legal threats by convicted criminals (and family members) against expert witnesses in antiquities cases

On the 26th of July 2018, a court in Greece judged that Despina Papadimitriou and Dimitri Papadimitriou were guilty of “embezzlement of monuments” or “misappropriation of monuments” (υπεξαίρεση μνημείων) in the Schinoussa case, which originated in an investigation into trading by Papadimitriou family relative Christo Michaelides. When convicted, Despina and Dimitri were given suspended sentences of four years’ imprisonment.

On the 27th, forensic archaeologist and expert witness Christos Tsirogiannis was sent a letter by Bird and Bird LLP, the legal representatives of deceased Christo Michaelides’s sister Despina Papadimitriou, nephew Dimitri Papadimitriou, nephew Alexander Papadimitriou and niece Angeliki Papadimitriou (the Papadimitriou family).
Marianne Mödlinger, from the Committee on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Material of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), shared the letter. She observed that it was ‘obviously seeking to intimidate the witness‘. Seemingly, the implied action would anyway struggle to justifiably infringe upon judicial proceedings immunity, the absolute privilege of court proceedings under the Defamation Act.


The judgement was passed by the Three-Member Criminal Appeals Court or Three-Member Court of Appeals (Τριμελές Εφετείο Κακουργημάτων) in Athens. It serves as a court of first instance (πρωτοβάθμιο δικαστήριο) for certain felonies (κακουργήματα), ‘primarily crimes against property and estate, as well as cases of trafficking of drugs [κυρίως εγκλήματα κατά της ιδιοκτησίας και της περιουσίας καθώς και υποθέσεις εμπορίας ναρκωτικών]’.

As relayed by Documento journalist Katerina Kati, they were originally indicted because they had ‘illegally appropriated ancient monuments… by profession and by habit [ιδιοποιήθηκαν παράνομα αρχαία μνημεία… κατ’ επάγγελμα και κατά συνήθεια]’; the objects encompassed ‘cultural goods that trace[d] to prehistoric, ancient, Byzantine and post-Byzantine times up until 1830 [πολιτιστικά αγαθά που ανάγονται στους προϊστορικούς, αρχαίους, βυζαντινούς και μεταβυζαντινούς χρόνους έως και το 1830]’.

As stated in the order (βούλευμα) that sent the case to trial, there was ‘an aim of generation of income and a constant propensity towards the commission of the crime, which [was] directed against the state, of the embezzlement of monuments as an element of their personality [σκοπός για πορισμό εισοδήματος και σταθερή ροπή προς τη διάπραξη του εγκλήματος, που στρέφεται κατά του Δημοσίου, της υπεξαίρεσης μνημείων ως στοιχείο της προσωπικότητάς τους]’. (This is a more literal translation than ARCA’s one, for easier comparison.)

As recorded by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), 69 antiquities, which had been seized among a total of 152 cultural objects in family residences in Schinoussa and Athens in 2006, were officially confiscated. Likewise, other potentially incriminating evidence – the “Schinoussa archive” of 17 albums with 2,191 photographs of 995 absent objects, which had been handled by Christo Michaelides and his partner Robin Symes, who traded as Robin Symes Limited – remain in the possession of the authorities in Greece.

When the president of the court queried whether the defendants ‘ought… to know [Θα έπρεπε… να το ξέρουν]’ that some of the objects in the photographs were ‘clearly illegal [ξεκάθαρα παράνομη]’, Tsirogiannis observed that ‘some [were] depicted in a miserable condition, e.g. they [were] covered in soil, hurriedly put together [Κάποια απεικονίζονται σε άθλια κατάσταση, π.χ. είναι καλυμμένα με χώμα, συναρμολογημένα βιαστικά]’. And soil is an established indicator of looting. ‘They were products of looting. It [was] not necessary to be some specialist to understand that something was happening. Stolen artefacts were found in Schinoussa too. [Ηταν προϊόντα λαθρανασκαφής. Δεν χρειάζεται να είναι κάποιος ειδικός για να καταλάβει ότι κάτι συνέβαινε…. Στη Σχοινούσα βρέθηκαν και κλεμμένα αντικείμενα.]’


Unfortunately, Bird and Bird LLP do not directly quote any of the allegedly defamatory statements or present any of the allegedly exculpatory evidence, so it is impossible to judge any of the claims. However, some of their claims and requests appear to be imprecise or peculiar – or impossible.

