Showing posts with label illicit antiquities. Show all posts
Showing posts with label illicit antiquities. Show all posts

October 13, 2017

Seizure - archaic marble torso of a calf bearer from the collection of Michael Steinhardt

In further identifications connected to the recent seizure and pending repatriation of a Lebanese marble bull's head, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos through the New York authorities has issued another warrant on October 10, 2017 requesting the seizure of a second antiquity also believed to have been plundered from Lebanon during its civil war.

This object, an archaic marble torso of a calf bearer, was also acquired by William and Lynda Beierwaltes and then sold to New York collector Michael H. Steinhardt, in 2015. 

Steinhardt's collecting has come under scrutiny in the past.

The seizure warrant states that the described property constitutes evidence, and tends to demonstrate the crime of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree.  

Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in Second Degree – NY Penal Law 165.52

A person is found guilty of criminal possession of stolen property in the second degree when he knowingly possesses stolen property, with intent to benefit himself or a person other than an owner thereof or to impede the recovery by an owner thereof, and when the value of the property exceeds fifty thousand dollars.

Criminal possession of stolen property in the second degree is a class C non violent felony in New York.  

The warrant document further authorises law enforcement personnel to videotape and photograph the interior of Michael H. Steinhardt's 5th avenue apartment as well as grants them permission to review stored electronic communications, data, information, and images contained in computer disks, CD Roms, and hard drives. 

A copies of the public domain record filed with New York County on this case can be found in the case review files on ARCA's website here



Lynda and William Beierwaltes against Directorate General of Antiquities of the Lebanese Republic and the District Attorney of New York County - Notice of Voluntary Dismissal


Pursuant to F.R.C.P. 41(a)(1)(A)(i) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 
the case involving plaintiffs William and Lynda Beierwaltes and a Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE) filed with the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has been voluntarily dismissed with prejudice.

Copies of the public domain records on this case, including this Notice of Voluntary Dismissal written on October 11, 2017, can be found in the case review files on ARCA's website here. 


October 12, 2017

Pending Repatriation: The Illicit Passages of a Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE)


Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE),
 (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
On Wednesday, through lawyer, William G. Pearlstein, collectors William and Lynda Beierwaltes released a formal statement on the Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE) seized by the New York District Attorney’s office on July 06, 2017 while on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art over suspicions that the antiquity had been pillaged from Lebanon during that country's civil war.   The bull's head sculpture was acquired by the couple on November 27, 1996 for US$1.2 million from one of the (now) most notorious dealers in the antiquities world, Robin Symes.

Through their attorney, the statement read:

“After having been presented with incontrovertible evidence that the bull’s head was stolen from Lebanon, the Beierwaltes believed it was in everyone’s best interest to withdraw their claim to the bull’s head and allow its repatriation to Lebanon.”

This decision was taken after the State of New York's 68-page Application for Turnover went into painstaking detail on how this plundered antiquity made its way illicitly to the United States.  That document can be read here.

In a letter to the Honorable Daniel P. FitzGerald with the Supreme Court of New York County, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos writes that the Beierwaltes have signed a stipulation consenting to the Court’s release of the Bull’s Head to the Lebanese Republic pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law §450.10 on the disposal of stolen property and the N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law §690.55 on search warrants and the disposition of seized property.

A copy of this letter can be read here. 

This voluntary forfeiture paves the way for a formal ceremony of repatriation, in which the Bull's Head will be handed to a representative to be designated by the Lebanese Ministry of Culture within 15 days.

According to a New York Times article, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos and researchers which have supported his case spotted another potentially looted antiquity, also from Lebanon.  This object, a marble torso of a calf bearer, was identified in a photograph taken inside the Beierwalteses’ home for the June 1998 special issue of of House & Garden magazine.

The photos for this magazine are included in publicly filed documents with the New York District Attorney case and can be read here.

According to an article by Colin Moynihan for the New York Times, Attorney Bogdanos has stated that this object too may have been plundered from Lebanon prior to it being acquired by William and Lynda Beierwaltes.  The article goes on to specify that the Beierwalteses then sold this object on to New York collector Michael H. Steinhardt, in 2015.

The DA's office has stated it has obtained a warrant to seize this object from Mr. Steinhardt.

September 27, 2017

Ar-Raqqah Museum - September 2017 Status Update

Image Credit: DGAM, Syria - November 25, 2014
The last time ARCA wrote on the status of the Ar-Raqqah Museum was in November 25,  2014, ten months after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known also as ISIL, Daesh, IS, ISIS) overtook the city of Raqqa.  In that post we reported on a bomb that had been dropped near Arafat Square which caused structural damage to the museum's facades, as well as damage to its doors, shutters and windows. Used by militants as a military headquarters, the museum already carried heavy scars and its collection had already been subject to plundering.

