August 23, 2017

Hedge Hogs and the Art of Wealth: The Curious Background of Michael Steinhardt


Michael Steinhardt has a long standing record of making astute financial decisions, many of which have led to stellar investment performance earnings totalling in the millions on Wall Street.  Unfortunately his culture capital record: for making careful, sound, and informed decisions when purchasing antiquities for his purported $200 million private collection of art, has been anything but stellar. 

As Master of the Hedge Fund Universe, Steinhardt has the liquidity to be choosy about his art purchases. With a current net worth of $1.05 billion, according to a 2017 article in Forbes Magazine, and almost thirty years of collecting experience, he's also a member of Christie’s advisory board.  Tight with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he has had a Greek Art of the Sixth Century B.C. gallery named after him at the museum. All that to say Steinhardt should be sufficiently well informed about the social and ethical obligations of responsibly acquiring, managing and disposing of items in his burgeoning art collection. 

So why then, with access to so many of the art world's elite, has he chosen to overlook the importance of provenience (country of origin) and provenance (history of ownership) of the objects he fancied BEFORE allowing them to enter or exit his collection and comparing that information within the context of the US and international legal frameworks and abiding accordingly?

I guess traders love to gamble (more on that later) a fortune on their compulsions.

Some of Steinhardt's costly gambles:  

A fourth century BCE gold phiale


November 09, 1995, U.S. Customs agents seized a $1.2 million fourth century BCE gold phiale used for pouring libations from Steinhardt's Fifth Avenue residence on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  The financier appealed the lower court's ruling only to have the decision of forfeiture affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  Despite clear proof that the object was smuggled out of southern Italy, Steinhardt petitioned the lower court's ruling all the way to the United States Supreme Court, in the hopes of retaining the object for his collection. 

The high court found no compelling reason to rehear Steinhardt's case on the basis that the importer had intentionally undervalued the object's worth, transited the object illegally from Sicily to Switzerland, and provided false statements misrepresenting the phiale's country of origin on the objects import documentation. 

The two antiquities dealers involved in the purchase, Robert Haber and William Veres, were each given suspended sentences of one year and ten months imprisonment.  The extent of Steinhardt's culpability though was left vague in the final court filings.  Yet Steinhardt's experience as an art collector and specifically his experience with Haber, with whom he had already purchased some $4-6 million in art objects, raises considerable doubts as to his naïveté.  

The fact that the bill of sale from Haber to Steinhardt's even stipulated that if "the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser" gives the impression that both the collector and his dealer were aware of the potential for illegality in the market.

(Il)licit Excavations of Maresha Subterranean Complex 57: 
The ‘Heliodorus’ Cave


In early 2007 Michael Steinhardt acquired the so-called Heliodorus Stele from Gil Chaya, an antiquities dealers in Jerusalem, who is reportedly a nephew of the late Shlomo Moussaieff.  Moussaieff once owned one of the largest collections of biblical antiquities, many of which were unprovenanced.  After the purchase Steinhardt and his wife presented the stele to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on an extended loan.

The stele contains a magnificent 2nd century BCE Greek inscription which documents a correspondence between the Seleucid king, Seleucus IV (brother of Antiochus IV) to an aide named Heliodorus.  Unsurprisingly though, the bottom portion of the stele was missing, leaving a gap in scholarship as well as a tell-tale signature that the stele had likely been looted upon its extraction, since its base was missing. 

Earlier in 2005 and 2006 excavations at the Maresha Subterranean Complex 57 at Beit Guvrin National Park uncovered three fragments that were subsequently identified as matching the bottom of Steinhardt's stele.  These fragments were discovered in a subterranean complex by participants in the Archaeological Seminars Institute's "Dig for a Day" program.  The correlation of the fragments' epigraphy and testing of their stone and soil samples at the find site proved that the fragments were a perfect match, completing missing pieces of the stele.  

It was later determined that the stele had been stolen during a robbery at the Beit Guvrin National Park in 2005.  Tel Maresha's head archaeologist, Dr. Ian Stern verified that he remembered arriving at the site on a Sunday morning in 2005 only to find that the cave where the fragments were later found, had been “turned upside down,” apparently by looters searching for ancient objects to be sold on the black market.  

United States v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment



Despite the object's obvious Italian origin, the shipment had a customs declaration form which falsified the object's country of origin as Macedonia. The fragment was forfeited to the U.S. government and repatriated to Italy on February 24, 2015.

A Sardinian Marble Female Idol of the Ozieri Culture


November 21, 2014 Christos Tsirogiannis identified a $1 million Sardinian marble female idol dating from 2500-2000 B.C.E. scheduled for auction as Lot 85 at Christie's on December 11, 2014 as having been matched with an image he found in the archive of convicted Italian antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.

Before arriving in the collection of Michael and Judy Steinhardt, the object had previously made its way through Harmon Fine Arts and The Merrin Gallery*, both of New York.  Once part of the collection of pet food giant Leonard Norman Stern, the object was once displayed, but not photographed, in a "Masterpieces of Cycladic Art from Private Collections, Museums and the Merrin Gallery" event in 1990 where both Steinhardt and Stern were present. 

On November 27th the object was pulled from the Christie's auction for further review. Its current status has not be made known publically. 


An Anatolian marble female idol of Kiliya type, AKA The Guennol Stargazer


On April 29, 2017 at the behest of a request by the Turkish authorities and following the interim judgement of the United States District Court, Christie's applied precautionary measures regarding the sale of the 9-inch, 5,000-year-old a rare 3rd millennium BCE idol, likely looted from the Akhisar district of Manisa province in Anatolia."  Turkey's Culture Minister Nabi Avcı told the press that the auction house will abide by the Court's recommendation for a temporary 60-day hold on the antiquity while an investigation into the object’s provenance is conducted. During that time period, the purchaser’s hammer price + buyer's premium bid of $14,471,500 USD was confirmed but not collected.  As a result of the object being contested, the would-be buyer bowed out from the purchase shortly after to case broke in the international press. 

According to documents, Michael Steinhardt had purchased the Stargazer from Merrin Gallery* in August 1993 for under $2 million.  Had the sale not been halted he would have pocketed $12.7 million for the 5,000 year-old Guennol Stargazer, twice the object's pre-sale estimate.

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
Earlier this month Manhattan prosecutors took 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. 