For example, in their first example, Bird and Bird complain: ‘You stated that our clients were connoisseurs of the international trade of antiquities. This is not correct. Our clients do not and have never traded in antiquities.’ “Connoisseur” does not mean “trader”. Connoisseurship – ‘expert judge[ment] in matters of taste‘ – does not mean much at all in relation to international trade.

As reported by Kati, Tsirogiannis stated that ‘the accused [were] known in the international trade in antiquities and they ought to [have] know[n] the related legislation [Οι κατηγορούμενοι είναι γνώστες του διεθνούς εμπορίου αρχαιοτήτων και οφείλουν να γνωρίζουν τη σχετική νομοθεσία]’. Like another expert witness, forensic archaeologist Panayiotis Chatzidakis, he was understandably incredulous, since ‘villagers hurry to make a declaration of possession when they find something in their field; it doesn’t happen that they do not know what every illiterate citizen knows [χωρικοί σπεύδουν να κάνουν δήλωση κατοχής όταν βρίσκουν κάτι στο χωράφι τους, δεν γίνεται να μη γνωρίζουν αυτό που γνωρίζει ο κάθε αγράμματος πολίτης]’.

In fact, this was a response to an observation by the president of the court: ‘they have shipping companies [Ναυτιλιακές εταιρείες έχουν]’. Tsirogiannis noted that there were court records (τα πρακτικά των δικαστηρίων) from the Symes case in England, which documented family possession of a private collection (ιδιόκτητη συλλογή) and knowledge (γνώσεις) of the antiquities trade. He also noted that ‘they did not have documents of legal origins and export [for them] to be safeguarded on the basis of international conventions and national legislation [Δεν είχαν ούτε παραστατικά νόμιμης προέλευσης και εξαγωγής προς διασφάλισή τους βάσει των διεθνών συμβάσεων και της εθνικής νομοθεσίας]’. Indeed, some might suggest that people who have shipping companies might be expected to have better-than-average knowledge of standards for documentation of the origins and handling of commodities.

In their second example (and in other examples in other words), Bird and Bird object to alleged ‘inference’ by Tsirogiannis, yet the objection appears to involve inference by Bird and Bird. It also asserts ‘the fact that a party may have provided a guarantee for a loan to a business does not impute them with dealing in that business’, which may strain credulity in discussion of a guarantee for a loan to one member of a family by one (or more) other(s).

In their sixth example, Bird and Bird petition: ‘You stated that you had cross referenced 744 out of the 1314 in the albums and that 95.1% were of illegal origin and the balance of 4.9% you had doubts as to their origin. Please provide a full list of all items where you state that they are of illegal origin with evidence.’

As Tsirogiannis explained years ago, in conversation with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA),

One thing that is important to understand is that these three archives (Medici, Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides) containing Polaroids, photographs and receipts, were obtained by the Greek and Italian states. Therefore, this material belongs to those countries and aids them in prosecuting these cases and in recovering objects from museums and auction houses. They are not my property and, thus, it is not my right to publish them.

Secondly, it is possible that if these archives (Medici, Becchina, Symes) were published online, then those people who have the objects – either in their homes or in the basements of museums – may want to avoid being accused of purchasing stolen antiquities and would either sell those items to collectors who do not care about their collecting history – or possibly destroy those objects to avoid confiscation or arrests.

In their eighth example, Bird and Bird request: ‘You stated that auction houses have, since the 2nd World War, knowingly and systematically been selling objects without proper and legal provenance but with non-existent or forged papers and you further said “especially Christies” [sic – Christie’s]. As you know, 4 works of art were bought at Christie’s which form part of the subject matter before the Greek Court. However, you stated that 3 of these pieces were fine and not illegally acquired. In relation to the Roman Marble Aesculapius you made no comment…. Given your statement about auction houses, please confirm unequivocally whether you are saying that the Roman Marble Aesculapius was illegally acquired, whether its provenance papers were forged, non-existent and/or whether Christie’s lied as to this object.’

(Το έχει εξηγήσει και στα ελλνικά, αν κι αυτό είναι πρόσφατο παράδειγμα.)

As they do in other examples, Bird and Bird switch from inference about statements to solicitation of statements. In this case, they are dissatisfied precisely because Tsirogiannis has refrained from inference. Again like forensic archaeologist Panayiotis Chatzidakis, where he had evidence of legal handling, he confirmed that legal handling in court and so defended the Papadimitrious from any undue inference of illegal handling. Where he had no evidence, he made no comment. It seems peculiar to complain of malicious conduct by expert witnesses who exonerate the defendants wherever possible.

