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Christie's Antiquities sale was part of its Classic Week series taking place online between June 2-19.

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The items (in a sale that closed on June 16 as part of the Classic Week series) are believed to be mentioned in documents relating to Gianfranco Becchina, a dealer convicted in Greece of illegal trading.

The Becchina files are held by the Italian or Greek authorities, and by the academic Prof Christos Tsirogiannis, but auction houses and dealers do not have access to them.

Excluded from review

In a statement Christie’s said: “It continues to frustrate us that we remain excluded from reviewing helpful archives as part of our pre-sale activities. We wish to consult all relevant information but these archives are still unavailable to us, as they are to other responsible market players.”

Prof Tsirogiannis, who has a copy of the documents following time working with officials on the issue of looted antiquities, argues the trade should contact the authorities with every antiquity they plan to offer. “The solution for the auction houses and dealers is to send to the relevant state bodies of Italy and Greece images of the objects they want to offer for sale, well before they even compile the sale catalogue. This is the only, straightforward and honest way of action for the market,” he said.

However, Christie’s argues this is impractical. “In respect of approaching these archives with specific queries for checking, this suggests we would only ask questions when we think there may be a problem. We already check everything against the Art Loss Register, and co-operate fully with regional authorities, Interpol and the FBI if issues are raised or we have an enquiry.

“This process works well and within the time frame required by the market. We struggle to understand why that same process cannot be used with these archives with those that hold them.”

Joanna van der Lande, chairman at the Antiquities Dealers’ Association, echoed Christie’s disquiet: “Auction houses and dealers do not have access to these privately held documents.

“Generally, antiquities identified from these documents have changed hands multiple times in the past 30-plus years.

“No practical solutions have been made to address compensation to good-faith owners or what should happen to these unsaleable ‘orphan’ antiquities.”