July 1, 2020

Auction House Seizure: A Roman marble portrait head of the Emperor Septimius Severus, circa 200 CE seized at Christie's

Image Left:  Christie's Catalogue where the stolen sculpture was identified.
Image Right:  Showroom image of the stolen head of Emperor Septimius Severus

An ancient Roman marble head was seized on the basis of a search warrant requested by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office on June 24th at Christie’s auction house based on evidence provided by the Italian Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, attesting that the portrait bust had been stolen from Italy in on 18 November 1985 before eventually landing in New York.  Taken at gunpoint from the Antiquarium of the Campanian Amphitheatre in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, in the Province of Caserta, situated 25 km north of Naples in southern Italy.  The sculpture depicts Septimius Severus who served as Roman emperor from 193 to 211 CE. 

The antiquity was published in Christie's 28 October 2019 catalogue Faces of the Past - Ancient Sculpture from the Collection of Dr. Anton Pestalozzi which included two pages describing the biography of the Roman Emporer and the object's comparable likeness to other portraits of Severus in the Serapis-type style, including one at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Denmark.

For the object's provenance, Christie's stated:

◘ with Jean-Luc Chalmin, London

◘ with Galerie Arete, Zurich, acquired from the above, 1993

◘ Dr. Anton Pestalozzi (1915-2007), Zurich, acquired from the above, thence by descent to the current owner. 

According to Roman Historian Cato the Elder the site at Ancient Capua where the object originates was founded by the Etruscans around 800 BCE and is remembered most for being the site where slaves and gladiators led by the legendary Spartacus revolted 73 BCE. 

While details on this particular investigation have not yet been released to the public, one of the troubling aspects in this case - of which there are many - and the most disturbing perhaps, is the failure of anyone whose hands this object passed through to have properly investigated the provenance of this portrait head.  No one, from Jean-Luc Chalmin, to Hans Humbel at Galerie Arete to the Zurich-based lawyer-collector Dr. Anton Pestalozzi ever bothered to ascertain by reasonable inquiry that the person from whom they had obtained the artifact had the legal right to possess it.

Amphitheater Campano Santa Maria Capua Vetere
On the bright side, this third object seizure in a span of weeks should send an important message to the auction powerhouse, as well as to dealers who profit from the sales of illicit material, that the Antiquities Trafficking Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the US and Italian authorities are committed to protecting cultural heritage around the world.

Update:  A second artefact, stolen during this same armed robbery, a head portrait depicting the beloved elder sister of Roman Emperor Trajan, Ulpia Marciana (August 48 – 112) was recovered in the mid 1990s.

June 29, 2020

Object Alert: An Illicit antiquity breezes through the windy city

Hindman Auction Catalogue - 16 June 2020
Lot 157
Most of the time, when one thinks of illicit antiquities one imagines them transiting their way through lofty auction showrooms in London, New York, or more recently, as was in the news last week, Paris.  One doesn't usually suspect a homegrown auction house, from the windy city of Chicago, as a place to spot hot art that once passed through the hands of one of Italy's most notorious bad boys, art dealer Giacomo Medici.  But the market for looted or unprovenanced cultural property in America is still going strong and plundered artefacts have the tendency to scatter farther than you think.  Sometimes, when they do, they turn up in places that we don't expect, well, at least until we do.

An art dealer who post-sentence resides in an expansive seaside villa west of Rome, Giacomo Medici was convicted 13 December 2004 of participation in an organized criminal group as its principal promoter and organizer.  Men in his network plundered large swaths of Italy's territory, with the network's loot making its way into some of the world's most prestigious museums and lining the shelves of extravagant private collections.  But despite the sixteen years that have past since his conviction, Medici's ill-gotten wares continue to bubble to the surface, not unlike Italian gnocchi, one object at a time, in slow dribs and drabs and usually not even mentioning his name as was the case with this recent artefact.

This time, in late June, an investigation lead by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in collaboration with the New York District Attorney's Office and the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage turned up another one of Giacomino's antiquities, this time at Chicago's very own, Hindman Auctioneers, a firm which merged in 2019 with Ohio-based Cowan's and shortened its name from Leslie Hindman to just plain Hindman

Photographed on pages 116 and 117 of Hindman's 16 June 2020 Antiquities and Islamic Art catalogue, Lot 15, A Roman Marble Torso of a Faun with a Goose lists the artefact's provenance succinctly: 

Private Collection. London, acquired in New York in the early 1990s 
Oliver Forge & Brendan Lynch. London, 2013

What was provided to back up this claim, or what import, export, or shipping documents were submitted to demonstrate that this Italian antiquity's passages into the United States previously, then back across the sea to the UK, then back into Chicago were legitimate, leaves me curious. 

With no difficulty, and without auction consignment profits to incentivise (or disincentivise) my due diligence, I was quickly, and without too much trouble, able to find and cross-reference the 2013 sale via the Forge & Lynch Antiquities - Including the Collection of Ernst Langlotz (1895-1978) catalogue.   This sales PDF documented the previous sale of the mythological half-human, half-goat, creature with a discreet tail in a two-page spread.

Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd.,
Antiquities - Including the Collection of Ernst Langlotz (1895-1978) Catalogue - 2013

Joint proprietors of the art dealership Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd., Forge and Lynch left Sotheby’s in London in 1997 when the auction house began winding down its London antiquities sales, and continued working together for their own ancient art gallery formed in UK in July 2000.  Both art dealers are familiar with the problem children antiquities dealers of yesteryear from their Sotheby's days, and both have continued to get their reputations scorched brokering suspect art via more recent problematic dealers like Subhash Kapoor. 