Image Credit: Twitter User @AfarinMamosta
- September 15, 2017
This month, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been making game-altering advances against Daesh in Raqqa's Old City.  At the height of this campaign, an estimated  two dozen air strikes rain down on the city each day.  Others observers (Airwars) have estimated that US-led forces dropped 5,775 bombs, shells and missiles onto the city in the month of August alone.  

Whatever the exact number, the push of Operation Euphrates Wrath seems to be well underway, with SDF forces reporting that 80 percent of the embattled city has now been liberated. Unfortunately much of what remains of the once vibrant community has been left smouldering and in ruin.

ISIL gained full control of Raqqa in January 2014, and made the city the capital of its self-declared "caliphate".  While under Da'esh's control, Raqqa will forever be remembered for being the backdrop of some of the militants' most gruesome executions.  Risking their lives to document these human rights atrocities, citizen journalists focused their efforts on documenting the human tragedy of the city's inhabitants.  Reporting on the status of the city's cultural heritage took an objectively necessary backseat.

But as this September campaign to recapture the city progresses, and hardline militants begin to lose their stranglehold on Raqqa, video and photos have emerged that give us more information on the current condition of Ar-Raqqah Museum.


Video credit: Twitter User @HassounMazen

The Museum of Raqqa was founded in 1981 and was primarily dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of cultural heritage gathered from excavation research from the Ar-Raqqah province.  Its collection included objects from Tell Bi’a, Tell Munbaqa, Tell Sabi Abyad, and Tell Chuera, and artefacts that date from Roman and Byzantine eras as well as objects from the Islamic period (the epoch of Haroun al-Rachid) and from the period of more recent Bedouin domination.

When fully operational, the museum once contained roughly 6,000 artefacts. Many of those now, seem to have been looted, defaced or destroyed.

In Spring 2012 Syria's Directorate-General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM) reported that an armed group called Ahar al Sham had moved 527 artefacts from the museum under the pretext of protecting them.  In June 2013 robbers seized an additional six containers of museum objects that had previously been stored in the Raqqa Museum’s warehouse.  Through cooperation and negotiations with members of the local community three of these boxes were later identified in Tabaqa under the control of a group called “Cham Free People”.  While the found boxes contained 104 artifacts, no further information is available as to what happened to the remaining objects removed in 2012 and 2013.

A report of the archaeological heritage in Syria during the crisis from 2011 through early 2013 written by Professor Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's now former Director General of the country's Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) can be read here.

After Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated the area surrounding the Raqqqa museum a delegation from ATPA in Al Jazira Canton represented by Berivan Younes, Ristem Abdo, and Sipan Abdul Ghafoor visited the area on September 20, 2017. Their objective was to do initial damage assessments on some of what remains of the city's cultural heritage.

While SDF fighters have taken the museum under their protection and destroyed many mines around it, ATPA was not allowed to enter the museum itself, as SDF’s special units still need to deal with the mines rigged inside the museum.

ATPA’s initial report can be found here. 

A recently funded project at the University of Leiden called Focus Raqqa is aiming to make a digital inventory of the objects once housed in the Raqqa museum as many of the artefacts plundered were once excavated by Dutch archaeologists.  This digital record may become useful in the future in identifying looted objects should they resurface later on the commercial art market.

Image Credit: Twitter User @AfarinMamosta
 - September 15, 2017
Image Credit: ANF News - September 15, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: Twitter User @HassounMazen
- September 15, 2017
Image Credit: Twitter User @AfarinMamosta - September 15, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
By:  Lynda Albertson

September 25, 2017

Stealing from the past is destroying the future.

Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) & Director-General of the UN Office in Vienna (UNOV) reminds collectors during the UN General Assembly - to look more closely at their antiquities purchases to ensure they are not contributing to the destruction of world heritage sites or funding organized crime.




The Illicit Passages of a Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE) and some familiar names


Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE),
 (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
July 6, 2017 Manhattan prosecutors initiated custody of a 2,300-year-old marble bull's head, that was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art over suspicions that the antiquity had been pillaged from Lebanon.  In additional documents filed with New York’s Supreme Court on September 22, 2018 by Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, senior trail council in the office of New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., New York authorities reconstruct the journey of this ancient sculpture from its theft during the Lebanese civil war through its passage in the hands of antiquities dealers well known to readers of this blog.

Damningly, the report further outlines the extreme lack of due diligence on the part of wealthy US collectors who purchased the stolen object for their collections despite the sculpture's alarming lack of legitimate pedigree.

The State of New York's 68-page Application for Turnover goes into painstaking detail on how this plundered antiquity made its way to the United States.  This entire document can be read here.

Jason Felch, has also given an excellent distilled synopsis of this court document on his blog.  His summary can be found here. 

The bull's head sculpture was acquired by Lynda and William Beierwaltes on November 27, 1996 for US$1.2 million from one of the (now) most notorious dealers in the antiquities world, Robin Symes.