The marble head of a bull was purportedly purchased by Lynda and William Beierwaltes in 1996 for more than US$1 million. The Beierwaltes in turn sold the statue on to Michael Steinhardt in 2010 who later loaned the antiquity to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  After learning that the object might be subject to seizure, Steinhardt asked that the Beierwaltes take possession of the object and compensate him for his purchase. 

The Beierwaltes have stated they purchased the object through an unnamed London art dealer. NOTE: The Beierwaltes were clients of Robin Symes and Christos Michaelides.

Six examples of high stakes "risks" overlapping with names of antiquities dealers many who analyse art crimes will already recognize.  

Yearning for Legitimacy or Repeating the Sins of the Father?

Steinhardt says the inherent risk in antiquities collecting doesn’t intimidate him. “It is a little bit dangerous, but that is what makes it exciting,” ....“But life is filled with risks, isn’t it?”

Understandably, leading a life on Wall Street makes you look at risk differently than the average person, and hedge fund overlords thrive on tightrope walking high-risk investment tactics in order to bring in lucrative returns.  In a world designed to aggressively accumulate wealth, it's not surprising that Michael Steinhardt approached his art acquisitions apparently enjoying the adrenalin-filled rush from the risk-taking he took.  

Yet with so many examples of getting it wrong; electing to overlook the provenance of the objects he collected in favor of the buy, working with dealers already known to raised eyebrows or prosecutions for undocumented artifacts, and irregular import documentation, Steinhardt's maneuvers shouldn't be interpreted as simple novice mistakes, made by a collector with more money than Midas. Despite that, Steinhardt has profited more than he has been held in account for, which shows unfortunately that the odds remain remarkably in his favor, despite the alleged illicit purchases. 

Risk vs. Payoff: Lessons from Childhood

But before the legendary Wall Street money manager stepped into the collector's ring, Steinhardt was brought up in working-class Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  He is the son of the late Sol Frank Steinhardt, a reputed gambler and jewelry fence, who was a  lieutenant of the prohibition era crime boss Meyer Lansky.  Lansky was one of the most notorious of the Jewish crime bosses and a valuable money-maker for Joe Masseria's organization which made much of their income through extortion and is reputed to have been one of the most violent gangs of the era.

A gambler, "Red" Steinhardt, as Sol was also sometimes called, partnered with Lansky in Florida and Havana on gambling rackets that helped finance the National Crime Syndicate, alongside Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo, a New York mobster and a high-ranking Capo in the Genovese crime family. 

Before long, Sol Steinhardt's dealings as a farbrekher got him arrested and in 1958 he was sentenced to 5-10 years on each of two counts for his fencing escapades.   Sol served out his sentence at Sing-Sing prison and Dannemora, the maximum security facility along the Canadian border.  According to Michael Steinhardt's autobiography, Steinhardt Sr. paid for his undergraduate education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, –most likely with ill-gotten gains.

Antiquities and Risk 

In 2005 Linda Sandler interviewed Michael Steinhardt on antiquities and risk, after his lost appeals on the gold phiale.  During the interview he said:


I guess some collectors aren't candidates for sainthood either. 

The moral question is this: Suppose you can legally gain the reward and stick other people with the risk. It is easy enough for me to tell you not to do it. But will it change your action? 

By: Lynda Albertson
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* The Merrin Gallery was started by Edward Merrin, now run by his son, Samuel Merrin and Moshe Bronstein, appears in the business records of Sicilian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina, who was charged with receiving and trafficking in looted antiquities.



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.

August 3, 2017

Opensource Reprint: Nekyia “A South Italian Bell-Krater by Python in the Metropolitan Museum of Art”

Given the recent interest in the July 31, 2017 article in the New York Times regarding the Python bell-krater depicting Dionysos with Thyros which was seized by New York authorities from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, ARCA has elected to publish Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis' original Journal of Art Crime article, in its entirety.

Originally published in the Spring 2014 edition of the Journal of Art Crime, ARCA's publication is produced twice per year and is available by subscription which helps to support the association's ongoing mission. Each edition of the JAC contains a mixture of peer-reviewed academic articles and editorials, from contributors authors knowledgeable in this sector.

We hope this article's publication will allow ARCA's regular blog readership and the general public to get a more comprehensive picture of this object's contentious origin.

Please note that Tsirogiannis' requested information from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on both the Bothmer's fund and the full collecting history of theis particular krater's recorded collection history on February 7, 2014, three years and five months before its present seizure by New York authorities.   While the researcher did not say, at the time, that the vase had been identified in the Medici archive, given the focus of Tsirogiannis' research, it is safe to assume that the museum should have had an idea why this particular researcher may have expressed an interest in the vase's provenance and its acquisition via the Bothmer Fund. 
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Nekyia
“A South Italian Bell-Krater by Python in the 
Metropolitan Museum of Art”

In five images from the Medici archive appears a Paestan bell-krater depicting Dionysos with Thyros and phials.  He is seated, along with a woman playing a double-flute with a bird on her lap, in a cart drawn by the god’s aged companion Papposilenos.  Above Papposilenos appears the bust of a woman with a thyrsos, separated from the rest of the scene by a wavy line. Between this bust and Papposilenos, in direct visual alignment with the end of the  flute played by the woman in the cart, appear the Greek letters *ΥΒΡΩΝ (*UBRŌN: the first letter is uncertain; only one roughly horizontal stroke survives, sloping slightly downward to the right at the level of the centre of the following Y). On the reverse side of the vase, two draped youths are depicted between palmettes identical to those that frame the main scene.

Four of the five Medici images are produced on regular photographic paper, and one is a Polaroid image. Two of the regular images are numbered in pen “4/50” and “4/51”, while the Polaroid is numbered “3/214”. The Polaroid image bears a handwritten note underneath: “H. cm 33,5 RΥΒΡΩΝ”. In all five images the krater is depicted intact, but half of the base and part of its rim are covered with soil or salt encrustations. The regular images present the krater standing on a dark red velvet surface. Also visible in these images is a creased brick-red paper stuck on a white surface leaning against the wall behind the vase; it seems that this is intended to complement the velvet base as a background.