So even without Medici's name clearly printed on anything provenance-y provided by the Faun's consignor to Hindman, one has to question first where Forge & Lynch themselves got the piece, and secondly, their own provenance entry for the earlier sale of this artefact, which reads: 

Probably acquired in New York, early 1990s  
Private collection, London, early 1990s-2013

This entry leads me to ask why Hindman changed the "probably acquired in New York" to definitely acquired in New York.  It is also curious why Hindman left off the non-specific "Private collection" in London which at first shakes, might appear less problematic than Robin Symes, whose name appears elsewhere in the June catalogue for LOT 83 from this sale. 

Did someone at Hindman find paperwork that changed the Faun's purported New York acquisition from probable into definite?  And what about that private collection in London from the 1990s until 2013.  Wasn't that one line, even vaguely written, not naming names worth mentioning on the big empty space of the full-page advertisement for the sculpture?  So why did Hindman elect to omit this detail?  

My hunch is that Hindman, who voluntarily relinquished the sculpture of the Faun to the authorities once evidence was presented by law enforcement, operates under the assumption that the occasional confiscation of a found-to-be-looted antiquity identified in their sales catalogues is a reasonable cost of doing business in the murky world of ancient art.  

Risks Hindman has already proved willing to take in the past and that illicit antiquities researcher Christos Tsirogiannis, cooperating with HSI-ICE, pointed out in an earlier Hindman auction, published in the auction house's Worldly Pursuits: An Adventurer’s Collection. The Estate of Steve and Peggy Fossett cataloug. In that sale Tsirogiannis identified three antiquities which matched archival photos in the Medici and Symes archives which proved that the objects had once passed through, or been shared with the networks of Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes, and Christo Michaelides.

But let's go back to this month's Hindman, June 16th auction catalogue.  In this summer's sale 127 objects out of 273 are listed without any provenance dates whatsoever.  Of the 146 remaining objects included in the catalogue which do list some date references:

15 show collection history dates which predate the UNESCO 1970s convention;
12 show collection history dates only to the 1970s;
85 show collection history dates only to the 1980s;
32 show collection history dates only to the 1990s;
and 2 only go back as far as the 2000s.

Knowing that illicit trafficking eyes cannot monitor every single sale, or inquire about every single object consigned to every auction house around the world, leaving out provenance details creates an environment conducive for a game of risk, with dealers more than willing to play, chalking up any losses from the occasional identified object after it has been illegally exported, as inventory shrinkage.

By limiting the details of what is written in provenance descriptions for objects being sold, dealers and auction houses create intentional impediments to those who try to research an object's legitimacy, making it more difficult to discern when an antiquity has passed through the hands of suspect dealers and when a legitimate object has simply been badly documented by a previous owner careless with their receipts.  And that's just speaking to those interested enough, and with the time to dedicate to actually monitor the previous sales of ancient artefacts.

According to a new report published to the LiveAuctioneers website, this inaugural Hindman ancient art auction brought in nearly $1M in sales, proving once again, that despite all the academics screaming about the necessity for clean provenance, buyers of ancient art, for the most part, are not unduly curious about the collection histories of their potential ancient art purchases.  Likewise, more collectors continue to be oblivious or disengaged as to whether or not the antiquities market is problematic and whether or not their lack of curiosity, and lack of due diligence before buying, acts as a catalyst for the destruction of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean world.

Should Hindman have known better with this artefact and should they have been more forthcoming with all of the collection histories listed for this $1M sale's catalogue? Yes and yes.

Hindman Auctioneers was founded by Leslie Hindman in Chicago in 1982.  The firm was not born yesterday, therefore they should be aware of the problems of illicit material infiltrating the ancient art market.  Thomas Galbraith who took over from Leslie Hindman as CEO of the company she founded, (she remains on the board) previously worked as Artnet’s director of global strategy and as interim CEO for Google Venture's start-up Twyla, an online sales platform for art, meaning they both are experienced in art world sales. Given the people at Hindman's helm, and the company's sales presence on the Live Auctioneers sales portal, it also stands to reason that the Chicago auction house has employees with sufficient technical abilities and talent to Google the legitimacy of the objects they accept on consignment and the names of dealers which are problematic.  Given that neither Galbraith nor Hindman are new to the problems of the world, one can assume that their lack of transparency when it comes to collection publishing collection histories for the objects they auction is a conscious choice.

But despite all this, the windy city seems to be gaining ground in the art market. Phillips and Bonhams, both based in London, having opened there, alongside already existing Christie's, and Sotheby's, to keep Hindman company. And browsing through the names of important London and New York ancient art dealers like Charles Ede Ltd., and Royal Athena Galleries whose's pieces were selling in this June's Hindman catalogue, it seems apropos to remind collectors of ancient art (once again) of the need to open their eyes and ask for proof of legitimacy, before simply forking over cash for what might turn out to be tomorrow's new seizure. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

June 24, 2020

Another looted conflict antiquity from the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon seized. This time at Royal Athena Galleries in New York

Left Image provided by the NYDA's Office and HSI-ICE
Right Image from Royal-Athena Galleries catalog
When speaking of the effects of conflict antiquities, the market's most vocal proponents, the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) and the Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Œuvres d’Art (CINOA) often reflect on the limited number of objects seen in market circulation derived from the recent Middle East conflicts.  Members in positions of power are invited to speak at UNESCO, stand at podiums at trade events, and write articles lamenting that collectors and the trade in an age-old tradition, are under attack by heavy-handed regulators.

They never seem to quite get around to discussing in detail any of the illicit artefacts that  HAVE made it into the ancient art market, sometimes not identified for decades, and long after their respective civil wars are resolved.  They also don't monetize their own profits from this slow trickle of conflict antiquities, which transfuse the ancient art market with financial blood, years after the human bodies that once fought around them stop bleeding.

The dealer associations don't like to talk about the painful scars of plunder from earlier wars, like the museum-quality Khmer-era statues that came to market following the civil disturbances in Cambodia.  Some of the finest examples of Cambodian art produced during the Angkorian period (circa 800-1400 CE) were extracted from that country and readily snapped up by art institutions and private collectors, despite the fact that they were pillaged and illegally exported.

