Case in Germany has big implications for the antiques trade
WCHICKEN MEMBERS Members of the semi-militarized Civil Guard raided Ricardo Granada’s home in Illueca, a village in northeastern Spain, in 2013, found coins minted by a Celtiberian tribe that once inhabited the area, stored by Grenade in boxes of chocolate. Pellets for old slings were strewn across a television set. There were brooches, ceramics and breastplates – about 4,000 antiques in total, kept in a random fashion. But, noted the prosecutors who ordered the raid, there was no trace of weapons or helmets which, they write, “may have already been sold to third parties.”
Indeed. By that time, at least 18 Celtiberian bronze helmets in very good condition and of untold historical value had reached the antiques market. Seven went to Christian Levett, a British collector. In its museum of classical art in Mougins in the south of France, treasures from antiquity are exhibited alongside works by modern and contemporary artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Damien Hirst.
On September 14, these helmets will be the focus of a hearing in Munich with far-reaching implications for the often murky antique trade. The debate in the art world has so far focused on objects seized by colonial and other looters and kept in large museums, some of which are now returning them to their countries of origin. Objects originating in Europe and purchased by private collectors like Mr. Levett have received much less attention.
In his case, after discovering that the helmets had been looted, he decided to do what few or no individuals had done before: he returned them to the Spanish authorities without demanding compensation or mounting a legal battle to keep them. . “Culturally, ethically and legally,” Mr. Levett said, “I didn’t feel like I had any choice but to return them to the Spanish people.”
Instead, the former hedge fund manager pledged to get his money back from the sellers. The Spanish government organized the return of the helmets during a ceremony in Paris, at the offices of its mission in UNESCO, the UNthe cultural agency of, before flying to Spain aboard an Air Force plane.
In June last year, the Spanish Supreme Court upheld the findings of a lower court that Granada had unearthed the helmets between 1989 and 1990. For more than 30 years, the judges wrote, he had “devoted himself to systematically and exclusively ”to the looting of the Celtiberian necropolis. settlement of Aratis or Arátikos, which was destroyed by the Romans in the first century Before Christ. Only once, when he summoned a mechanical shovel, did the local authorities stop his work. Granada was sentenced to three years in prison. It didn’t matter: he had died four months earlier. An accomplice was 21 months old.
Like Mr. Levett, two Spanish collectors have since returned the helmets they bought to the state. Those bought by Mr. Levett were on display to the public in Zaragoza in July. But he is still poorly paid.
He bought six of the helmets between 2008 and 2009 from a German auction house, Hermann Historica, which acted for the heirs of a renowned collector, Axel Guttmann. At the hearing in Munich next week, Mr. Levett will seek reimbursement of the sale price of € 236,136 ($ 280,000), including commission and shipping costs. “Hermann Historica sold me items that have been proven to have been stolen by a Spanish court,” he says. Two experts in the matter, he notes, affirmed “that these helmets could come only from the particular site where the looters were operating”.
The auction house protests that it acted with as much good faith as Mr. Levett. The helmets came from “one of the best known and most widely published collections in Europe,” explains Stefan Schreyer, Managing Director of Hermann Historica. “The results of [court proceedings] carried out ten years later could of course not be taken into account.
Much could depend on who knew what and when. The provenance of the helmets was questioned as early as 1990 when they were donated to the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz. When the objects reappeared in Hermann Historica’s catalog in 2008, one of the archaeologists at this museum managed to convince prosecutors in Munich to delay the sale. The German authorities notified the Spanish government, which asked the police to recover the helmets. But a Madrid court blocked the operation.
“None of the complaints raised at the time could be justified, the auction was conducted correctly [and] the winning bidders, including the applicant, have become lawful owners on the basis of German law, ”said Mr Schreyer. Many dealers and collectors – and their lawyers – will be extremely keen to see if the Munich court agrees. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Unburied Treasure”