The same south-Italian bell-krater surfaced at a Sotheby’s antiquities auction on June 23, 1989 in New York. The consigner of the krater was not named in the auction catalogue and the object was offered as lot 196, under the general title “Other Properties”. No previous collecting history of the vase was mentioned in the catalogue. The estimation price given was $50,000-80,000. The catalogue entry reads:
Paestan Red-Figure Bell Krater, circa 360-350 B.C., painted with a phlyax scene depicting Dionysos and a Maenad seated in a cart pulled by the satyr Papposilenos, the nickname “Hubris” in Greek above him, Dionysos seated and holding a phiale and thrysos [sic], the maenad playing the double-flute, a dove perched on her lap, Papposilenos’ hairy body indicated by white dots, and wearing red anklets and leopard-skin, the bust of a maenad  floating above holding a thrysos [sic], two draped youths in conversation on the reverse; details in added yellow, red, white, and brown wash. Diameter 14 1⁄2 in. (36.8 cm.) 

Attributed to Python. Cf. Mayo, Art of South Italy, no. 106, and Trendall, Red-figured Vases of Paestum, pls. 92, 98, c-f, 99, 100, c-d, 101, e-f, 105, e-f, 107, a-b; also cf. pl. 89, for a vase by Python where Papposilenos is given another appropriate nickname.

The painter Python, and his colleague and probable teacher Asteas, were the most influential of the Paestan vase painters. 

The object was sold for $90,000 (information received by email from Sotheby’s employee, Mr Andrew Gully on March 21, 2014).

Shortly after the Sotheby’s auction in New York, the vase became part of the antiquities collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (henceforth MET). It was given the accession number 1989.11.4. In the MET publication (Picon et al. 2007:239 no.184), the main scene on the obverse is described as follows:

The phlyax scene shows a youthful Dionysos, god of wine, and a flute-playing companion riding a wheeled couch. The draught is provided by an old silenos wearing a fleecy costume under a fawn skin. The inscription above his head reads “Hubris.” The drawing and polychromy, at once  fluent and disciplined, represent Python at his best.

The MET website records that the acquisition was possible due to the “Bothmer Purchase Fund”.

A Tainted Collecting History

Following my previous articles for JAC (Tsirogiannis 2013a-b, discussing antiquities which passed through the hands of Medici), I need not describe at length the implications of the first signifcant fact; the vase appears in the archive of the convicted dealer Giacomo Medici, and no earlier collecting history can be found. It is, however, worth here applying a point made in The Medici Conspiracy on p. 57: the conditions of the photographs themselves confirm that this vase is very likely to have been excavated illegally after 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention against illicit trade in antiquities). The bell-krater is photographed using Polaroid technology not commercially available until after 1972; the krater is situated not in its archaeological context with a measuring tool, but with soil encrustations, on an armchair; in the regular photographs, the vase appears against a background whose brick-red colour seems clumsily matched with the dark red velvet surface, the same surface on which Medici photographed several other antiquities which later proved to be illicit and were repatriated to Italy (e.g. the 20 red-figure plates attributed to the Bryn Mawr Painter, once offered to the Getty Museum: see Watson & Todeschini 2007:95-98, 205; Silver 2010:138-139, 143). It is profoundly clear that the bell-krater was not in a professional environment or treated in a professional way.

Sotheby’s does not disclose the names of the consigners or the buyers of objects, as the company stated when contacted in the recent past while I was researching other cases of antiquities lacking collecting history (Tsirogiannis 2013a:7). Mr. Andrew Gully stated in January 2013: “Sotheby’s does not disclose the names of consigners or buyers. In the future, please use that answer as your guide” (email on behalf of Mr. Richard Keresey, Sotheby’s International Senior Director and Senior Vice President, Antiquities). However, the association between Sotheby’s and Medici has been described at length by Watson (1998:183-193) and Watson & Todeschini (2007:27). The first book led to the permanent closure of four departments of Sotheby’s in London, including the antiquities department; the second provides a detailed image of the continuous business between Sotheby’s and Medici during the 1980s.

The MET has a long history of acquiring looted and smuggled antiquities after the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The two most prominent cases were the Euphronios krater acquired in 1972 from the notorious dealer Robert Hecht during the directorship of Thomas Hoving, and the Morgantina treasure acquired in 1981, again from Hecht, during the directorship of Philippe de Montebello. On February 21, 2006, de Montebello signed an agreement in Rome to return both krater and treasure to Italy among 21 antiquities in total (Povoledo 2006). In January 2012, Italy announced the repatriation of c. 40 vase fragments from the MET; Fabio Isman revealed that the fragments matched vases already repatriated to Italy from North American museums, and noted that these fragments previously belonged to the private collection, kept in the MET, of the museum’s antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer (Italian Ministry of Culture 2012; Isman 2012).

This collection came to prominence again in 2013, when I matched a rhomboid tondo fragment of a kylix by the Euaion Painter at the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome to fragments from the Bothmer collection (Tsirogiannis & Gill forthcoming 2014). Although the MET did not reply to my email requesting the collecting history of the object (February 26, 2013), in July 2013 the Villa Giulia Museum informed me that the MET planned to return the rest of the kylix to Italy.

That match was made possible because the MET had posted (although they then withdrew) images of the fragmented kylix in the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) Object Registry, a website on which museums can post objects lacking full collecting histories before 1970. The Registry covers only objects formally acquired by museums after 2008, which explains why the Python bell-krater does not appear there (last accessed on April 6, 2014). There is no such Registry for objects acquired in the period 1970-2008 and lacking earlier collecting history, but on the basis of this new identification and published reconstruction of the bell-krater’s collecting history, the MET should accept that this object too should be repatriated to Italy, either voluntarily, following the recent example of the Euaion kylix fragments, or, if it comes to court, following the United States vs. Frederick Schultz verdict, by which U.S. law recognized foreign patrimony law (Silver 2010:249; Renfrew 2010:94).

The Need for Further Academic Research

The identification of the vase in the Medici archive, with the handwritten note below the Polaroid image, not only suggests that the vase has most likely been unlawfully removed from Italian soil, but also highlights discrepancies between published interpretations of the main scene depicted on the vase. Let us look more closely at the scholarly descriptions of the vase to which the MET refers on its website.

The MET website gives three sources of publication for the vase; two from Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC) and one from Carlos Picon et al. (2007) Art of the Classical World in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (no. 184, pp. 161, 439). The two references to LIMC turn out to be to the same paragraph, in the supplement to vol. 7, found at the end of vol. 8 (1997:1113, Silenoi no. 20a = “Tybron no. 2”). This reads:

New York, MM 1989.11.4 – Green 93 Abb4.4 - S. Tybron (oder Hybron) Zeiht Dionysos und Auletin auf einem Karren.