Looted from Cambodia’s ancient temples, during the Cambodian civil war, which raged from 1970 to 1998, conflict antiquities from that non-middle east war did not begin to flow back to their country of origin until 2014.  Likewise, antiquities dealers known to be involved in the trade, like Nancy Wiener and Douglas Latchford, a/k/a “Pakpong Kriangsak”, weren't charged until 2016 and 2019 respectively, almost twenty years after the war concluded.

In the US charging document for Latchford, correspondence evidence by the collector-dealer brazenly admits to his informed role.  Speaking by email to a colluding market colleague, discussing a recently plundered bronze head, Latchford writes:

“was recently found around the site of the Angkor Borei group in the N E of Cambodia, in the Preah Vihar area. They are looking for the body, no luck so far, all they have found last week were two land mines !! What price would you be interested in buying it at? let me know as I will have to bargain for it.”

Latchford also sent this same dealer another email that included a photograph of a standing Buddha still covered in dirt.  In this email he exclaimed:

“Hold on to your hat, just been offered this 56 cm Angkor Borei Buddha, just excavated, which looks fantastic. It’s still across the border, but WOW.”

Interestingly, source-country export licenses never accompanied any of these pieces, known to be in movement after the invention of email, and long after Cambodia's laws for the protection of their culture were implemented. 

The dealer groups also never seem to mention that OTHER civil war in the Middle East. You know, the multifaceted civil war in Lebanon, Al-Ḥarb al-Ahliyyah al-Libnāniyyah, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 that was also responsible for 120,000 deaths and created one million refugees.

The Lebanese civil war was one of the most devastating conflicts of the late 20th century.  During that war, and from the Temple of Eshmun alone, excavated in 1967 under the oversight of French archaeologist Maurice Dunand, numerous artefacts were stolen in 1981 when a storage depot the Jubayl/Byblos Citadel fell to armed members of al-Katd'ib (the Phalangist Party).  Of those only twelve have been painstakingly identified and restituted back to Lebanon from various collectors and dealers.

Those artifacts included:

 one male head and three male torsos identified in a 1991 catalogue for Numismatic & Ancient Art Gallery, managed by Azzedine El-Aaji and  Burton Yost Berry in Zurich; 

 one male torso and one sarcophagus fragment offered for sale by Sotheby's London in its 8 December 1994 auction; 

 a marble male torso located with the Dorotheum Auction House in Vienna in 2000; 

 a marble male head identified by Jean-David Cahn in Basel and self reported for return in 2006; 

 a marble male torso identified with Galerie Gunter Puhze in Freiberg, Germany in 2017; 

 a marble bull's head, a torso of an athlete, and a torso of a calf bearer identified with purchases by collectors, George Lufti, Michael Steinhardt, and Lynda and William Beierwaltes in 2017. 

That was all, until this year. 

Last week marked the latest action in an effort by the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., to seize looted antiquities discovered in New York City in order to return them to their countries of origin.

One of those seizures turns out to be an ancient object, once described as a 130 CE Roman Marble Life-Size Portrait Head of an Athlete, also previously excavated at the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon and also stolen in 1981. 


This marble head was seized at Royal-Athena Galleries, a New York City-based gallery that is operated by Jerome Eisenberg.  According to authorities, once Royal Athena became aware of the evidence, they completely cooperated with the Manhattan DA’s Office and consented to the head’s return to Lebanon.

In Royal-Athena Galleries - Art of the Ancient World, Volume XXVIII - 2017, featuring 176 Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Byzantine, Egyptian, & Near Eastern antiquities, Eisenberg had described the seized artefact as follows:

Roman Marble Life-Size Portrait Head of an Athlete, possibly a pankratist. His closely cropped beard and thin moustache are suggestive of the styles favored by the athletes of the period. Sensitively carved of marble from the area near Saliari on the Greek island of Thasos, his strong countenance has alert deepset eyes and a  determined expression upon his parted lips.  Ca. 130 AD H 10 in. (26.7 cm) Ex French collection; W.H. collection, Westport, Connecticut, acquired from Royal-Athena Galleries in 1988.  Published J. Eisenberg, Art of the Ancient World, vol XVI, 2005, no 12.  

Even if scientific analysis of the statue-grade block of marble used for this magnificent sculpture were to reveal that the slab came from the Saliari marble quarries on Thasos, the movement of raw materials between the Phoenicians of Lebanon and the Greeks was common in antiquity.  But while the stone used for this sculpture could confuse dealers and collectors to the country of origin, its accompanying paperwork should not have.

Who were the owners Eisenberg codified as the "Ex-French collection" and "W.H. collection, Westport, Connecticut" and what export documentation was provided, if any, to justify this sculpture's legitimacy in the ancient art market?  These finer case details have not yet been made public by the New York authorities, and like the previous twelve recovered antiquities from the Temple of Eshmun, may further clarify which other ancient art dealers handled objects stolen during the Lebanese civil war,  and with whom or where they purchased them.

This new seizure in New York illustrates the difficulty faced by source countries in identifying historic conflict antiquities simply by trolling through every catalog, for every auction ever created, by any dealer, in any language in any country around the world; especially when the material used to create the artefact traveled, and might intentionally or unintentionally result in the object being mislabeled as coming from another country altogether.

In closing, I would like to underscore something as it relates to the difficulty in identifying conflict antiquities, and the seemingly impossible task faced by scholars, law enforcement, and source country ministries in bridging the gap between locating their plundered artefacts after the fact, years after these antiquities have infiltrated the ancient art market. I would also like to comment on how determining all the culpable hands these objects have passed through on their way to fine gallery showrooms in New York and other cities is a slow and tedious process which is not always a straight line to a restitution victory.