Building one of the world's largest ancient art businesses, tainted Symes and Michailidis antiquities also were purchased for museum collections around the globe, including the J Paul Getty Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum.   At the height of their unethical enterprise Italian authorities estimated that Symes and Michailidis' jointly-run ancient art business earned them an estimated 170 million euro, but a series of missteps proved the Symes' undoing, literally and figuratively and in 2005 he served 7 months of a 2 year jail sentence for disregarding court orders over the sale of a £3M Egyptian statue.

Art Dealer Robin Symes
In 2006 Symes was further implicated as being part of one of the most sophisticated illicit antiquities networks in the world.   In the book “The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums” Peter Watson and Cecelia Todeschini outline Symes' assets which included thirty-three known warehouses encompassing some 17,000 objects worth an estimated £125 million ($210 million).The writers also clearly illustrate  Symes ties to traffickers connected through Europe's illicit antiquities trade. Each of the museums mentioned above were subsequently forced to relinquish purchased looted objects that had been laundered illegally and which at one time had passed through illicit networks connected to Symes.  This is likely one of the reasons why the loaned object rang alarm bells with curatorial staff at the Metropolitan Museum. 

It is worth noting in relation to the bull's head that according to Bogdanos' Application for Turnover, the bulk of the Beierwaltes' substantial collection had been sourced through Symes and his partner.  Also of note, it wasn't long after Symes' January 2005 sentencing that the Colorado couple elected to contact Hicham Aboutaam and his brother Ali about the possibility of their firm, Phoenix Ancient Art, acting as their agents in the sale of objects from their collection originally acquired through Symes.

After the Aboutaam's appraisal, the couple elected to consign the marble sculpture and other objects to Phoenix Ancient Art where the brothers' firm would act as the Beierwaltes' exclusive dealer. In 2010, the Aboutaams then brokered the sale of the bull's head to Michael Steinhardt and Steinhardt shortly thereafter, finalized the loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After learning that the object was to be subject to seizure, Steinhardt then prssured the Beierwaltes to take back the object and compensate him for his losses.

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

In their pursuit of the rare and beautiful, both Steinhardt and the Beierwaltes are not amateurs when it comes to collecting ancient art. Both have amassed million dollar collections and both should have been able to recognise the material consequences of the illicit trade in providing material for the market.  Furthermore, the limited collection documentation associated with these objects should have raised further red flags.  With such a spartan amount of documentation, both collectors should have walked away from the object doubting its legitimacy on the licit market.  Yet neither collector put much, if any, emphasis on rigorously researching the provenance of the object prior to its acquisition.

In the case of the Beierwaltes it also seems possible that the couple, having learned of Syme's problems with the law, established a consignor/consignee relationship with Phoenix Ancient Art and the Aboutaams in order to recoup a portion of their their financial investment once they came to see the associated liability of having a $95 million collection sourced by, and purchased through, Robin Symes.

September 4, 2017

Egyptian Mummy Cartonnage on Pawn Stars


On this blog we spend a lot of time stressing provenance, provenance, provenance, and the need for antiquities collectors and dealers to perform satisfactory due diligence before purchasing or selling an ancient object.  

Now granted one shouldn't judge the efforts of the entire ancient art collecting community against a single episode of a TV program, but this recent clip, showing the sale of Egyptian mummy cartonnage on The History Channel's popular staged reality TV show Pawn Stars serves as a good reminder of how little an object's legitimacy in the art market, enters into the discussion between buyer and seller when art transactions are filmed for television.  


Pawn Stars has been a History Channel staple since 2009. Filmed on site at the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, each episode is framed around the buying, selling, and appraising of items of historical value.

To keep their audiences coming back for more, the program is fast paced and edited to fit several transactions into each episode, in some cases sourcing objects in advance of the program's shooting.  For important pieces there is time allocated for pop-in appraisals by "experts" alongside the requisite name dropping of corporate sponsors, spiced up with a dash of comic relief to keep the audience coming back year after year. 

While I can understand that the show's viewers probably wouldn't tune in to a History Channel series for eight years if the show were to spend a chunk of its expensive air time ensuring that the objects being bartered wer not looted or stolen, but sometimes making a fast buck has led to problems.  

One Season 6 episode "Shekel and Hyde" featured a gentleman who sold a shekel of Tyre to the owners of the Pawn Shop for $1,600.  Unfortunately the coin was apparently stolen.

This is the reason why we keep beating the already dead due diligence horse and why we encourage buyers and sellers of ancient objects to look at the origins of an object before they make a purchase.   But not everyone is interested in ensuring that the objects they want to purchase have not been stolen or looted or come with proper documentation showing compliance with export regulations.

In addition to the mummy cartonnage, Pawn Stars has featured other items of the type that are at risk of being trafficked, again without presenting any information as to if the object was appropriately vetted off camera to ascertain its licit status prior to filming.  

Some of these objects include:  



and 



TV shows the History Channel’s Pawn Stars, American Pickers  and PBS’ Antiques Roadshow attract millions of viewers, as everyone likes the idea of a secret treasure.  Unfortunately the producers of these programs miss a valuable opportunity to educate buyers and sellers, promoting ethical trading in the pieces of the past. 