This description of the scene gives two readings of the writing on the vase, correctly noting that the  final two letters appear to be Ω N (ŌΝ); the writing is interpreted as a nickname for the old Silenos  figure, using the evidence of a neck-amphora attributed to Python (Trendall 1987: 142, pl.89 no.240) in which Papposilenos appears in the top right corner of an elaborate obverse scene (the birth of Helen from an egg) with the clear inscription ΤΥΒΡΩΝ above. Medici’s vase, it seems, was not known at the time of Trendall’s publication, since Trendall writes (p. 142): ‘this is the  first time [‘papposilen inscribed ΤΥΒΡΩΝ’] has been identifed, though the name is not found elsewhere’. In LIMC, the inscription on the bell-krater is the second such identification but with some uncertainty about the reading (and hence, meaning) of the name.

The LIMC entry, describing Dionysos’ companion on the cart simply as ‘Auletin’, (‘flute-player’), is more neutral in description than the source it cites, John Richard Green in his book Theatre in Ancient Greek Society (1994). Green on p. 93 describes the scene on the krater (pictured in his fig. 4.4), ‘recently acquired’ by the MET, as that of ‘an actor as papposilenos’ pulling Dionysos and ‘Ariadne’ along on a cart (for Green, the bird on her lap is ‘doubtless...a symbol of love’) on a festive occasion, while ‘a maenad keeps them company’. By ‘maenad’ he means the thyrsos-bearing figure in the upper left corner of the scene, separated from the others by a wavy line. Green characterises the vase as “splendid”, referring to it as ‘by Python’, but placing it ‘on the earlier side of the painter’s career.’

There are a number of odd elements in this interpretation; in other vases attributed to Python, busts of figures appearing at the top of the scene, surrounded by a wavy line, are given names (inscriptions above the figures) indicating that they are deities or nymphs (e.g. the red-figured bell-kraters no. GR 1890.2-10.1 and 1917.1210.1 in the British Museum); that is, the wavy line in these cases represents a nimbus and hence the separation of realms. As for ‘Ariadne’, more is needed to support this mythological identification, which is not found in Picon; unlike several Python vases, there are no names on this krater except for the inscription, not mentioned by Green, at the level of the pipes above the Silenos-figure. Finally, Green’s dating of the vase to Python’s earlier period does not find support in the elaborate shape of the palmettes framing the scene, which, detached from the fans below the vase-handles, conform to the ‘standard variety’ rather than the less-developed earlier shapes (for a chronological overview, see Trendall 1987:16). The MET publication, unlike that of Green, refers to the vase as an example of ‘Python at his best.’

Green informs us in an end-note that the vase passed through Sotheby’s in New York, the same year (1989) it was acquired by the museum (Green 1994:192, note no. 8), a fact that is not stated on the MET website. Sotheby’s catalogue is in fact the earliest published attribution of the vase to Python, and the catalogue, although it cites Mayo and Trendall for parallels, does not in this case name the authority for the attribution (as it sometimes does in other cases). While the attribution to Python is most probably correct, the vase is not signed by Python; up to 1987, only two vases signed by Python were known (Trendall 1987:137, 139). It is odd that Sotheby’s cite a parallel in Trendall 1987 (‘another appropriate nickname’ for Silenos) and yet offer the incorrect reading of the inscription as ‘Hubris’, which in turn appears to be the basis for the official description on the MET website (last accessed April 2014) and published by the MET in Carlos Picon et al. (2007:439) (the third bibliographical reference given on the website). The MET too read ‘Hubris’, although citing LIMC, in which we find ‘Tybron (oder Hybron)’. Medici, for all his lack of Greek, did represent the inscription more accurately; the first letter seems to be a T or an H rather than an R, but the fading of the paint makes it uncertain. The ending of the word is more surely ΩΝ (ŌΝ); an abstract quality such as hubris is an unlikely inscription in this context.

It is evident from this outline of the different interpretations that further professional study is required.

Conclusion

We have highlighted both the partial nature of the collecting history given in all published sources, and the differences in the scholarly analyses of the vase. The fact that the MET’s bell krater – only the second vase on which papposilenos is given another name - is not included in Trendall’s 1987 corpus of Paestum vases indicates that the vase surfaced after 1987. However, Trendall’s 1987 reading of the neck-amphora inscription seems not to be exploited either in Sotheby’s reading of the inscription on the bell-krater in 1989 or the reading by Picon et al. in 2007.

Green alone mentions all the sources published at his time. Nevertheless, apart from this vase, there appear in Green’s book images of other vases that later turned out to be illicit (e.g. Green 1994:30,  g. 2.9, an Attic red-figure calyx-krater with two members of a bird chorus about a piper, at the Getty Museum; Green 1994:46,  g. 2.21, a Terentine red-figure bell-krater with comic scene showing a slave and two choregoi with a figure of Aigisthos, formerly in the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection and, later, at the Getty museum); these were likewise depicted in Polaroid images from the Medici archive; they were repatriated to Italy (Godart, De Caro & Gavrili 2008:102-103 and 138-139, respectively).

The MET has several questions to answer. What is the ‘Bothmer Purchase Fund’? It has been proved that Dietrich von Bothmer played a crucial role in the acquisition of archaeological material, looted and smuggled after 1970, both on behalf of the MET and for his personal collection formed during the same period (Gill 2012:64; this obvious conflict of interest was overlooked by the museum; see Felch 2012, Tsirogiannis & Gill forthcoming 2014). My email to the MET (February 7, 2014), querying this point and requesting the full collecting history of the krater, remains unanswered, although it was sent to three different offices. No contact details for the Department of Greek and Roman Art are available on the museum website.

In a wider perspective, the Python bell-krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of many similar cases. North American museums, recently found to have acquired illicit antiquities, and forced to return those objects, still have in their possession many more. The very museums which advertise their care for transparency, in practice continue to conceal the full collecting history of tainted objects they own, and wait for them to be discovered. In this regard, the story of the Python bell-krater case is absolutely typical.

ARCA's publication is produced twice per year and is available by subscription which helps to support the association's ongoing mission. Each edition of the JAC contains a mixture of peer-reviewed academic articles and editorials, from contributors authors knowledgeable in this sector.
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Author's Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Dr. Helen Van Noorden for her comments and her overall help. My thanks go to Mr Andrew Gully (Sotheby’s) for providing me with the hammer price for the bell krater in the June 23, 1989 auction.