As this single incidence of plunder illustrates, the Lebanese Republic could not have reported this 1981 civil war-era theft to the Art Loss Register because the ALR had not yet been founded.  Even in 1991, after the ALR came into existence and began the never-ending task of archiving stolen objects around the globe, the archival photos for this theft, useful in cross-matching the stolen Temple of Eshmun objects, were only in the hands of a single foreign scholar, and not the Lebanese authorities.  This left the Ministry of Culture in Lebanon at a marked disadvantage for being able to prove irrefutably what objects in circulation absolutely belonged to them, and were in fact stolen from the Byblos Citadel antiquities depot during their civil war.

It wasn't until Professor Rolf Stucky, the former Head of the Department of Classical Archaeology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and a colleague of archaeologist Maurice Dunand, published two books in 2005 that the Lebanese authorities got a much-needed lead which helped in the recovering of their antiquities.  Stucky's books contained critical photos that he had taken while working in Lebanon between 1973 and 1974 which matched with written excavation records for objects known to have been excavated at the Temple of Eshmun.  With these photos, the Lebanese authorities could start to sort out which artifacts had been stolen from the Byblos Citadel antiquities depot and already recovered and which objects were now known to still be missing.

Even with identifiable photos as to what belonged to whom, there are simply not enough eyes monitoring the ancient art market and too many mediums by which antiquities are sold, often misidentified, for source countries to recover all of their losses before the statute of limitations in various market countries makes investigations futile. In 2017, in seeking the seizure of the Temple of Ishmun Bull's head, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos spoke to the cases he had worked on stating that his efforts had resulted in "multiple convictions, the seizures of thousands of antiquities totaling more than $150 million, and the repatriation of recovered antiquities to half-a-dozen countries".  And that's just the illicit antiquities in circulation that one State authority, with a dedicated prosecutor and a trained group of researchers, has managed to successfully detect.

What about the countries and cities where we don't have enough provenance eyes or a vigilant public prosecutor?  

So when the market responds that they satisfactorily self-monitor, or that the problem is with only a few bad eggs, or that the sector doesn't see a wide-spread problem with blood antiquities circulating which requires legislative oversight...

I beg to differ. 

By:  Lynda Albertson


June 23, 2020

The Cost of Trinkets: France detains five art market actors in relation to a network believed to be trafficking in conflict antiquities


Between Monday and Tuesday, law enforcement authorities in France have detained five individuals, bringing them in for questioning in relation to a network law enforcement believes to be involved in the trafficking in antiquities from conflict, and post-conflict, countries that have subsequently been laundered onto the French ancient art market.  These detentions come following a lengthy investigation which began in July 2018 and has been carried out by France's Central Office to Combat Trafficking in Cultural Property (OCBC) and the Central Office for the Suppression of Serious Financial Crime (OCRGDF).  Parts of the investigation were also coordinated with the Investigative Judge of the JUNALCO (National Jurisdiction Against Organised Crime) and the Paris prosecutor's office.  

Among those arrested are one director and one in-house art expert affiliated with Pierre Bergé & Associés, a French auction house that specialises in modern and contemporary art, design, photography, editions, and antiquities. The three remaining arrestees have been reported to be: a former curator, who once worked at the Musée du Louvre, a renowned left bank Parisian gallery owner,  and another art dealer.  

While none of the people taken into custody this week have been named, this is not the first time that Pierre Bergé' has come to the attention of illicit trafficking researchers.  Christophe Kunicki, who brokered the sale of the looted Mummiform Coffin inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh to the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been listed in Pierre Bergé's catalogs as their archaeology expert as far back as 28 March 2008.  Likewise, French archaeologists have identified that Pierre Bergé & Associés is one of three companies who have sold suspect deities and funeral portraits originating from Cyrene, the ancient Greek and later Roman city near present-day Shahhat in Libya.  These pieces came to maket via the three firms through Hôtel Drouot auction house in Paris between 2007 and 2015.  

The five detainees potentially face charges ranging from receipt of stolen goods, money laundering, forgery and fraud related to antiquities illegally removed from countries including Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.  This case underscores once again that the art market and armed conflict are grimly connected through the art market's profit from the laundering and sale of conflict antiquities.  

And while these individuals may or may not go to jail, ancient art buyers are not getting the message that their purchase of such antiquities serves to incentivize those in the supply chain and enables war in countries of conflict.  By buying conflict antiquities without concern for the object's licit origin, they, as well as the looters, middlemen, and elegant auction houses, each play a role in perpetuating crime in un marché avec des fruits bien pourris (a market with rotten fruit).

By: Lynda Albertson

June 18, 2020

Survival selfie of Vincent Van Gogh's artnapped painting "The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen."


Art loss detective Arthur Brand has provided two photos, of the front and verso, of the artnapped Vincent Van Gogh painting "The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen."  One photo shows the front of the small painting sandwiched between a New York Times newspaper and a Dutch copy of the autobiography "The Master Thief" written by Octave Durham.  The addition of the book may have been a tongue-in-cheek gesture on the part of the photographer as the book's author "Okkie" is the infamous thief who stole two other priceless Vincent van Gogh paintings on the evening of Dec. 7, 2002 from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. 

At the time of this year's Van Gogh theft, "The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen," painted in 1884, had been on loan from the Groninger Museum in the city of Groningen to the Singer Laren Museum for an exhibition.  Stolen in the early days of the coronavirus shutdown, a thief made his way into the shuttered Singer Laren museum by forcing his way through the glass front door of the museum's edifice before moving into the gallery to cherry-pick this singular work of art by Van Gogh. 

Verso of the painting appears to be authentic according to
Andreas Blühm, Director of the Groninger Museum
Brand informed those covering the case that he had received the photos of the painting a few days ago but for now is remaining pretty mum on providing too many details, aside from noting that the painting has a new scratch on the bottom.  The photo's inclusion of the newspaper serves as a proof of life that the painting was in that stated condition, minus its original frame, on or after 30 May 2020, when the newspaper was published.