By:  Lynda Albertson




August 31, 2017

UK Art dealer arrested in Los Palacios, Spain for stealing antiques and on an order of extradition to Italy

Objects seized.  Image Credit: Guardia Civil / DGGC
Identified during a routine inspection of guest lists for lodgings in Los Palacios y Villafranca, a city located in the province of Seville, Spain's Guardia Civil, has detained a British citizen on August 16, 2017 on an arrest and extradition warrant from Italy for the alleged theft of antiquities and cultural heritage objects.

Reported Tuesday, August 29, 2017 in a published statement by the Civil Guard, the detainee, was listed simply with his initials, W.T.V.  At the time he was detained, he was found to be in the possession of 140 objects, including ancient oil lamps, ancient Roman and Arab origin coins, rings, clay tiles and five burner phones. Despite the large quantity of artefacts in his possession, authorities have stated the arrestee was unable to show proof of legal ownership.  

While the full name of the individual was not stated in the press release, the arrestee's initials belong to an expatriate Hungarian coin dealer named William Veres who once managed a company named Stedron based in Zurich, Switzerland.  Veres is known to have worked out of both the UK and Spain and has had his name attached to various illicit activities. 

If Vere's name sounds familiar it is because we mentioned him on this blog one week ago.  He is one of two individuals prosecuted for his earlier role in the illicit sale of a $1.2 million fourth century BCE gold phiale forfeited to Italy by Michael Steinhardt following a lengthy court case and appeals in the United States. 

Working with the Carabinieri in Italy it will be interesting to see what Spain's Guardia Civil will be able to determine regarding the provenance of the objects found in this dealer's possession.  

Now in custody, he will likely be sent back to Italy via the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) system, applied throughout the EU to replace Europe's old lengthy extradition procedures within the territorial jurisdiction.  Through the EAW crime suspects are extradited at the request of foreign countries without the evidence against them being examined in the court of the country where they are detained. 

An EAW may be issued by a national judicial authority if:
  • the person whose return is sought is accused of an offence for which the maximum period of the penalty is at least one year in prison;
  • he or she has been sentenced to a prison term of at least four months.
Having appeared before a judge at a closed hearing in Madrid, it is not yet clear if Veres has agreed to being extradited or whether he will fight the attempt to return him to Italy to face prosecution.

August 14, 2017

Artefacts seized at Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad


Destined for Japan, customs authorities at Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad have intercepted six antiquities believed to date from the 2nd to the 5th Century CE along with ten counterfeit objects.  According to their customs declaration the items were listed incorrectly as simply “decoration items.”  

Instead, according the the Directorate General of Archaeology and Museums in Islamabad, the consignment contained contraband artifacts that come from the kingdom of Gandhara, an ancient Vedic and later Buddhist civilization from the Peshawar valley, which stretches from northern Pakistan to the Kabul River in eastern Afghanistan.

The export of antiquities was banned in Pakistan under Section 24(2) of Section 35 of the Antiquities Act, 1975.   Under this law a “protected antiquity” belongs exclusively to the government and their unauthorized removal or destruction is an offence punishable with rigorous imprisonment of three years or a fine of Rs 200,000 or both.

July 18, 2017

Long-time antiquities dealer Hicham Aboutaam has sued the Wall Street Journal


Long-time antiquities dealer Hicham Aboutaam has sued the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal’s corporate parent Dow Jones and Company in New York County Supreme Court on Monday over an article titled “Prominent Art Family Entangled in ISIS Antiquities-Looting Investigations” which was published in the WSJ on May 31, 2017.  The Journal’s reporters Benoit Faucon and Georgi Kantchev shared a byline on the article but have not been named as defendants in the lawsuit.  

Faucon, a Senior Report for the Wall Street Journal, has long covered issues related to OPEC and the oil industries of Iran, Libya, Nigeria and Algeria. More recently he has been working on investigative reports involving illicit trafficking, money laundering or terrorism financing.  Kantchev is a London-based reporter primarily covering financial markets.

In the 30 page complaint Aboutaam demands unspecified damages on two claims of defamation.

Publication, ID, Defamation, Falsity and Fault

These are the five elements that a plaintiff must successfully demonstrate in most liable suits against the mass media.

In general, under New York State Law, to recover for libel (injury to one’s reputation from a written expression), Hicham Aboutaam will need to establish five elements outlined in Celle v. Filipino Reporter Enters. Inc., 209 F.3d 163, 176 (2d Cir. 2000). 

Those elements of a defamation claim are:

(1) a written defamatory statement of fact concerning the plaintiff;
(2) publication to a third party;
(3) fault (either negligence or actual malice depending on the status of the libeled party);
(4) falsity of the defamatory statement; and
(5) special damages or per se actionability (defamatory on its face).