August 1, 2017

Three years in the making: The case of “A South Italian Bell-Krater by Python in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” results in seizure.

On June 1, 2014 this blog published a distilled version of an academic investigation which heavily documented details from an article in the Spring 2014 Journal of Art Crime which highlighted the illicit origin of a possibly trafficked Bell-krater.  The author of the peer-reviewed journal article, Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, is an expert on illicit antiquities trafficking and objects identification who also teaches with ARCA's as part of our postgraduate art crime program.* 

At the time ARCA published Tsirogiannis' long-form article, the krater was on display in Gallery 161 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Attributed to the artist Python (active ca. 350 – 325 BCE) of Poseidonia (Paestan), the vase depicts Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, along with a flute-playing companion.

By comparing a series of five photos which are part of the confiscated and now infamous Medici archive, Tsirogiannis believed that the krater should be seized from the Met Museum, as the likelihood of it having been looted was quite high.

The photos reviewed by Tsirogiannis were part of the art market records of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2005 of receiving stolen goods and conspiracy to traffic looted antiquities. Given the presence of one damning polaroid in particular, it seemed very probable that this vase had passed through Medici's known network of suppliers who dealt in looted objects.

Medici polaroid of Python's bell-krater
The Polaroid SX-70 camera model was a boon in DIY photography, but the point and shoot camera did not arrive on the European market until 1972. As the new technology produced clear images with no separate negatives, its ready-in-a-instant photos could not be manipulated or altered.  They also didn't require a visit to a risky photo lab in order to develop rolls of film, making them perfect for amateur pornographers.

But the Polaroid SX-70 also became the camera of choice among many Italian looters of the period. The camera's instant photo capabilities meant traffickers too didn't have to worry about the photomat attendant making extra copies or notifying the authorities if their photos were deemed suspicious. By bypassing the film developing stage, the Polaroid photos could be shared directly between looter, middleman or antiquities dealer directly reducing the chance of detection.  This advent of this type of photography offered traffickers and their dealer counterparts with authentic and voyeuristic antiquities porn, which often memorialized the harsh reality of the looters handiwork.

Many such images, as with a Polaroid picture of Python's bell-krater, were found in Medici's confiscated business records.  In other repatriation cases, these photos have been used in evidentiary proceedings to establish object identifications and as documentation of the passages the object took from looter to dealer to the licit market.  So while the photos once were a book for the criminal they now serve law enforcement as evidence resulting in antiquities forfeiture from some of the world's most prestigious museums.

Some of the Polaroids in Medici's archive show antiquities in the trunks of cars, spread out on kitchen tables or on floors. In the photo of this particular Bell-Krater, the object appears to have been placed on a rose-coloured upholstered chair or sofa.   This same background surface can be seen in another Medici archive photo analyzed by Maurizio Pellegrini and Daniela Rizzo of Italy’s Soprintendenza Beni Archeologici Etruria Meridionale at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia. That identification involved antiquities which were later proven to be illicit and were repatriated to Italy (e.g. plates attributed to the Bryn Mawr Painter, once offered to the Getty Museum).

The 1972 date of the Polaroid SX-70 arrival in Europe is important as it proves that this object was likely dug up after the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  This international treaty was the first international instrument dedicated to the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property and made it illegal to export cultural property from signatory nations like Italy.  Despite this, the bell-krater arrived to the United States and was auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on June 23, 1989, selling for $90,000.  This is the same year that the object entered the Met’s antiquities collection, acquired by the museum via the Bothmer Purchase Fund, named for the longtime Met curator who died in 2009.**



But let's take a close look at this object and its photographic records, comparing a second Medici dossier photograph of the bell-krater with its counterpart from the Department of Greek and Roman Art collection online at the Metropolitan Museum.

NOTE:  The "See additional object information" link on this Bell-Krater, which would nominally list any and all collecting information the museum chose to document publically regarding this acquisition, was permanently removed from the Metropolitan Museum website.

Photo Left: from Medici's Archive depicting bell-krater highlighting salt encrustations
Photo Right: Archival Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
The Medici archive photo clearly shows the Python Bell-krater with salt encrustations at its base, while the vase's current restored condition in the museum's photo does not.   With this photo comparison we can hypothesize that Giacomo Medici was acutely aware of the vase's existence after 1972 and possibly in direct contact with participants connected with the vase's looting, before the object was restored.

Uncomfortable questions for uncomfortable museums

According to a New York Times article yesterday, July 31, 2017, this bell-krater has been seized by New York State authorities at the behest of an investigation initiated by New York State Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, to which Tsirogiannis provided detailed information.  A copy of the warrant can be found here.  Treading lightly in its opening photo caption, the NYT's article by Tom Mashberg delicately states that "A vessel known as a krater that the Metropolitan Museum of Art turned in to the district attorney’s office in Manhattan after a warrant was issued last week." This makes the seizure seem almost cooperative in nature, which to me seems a bit generous.

Tsirogiannis emailed the Metropolitan Museum on February 7, 2014, asking that his message questioning the object's origins be forwarded to the curatorial staff for the Department of Greek and Roman Art whose email is not available on the museum's website.  In his email he requested a full collecting history of the krater.  His email went unanswered.

The fact that this case was subsequently published in ARCA's Journal of Art Crime which outlined the museum's failure to respond, then in a blog post published on this blog, and again in a May 2017 journalistic piece in the National Geographic should have elicited some sort of public acknowledgement or rebuttal on the museum's part.   Instead the Met continued with its non-responsive stance with Tsirogiannis and failed to acknowledge the brewing conundrum in a proactive way.

In today's New York Times article Mashberg states

Officials said the museum had noticed Dr. Tsirogiannis’s published research in 2014 and, indeed, had been troubled by the reappearance of Mr. Medici’s name in connection with an artifact. They said they reached out informally to the Italian authorities then, but received no response.

It is not clear what "troubled" and "reached out informally means" or why, given the objects connection with a convicted trafficker and its likely looted state, why the museum didn't attempt to repatriate the object voluntarily.

Page 7 of the AAMD guidelines "Introduction to the Revisions to the 2008 Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art" reads:

"If a member museum, as a result of its continuing research, gains information that establishes another party’s right to ownership of a Work, the museum should bring this information to the attention of the party, and if the case warrants, initiate the return of the Work to that party, as has been done in the past. In the event that a third party brings to the attention of a member museum information supporting the party’s claim to a Work, the museum should respond promptly and responsibly and take whatever steps are necessary to address this claim, including, if warranted, returning the Work, as has been done in the past."