Given that the version of the New York Times is the European edition, one can extrapolate that the artwork was likely still within Europe two months after the robbery.   Or at least it was eighteen days ago.  The newspaper also shows an article which ironically or not, mentions both Brand and the Van Gogh thief Octave Durham.

Brand had stated that he came by the photos after they turned up circulating in mafia circles.  It is unclear if the images were taken as a means of shopping the painting for a buyer, as the first steps in ransoming the painting, or simply as a nose-thumbing statement of confident arrogance on the part of the criminal showing he (or they) still hold the artwork. 

“Artnapping”—the stealing of art for ransom—is known to be a ploy used in the criminal world.   In 2015 thieves tried to blackmail the Vatican for the return of documents by Michelangelo stolen 20 years ago.  

Tragically, sometimes artworks are ransomed to generate funds to carry out other crimes or arm militias. This appears to have been the case during the art heist at the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, northwestern Holland in 2005. Ten years later,  representatives from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists militia entered the Dutch embassy in Kiev and demanded a ransom of €50 million for the safe return of the artworks.  Likewise, Khalid El Bakraoui, the suicide bomber who attacked the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels, had earlier attempted to obtain a payout for ten paintings stolen from the Museum Van Buuren valued at more than €1m. 

June 14, 2020

On the run high-flying art dealer Inigo Philbrick apprehended

Image Right: "Humidity", 1982 by Jean-Michel Basquiat
acrylic, oilstick, and Xerox collage
In a reality that seems like a scene snatched from the Spanish crime series La casa de Papel, the once-vanished, serial swindler Inigo Philbrick was arrested on Thursday on the Republic of Vanuatu, an archipelago of about 83 islands in the southwest Pacific. The high-wheeling art dealer once operated an HNW fine art business, which included a gallery in Mayfair London, and, beginning in 2018, one in Miami, Florida.
Rudolf Stingel Painting of Picasso, 2012
involved in Inigo Philbrick Lawsuit

According to the unsealed complaint issued by the Southern District of New York, from 2016 to 2019 Philbrick, a U.S. citizen, repeatedly sold multiple high-value artworks to different collectors and investors, sometimes using the same works of art as collateral for loans with financial lenders while intentionally hiding others’ ownership interests.

One of those artworks was a $10 million painting by the contemporary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat titled “Humidity” painted in 1982.  The Basquiat accusation came after Philbrick was already facing allegations that he had sold other artworks, by artists Yayoi Kusama and Rudolf Stingel, to multiple clients. 

By October 2019, Philbrick stopped returning concerned investors' phone calls, and by November 2019 the dealer had no-showed for a hearing in Florida and two scheduled London court appearances, one related to a hearing brought by Singapore-based LLG PTE Ltd., and others by German art investment partnership, Fine Art Partners (FAP GmbH).  Philbrick had been buying and selling paintings for FAP since 2015.

With both of his galleries shuttered and emptied, the Miami branch in such a rush that there was still food left in the refrigerator, the judge in the UK issued a temporary order freezing Philbrick's worldwide assets.  A short while later, Philbrick's own attorney, Robert Landon, filed a motion on November 12 seeking to withdraw from representing his client, but it was too late, the dealer had vanished. 

FAP was already involved in a civil lawsuit with Philbrick in Miami, Florida seeking to recover 14 million dollars worth of art from what has been deemed an elaborate transatlantic Ponzi scheme.  In that instance, the German firm had purchased, among other things, one of Kusama's "infinity mirror" rooms entitled “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins” from Philbrick, only to later find out that the artwork had also been sold by the dealer, in 2019, to the Saudi Collection of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula (MVCA).  

With his house of cards rapidly collapsing around him, it first seemed that the pump and dump dealer on the run had decided to lay low in Australia.  Later it was discovered that he had been living on the remote and tiny necklace of 80-odd islands between Australia and Fiji known as Vanuatu, possibly helped by funds he may have stashed in Vanuatu’s offshore banks. 

The Republic of Vanuatu, once known as the New Hebrides, gained its place as an offshore financial center in the early 1970s before the island-state achieved its political independence from Great Britain and France on July 30,1980.   In 2015 it gained unwanted notoriety as an offshore tax haven thanks to the leaked Panama Papers which unmasked many offshore corporate clients’ who hid their wealth via thousands of shell corporations set up in tax lenient locations around the world.

As a result of its AML/CFT deficiencies, Vanuatu has been listed on the FATF's grey list of countries, alongside countries like Syria and Yemen, as well as on the list of uncooperative tax havens that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) re-activated in July 2016 at the request of G20 nations.  Purportedly the country is now working on repairing its reputation as a financial pariah. 

Philbrick has been formally charged with Wire Fraud and Aggravated Identity Theft.  Arrested by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on June 11th, the art broker has now been flown some 4000 kilometers from his hide-away to Guam.  Tomorrow evening he will make his virtual initial appearance in the Southern District of New York where it is expected he will plead not guilty.

Remembering Paolo Giorgio Ferri

Image Credit: Jason Felch
It is with profound sadness that ARCA shares the news of today's passing of Paolo Giorgio Ferri, Italy's famed Sostituto Procuratore della Repubblica a Roma due to health complications. He was 72 years old. 

Dr. Ferri's first investigative case into Italy's stolen heritage began in 1994 and involved a statue stolen from Rome's Villa Torlonia that was then sold at auction by Sotheby's.   But it was the invaluable role he played in doggedly pursuing corrupt antiquities dealers who laundered antiquities into some of the world's most prestigious museums that made his name famous among those who follow art and heritage crimes. 

Forty-eight when his investigation began into the activities of Giacomo Medici, Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes and others, Paolo was integral in truly exposing the ugly underbelly of the ancient art trade and the insidious phenomenon of laundering cultural goods. 

