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

January 15, 2018

IDs from the archives in the Michael Steinhardt and Phoenix Ancient Art seizures

Image Credits:
Left - Symes Archive, Middle - New York DA, Right - Symes Archiv,

Earlier today ARCA was informed by Christos Tsirogiannis of matches that he has made from the confiscated archives of Medici, Becchina and Symes-Michaelides which are related to the recent antiquities seizures made by the state of New York law enforcement authorities earlier this month.

Identifications made from these archives, confiscated by the Italian authorities (with the cooperation of the French and Swiss) and Greek police and judicial authorities, have already facilitated numerous repatriations of antiquities which have passed through the hands of traffickers whose networks are known to have plundered objects from Italy and Greece.

Of the 16 artifacts reported as seized by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office from the home and office of retired hedge-fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt and Phoenix Ancient Art, an ancient art gallery co-owned by Hicham Aboutaam in New York City, Tsirogiannis has tied 9 objects conclusively to photos in all three archives.  Several others objects might be a match, but the DA's publically released photos have been taken from differing angels or opposite sides of the objects so they remain to be confirmed.

The object at the top of this article, a Greek Attic Monumental White-Ground Lekythos used to pour ritual oils at funeral ceremonies, seized from Michael Steinhardt's property,  matches 5 images from the archive of British former antiquities dealer Robin Symes, all of which depict the vessel from various sides.


The Proto - Corinthian pottery figural representing an owl;
the Corinthian terracotta figural vessel representing a lion;
the Corinthian Bull’s Head;
the Ionian sculpture figural representing a ram’s head;
and the Attic Aryballos in the form of a Head of an African;
--were each purchased by Steinhardt in either 2009 or 2011.

These 5 objects along with the Rhodian Seated Monkey seized at Phoenix Ancient Art each match photographs found in the archive of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.

The Apulian Rhyton for libations in the form of a Head of an African listed in the warrant appears in a photocopied photo in the archive of antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina.

It should be noted that in the joined composite image of the archive photos above, each of the six antiquities have been photographed by someone using the same light-colored hessian (burlap) material as a neutral background.  This could indicate that the antiquities where photographed by a singular individual once the objects arrived under Medici's control. Alternatively, it could mean that the ancient objects have been photographed by a singular individual who then shopped the objects, directly or indirectly, through illicit channels to Medici, who in turn, kept the photographs in his archive as part of his inventory recordkeeping.

As demonstrated by this case, each of these dealer's inventory photos provide valuable insight into the illicit trade in antiquities and which when combined, includes thousands of ancient objects from all over the world.  Many of these objects, those without documented collection histories, likely passed through the hands of smugglers, middlemen, and antiquities dealers who "laundered” the illicit objects onto the licit market.

It would be interesting to know, from the antiquities buyer's perspective, how many private investors of ancient art, having knowingly or unknowingly purchased illicit antiquities in the past only to later decide to facilitate a second round of laundering themselves, by culling the object from their collection and reselling the hot object on to another collector.  By intentionally failing to disclose the name of a known tainted dealer these antiquities collectors avoid having to take any responsibility for the fact that they too have now become players in the game.

While staying mum further facilitates the laundering of illicit antiquities, this option may be seen as far easier to collectors who have invested large sums into their collections than admitting they purchased something, unwisely or intentionally, with a less than pristine provenance pedigree.  To admit to having bought something that potentially could be looted might bring about the loss of value to the asset.  Furthermore by confirming that the antiquity has an illicit background as verified in these archives, would then render the object worthless on the licit art market.  Worse still, it is likely that their antiquity would then be subject to seizure and repatriation.

By: Lynda Albertson

January 9, 2018

List of 6 (additional) objects and warrant details on objects seized from Phoenix Ancient Art by New York State District Attorney's Office

Copy of search warrant executed at Phoenix Ancient Art in New York can be viewed here.

