A Double Seizure of Antiquities at TEFAF 2020. An Interview with the Experts, Officer Bouwknegt and Professor Tsirogiannis

Last March, before the sudden lockdown due to the Corona-Virus alarm, the TEFAF Art Fair in Maastricht had already undergone a minor drawback when the Dutch National Police had seized two ancient artefacts after the customary vetting procedure

Thanks to our respective collaboration with the NETcher European Project[1], the Journal of Cultural Heritage Crime have had the great pleasure and opportunity of interviewing two of the experts directly involved in the seizure process at TEFAF 2020.

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Officer Léonie Bouwknegt has been working as an Operational Specialist for the Dutch National Police, Unit Limburg, for more than twenty years. In the past seven years, she especially focused her activity on Art-related crimes.

-Officer Bouwknegt, would you tell us something more about the operations conducted by the Dutch National Police at TEFAF in Maastricht?

B.: Last year I joined the international network of experts on illicit trade in cultural goods called NETcher. Given the cooperation with archaeologists all over the world, we decided to organize a special operation to take place during this year vetting process at TEFAF. I coordinated the action together with my colleague, Frank Assendelft. On Wednesday, March 4th 2020, we were present at TEFAF assisted by the consultants of our Central Police Department of Art and Antiquities Crimes. Our purpose was to take the best possible photos and videos of everything displayed by the stands-holders of the TEFAF Antiquities section. So, we took pictures not only of the archaeological objects but also of the attached documentation (provenance, reports, etc.). We then asked various archaeologists and experts of our network to have a proper look at the pictures taken during the operation.


NETcher Training Programme in Lyon, February 2020 (photo credits: NETcher)

And here Christos Tsirogiannis, currently Associate Professor and Researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of Aarhus (Denmark), comes to the scene.

-Professor Tsirogiannis, could you explain in which capacity you were involved, at this point, in the control operations at TEFAF?

T.: I am a forensic archaeologist, an expert in the antiquities market, and a researcher of illicit antiquities trafficking networks. I was invited by Officer Bouwknegt to cooperate in researching the antiquities presented at the 2020 TEFAF exhibition, as well as their provenances. I had already met Officer Bouwknegt in Lyon, in February, during the NETcher Provenance and Traceability Training Programme, where I had been invited to teach. Ms Bouwknegt attended the course along with other police officers and provenance researchers from various countries. Thus, I gladly accepted the invitation of the Dutch police and offered my work for free, as I usually do in such instances when I help police and judicial authorities around the world. I checked the images taken by the police against the confiscated archives of notorious and convicted antiquities dealers, to which I have official access from state authorities. I also reconstructed the true provenance of the pieces, where needed.

-And what did you find out? What kind of red flags raised your suspicions?

T.: I was able to identify two of the TEFAF objects, a monumental alabaster Egyptian vase and a marble protome of Apollo, in the aforementioned confiscated archives of notorious antiquities dealers. Nonetheless, their names were not included in the provenance stated on the accompanying labels nor in the catalogues presented by the dealers at TEFAF, as should have been the case. Another significant red flag was the lack of proof of the legal origin of these two objects, which should have also been made available by the dealers.


Alabaster Egyptian vase, Maastricht, TEFAF 2020 (photo credits: Dutch National Police)

-So, Officer Bouwknegt, what happened next? How did you, as Dutch police, proceed?

B.: In the days after sending the pictures to our network of experts, we received several reactions. On Wednesday, March 11th 2020, Professor Tsirogiannis contacted me: he had recognized an object. It was a ‘Head of Apollo‘ that he had previously seen among the photos of Gianfranco Becchina’s archive, seized by the Italian Carabinieri in 2001. Apparently, during the vetting process at TEFAF, the gallery offering this ‘Head of Apollo‘ had not disclosed as provenance the compromised name of Becchina or that of his Swiss art gallery Palladion Antike Kunst, in Basel.
The next day he contacted me again for a second identification. This time, his attention had been caught by an Egyptian vase on sale at another TEFAF stand. He had recognized this vase from a photo of the so-called ‘Schinoussa archive‘ seized by the Greek police in 2006 during a raid at the Summer estate of the art dealers couple, Robin Symes and Christo Michaelides. From the pictures taken at TEFAF, it appeared that the art gallery involved did not state as provenance the names of Symes and Michaelides. According to Professor Tsirogiannis, these names are widely known as infamous by art dealers. So, with all this information, I contacted our District Attorney. She decided that we had gathered sufficient indications of suspicion of forgery by both galleries since they both presented misleading provenances of their objects. As a consequence, we seized the ancient artefacts.