I guess the museum's voluntary informal notification, its only proactive gesture towards an object of concern in three years, could be commended, but to me their actions towards righting a potential wrong were insufficient.  Yes, the museum brought "this information to the attention of the party" by contacting the Italian authorities as mentioned in the NYT article.  But despite this preliminary step, they failed to respond to an academic researcher's request for further clarification on the object's provenance, then removed the object's spartan collection details from their website completely.

Museums can and should do better.  

While the AAMD is committed to the exercise of due diligence and enhanced transparency in the acquisition process, and to demonstrating that accessioned objects in museum collections are out of their country of modern discovery prior to or legally exported therefrom after November 17, 1970, the Metropolitan Museum only adhered to a fraction of the Association's recommended guidelines in its handling of this object.

Passively waiting for a law enforcement seizure, like a wait and watch approach to a potential cancer,  should not be an acceptable protocol with suspect antiquities which documentation has proved require fuller due diligence. Especially when the museum was well informed that there was a brewing issue surrounding the object in question.

By: Lynda Albertson
_____________________________________________

*You may read Dr. Tsirogiannis’ article on this object in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime by subscribing via the ARCA website or ordering the issue through Amazon.com.

** Bothmer played a crucial role in the acquisition of archaeological material, looted and smuggled after 1970, both on behalf of the MET and for his personal collection formed during the same period.

July 26, 2017

The world of art policing has lost one of its finest.

"Everyone should realize that a cultural heritage
identifies a people; it is the founding stone that shouldn't be
scattered." --Roberto Conforti
"Nel pomeriggio, in Roma, è venuto a mancare il Sig. Generale Roberto Conforti, già Cte del TPA, un signore vero ed un grandissimo dell'Arma, possa Lui riposare in pace."

Sometimes referred to as the "General of Culture" General B(a) CC Roberto Conforti served as General of Italy's Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, commanding the group from 1991 until September 01, 2002.  Part soldier, part museum curator, sometimes tough guy and genteel art lover, his life was dedicated to the protection of Italy's artistic treasures. 

Respected by all, when he was first tasked to oversee the squad, the Carabinieri TPC corps counted just sixty men, responsible for the formidable task of protecting Italy's 96,500 churches and an untold number of archaeological sites, both known and unknown. The unit's growth to its present size of almost 300 officers is due in no small part to Conforti's development of the world's most famous art crime police force and its investigative prowess.


Conforti was born in Southern Italy in Serre, near Salerno and enlisted in the Carabinieri when he was just nineteen. While famous today for his intensive work in the sector of art crimes, Conforti first spent an extensive period of his career working against some of Italy’s most notorious, dangerous, and impregnable criminals in Sardinia and Naples.   Having cut his teeth on organized crime, he then transferred to Rome in the late 1970s, where he first oversaw an operational unit responsible for terrorism investigations involving the Red Brigades, a militant group responsible for numerous violent incidents, including assassinations, kidnapping and robberies during Italy’s so-called "Years of Lead".

Conforti passed away today at the age of 79.  He is survived by his wife Filomena and his children. As the officers who worked with him throughout his long career can best attest, few individuals have left such an important mark on the art crime fighting world. 

Generale Conforti's funeral will take place on Friday, Jul 28 at 12.00 noon at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, via del Caravita n. 8/a (Rione Pigna) in Rome, flanking the Carabinieri TPC headquarters he oversaw with dedication for so many years.

Condolences can be mailed to the family at:
Via Prisciano, 67
00136 Roma - RM
Italia

Resterai per sempre nei nostri cuori.

July 21, 2017

Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Hiring Plan at the Museum of the Bible

Long before the news broke about a US Civil Complaint requiring forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae, or Egypt's more recent concern about its trafficked papyrus, the Museum of the Bible's decision-making regarding who to hire and for what purpose was a bit off center.

In 2015,  I created a list of known persons who had identified themselves as Museum of the Bible employees using available open source data out of growing concern for their collection practices.  At that time, only a limited number of the individuals had any formal museum or curatorial background, and the few that did were frequently at the nascent stage of their professional careers.  None of those I documented listed anything in their backgrounds that would have attested to having had experience in ethical collection management. 

 

Additionally, only one employee was listed as a conservator/restorer.  Given the size of the future museum, and its burgeoning collection, one would assume that personnel with experience in both these important skillsets would have been required and should have been a top priority for a museum with a growing and extensive collection of objects and manuscripts.

Instead, the restorer of record had no formal conservation training, and listed his university degrees as having a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Sciences and Journalism. One curator of Cuneiform tablets had no museum experience at all and listed his former posting as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. Another curator, of Medieval Manuscripts, had been a summer intern at the Smithsonian.

Revisiting this list, to see who may have come and who may have gone since the first list was compiled, I also came across two newish job announcements.  The first is for a registrar, and includes some normal registrar duties as well as a hodgepodge of other duties:


The second job posting however was extremely specific and was not your run of the mill typical museum vacancy.  It seemed the Museum of the Bible was looking for an Intelligence & Investigations Specialist, "to obtain and evaluate intelligence concerning threat information and conduct investigations into possible illegal activity against Museum of the Bible (MOTB), to ensure the security and safety of MOTB assets and interests."


While museums and their museum security risk managers routinely look at threat levels as part of their wider risk assessments, this job description seems to be a lot more specific.

  • Conduct predictive threat analysis to support domestic and international Executive Protection operations for VIPs, designated individuals, and MOTB staff as directed.

But enough on potential new hires.  Filing away those that have worked for the Museum of the Bible in the past and have subsequently left the Green's museum behind,  I thought I would also try to see where former collaborator Dr. Scott Carroll has been keeping himself over the last year since parting ways with the Washington DC apologists.

Instead of dissolving mummy masks in Palmolive soap...


In April of this year he also spent a bit of time at St. Andrew's Church in Hong Kong giving some inspirational talks with some of his old friends including Josh McDowell and colleague Todd Hillard.  Carroll identifies himself as the CEO of the "Inspired" exhibit, a travelling showcase of religious-themed objects where attendees are "immersed in the finest collection of biblical artifacts that had ever been in the city: Papyrus fragments, cuneiform tablets, medieval manuscripts, stunning Hebrew scrolls, and some of the most important early translations of the Bible in the world."  

Does the melody to this song sound familiar?