Indeed, from Kati’s report, it appears that Tsirogiannis was not even asked to comment on the legality of the objects that he identified as legal, by either the prosecution or the defence. He volunteered the information, when he was asked to explain the difference between omission of declaration (παράλειψη δήλωσης) and embezzlement (υπεξαίρεση), by the prosecutor.

This contradicts Bird and Bird’s ludicrous and provocative allegations that Tsirogiannis has acted ‘recklessly’ for ‘malicious purposes’, with a ‘drive and determination to cause harm’, because he is ‘obsessed with seeking to injure our clients’.

As Tsirogiannis has stated to Mödlinger, ‘[he has] done [his] duty as a Greek citizen, as an archaeologist and as a witness to the truth. [He] reserve[s] every legal right related to this case.’

an aside on overturning verdicts

To state the obvious, I am not a lawyer; this is not an expert opinion; I am merely trying to understand the letter. I am intrigued that Bird and Bird insist (or perhaps offer): ‘If it is your position that the Ministry of Culture and/or Prosecutor required you to make statements that you knew were false, [or where] you were reckless as to whether they were false, we require you to say so unequivocally.’

Knowledge of or reckless disregard for wrongdoing are states of mind that are necessary for the wrongdoer to be an offender. This appears to relate to extenuating circumstances for perverting the course of justice, specifically for perjury by a prosecution witness. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) advise that, ‘[i]f a wrongful conviction is believed to have occurred because of the perjured evidence, a prosecution should follow, unless there are exceptional circumstances. If the witness has lied to protect his or her own interests rather than with an intent to pervert the course of justice, a prosecution may be unnecessary.’

So, it appears that Tsirogiannis could create an opportunity for Bird and Bird to overcome the obstacle of judicial proceedings immunity by making a case for malicious prosecution. Tsirogiannis could free himself from the legal threat of defamation proceedings, by accusing the Ministry of Culture and/or the Prosecutor of acting ‘recklessly’ for ‘malicious purposes’, with a ‘drive and determination to cause harm’ to the Papadimitriou family, because the state of Greece is ‘obsessed with seeking to injure’ Bird and Bird’s clients.

Although the descriptions of the processes and even the processes may vary between the United Kingdom and Greece, such an accusation would suggest that the court had reached an unsafe verdict and that the Papadimitrious had been wrongfully convicted. Presumably, ultimately, they would be acquitted. Their conviction would be overturned or quashed.

an aside on threatening behaviour

Separate from this and other cases, I have been trying to compile cases of legal threats to cultural heritage workers. Another problem is threatening behaviour.

Red Pepper noted that ‘looting of antiquities and stolen works of art are cases that are associated with great interests [Η αρχαιοκαπηλία και τα κλεμμένα έργα τέχνης είναι υποθέσεις που συνδέονται με μεγάλα συμφέροντα]’ and asked if Tsirogiannis had ‘ever received threats in the course of an investigation [Δεχθήκατε ποτέ απειλές κατά τη διάρκεια μιας έρευνας]’.

He stated that he had ‘been threatened only by telephone and anonymously, and only while [he] was living in Greece [Έχω απειληθεί μόνον τηλεφωνικώς και ανωνύμως, και μόνον όσο ζούσα στη Ελλάδα]’. He had ‘never faced the slightest problem abroad, at least until now [Ουδέποτε έχω αντιμετωπίσει το παραμικρό πρόβλημα στο εξωτερικό, τουλάχιστον μέχρι τώρα]’.


5 Responses to “legal threats by convicted criminals (and family members) against expert witnesses in antiquities cases”

  1. Reblogged this on HARN Weblog.


  2. once you start inferring that people must have seen this [the photo files] or must have known that [the antiquities laws] you are treading on dangerous can never be prooved what they did or didnt know ,or what they had seen or didnt see,christos should have stuck to the facts and not opened himself up to litigation by these people.i have sympathy for him,he is pasionate about putting a stop to antiquites looting and the ilegal trade but these are powefull people with deep sure we havent heard the end of this.


  3. Kyri experts are asked in court to give opinions all the time. Oral testimony by witnesses are directed by counsel under the control of the judges, and is subject to cross-examination by opposing counsel as well as (if warranted) questions by the court.
    It was up to the family’s defense lawyer to object (in court) during the oral cross-examination of the expert/witness if he/she found the experts remarks to be overreaching. In any case the court is not bound by the conclusions drawn by the expert, and should weigh testimony based on the evidence provided.



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