On Friday, January 5, 2018, Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., and assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos also initiated seizures at Phoenix Ancient Art, New York, in connection with an investigation into the purchase of illicitly trafficked antiquities.

The second-generation family business Phoenix Ancient Art has galleries in New York and Geneva. The business was founded by Sleiman Aboutaam in 1968 and is now operated by his sons, Hicham and Ali Aboutaam.  The Aboutaam name comes up frequently on ARCA's blog. 

The search warrants executed at 47 East 66th street resulted in the seizure of the following objects:


A) Rhodian Seated Monkey with missing arms (the “Seated Monkey”)
Period: dating to 580-550 BCE
Measurement: 5.25 inches tall
Valued at: $150,000


B) Attic Female Head Flask (the Female Head Flask”)
Period: dating to 500-490 BCE
Measurement: 5.5 inches tall by 2 inches wide.
Valued at: $80,000


C) Ionian figural vessel representing a Siren (the”Siren Vessel”)
Period: dating to 500-525 BCE
Measurement: 4 inches tall by 4.5 inches wide.
Valued at: $35,000


D) Teano Ware figural representing a Dove (the “Dove”).
Period: dating to 330-300 BCE
Measurement: 4.5 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide.
Valued at: $25,000


E) Corinthian figural representing a Ram (the “Ram”) painted with black dots.
Period: dating to the 6th century BCE
Measurement: 2 1/8 inches tall by 3 1/8 inches wide
Valued at: $20,000


F) Corinthian figural representing a Sea-Serpent with a human torso and head of a man (the “Sea-Serpent”) painted with black dots.
Period: dating to the 6th century BCE
Measurement: 4.5 inches tall by 1.75 inches wide
Valued at: $140,000

In addition to the antiquities, as with the seizures which were executed at Michael Steinhardt's residence and office, the DA's seizure warrant called for the seizure of:

any and all documentation or other evidence related to the appraisal, consignment, sale, possession, transportation, shipping, provenance, importation, exportation, restoration, marketing, or insurance of the listed antiquities, including but not limited to appraisals, insurance policies, agreements, leases, contracts, emails, letters, invoices, receipts, documents, handwritten notes, internal memoranda, photographs, recordings, financial records, address books, date books, calendars, and personal papers;

found in the premises and that constitutes evidence, and tends to demonstrate that the crime of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree was committed.

January 8, 2018

Venezuela has returned nearly 200 pre-Columbian stone and ceramic archaeological artifacts to Costa Rica

Image Credit: Ernesto Emilio Villegas Poljak,
Minister of Culture, Venezuela @VillegasPoljak
As a welcome start to 2018 repatriations, Venezuela has returned 196 pre-Columbian stone and ceramic archaeological artifacts to Costa Rica created by the indigenous cultures and peoples who once populated the Americas.

The pieces, some 96 crates in total, weighing in at a whopping 5,000 kilos, had been trafficked illegally.  The repatriated cargo includes two of the incredibly mysterious pre-Columbian spheres sculpted from gabbro, the coarse-grained equivalent of basalt, believed to have been created by the Diquís civilization, as well as pottery, vases, human figurines, zoomorphic ocarinas (musical instruments), and metates (grain-grinding stones).

The ancient cargo arrived to Port Moin in Limón, Costa Rica by boat on Tuesday, January 2, 2018 and concretized Guatemala's promise to return plundered goods, once part of a controversial private collector's extensive collection. 


Found deep in the jungles of Costa Rica, the Las Bolas petrospheres (literally "the balls") of the Diquís civilization date back to the Aguas Buenas Period (300–800 CE) and Chiriquí Period (800–1550 CE).  Some researchers believe the round stone balls, varying in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter, may possibly have served as landmarks, though their exact significance remains uncertain. 

The Las Bolas were discovered in the 1930s when Companía Bananera de Costa Rica, a branch of the United Fruit Company, began clearing portions of the nutrient-rich jungle delta in preparation for banana cultivation.  They are unique to Costa Rica. 


