In August 2004, Christos Tsirogiannis got a message that would change his life. Would he be interested in accompanying the Athens police on a raid? It might not seem like a job for an archaeologist, but police told him they might need his expertise once they got there. He agreed, got in an unmarked SUV, and headed with police to a monastery outside the city.
It turned out that monks had been hiding hundreds of improperly registered antiquities—but the most memorable part of the night came when Tsirogiannis, who grew up amid ancient treasures in the historic region of Thrace, in northeastern Greece, began chatting with the police officers after the arrests had been made. They told him they regularly conducted antiquities raids, but until that night, they’d never found an archaeologist willing to accompany them.
Tsirogiannis’ career as a forensic archaeologist—an archaeologist who builds criminal cases against smugglers, looters, dealers and institutions that purchase or hold illegal antiquities—began that night.
Since then, the 44-year-old archaeologist says he’s identified over 1,100 illicit antiquities in 13 years on the job. By carefully tracking and documenting the histories of ancient artifacts, he sheds light on how even the most respected institutions can trade in illegal art. Take the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where an ancient vase was seized in 2017 by the New York District Attorney’s office on suspicion it had been stolen. Tsirogiannis built that case—and one over a vase on sale in a Manhattan art gallery that had been stolen and sold to the gallery by a notorious trafficker. And over four antique objects purchased by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which were repatriated to Greece after Tsirogiannis discovered they were looted.
It’s not easy: Each case can involve thousands of documents and hundreds of hours of work. Under a 1970 United Nations treaty signed by 131 states, antiquities dealers must keep records of where cultural heritage objects came from, who sold them, and how much was paid, and those records must date back to at least 1970.
That’s fine in theory, but in practice it’s relatively easy to hide an object’s origin. Art crime is widespread, pervasive and overlooked by most, Tsirogiannis says—and the market for antiquities is particularly corrupt. “It’s all about money and possessing ancient treasures and showing off, and making more money, and buying more antiquities, and showing more off,” he says.
Looters clean up antiquities and pay for fake documents, and smugglers launder documents or hide or destroy evidence. Every once in a while, shady antiquities traders’ own documentation of their fraudulent activities is discovered, as when Italian police discovered a stash of paperwork and photographs of thousands of illicit antiquities among the possessions of Giacomo Medici, an antiques dealer convicted of dealing in stolen artifacts in 2004.
Tsirogiannis uses those photos, and others, to supplement his research on each object. The items in Medici’s Polaroids are still being spotted in museums and on the open market and returned to their rightful owners after painstaking research. So far, no institutions have volunteered to make this process easier, by providing photographs and collecting histories of all of the antiquities they own to cultural authorities in the object’s country of origin, to make sure there was no looting or trafficking involved.
“They continue to hold on to their collections waiting for academic researchers or the authorities to identify their objects instead, which is not the ethical way to do it,” he says. Until the research becomes a priority, he warns, the lies will continue and precious cultural heritage will continue to be mistreated and stolen.
Though much of Tsirogiannis’ work happens behind the scenes in a library or office, it occasionally makes headlines. He’s become a thorn in the side of high-end auction houses, many of which have pulled artifacts from auctions at the eleventh hour after claims they were looted. The recent seizure at the Metropolitan Museum was similarly high-profile—and years in the making.
Tsirogiannis smelled a rat when he spotted the vase, a Greek bowl used to mix water and wine, among the Medici Polaroids. The only difference between the two objects was the dirt—while the photo showed a vase encrusted with the dirt and grime of an archaeological dig, the Metropolitan Museum displayed a pristine, clean piece.
But when he started to ask questions, the museum didn’t give answers. It ignored his emails and inquiries about the item’s chain of custody. So, after three years of silence, Tsirogiannis alerted American and Italian authorities.
The museum disputes his version—they say they contacted authorities, but never heard back. But it took a warrant and a confiscation for the vase to finally leave the museum. Now it’s in the hands of Italian authorities, and Tsirogiannis has another victory against the tomb raiders and smugglers who profit from theft and looting.
When Tsirogiannis first began dabbling in forensic archeology, it was something of a labor of love for him. For four years, he clocked in at his job at the Greek Ministries of Culture and Justice in the morning, then went on raids with the police at night. He testified against criminals in his free time. And he did it all without pay or, often, recognition. Soon he decided to focus on forensic archaeology full-time, earning a Ph.D from the University of Cambridge for his research on international antiquities smuggling. Tsirogiannis later became a lecturer at the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art, a Rome-based think tank that studies global trafficking and art crimes, where he remains.
Apart from some anonymous phone calls, he says he’s never been threatened. “If someone is telling the truth, that’s the best protection,” he says. “When the truth is made public, it multiplies. The people who should feel scared and threatened should be the people involved, not the people fighting them.”
So has Tsirogiannis’ brush with archaeology’s seedier side affected the way he views antique objects themselves?
“It ruined forever the joy of first walking into a museum,” he says. Only after doing his research—and ensuring that a collection does not contain trafficked objects—can he enjoy viewing the antiquities he’s devoted his life to saving.
He encourages people to pose the same questions he would when they go into a museum, then pay close attention to the answers provided by curators, gallery owners and others. Where did the artifacts come from? Were they obtained by reputable dealers? Is their provenance openly available? “Truth is simple,” he says. “The lie is deliberately confusing.”