Bonhams and Christie’s were also forced to pull smaller objects from their March sales this year, after they were alleged to have passed through the hands of two notorious antiquities smugglers, Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina. Both had been convicted of trafficking in looted objects, for which Medici was sentenced to 10 years in prison and paid a 10m euro fine – the largest ever imposed for such a crime by Italian prosecutors. Polaroid photos of an immense cache of objects in his Swiss warehouse apparently identified a second or first century BC jug offered for £4,000-£6,000 ($6,700-$10,000) at Christie’s, and a third century pottery pyxis (cosmetic pot) offered for £3,000-£5,000 ($5,000-$8,400) at Bonhams. Earlier this year, the US government seized a $4m (£2.4m) ancient Roman statue in a New York warehouse – it too had passed through Becchina’s hands.
Morland was heir to a Quaker dynasty that made a fortune turning sheepskins into coats, and lived a gilded youth: his father was a renowned physician and his mother was a key figure in the modern art world, friend of George Orwell and Henry Moore. At 6ft 3in tall, good looking and well connected, Morland skied for England, had a beautiful wife and children, a des-res in south-west London, a farmhouse in Malta and the world at his feet.
In March 2014, Bonhams withdrew a 2,000-year old Assyrian stele estimated at £600,000-£800,000 ($1m-$1.3m) and which was slated for auction on 3 April. The broken stone slab depicting a praying king – and containing a curse in cuneiform which would fall on anyone removing it from its site – was suspected of being looted from eastern Syria at an unknown date. The top half of the slab has been in the British Museum since the late 19th Century. Bonhams says that its piece was withdrawn for “further study”.