As the result of First Amendment concerns, when a defendant is a media publisher or broadcaster, a private plaintiff must establish that the media defendant “acted in a grossly irresponsible manner without due consideration for the standards of information gathering and dissemination ordinarily followed by responsible parties”  (Chapadeau v Utica Observer-Dispatch, 38 NY2d 196, 199 [1975] with respect to a matter of public concern.

Plaintiffs must also prove that the alleged defamatory publication refers to them. This element of a libel lawsuit often is referred to as the “of and concerning” principle.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But names will never hurt me.”
    --19th Century English nursery rhyme

Suspect antiquities, traceable to ancient art sales through Hicham and Ali Aboutaam's companies have been written about with recurring frequency on the Association's blog.

It should be remembered that Hicham Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 for smuggling a looted ceremonial drinking vessel from Iran into the US, claiming that it had come from Syria.  Hicham pled guilty to the charges in 2004, paid a fine, and the vessel was returned to the Iranian authorities.  Hicham Aboutaam stated that his conviction stemmed from a "lapse in judgment."

In the past, the Egyptian authorities accused Ali Aboutaam of involvement with Tarek El-Suesy (al-Seweissi), who was arrested in 2003 under Egypt’s patrimony law for illegal export of antiquities. Ali Aboutaam was tried in absentia, pronounced guilty and was fined, and sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Egyptian court in April 2004.  To date, he has not served any of the Egyptian sentence. 

The Aboutaams voluntarily repatriated 251 Antiquities valued at $2.7 Million to the State of Italy in May 2009 tied to one of Italy's most notorious smuggling rings.

Perhaps the brothers might wish to consider which of the aforementioned elements, an article by the Wall Street Journal or engaging in suspect trading practices, has the greater potential for damaging their reputation.

By Lynda Albertson

July 6, 2017

Civil Complaint requires forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae, but is that enough?

Cuneiform Tablet - Image Credit U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York
By: Lynda Albertson


At the heart of the investigation, were import irregularities related to ancient artifacts shipped to Hobby Lobby, Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! The firms Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! were affiliates of Hobby Lobby and both maintained their principal corporate offices adjacent to Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma City.  

The antiquities were shipped to Hobby Lobby and their associates by dealers in Israel and the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”), all of whom have been left unnamed in the civil complaint.  The objects were shipped without required customs entry documentation being filed with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and bore shipping labels that falsely and misleadingly described their contents and their value, in some cases as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).” In truth, the mislabeled objects were ancient clay and stone artifacts that originate from the area of modern day Iraq, which had been smuggled into the United States after their contracted purchase in the Middle East. 

Hobby Lobby's growing Green Collection is purported to be the largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts worldwide and is estimated to be made up of more than 40,000 biblical-related antiquities, purchased and assembled by the Green family, who are founders of the national arts and crafts chain.  The bulk of this collection is intended to be displayed in their 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in Washington DC in November of 2017.

As is often the case with illicit antiquities smuggled around the globe, the intercepted packages, destined eventually to join the museum's collection, had their shipping labels intentionally mislabeled, stating the country of origin as imports from Turkey and Israel, not Iraq.  The shippers also used multiple shipping addresses for objects destined for a single recipient.  This too is a technique used by smugglers of all types, not just illicit antiquities, as it is a means of avoiding scrutiny by customs authorities. 

In the DOJ press release Bridget M. Rohde, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Karin Orenstein, Assistant United States Attorney, of counsel, announced that Hobby Lobby Stores has agreed to pay a $3 million federal fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts believed to have been smuggled in 15 shipments, 5 of which were stopped by the CBP on their way to the Greens.   

Hobby Lobby had executed an agreement to purchase the objects, despite their likely illicit origins, in 2010 for $1.6 million.  They paid for the antiquities via wire payments to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of five individuals.  This despite noticeable suspicious irregularities in the objects purported provenance and no direct contact with the objects' "owner.  The civil complaint also outlines conversations related to the purchase and import which indicate intentional changes to invoices and shipment to disguise the objects' value, and in some cases to change to purported seller. 

As DOJ documents state Title 19, United States Code, Section 1595a(c)(1)(A) provides that “merchandise which is introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States contrary to law . . . shall be seized and forfeited if it . . . is stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced.”

Legal measures specific to Iraq also make it a violation of U.S. law to import any cultural objects removed from Iraq since August 1990, unless exported with the permission of Iraqi authorities.  Illegally importing objects that meet this criteria are subject to criminal penalties and fines.

Equally important Under Article 3 of Iraq’s Antiquities Law No. 59 of 1936 (as amended in 1974 and 1975), all antiquities found in Iraq, whether movable or
immovable, on or under the ground, are considered property of the state. Under Article 16 of Antiquities Law No. 59, private persons generally cannot possess antiquities. Article 26 of the same antiquities law prohibits the export of Iraqi antiquities and defines “antiquities” as movable possessions which were made, produced, sculpted, written or drawn by man and which are at least 200 years old.  Southern Mesopotamian objects definitely fall into this category as any collections management expert in Near East antiquity would be aware of.