Image Credit: ARCA
In February 2000 Judge Ferri received a commendation and a formal expression of esteem from General Roberto Conforti (then Commanding Officer of the Carabinieri Department for the Protection of the Italian Cultural Heritage) for the suggestions he made in relation to a project initiative to change the Italian law on cultural goods.   In 2011 ARCA honored Dr. Ferri with an art crime protection award for his role in the 2005 case against Emanuel Robert Hecht and Marion True, the former curator of the J Paul Getty Museum.  This case, and his work on it, marked a dramatic change, in years to come, in the policy of acquisitions by museums around the world, as well as set the stage for numerous restitutions of stolen artifacts to their countries of origin.

Following his career as a prosecutor, Ferri continued to fight for Italy's heritage and served on a special commission with Italy's Ministry of Culture, created for the restitution of national cultural heritage stolen abroad.  There he served as a legal advisor on cultural diplomacy negotiations.  Ferri also provided legal opinions regarding criminal matters, served as an advisor to ICCROM,  was part of a commission for the criminal reform of the Code of Cultural Heritage, and participated in Vienna in the drafting of Guidelines to the United Nations Convention against transnational organized crime, which was signed in Palermo in 2000.

Paolo Giorgio Ferri
Image Credit:  Daniela Rizzo/Maurizio Pelligrini, friends and colleagues.  Maurizio Pelligrini relates that this photo was taken 28 September 2004, when Paolo was in New York and still did not know if Italy would be able to convince the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello to destitute the famous Euphronios crater.
Dr. Ferri will be remembered by his colleagues and friends as one who never backed off in the fight against illicit trafficking and as someone always willing to share his knowledge and legal expertise freely and openly.  Journalist Fabio Isman, who broke the news to some of us, recalled that when Dr. Ferri wrote his first Letters Rogatory, it took three weeks to draft the document.   At the height of his investigations Ferri would go on to write three Letters Rogatory a week, asking the world for judicial assistance in the restitution of Italy's stolen works of art. 

ARCA wishes to offer its support and condolences to everyone close to this wonderful man, but most importantly to Paolo's family, particularly his wife Mariarita, his daughter Sofia and his grandchildren. 

June 11, 2020

Banksy's "the Sorrowful Girl", stolen from Bataclan Concert Hall has been recovered.


When insult, (the theft of a Banksy artwork) was added to injury, (the tragic deaths at Bataclan Concert Hall) no one would have guessed the artwork would be recovered in the countryside of far off Abruzzo in Italy. 

Banksy's memorial artwork, "the Sorrowful Girl", was painted on one of the Paris theatre's emergency exit doors, and soulfully depicts an unusually dressed woman with a slightly bowed head. The single colored artwork had been placed at the concert hall by the British street artist in remembrance of the lives lost during the 13 November 2015 terrorist attack during an Eagles of Death Metal concert.  On that night, 90 concert-goers died.  Others, luckier perhaps, but equally scarred, fled terrified and frightened, some through the very door the artwork had once been painted on. 

On 26 January 2019 last year, Banksy's commemorative artwork was stolen, hacked off from the door using an angle grinder power tool before being loaded onto a truckbed.

The artwork was recovered in Italy by the Alba Adriatica (Teramo) unit of the Italian Carabinieri who carried out a search warrant as part of a joint Italian-French judicial cooperation investigation involving the L'Aquila District Prosecutor, the Italian Carabinieri and French police.

On hand for the press conference held today at the Palace of Justice in L'Aquila, Italy were: Major Christophe Cengig, the liaison officer for organized crime at the French Embassy in Italy; the L'Aquila District Prosecutor Michele Renzo; L'Aquila Public Prosecutor David Mancini;  Lieutenant Colonel Carmelo Grasso, commander of the Carabinieri of the Cultural Heritage Protection Unit of Ancona; Colonel Emanuele Pipola, the provincial commander of the Carabinieri of Teramo, and Lieutenant Colonel Emanuele Mazzotta, commander of the Carabinieri company of Alba Adriatica.


Very little was disclosed during today's tight-lipped public announcement given that the investigation involves a crime that took place in France where an investigation into the theft is ongoing.  No mention was made of who might be involved in the removal of the artwork from France or when and how the Bansky piece ultimately ended up in Abruzzo. 

All that was released was that this operation began in March and that the artwork had been apparently been moved on more than one occasion, before being located in an upstairs storage room of a cottage in the countryside, in the province of Teramo.  At the time the search warrant was executed, the tenants living in the property where the artwork had been stored seem to have been completely unaware of what was being stored inside the closed area where the artwork was found. 

In a moving speech, Public prosecutor Renzo stated:

"Europe is not just a word, it is a common feeling with respect for a complex group of rights that underpin our idea of freedom, which no terrorist act can ever erase. For this reason, I am happy for this operation that gives us back this work that symbolizes mourning for those victims of the terrorist attack in Paris."

No word yet on who, if anyone will be charged in Italy, though the authorities stressed that there does to appear to be any link to terrorism and that the motives for the theft appear to have been purely economic in nature. 

June 10, 2020

A Greek Horse in the US Courts

Image Credit: ARCA
Screenshot taken 02 May 2018

A little more than two years ago, on 01 May 2018 ARCA was informed by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark that a suspect bronze Greek figure of a horse was on consignment as part of an upcoming Sotheby's auction scheduled for 14 May 2018 titled "The Shape of the Beauty: Sculpture from the Collection of Howard and Saretta Barnet." The illicit trafficking researcher had matched the 8th century BCE statuette to three photos found in the confiscated Robin Symes archive. 

Three, (3) photos from the Symes -Michaelides archive
provided by Christos Tsirogiannis
This was the second of two objects in the Barnet collection which have been discovered to have passed through the hands of dealers known for having worked with looters and middlemen.  The first, according to antiquities scholar Professor David Gill, was a 550 BCE Black-Figure Kylix attributed to the Hunt Painter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which the Barnet family donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999 and which was relinquished by the museum via a transfer in title in a negotiation completed with the Italian Ministry of Culture on February 21, 2006.

