Showing posts with label Aboutaams. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aboutaams. Show all posts

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.



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