One of the objects in this travelling exhibition was this Taj Torah, purportedly produced in Yemen in the 17th century.

https://www.facebook.com/lhmhk/photos/a.171038406282348.48921.166677980051724/1486097368109772/?type=3&theater
While in Hong Kong Carroll also popped in for a dedication ceremony at Evangel Seminary, affiliated under the Evangelical Free Church of China, where a Torah scroll was being donated by Ken and Barbara Larson.



The Larsons, founders of the family-owned furniture chain Slumberland, have purchased Torah scrolls as apologetic tools for establishing the reliability of the word of God with the intention of giving many of them to evangelical seminaries.  

Torah's are normally retired to a Genizah, a vault, or a protected receptacle, in which holy things which are posul are kept until burial. When holy objects are no longer in use as according to Jewish law, they cannot be destroyed, but should be treated with the same respect and care allotted the deceased.


One of these, the Larson-Bethel Baghdad Torah dates predominantly to the early 17th century.


Carroll states the Torah dedicated to Evangel Seminary in these videos “comes from Eastern Europe, very likely from Germany”  and “dates to the 18th century.”


According to statements in the video, the Larson's currently list their donation count at 36. 

Carroll's next 2017 stop was Bangkok, Thailand, where he recently concluded a teaching assignment on Bible Backgrounds and Ancient Cultures in early July.   Sadly none of these religious outreach visits seemed to include any mention of the ministry of collecting ethically. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

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 14, 2017

Recipe for a museum theft: 5 seized vehicles, 4 shotguns, a six-figure sum of money, and a pinch of organized crime.


When a giant gold coin, weighing 100 kilos was stolen from the Bode Museum in the early morning hours of March 27, 2017 it was pretty obvious that there might be insider involvement.  Even if the group of burglars had entered the Berlin museum through a forced window, evading the prestigious museum's alarm system, hacking their way through the exhibit's attack-proof glass case and then carting the heavy coin away in a wheelbarrow.

But this week's raids, carried out by authorities in Neukölln, Berlin’s most impoverished district, turned up an interesting wrinkle; three of the four men taken into custody, Abdel R. (18), Ahmed R. (19), and Wissam R. (20) appear to have ties to a Middle Eastern crime syndicate referred to as the “R. family*. The fourth suspect, Dennis W. was German and had just gotten a subcontracting job at the Bode Museum as a supervisor shortly before the robbery.  Nine others, individuals, older members of the same “R” clan, are also under investigation with the German authorities.    

Al-Zein, Fakhro, Omeirat, Osman, Miri, Remmo

These are grandfamilies of Lebanese-Kurdish descent who immigrated to Germany during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Many moved to immigrant neighborhoods like those in Kreuzberg, Wedding, and Neukölln where this week's raids took place.  Some of these families originate with the Mhallami community, a tightly-knit group of families with origins in the Mardin Province of Southeastern Turkey who had previously lived in Beirut, Tripoli, and the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.

Members of several of these families have been criminally conspicuous, gaining reputations for trafficking, racketeering and robbery, some of which have been spectacular in their execution. 

While searching 20 apartments and making yesterday's arrests, authorities seized four firearms, five vehicles and "a low six-figure sum" in cash. 

Given that all four of the arrested co-conspirators are under 21 years old, the case will be tried in the regional Jugendstrafkammer, Germany's regional youth criminal court.

By Lynda Albertson




EC Proposal on Plundering, Smuggling and the Importing Illicit Cultural Heritage in the European Union

Image Credit: European Commission Audiovisual Services



If adopted by the EU's 28 member nations and by the European Parliament, the measures would enter into force in 2019.  

Reinforcing the powers of customs authorities the commission’s plan focuses on:
  • A common EU definition for 'cultural goods' at importation which would cover objects such as archaeological finds, ancient scrolls, the remains of historical monuments or artworks that are at least 250 years old at the moment of importation.  This material would be divided into two principal categories:
        --archaeological objects, parts of monuments and ancient manuscripts and               books,

        --goods such as artwork, collections, and antiques.
  • A licensing system for the import of these object classes which would require importers to have obtained import licences from the competent authorities in the EU before importing objects into the EU.
  • Applying a more rigorous certification system by submitting a signed statement or affidavit as proof that the goods have been exported legally from the third country.
  • Customs authorities having the power to seize and retain goods when it cannot be demonstrated that the cultural goods in question have been legally exported.
  • Increasing public awareness, specifically targeting those who both trade in and purchase cultural goods as their personal or economically driven desire to own ancient art, frequently fails to put emphasis on an object’s origins or legality during the purchasing decision making process. 
All this sounds good in concept, but implementing future regulations and then enforcing them is another thing.  

New Regulations, but the ability to inforce them? 

According to 2016 annual trade data on art and antiques, sales at auction and through private sales and by art and antique dealers for classical antiquities in Europe were estimated at $66.7 million, larger than the U.S. market ($51.56 million).

In contrast Belgium's federal police unit dedicated to fighting illegal trafficking of cultural property, once part of the central directorate against serious and organised crime, made up of five persons in 2006, was reduced to two investigators and then quietly eliminated in 2016. 

Per a recent email in London, a city where one of the Europe's busiest antiquities art markets resides, the city's Art & Antiques Unit of SCO7, with the Metropolitan Police has been operationally suspended since June 19, 2017 in light of the recent incidents in London.  The unit's automated email reply states the unit has been redeployed for three months and they are therefore unable to accept any new enquiries at this time, adding "we hope to be back in the Autumn."

ARCA hopes so too. 

July 8, 2017

Thou Shall Not Covet thy Neighbor's Cuneiform

Op/Ed By:  Lynda Albertson

As the US press and social media came alive in condemnation as a result of the Hobby Lobby smuggling case, I couldn't help but notice that while the hashtag #HobbyLobbyisISIS is noticeably attention-grabbing, (as well as probably inaccurate), the more important facet of the "is-that-object-looted" puzzle was still being overlooked. 

I asked myself, instead of simply rewording the press release announcement released by the government, why hadn't US news organizations dug deeper into the development of the Green Collection in ancient art.  Especially since everyone now seems hellbent, (excuse the pun) on crucifying the fundamentalist Christian collector or finding some way to tie Hobby Lobby to Da'esh.

This is a case that has been widely publicized since 2015, and it's not the only time the Greens or their large collection have come under scrutiny or been accused of acquiring objects through untrustworthy channels with illicit ties.  

