To be sure, not every work of art legitimately on the market has an extensive paper trail; however, every work of art that was recently looted will certainly lack documentation. Diligent buyers should be attuned to those gaps, particularly for high-value objects, and do their best to verify anecdotal information through independent research. Even if there is no specific record of a work of art, its ownership history may be supported by circumstantial evidence, such as the collecting habits of previous owners, the provenance of comparable objects, or the recollections of trusted experts in the field.
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.