Is a $3 million fine and the forfeiture of 450 ancient cuneiform tablets and 3,000 ancient clay bullae enough?

As a result of this investigation, Hobby Lobby has agreed to adopt internal policies and procedures governing its importation and purchase of cultural property, provide appropriate training to its personnel, hire qualified outside customs counsel and customs brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property acquisitions for the next eighteen months.


So much for remorse. 

NB: No one has faced criminal prosecution (read: jail time) for their actions. 

May 19, 2017

Look into my eyes, but also into my collection history.

Collecting ancient art can be an extension of a personal passion, a status symbol or a piece of cultural currency but it also serves as a defacto calling card for the current-day purchaser's own collecting ethics.

As this new video, produced by the UNESCO Beirut Office in the framework of the Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Cultural Heritage project, underscores, conscientious and ethical antiquities collectors can and should demand that their source dealer or auction house provide a full and complete provenance record before making a purchase. 


UNESCO reminds collectors to keep an eye out for these red flags:

- Is there dirt on the object? 
- Does the object seem like a broken fragment of what could be a larger artifact? 
- Is there a reference number painted on the base of the object that could indicate it was looted from a museum? 
- Does the object's price seem too good to be true?

and finally...
- Can the seller provide you with the object’s provenance paperwork?

Likewise, ARCA reminds its readership that an object's reported collection history as reported by a dealer or auction house should not always be taken as complete or accurate.  Collection histories can, and often are, faked.

As this blog has reported frequently, many consignors and auction houses omit passages that sometimes reflect irregularities in acquisition or fail to advise would-be purchasers that an antiquity they wish to purchase has passed through the hands of a tainted individual or art dealer already known to have a reputation for illicit trafficking in the antiquities art market. 

The art market’s appetite for antiquities, and the profits to be had from this appetite, will always be a motivation for others to loot them.

It is ultimately up to the collector to demand ethical selling practices from the dealers or collectors they purchase antiquities from.  Prospective buyers should demand to see import and export licenses for the object they are considering and they should require the seller/consignor/auction house make those documents available.

The prudent purchaser should vet the trophy works that they purchase for their collections, cross checking all of the accompanying documentation.  Is there an export license? Does that document look authentic? Has the license been falsified?  Has the country of origin been falsified? Does the country of export match with the country of the object's origin?  Does the object have a find spot?   How far back does the chain of ownership go? and are there any other red flags like "property of an anonymous collector"?

Collectors should not discount the unacceptable buying and selling habits of those profiting from the ancient art market and they should especially be careful when purchasing antiquities from regions of conflict.

Just as property investors thoroughly vet the status and ownership of a property they are interested in, before entering into a business transaction, so should art collectors remember that it is their responsibility to conduct adequate due diligence on the artworks they purchase. 

May 11, 2017

Working canines: Can customs dogs be trained to sniff out smuggled antiquities?

Image Credit and litter of working canine puppies
from parents Zzisa (TSA) X Ffisher
at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Customs dogs have long been trained to sniff out narcotics, firearms or explosives hidden in strange places or wrapped in layers of plastic.  Some have even been trained to sniff out large amounts of undeclared cash. 

In Australia, labradors, selected for their steady temperament, motivation, adaptability to challenging environments, and non-threatening appearance, are purpose-bred by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection at their Customs National Breeding and Development Centre.  At the age of two, these eager juvenile pups begin sniffer training with a handler.  


The United States TSA’s Puppy Program, started in 1999 was modeled after the Australian Customs Service National Breeding Program and selects dogs with the abilities and temperaments suited to customs authorities needs.  Many of these working canines are earmarked for explosives detection canine teams, trained and certified by the TSA for the purposes of transportation-related security.  

Detector dogs are routinely tasked to search air and sea cargo, aircraft, cargo containers, luggage, mail, parcels, structures, vehicles, vessels, and most importantly, people.  But what if multi-response detector dogs, already being trained to sniff out multiple substances, could be trained to also detect smuggled antiquities which might be hidden in those same crates, packages, and cargo containers?

That's what the folks at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the Penn Museum, of the University of Pennsylvania, partnering with the nonprofit Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law & Policy Research want to know.  To that end they have started a GoFundMe crowdsourcing campaign called the K-9 Artifact Finders Project to help explore ways to combat this top-priority problem.


You can also read more about the K-9 Artifact Finders working canine project by consulting the project webpage at the Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law & Policy Research website.

February 21, 2017

Police Seizure: 250 artifacts recovered by police near Rome


250+ archaeological finds, some dating as far back as the late Republican period were recovered by the Finanzieri del Comando Provinciale di Roma as part of the "Lanuvium" initiative which was coordinated by the Public Prosecutor of Velletri, in the province of Lazio, near Rome.

Focusing on two women, who reportedly had established an elegant private museum in their upscale home, a variety of objects, many of them epigraphic remains such as brick stamps and marble inscriptions.  The pieces are believed to have come from illicit excavations in and around the Lanuvio archaeological site, a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of "Juno Sospita". 