In June 2014 Dr. David Trobisch, Director of Collections for the Museum of the Bible even attended ARCA’s annual art crime conference where he heard concerns made by Dr. Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist and ancient historian from the University of Manchester about the Green Collection's unprovenanced papyrus fragments.  Those fragments however were not mentioned in this current civil complaint. 

While this US civil forfeiture case underscores that illicit traffic in cultural objects contributes to the despoliation of a country's ancient heritage and causes irreparable loss to the world's heritage knowledge, why is it then that the public only wakes up and takes notice when ISIS ties are tangentially inferred?

Are trafficked Middle East artifacts only worthy of the world's indignation when they are looted to fund terrorism?  


As the general public responded to the press coverage over the last two days most of the grumbling I've come across was either ISIS-funding related or centered on whether or not the punishment fit the crime.   I use the word "crime" here loosely because no criminal charges were filed for the looting and theft of the 450 ancient cuneiform tablets and 3,000 ancient clay bullae which ultimately were the subject of this civil forfeiture.  

In civil cases, the object of the law is the redress of wrongs by compelling compensation or restitution.  As those following this case closely are painfully aware, civil law deals with the disputes between individuals, organizations, or between the two, in which compensation can be awarded to the victim.  Criminal law is the body of law that deals with crime and the legal punishment of criminal offenses.

A civil fine is not a criminal punishment.  

Civil case fines are primarily sought in federal investigations in order to compensate the state for harm done to it, rather than to punish a wrongful conduct, something many like myself would have liked to have seen happen given the Green's less than stellar record when it comes to vetting antiquities for inclusion in their collection.   In this case, Hobby Lobby only suffers so much harm as is necessary to make good the wrong they have done (to the state). 

Civil penalties, in this case a $3M fine, do not carry any jail time or other legal penalties.  This fact illustrates why no one from Hobby Lobby was criminally charged, despite the large number of objects seized and subsequently forfeited.

This may also explain the absence of any noticeable public remorse on Hobby Lobby's part for their role in this antiquities smuggling affair.  The lack of regret can also be seen in the unrepentant statement by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, in his company's press release after the federal civil ruling was publicized. 


Was new to the world of acquiring these items?  Did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items?

Let's look at his statements more closely.  

While Hobby Lobby, may be "new" to the world of acquiring antiquities, the fact that it has purchased more than 40,000 objects since November 2009 does not in any way make it a neophyte collector of ancient art.  

In addition to the cuneiform tablets seized in this well publicized case, the Green Collection already had in its possession the third largest holding of cuneiform tablets in North America (over 10,000 pieces). This means Green and Hobby Lobby by proxy had ample prior opportunity to explore what could and should go on any customs declaration for objects that contain writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia between 3500-3000 BCE.  

In 2010, a year before the seized cuneiform tablets arrived in Memphis, the Greens had also already consulted with Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural heritage law expert with DePaul University 's College of Law, about import restrictions for ancient antiquities who is reported to have advised them about their need for deeper due diligence in their collecting.   Given Gerstenblith's impeccable familiarity with the cultural heritage law, it can be assumed that the Greens as collectors were not as ignorantly naive to the road they were embarking down as the firm's press statement this week seems to imply.

But setting aside the intricacies of import and customs documentation specifically related to ancient antiquities coming from Iraq, Hobby Lobby itself has some 32,000 employees, 750 stores in forty-seven states, and $4 billion in yearly revenue, much of it based on imported items. 

It's corporate headquarters include a 9.2 million-square-foot manufacturing, distribution, and office complex in Oklahoma City.  Its warehouse has an hourly employee base of 2500+ employees with 80+ members of management, headed by an Assistant Vice President of Warehouse Operations, who reports to the Senior Vice President of Distribution.

When importing merchandise from foreign countries Hobby Lobby is fully aware there are certain trade laws and regulations, and that U.S. Customs oversees the compliance of those laws. They even have an international department responsible for training and compliance to ensure the import process go smoothly, not to mention a manual outlining laws and regulations, valuation, assists, and country of origin requirements which can be downloaded here

So to imply to the public that Hobby Lobby "imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items" seems a bit unapologetic coming from an apologist.   

Especially given Green's business thrives on supply-chain distribution members in its shipping department who would have to have, given the large scale operation of receiving imported cargo from across the globe in support of Hobby Lobby's national operations, sufficient knowledge of what the legal requirements are for import.  If they didn't, they certainly knew who to ask. 

As I have mentioned in a previous post, the estimated 40,000+ objects in the Green Collection equates to acquiring 6,666 objects per year or collecting a whopping 18 new objects per day.  Compare that acquisition rate to the number of employees working on the Green's or the Museum of the Bible's payroll who are tasked with historic object provenance and one can easily surmise that an object's ethical collection history has never been either group's overriding priority.  

Emphasis instead has been on filling the Museum of the Bible, Washington DC's about-to-be-opened 430,000-square-foot, eight story massive red brick museum located over the Federal Center SW Metro station.  To put that into perspective, one NFL football field is 57,600 square feet.  The Museum of the Bible has seven and a half football fields of space it needs to fill. 

Given the scale of archaeological theft in biblical area source countries and the number of objects with questionable origins which have already been identified by various researchers following the Green Collection prior to this forfeiture, it's time for Hobby Lobby's founders to do more than just open their wallets, purchase, and if caught, pay civil fines and forfeit the objects in question.

Opening their wallets has been the crux of the problem, as the Green's appetite for unprovenanced antiquities, and the profits to be had from this appetite, have likely been a motivating factor for others to loot, thereby destroying whatever context the objects may have had.

It's time for the Greens to fulfill the promise previously made by their employee. 

In 2014 the director of Collections at the Museum of the Bible, David Trobisch, informed Dr. Roberta Mazza that the Green Collection was going towards full digitisation and open access.  This has yet to happen. 

They should also make every effort, before making any further acquisitions, to ensure that the objects they are purchasing have been legally obtained and been legally exported from their country of origin.  

If the Greens truly want to make amends, they should fill their future Museum of the Bible with acquisitions collected ethically, and make the details of their past purchases open to researchers and investigators so that they can start to set things right by restituting any objects previously purchased without sufficient moral and ethical consideration. 

Exodus 20:15 and 17 King James Version (KJV): 

“Thou shalt not steal." 

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

I think that includes cuneiform tablets, clay bullae, incantation bowls and papyrus fragments.