Given the multijurisdictional nature of the identification, Tsirogiannis had already sent his findings to INTERPOL given that the source country could be Italy or Greece and the object was presently up for sale in a New York auction house.  

After receiving a letter of concern from the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic on 11 May 2018, who asserted that a circa-8th century BCE bronze horse was the property of Greece, Sotheby’s withdrew the Lot from auction in order to allow the interested parties time to discuss their findings.  Unable to find a mutually satisfactory solution, the estate of Howard and Saretta Barnet and Sotheby’s together filed a lawsuit, Barnet et al v. Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic, in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York on 5 June 2018 seeking a declaratory judgment that the bronze horse had been "acquired lawfully and in good faith" by Howard and Saretta Barnet who purchased the Bronze Horse on or about 16 November 1973, for £15,000 and was, therefore, the family's property to dispose of.  The lawsuit, the first of its kind involving an auction house, aimed in some part, to hold the country of Greece responsible for the financial losses Sotheby’s and the family incurred as a result of what the litigating parties believe was an unjustified claim by the Ministry.

On 5 November 2018 Greece filed a motion to dismiss, asserting immunity from litigation, and moved to dismiss Barnet et al's Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) arguing that the U.S. District Court didn't have the jurisdiction to hear a case involving a foreign nation, per the terms of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a 1976 US law codified at Title 28, §§ 1330, 1332, 1391(f), 1441(d), and 1602–1611 of the United States Code, that establishes the limitations as to whether a foreign sovereign nation (or its political subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities) may be sued in U.S. courts.

On 21 June 2019 U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla rejected Greece’s motion to dismiss citing a small technicality in the current legal framework ruling that the formal inquiry letter from the Greek Ministry of Culture to Sotheby's, requesting that the auction house withdraw the lot until its provenance and exit from Greece could be researched, fell under the commercial activity exception, something which, if affirmed on appeal, might have ended the Greek's claim right then and there. 

By mid-July 2019 the Greek Ministry through their attorney, Leila Amineddoleh, had filed a Notice of Interlocutory Appeal and a Motion to stay litigation in the case, which Judge Failla quickly granted pending appeal. 

Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling stating in their opinion that Greece's act of sending its letter to the auction house was not in connection with a commercial activity outside of the United States and was the country's enactment and enforcement of patrimony laws which are by their very nature, archetypal sovereign activities.  The Appeals Court concluded that the District Court had erred in concluding that it had jurisdiction and the case was remanded with instructions to dismiss the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

There are many challenges posed by how the courts, and judges, interpret the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and its "commercial" and "expropriation" exceptions.  This case though had a happy ending for Greece. 

June 9, 2020

Tuesday, June 09, 2020 - No comments

Iconoclasm in the eyes of the beholder

Illustration of the Beeldenstorm
F. De Witt Huberts
The siege of Haarlem.
Op/Ed - By Lynda Albertson

History tells us that our predecessors had a word for iconoclasm, εἰκονοκλασία. In Ancient Greek it gets its roots from two words:

εἰκών - figure, image, likeness, portrait

κλάω - to break, to break off, to break into pieces, to be broken or deflected; to break, to weaken, to frustrate.

The Romans referred to it as Damnatio Memoriae; condemnation of memory.  In a world with no photography, and with what little remains of writing from that period, anything that was erased during these periods was likely lost from public memory.

The OED, the definitive record of the modern English language, defines an iconoclast as an individual who challenges "cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious".

During war, much has been written about protecting the history of our vanquished enemies.  Article 56 of the regulations respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV) speaks to the property of municipalities and calls for penalties for the prohibitive seizure, destruction or damaging of cultural property protected by international law.  Likewise, the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunal regarded the pillage and destruction of foreign property, including cultural objects, as a war crime.

But things get blurry when civil conflicts are the cause of iconoclasm, especially when the incidences are internal to a country's borders, politics, or religion. Or at least so thinks the iconoclasts involved, who see their actions as wholly reasonable, and in some cases downright righteous.   

A little more than 500 years ago, Augustinian friar Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses against the Church's indulgences to Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg.  This event is believed by some to have fuelled the start of the Bildersturm, the "picture storm" of the Protestant Reformation in Germany and the Netherlands.  Later and for many of the same reasons, the wave of Puritan religious fervor carried over to England, sometimes using state-approved civic channels to remove objects that no longer sat well with the majority, as was the case with the removal of the Cheapside Cross, voted on and approved for demolition by London’s Common Council on 27 April 1643.

Crowds tear down the Cheapside Cross, 2 May1643
Other incidences were religiously-sanctioned, handed down to churches in the reign of Edward VI, like the defacing of the 14th Century devotional statue of St Margaret and thousands of others ecclesiastic artworks which once highlighted English churches in the late medieval period.  Destroyed with the formal approval of Anglican reformers, Edward VI’s 1547 instructions ordered the devout to "to take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindles or rolls of wax, pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition so that there remain no memory of the same within their churches or houses. And they shall exhort their parishioners to do the like within their houses."   After this purge, so little religious art was left, that it would be easy to assume that there was no native painting and very little sculpture in pre-Reformation Britain. 

Watching their past pulled down and in some cases white-limed, those in disagreement, sometimes, tried to save what they had been mandated to destroy. Church monuments were hidden away haphazardly from the angry iconoclasts when and how they could.  Sometimes, they even buried them in the ground, perhaps as one last defiant act of solemn funerary respect, or perhaps hoping the artworks could be retrieved once the anger-fueled storm had passed.  

In the wet soil of England, moisture, as well as time, wreaked havoc on these once venerated objects, stripping them of their finishes and leaching away much of their vibrant color.  Time erased what artists had worked so hard to create, as the statues and icons were never meant to be subject to the dampness of English weather. 