The Soprintendenza ai Beni Archeologici del Lazio are presently involved in the full documentation of the objects seized. by law enforcement authorities. Unfortunately, artifacts ripped from their context by looters often lose much of their meaning. 

Illicit excavations not only destroy a site’s stratigraphic layers that help define an archaeological site’s chronology alongside unmoveable architectural elements. They also remove ancient objects from the context which gives the object its own cultural meaning.  

As a result of the seizure, three persons are now under investigation and will likely be charged with unlawful possession of archaeological material belonging to the country of Italy. 


October 8, 2016

UNESCO issues report on Freeports


The Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) promotes practical tools and communication to raise public awareness about trafficking in and return of stolen objects.

With its work closely tied to the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the Committee met at UNESCO's Headquarters in Paris, on September 29-30, 2016 to discus the need for better prevention, increased cooperation and awareness raising of illicit trafficking in cultural property.

As an outcome of that meeting, UNESCO issued a document which highlights the phenomenon of free ports and their implications on the illicit art market. A copy of their report, it its entirety, can be referenced directly on the UNESCO website here:

Freeport concerns are a subject that ARCA has blogged about with regularity as has Professor David Gill on the blog Looting Matters as they have long been havens for high value artwork in general and illicit art work in particular.  More recently Free ports have been springing up around the world with increasing regularity as more investors begin to store and trade physical assets at locations which provide taxation incentives.

With their state of the art security, enormous potential for tax savings and less than transparent ownership record keeping which varies from country to country and freeport to freeport, these massive storage facilities may well continue to be a convenient and secure weigh station for traffickers to park hot goods until the world gets distracted elsewhere.  










September 19, 2016

Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA addressing concerns about the trade in stolen antiquities

Google Earth View of Ports Franc
As Geneva officials at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA attempt to address previously raised concerns about the risks surrounding the trade in stolen antiquities, both in terms of money-laundering and as a potential support for arms traffickers or terrorist groups, tighter controls have been implemented today on shipments which affect everyone in the art shipping industry that handle the shipment of antiquities to this free port. 

Originally set to be implemented this past summer, the new rule requires that anyone wanting to store ancient artefacts at the sprawling facility will have to undergo checks by an independent firm of specialists hired by the über-warehouse.  This group is tasked with investigating the validity of requests and the precise origins of any antiquities before the object is approved for transport to the complex for subsequent storage.  

The new check applies to all objects classified under HS Code 9705.   HS classifications are based on standardised international codes used in shipment data as a means of classifying specific types of goods.  Goods listed under this code are deemed to be "works of art, collectors' pieces and antiques, collections and collectors' pieces of zoological, botanical, mineralogical, anatomical, historical, archaeological, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest."

According to the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website, the first step of this procedure will be a documentation check made by KPMG, one of the Big Four global consultancy firms, (along with Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers) more famous for their financial audit, tax and advisory services. What this powerhouse finance firm's experience is as auditors of artwork provenance is not clear.  There is no mention of art services on the KPMG website. 

But moving along to what the shippers need to submit. 

To complete the new due diligence check, potential customers who wish to use the facility will be required to ship, a minimum of ten days prior to the intended shipment date, "all documents in your possession (invoices, lists, certificates, export licenses, passports, etc.) as well as a good quality photograph" for inspection.  The Ports Francs website doesn't specify what the photo should be of:  the object to be stored or a passport photo of the shipper.  

The Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website further states that "an Artloss register certificate is a big asset." 

While the Geneva freeport may see a certificate from an art loss database such as London-based Art Loss Register or Art Claim (another art loss database maintained by Art Recovery International) as the owner having done their individual due diligence these types of certificates are only helpful in cases where known objects are stolen from known collections.  Such paper assurances offer no proof that the proposed antiquity is of licit origin and are ineffective in diminishing the illicit trade in archaeological remains.   

Undocumented, looted antiquities without collection histories will never appear in art loss databases.  This has been underscored over and over again. Undocumented, looted antiquities appear most often at border crossings and all to frequently launder their way up and into the art market, popping up with embarrassing regularity in museum and private collections despite sometimes having accumulated probable paperwork that on first glance tacitly legitimises them along the way.

When suspicious, rather than relying on certificates, KPMG would be better served consulting with the WCO,  academics researching in the field of illicit antiquities and the International Council of Museums (ICOM).   ICOM's “Red Lists” offer detailed descriptions of objects the auditors should be suspicious of coming from countries that may currently be or have been at risk of looting. Trusting that an object is "clean" merely because it has a stack of papers tied to it will not deter trafficking.


In 2013 Connaissances des Arts, estimated that the Ports Francs free port held around 1.2 million artworks. Its huge warehouses offers 150,000 square meters (1.6 million square feet) of storage space.  In more visual terms, that's the equivalent of 22 soccer pitches.  

