On or about July 15, 1993, Ettore Bruno sent a photograph of the restored Krater to Becchina. On or about August 10, 1993, Robert Guy answered Becchina regarding the Krater’s attribution and the scientific study of the Krater. Ettore Bruno returned the Krater to Becchina in March of 1994. Becchina paid 8,490 Swiss francs for the restoration of the Krater. On May 1, 1994, Bechina noted that the Krater was then located in his warehouse at Porto Franco di Basilea (Switzerland). 
An export certificate issued by the Ministry of French Culture accompanied the Krater during its exportation from France into Canada on March 10, 2011. The certificate makes no reference to the origin of the Krater and does not provide documentation supporting the Krater’s origins. 
Nowhere on Banko’s shipping documents does Banko say that either of the two defendant properties was acquired from or ever owned by Becchina.
Dealers and collectors should continue to be on the lookout for any other objects linked to the Becchina archive by getting meaningful answers to two basic due diligence questions:

Where did this object come from?
How and when did it get to the United States?

Photo credit: Jason Morrison.
Hat tip: Gary Nurkin

By Rick St. Hilaire Text copyrighted 2010-2014 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Blog url: culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post without the express written consent of CHL is prohibited. Visit www.redarchresearch.org.