Head of Apollo, Maastricht, TEFAF 2020 (photo credits: Dutch National Police)

-And now? What will happen to the seized objects? Is it possible to identify their country of origin?

T.: Ideally, they should both be returned to their countries of origin. Regarding the monumental Egyptian vase, I have already notified the Egyptian Embassy at the Hague and the Department of Repatriations of Egypt. They both, independently, let me immediately know that they have opened a file on the case and will notify me about any development. As for the protome of Apollo, all the police and cultural authorities in the relevant countries should be notified about its confiscation and should search their archives for any additional proof of origin. The country providing suitable proof will immediately become the claimant country of the object.

B.: Currently, we have asked Interpol to help us gather information from other Law Enforcement Agencies on these objects and the involved galleries. We especially hope to receive more information about the ‘Head of Apollo‘ and where it comes from originally. As for the Egyptian vase, we are already in contact with the Egyptian restitution authorities.

-This sounds like good news! But what if the restitution proved not feasible, what do you think would happen to such cultural property? And how would you -instead- suggest to proceed in this case? 

B.: If restitution is not feasible, the objects will be returned to the galleries. I would very much like the art galleries to be more open about the true ‘history’ of their ancient artefacts. For future sales, I would at least expect that they share honest and transparent information, which means both the geographical provenience and the legal provenance of the objects.

T.: In any case, I will publish an academic article on the actual provenance of both objects with the relevant photographic evidence. So, the public will be notified and will have constant access to such information through my academia.edu webpage, as I always do. For example, I published two other cases that I worked on regarding the art fairs TEFAF 2018 in New York and TEFAF 2019 in Maastricht. This will be more than enough to make the objects valueless for the antiquities market and to urge the very market to act more ethically and law-abiding in the future.


Head of Apollo, Maastricht, TEFAF 2020 (photo credits: Dutch National Police)

-So, what about the consequences to be faced by the art dealers and galleries involved?

B.: Currently, we are conducting our criminal investigation.

T.: Ideally, a message of absolutely no tolerance should be given, legally speaking. After all, we are in 2020, and an end to any illicit market should be put. Promises were always made by the antiquities market in the past, but we need actions, no more words. I am committed to helping the authorities of any country determined to act. It is about time for the market to act responsibly, otherwise, these cases will continue to emerge, our common heritage will continue to be looted and trafficked, and potential buyers will continue to be totally unprotected.

-A very last question to Officer Bouwknegt. Did the TEFAF organizers collaborate with law enforcement during the operation? Are they going to improve their due diligence and vetting process?

B.: The TEFAF organization has been, as always, very cooperative. We were invited as National Dutch Police to join the fair during the vetting period and to act on whatever we found necessary. The organization preaches more trust and transparency within the trade, so their doors are always open to Government authorities. Nonetheless, they were less pleased about the media attention that the two seizures generated.
We have now agreed on having an evaluation meeting with the TEFAF’s Head of Vetting after the Corona-Virus crisis has passed. We are willing to share our findings so that we can jointly examine whether and how to prevent this practice for the coming years.

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I thank Officer Bouwknegt and Professor Tsirogiannis for kindly having accepted to share such interesting details about the seizure at TEFAF in Maastricht. This important operation clearly shows the relevance of the cooperation between law enforcement and cultural heritage experts in tackling the illicit trade in ancient artefacts. Hopefully, the art and antiquities market will be featured more and more frequently as another virtuous partner in the game.


[1] NETcher is a Social Platform for Cultural Heritage with the purpose of establishing an international network of law enforcement members and archaeologists fighting the illicit trade in cultural property.



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