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The Archaeologist Who Hunts For Stolen Art


Last week, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art surrendered a 2,300-year-old Roman vase to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. Prosecutors say the vase was looted from a grave in Italy in the 1970s. Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis is the man who identified the vase. He's a forensic archaeologist and a lecturer with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. He spoke with our guest host Ailsa Chang on Skype.


So how did you first discover that this vase in the Met was an artifact looted from a grave in Italy in the 1970s?

CHRISTOS TSIROGIANNIS: I have granted official access to a confiscated archive of a convicted Italian dealer convicted for antiquities trafficking. And the archive is full of photographs, among which I discovered five depicting this particular object. And by comparing these images with the image that was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, I identified that it is the same object.

CHANG: How can you know for certain?

TSIROGIANNIS: That's my job.

CHANG: (Laughter).

TSIROGIANNIS: I'm a forensic archaeologist, and I am doing this for more than 10 years now, identifying 1,100 of antiquities in the same actual way.

CHANG: Eleven hundred stolen antiquities you have identified?


CHANG: Why is this vase so important?

TSIROGIANNIS: This vase is so important - and as important as every looted antiquity is - because it's being stripped by any information, historical and archaeological, forever. We do not and will never know anything about its owner. There is no history anymore.

CHANG: So a large number of countries have signed a UNESCO treaty to restrict the trafficking of looted artifacts. But there have been a few cases recently that show trafficking is still happening. How prevalent is it, do you think?

TSIROGIANNIS: In fact, museums, private collections, auction houses and dealers, galleries ignored, practically, this convention and continued to trade in illicit objects. When, furthermore, they continue to ignore the evidence, then the problem becomes even bigger.

CHANG: How common do you think it is for museums to ignore attempts by members of the public or authorities to alert them about the stolen nature of antiquities that they acquire?

TSIROGIANNIS: Well, I can talk only for myself, from my experience. The Metropolitan Museum was the worst case. They never replied while I was waiting for more than three years.

CHANG: So an investigator like you might be able to figure out whether a particular dealer has sold a stolen artifact. But even then, it can be a challenge to find an actual artifact. Right?

TSIROGIANNIS: Absolutely. It can take years for an object to surface. And therefore, for me, it is vital to always have my antennas wide open in order to see whether they have surfaced or I still have to wait.

CHANG: Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, thank you very much for joining us.

TSIROGIANNIS: Thank you very much for inviting me.


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