In October 2016, La Nacion published a special report titled "Memoria Robata" which revealed a longstanding network of Costa Rican traffickers supplying the illicit market of global archaeological art.

Beginning in 2014 Venezuela began making significant progress in its fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property. One of the country's most important cases included the seizures of archaeological pieces from Case Männil, also known as the Casa de los Jaguares (the House of the Jaguars), a property which belonged to the alleged Estonian Nazi collaborator Harry Männil. 

After the Second World War, Männil, also known as Harry Mannil Laul, spent most of his life in Latin America, and until a few years before his death resided in Venezuela.  During his lifetime he was considered to be one of Venezuela's powerhouse businessman serving as one of the founders of the country's ACO, C.A., a holding company for an umbrella organization of over eighty companies engaged in a wide variety of industries throughout the country.  

Despite being listed as the 10th most wanted Nazi criminal by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for crimes against jews while working for the political police in 1941–1942 during the German occupation of Estonia, Männil was awarded the Order of the Star of Carabobo and the Order of Francisco de Miranda by the Venezuelan government.

As a philanthropist and art collector, Männil was also owner of one of the world’s largest and most coveted private collections of art.  In 1997 his collection of pre-Columbian art, modern Latin American art, and art of the South American Indigenous people influenced Artnews to list him as one of the 200 most important private collectors in the world. 

Despite that art market accolade, the possession, trade and trafficking of pre-Columbian art has been severely banned in Costa Rica since 1982 and the country's laws state that all discovered historic objects from specific periods must be relinquished into the hands of the state.

Costa Rica's national laws define cultural property as: 

National archaeological heritage in Costa Rica is defined as:

As a result of national law, the National Museum of Costa Rica filed a formal complaint against both Harry Mannil Laul and his son Mikhel Mannil D’Empaire, for the “illegal trade in archaeological property” laying claim to significant portions of the family's collection.

After Mannil passed away on January 11, 2010, Costa Rican authorities raided his farm in San Rafael de Heredia on July 22, 2010 and seized 108 pieces of pre-Columbian art, including fourteen additional Bolas. Officials at that time stated that the pieces had been obtained through illegal purchase which broke the country's law against trafficking in archaeological artifacts.

Pre-Columbian pieces seized in 2010 in the San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rican
home of Harry Mannil. Image Credit: La Nacion
In 2010 fifty-six pieces of Männil’s collection were seized by the Customs Police and the Institute of Cultural Heritage of Venezuela, when the family tried to export the Pre-Columbian objects to the United States.

In 2014, a second seizure of objects was made, this time at Männil's Caracas home, the Casa de los Jaguares (House of the Jaguars). Archaeologist Marlin Calvo, head of the Department of Protection of Cultural Heritage Museum National, traveled to Caracas and surveyed the historic remains recovered during that raid as well as immovable pieces which remained on the property and determined that many of the pieces were from pre-Columbian cultures and originated in Costa Rica.  This including jaguar metate, whose heads had been decapitated and embedded into masonry walls as decorative elements, lending their name to the collector's residence. 

Image Credit: La Nacion

How Männil exported these pre-Columbian pieces from Costa Rico to Venezuela was not clear. 

Image Credit: Museo Nacional de Costa Rica
The Pre-columbian Chiefdom Settlement where the Stone Spheres Las Bolas of the Diquís in Costa Rica were found was inscribed to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2014.

While legal mechanisms are currently in place to protect Costa Rica's archaeological heritage and to control the traffic in antiquities, the looting of sites by huaqueros (grave robbers, nighthawks) has been and to a lesser extent still is a significant problem which results in the destruction of archaeological evidence and the loss of knowledge about Costa Rica’s past. 

Between 1983 and 2016, 519 complaints of trade, transport and illegal export  in archaeological material were filed in Costa Rica, 386 of which  resulted in seizures.  

By:  Lynda Albertson

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.