Saint Margaret at St Andrew Church, Fingringhoe, Essex
Some, like St. Margaret, depicted above, were found years later on church grounds, then painstakingly restored, as best as was possible, to sit once again inside the church they once decorated.  Others, less fortunate, eventually traveled miles from their sacred homes, turning up on the art market at European art fairs like BRAFA or TEFAF.  These traveling masterpieces were snapped up by specialized galleries, like Fluminalis and Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe, who long have known that selling Art médiéval, touched by iconoclasm, can earn a dealer a princely sum for the pains and remains of the past. 

And while these Christian Reformations are now a distant memory, we watched in digital horror recently, as history repeated itself in new and even more disturbingly theatrical ways, at the hands of the Islamic State.  The group's own brand of religious politics, like others before them, believed that rending asunder a past incongruent with the caliphate's beliefs was righteous; so much so that they digitally curated their destructive handiwork at well known cultural heritage sites like Palmyra in Syria, the Mosul Cultural Museum, Nineveh, and Nimrud in Iraq rather than retain them for posterity.

Da'esh militant taking a pneumatic drill to the last fully preserved colossal Lamassu.
Nergal Gate, Nineveh
And while it is easy to see the wrongness of denominational iconoclasm throughout history, a portion of the public, and even some academics, have recently shown that they view ideological iconoclasm through differing filters, picking and choosing what is worth retaining and what is worth destroying, based in part upon the stresses and tears an object creates in the social fabric of society in a given place or time. 

Take for example the reliefs of victory and torture illustrating the futile cycle of the rise and fall of empires of long ago, etched onto the walls of Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal's grand royal residence in the citadel of Nineveh.  One depicts the Assyrian battle at Memphis in 667 BCE.  

Parts of this extraordinary relief are mesmerizingly graphic, as well as tragically poignant.  The panels vividly document the Assyrian aesthetic of memorializing its violent and gruesome deeds in furtherance of their rule.   This panel explicitly illustrates the fate that awaited the defeated soldiers of King Taharka.  Five of the captured Nubians can been seen being marched off single-file, handcuffed, humiliated, and bare-footed. At the rear of the line, two Assyrian soldiers triumphantly hold the decapitated heads of two of their vanquished opponents. 

"Panel 17, Room M" of the North Palace at Nineveh
On display at the British Museum 
Another relief, from King Sennacherib's Palace Without Rival at Nineveh. illustrates the conquest and destruction of Lachish after the siege of 701 BCE.  Likewise, it is meticulously carved in grisly detail, with parts of the relief depicting the unfortunate members of Lachish's ruling government being tortured to death.  Nearby, what remains of the city's townspeople, are seen as they are led away into a life of slavery, dominated by their conquerors.  Yet today these images are seen as a record of histories long past.  

The defeated citizens of Lachish led away as prisoners by the Assyrians.
On display at the British Museum 

Neither of these artworks evoke a visceral horror as they would, had the events occurred in the more recent past. Seen with eyes unmoved by emotions, they are considered, simply, historical representations of war, or even art.  As ancient artifacts they are admired for their violent realism, and take pride-of-place in some of the world's prestigious museums.

Perhaps these reliefs are treasured because the footprints of the citizens of Memphis and Lachish who fought in these battles, and the cemeteries where their corpses lie, are not our own forefathers.  The blood of these historic fighters has long since soaked into the ground where other civilizations took root, grew and now walk.

But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic killing, some pains are fresher, and instead of suggesting unifying ways to reconcile ourselves with our own distasteful pasts and presents, some professors and curators have seen fit to encourage their own iconoclastic storms.  One, in a series of tweets, even provided a "hypothetically" detailed instructions on how to destroy public monuments as a public service announcement.


Others don't even hide behind carefully-worded innuendo. Instead, they go straight for enhancing the public spectacle of destruction even using the skills they were taught in conservation and historic preservation, but now turned towards demolition.

But as proper historians know deep down in their entrails, ridding ourselves completely of unwanted history is farcical.  And while the new vanguard of undoing a wrong, by removing monuments to oppression might come from a good place, and might make us feel like we are contributing to something good, the act itself will not bring absolution.  Nor does it pay sufficient penance for the years we stood idly by, remaining silent, while others were mistreated, abused, and killed.

Citizens standing over a toppled statue of Joseph Stalin
23 October 1956
History is littered with the broken statues of distasteful oppressors, toppled time and time again, in justifiable anger-filled rage and resentment.  Some are bashed to bits by angry mobs, others are discreetly removed, sometimes under the cloak of darkness, to be tucked into less offensive spaces in deference to those injured by what the statue represents.   But even if we could deface, pull down or blow up every morally reprehensible visual representation of the world's tyrants and bullies, we won't ever be washed free of their sins, or our own complacency in idly letting their atrocities take root and happen.

Tweeting out instructions for taking down statues seen as images of slave oppression will not erase the shattering consequences of that era in America's history.  Nor will it stop tomorrow's injustices when it comes to race, or tomorrow's killing of another black man at the hands of police brutality, or when George Floyd's name joins the list of the only vaguely remembered black men who have been abused or killed, while little else changes.

Erasing the history of the confederacy and the South's poor choices in these monuments won't erase the racial hatred which historically allowed these monuments to be erected. And time would be better spent wrestling with the present and asking why, in 2020, we still have an environment that allows racial and ethnic hatred which kills.

Having said all that, let me be clear, I am in no way advocating for the preservation of these morally repugnant monuments. If I had my druthers, they would be procedurally and physically dealt with in a way that addresses the painfulness of the argument listening to the voices of the voiceless.

What I am against are these kinds of performative acts which are often more about political capital than the hard-grinding work of enacting real social change.  We need change much more than simply sweeping old bronzes under unresolved rugs, where the undercurrents of racism still creep and grow, like bigger and bigger dust bunnies, threatening to choke us all.

The end of a statue is not the same as the end of the bitterness and in the end toppling them does little to heal anyone.

We need to do better.  We need to be better.  We need to do better.  Every single one of us, needs to do better.