Bloomberg spent some time with Christo Tsirogiannis, the archeologist who keeps a secret database of illegally exported antiquities. Sotheby’s recent lawsuit against the Greek government was sparked by an object Tsirogiannis identified as suspicious. The greek academic claims to have spotted 50 objects and proudly claims to have “disrupted” $10m in sales.
Tsirogiannis makes no money from his vetting of antiquities auctions. He feels the auction houses should be vetting their objects with the governments of the countries that once produced them; the auction houses feel that would be a cumbersome and inefficient process that might open the door to governments cherry-picking objects from sales. Clearly, there’s a need for an honest broker in between who might be paid by the auction houses and dealers to add value to the antiquities market.
Curiously, Tsirogiannis expressed frustration to Bloomberg that he has made no money from his efforts identifying works that might have been sold illicitly. The auction houses are not shy about their frustration that Tsirogiannis keeps his database secret. The profile makes a big show of the lengths he goes in protecting his data:
More than a decade ago, Tsirogiannis started building a secret archive of tens of thousands of Polaroids and other photos from the artifact underground, where illicitly dug pots and statues are laundered as they pass from tomb raiders to smugglers to dealers and then on to museums, collectors, and auction houses. Most of his images were seized in police raids and given to him by prosecutors in Greece and Italy. Working independently, Tsirogiannis matches the photos with objects that surface at auctions or museums and then works to repatriate the pieces. […] Tsirogiannis takes great caution to keep the images from prying eyes. The archive itself—30,000-plus pictures depicting more than 100,000 objects—is a digital one, taking up a half-terabyte on a server in an undisclosed country in the South Pacific, accessed with passwords he changes twice a week. “There is no actual copy with me or in my house or in my working space,” he said.
“His approach has made auction houses and other dealers take due diligence much more seriously,” said David Gill, a professor at the University of Suffolk who specializes in cultural heritage issues and helped supervise Tsirogiannis’s grad work. Sotheby’s contends that the industry’s due diligence would benefit if the archives were made public. “Regrettably, those materials have been and remain at present completely inaccessible—except to one private individual,” it said in a statement. Bonhams has asked for access to the archive, “to assist the rigorous due diligence that we do for each object in our sales,” said spokeswoman Lucinda Bredin.