While the amendment to the Swiss Customs Act, approved by the Swiss parliament on Jan. 1, 2016, and this new ruling give new power to administrators, customs authorities and contractors to monitor and control the entry and exit of goods from its tax-advantaged art-and-collectible storage facility, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Four major free ports in Switzerland dominate the market in storing high value goods. Five free ports worldwide have bet their marketshare specialising in the storage of priceless art works. The oldest is Ports Francs in the La Praille neighborhood in Geneva, Switzerland which was founded in 1850.  The others include the ultra chic Singapore Freeport which opened in 2010, the Monaco Freeport by S.E.G.E.M., in Fontvieille, just minutes away from the lucrative casinos of Monte-Carlo.

Le Freeport in Luxembourg opened its doors just two years ago, benefiting in part from the overflow of taxable goods once destined for Ports Francs in Geneva.  In the Far East the Beijing Freeport of Culture located adjacent to Beijing Capital Airport, and the much anticipated Shanghai Le Freeport West Bund, which is lated to open in 2017, both will allow the art market to store a substantial amount of art in mainland China.

In 2013, the European Fine Art Fair annual report, known in the field as the TEFAF Art Market Report cited an estimate which estimated that approximately $100 billion of art is stored in tax friendly free port facilities.  To be effective in deterring trafficking through these facilities, any inspections undertaken in free ports should be harmonised in all facilities across the globe. 

By: Lynda Albertson

July 26, 2016

Illicit Antiquities Trafficking an Ongoing, Organized Enterprise in Italy

This week, in the town of Teano, 30 kilometres northwest of Caserta on the road to Rome from Naples, the Carabinieri formally placed under investigation four individuals under suspicion of having committed a series of thefts “of historical interest” and then selling their stash onward via the illegal market.  In layman's English, the men were arrested for trafficking illicit antiquities and laundering them on via middlemen on to wealthy buyers.   The archaeological areas of Teano-Calvi have long been massacred for decades by tomb raiders without scruples.


One of those arrested was Emilio Autieri, a 65 year old registered nurse with Italy's Local Health Authority Service (Azienda Sanitaria Locale, ASL) which proves that even with a decent state pension, individuals can be coaxed into a world of illicit crime where money flows freely and behind closed doors.   He and 22 year old Antonia Pane have been placed under house arrest pending further investigation.   Massimo Aversano, 43 and 19 year old Domenico De Biasio have been released on their own recognizance with reporting conditions and restrictions to not leave the territorial area.

The investigation began in January 2016 following a not-publicized theft from the Archaeological Museum of Teano.  The case serves as a good example into the minds of criminals who receive, possess, conceal, store, barter, and sell, not just antiquity, but any goods, wares, or merchandise where there is a willing buyer willing to look the other way.

Following months of observation and chasing leads on various burglaries at private residences and shops, the Teano carabinieri conducted a series of wire taps and reviewed CCTV footage related to various burglaries.  This in turn lead them to execute search warrants which uncovered what appears to be a well structured group of organized criminals who moved objects via fences working in the archaeological sector who had a supply of buyers willing to turn a blind eye to the illicit origin of the pieces they purchased. 

During the July sting operation, authorities recovered and sequestered more than 200 historical objects; antiquities which initial examination appears to date from from as early as the 9th and 8th Century BCE to as late as the 1st and 2nd century CE. Law enforcement has estimated the value of the seizure to have a combined value of €500,000.00 on the illicit market. 

The objects  brought into police custody include various sculptures in terracotta, ivory carvings, marble architectural elements, terracotta amphorae, as well as Bucchero pottery, common in pre-Roman Italy.  The team also had a stash of votive statues, and various metal and stone objects, buckles, brooches and earrings.  Interestingly, authorities also seized stolen objects not of an archaeological nature.  This shows that the ring of thieves and fences, did not restrict their dealings to stolen goods solely from antiquity. 


Earlier, in March of this year, a well-respected surgeon, Domenico Bova from nearby Sessa Aurunca and Gerardo Mastrostefano, an attorney from the same town as this weeks arrests, were investigated for their own related involvement to this offence and receiving stolen archaeological goods after 33 ancient finds were confiscated from their individual residences. Along with them an unnamed fence was reportedly involved as the ring's middleman.  The investigation into these prior individuals coupled with this week's formal charging of four others seem to lend credibility that the zone continues to have weaknesses that in the past have made it well adapted to the trafficking of culture.

In January 2014 an ex capo and former Camorrista of the Casalesi clan turned justice informant, Carmine Schiavone, stated that the Camorra had infiltrated the cities of Teano, Vairano, Caianello and other areas in Alto Caserta.   Schiavone, prior to his death was a former member of the Casalesi clan from Casal di Principe in the province of Caserta between Naples and Salerno and a cousin of former Camorra superboss Francesco Schiavone.  Heavily entrenched in the clan's business, he could be considered a person well informed as to the illicit activities in the region.

Is this summer's heritage crime case localized to one small group of organized bandits or part of something more sinister?