The Becchina case – or: a footnote to practical aspects of the return of cultural property

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by Ursula Kampmann
translated by Annika Backe

August 27, 2015 – Gianfranco Becchina is a legend – to gourmets. At his luxurious country estate, he produces one of Italy’s most famous olive oils, of which star chefs sing choruses of praise. Less praiseworthy is Becchina’s past, however. He seems to have acted as head of a wide ring of smugglers. He defrauded thousands of customers by pretending that the antiquities he sold through his Basel-based gallery Palladion had a legal provenance. They did not. From the looks of it, many items were quite recently retrieved from the soil while others have been stolen from Italian museums. It seems that there is damning evidence. It seems – this is an important thing to emphasize, in order to be legally correct. After all, the Italian courts have not yet reached a final verdict. The Italian law generously allows the country’s master villains to appeal a conviction again and again, until, finally, their crimes become time-barred. That is what happened in the Becchina case. He remained in custody for six months only. Today he is living the life of an honorable citizen at his country estate.

While Italian justice is conspicuous by its remarkable leniency, the “Tutela Patrimonio Culturale” is on the hunt. It addressed a mutual assistance request to the Swiss police, to the effect that the storage rooms of the gallery Palladion in Basel were searched. The find comprised 6,315 ancient objects as well as a dossier of nearly 8,000 photographs and 13,000 documents with Becchina’s detailed recordings of his actions. It was like an investigator’s wish come true because it was finally possible to hunt all those who had bought from Becchina and who had been defrauded in regards to the provenance of the acquired items.

The museums and collectors that have been cheated by Becchina suffer from a massive damage to their reputation which can only be averted by those who return the art works in dispute voluntarily and without any financial compensation. The level of penalty for Becchina’s wife, Ursula-Marie Becchina, owner of the gallery and privy to all matters related to the business, is likewise comparatively low. Because of the statutes of limitation and lack of evidence, the proceedings have been stopped in December 2014. She was sentenced to pay for parts of the proceedings: 40,000 francs from the total amount of roughly 200,000 francs. Apparently, she has not yet paid. The 40,000 francs are now at the heart of a new travesty of justice, or should we say ‘tragedy’.

It was not possible to ascertain the nation of provenance of 1,278 of the seized objects. No state is actually making a claim which is why the authorities intended to return the items to Ursula-Marie Becchina. Theoretically speaking, she would then be entitled to legally sell them. It is not hard to imagine what the media would say about a buyer who had acquired such an object – probably without knowing because hardly any collector would desire an object with a provenance like this.

Don’t worry. The Becchina material is not yet on the market because the Basel-based Debt Enforcement Office, the Swiss equivalent to a bailiff, confiscated the 1,278 antiques, in order to clear the 40,000 francs debt.

What is next? Well, that remains to be seen. There is one problem, however. Considering that no state could have been ascertained as the objects’ owner so far, it does not seem very likely that the Swiss Federal Office of Culture’s attempts will prove successful in the very near future. Besides, debt enforcement offices usually liquidate seized items by selling them at an auction. Are we to expect a state-legitimized auction of the Becchina estate then? That would be morally questionable, to say the least.

This case, too, serves as a marvelous proof of the unwillingness and, most of all, the incompetence of authorities when it comes to punish the true wrongdoers. Contrary to Gianfranco Becchina who enjoys the proceeds of his activities, the dealers who bought from his gallery may be sentenced to imprisonment up to 3 years, while the collectors may have to accept the confiscation of an acquired object without any financial compensation – when the new German legislation will be accepted as it was drafted.

As the saying goes, the little fish get caught, and the big ones get away with it.

There are many reports of the activities of Becchina in the English media,
for example in The Guardian and MailOnline.

However, the English press has not yet reported on the return of the 1,278 objects and the intervention of the Basel Debt Enforcement Office.