February 13, 2014

AXA Art Insurance, the Sûreté du Québec, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Announce the recovery of a rare and valuable Achaemenid Bas-Relief Stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2011


Sandstone, Head of a Guard photo by @DomenicFazioli
by Lynda Albertson, ARCA's CEO and Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

At a press conference today in Montreal, the Sûreté du Québec - Enquête de l'Équipe intégrée des enquêtes en œuvres d'art and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in cooperation with AXA Art Insurance Limited and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, announced the recovery of the Achaemenid bas-relief panel stolen from the gallery more than two years ago.

On October 26, 2011, a surveillance camera at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts recorded a suspect in a baseball cap walking out of the gallery with a satchel believed by police and the museum to possibly contain one of the stolen artifacts reported to be worth "hundreds of thousands of dollars" (Montreal Gazette).

Three months later, an Art Alert (Case File : 11-98, dated February 14, 2012) issued by the Enquête de l'Équipe intégrée des enquêtes en œuvres d'art (the official name for Canada's Art Crime Enforcement Unit headquartered in Montreal) publicly identified the stolen objects as a 1st century C.E. yellow Numidian marble "Head of a Man, Egypto-archaizing style" from the Roman Empire and a more valuable 5th century B.C.E. Sandstone "Head of a Guard (fragment of a low relief)" from Persepolis. The announcement advertised a "Substantial Reward (Offered by AXA Art, subject to specific conditions) for information leading to the recovery" of the two archaeological objects. To avoid compromising the police investigation, no details of the theft aside from the video of the potential suspect, were released.

According to the press release issued for today's press conference, the $1.2 million sandstone bas-relief panel "Head of a Guard", stolen September 3, 2011 and valued at 1.2 million dollars, was recovered during a raid on an Edmonton house by an Alberta unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on January 22, 2014. This action led to the arrest of a 33-year-old man who has been charged with possession of stolen goods.

Surete du Quebec's spokesperson Joyce Kemp said in today's press conference said the unnamed individual arrested had purchased the object for an amount significantly inferior to its actual value.  The investigation and subsequent arrest have not, as yet, led to the recovery of the second artifact, the Yellow Numidian marble "Head of a Man", valued at $40,000 and reportedly stolen on October 26, 2011 nor the thief responsible for both thefts.

ARCA spoke with Mark Dalryrmple, the specialized fine art loss adjuster appointed by AXA ART assigned to this case, and asked him for his thoughts on today's recovery.  His responded positively with “No comment since as may be appreciated, the matter is sub judice, but we are extremely pleased that it is been recovered safely”.

Here's an excerpt from today's formal press release from the insurance company who offered the reward two years ago:
AXA ART announces the recovery of a rare and valuable Achaemenid Bas-Relief Following an intensive year long investigation between the police authorities in Montréal and Edmonton, AXA ART is pleased to announce the recovery of a rare and valuable Persian Achaemenid bas-relief panel.  The panel, together with a Roman marble head, was stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) in 2011.  The small portable panel was recovered almost 2,000 miles away in Edmonton and has now been returned to the Montréal Museum. “Given the difficulties involved in the recovery of stolen artwork we would like to acknowledge the diligence and extraordinary efforts of the Sûreté du Québec and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in collaboration with our Loss Adjuster, in securing the return of this precious cultural property”, commented AXA ART’s Claims Manager, Clare Dewey.  “The recovery should serve as encouragement for on-going investigations and as a deterrent for similar crimes. Our responsibility to our policy holders doesn’t end with a claims payment; we have a duty to work with law enforcement to recover cultural artefacts.” The Achaemenid relief dates from the 5th century BC. It is made of limestone, and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  It has been part of the permanent collection held by the Montréal Museum for decades.  AXA ART is thrilled that this object can be returned to the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts where it will continue to be enjoyed by the public for generations to come
UPDATED: This afternoon via email, ARCA interviewed Prof. John M. Fossey, Emeritus Curator, Mediterranean Archaeology for the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, who gave the following quote as to why the recovery is historically important:
"As the Curator who was responsible for organizing the exhibition hall from which the object was stolen over two years ago, I am obviously very happy to see this beautiful work of ancient sculpture return to the museum. It was one of our only pieces representative of Persian art of the Achaemenid period (2nd half 6th century BCE to 330 BCE). It represents in low relief the head and shoulder of an armed Persian guard and probably decorated the walls of one of the several Achaemenid palaces spread across the Persian empire. Similar pieces are found in various museums and most were looted from palace sites in the first part of the 19th century. This particular piece is very well preserved and had suffered no damage during its recent adventure. The work of the RCMP and the Sureté du Québec in recovering this artefact was remarkable and the officers in question are to be complimented for the quality of their work and its successful end. We all hope that this success will deter would-be thieves from attempting other such thefts. The investigation continues to try and recover the second object stolen from the museum also in the autumn of 2011."
Sergente Mélanie Dumaresq, spokesperson for the Sureté du Québec, answered a few questions also via email on behalf of Canada's Art Crime Team:
Was a reward paid? In this case no reward was given.
Were the police acting on a tip?

Information received from the public enabled us to advance the investigation and identify the suspect.  The investigation begun by the Montreal Police (SPVM) but it was transferred to the SQ in order to make use of the expertise of the integrated artworks investigation team, which is a specialized team composed of members of the SQ and the RCMP.


What charges will be filed against the suspect?

The investigation shows that he did not commit the theft at the MMFA, but purchased the object knowing that it had been stolen. The arrested suspect may be charged with possession of criminally obtained property. He will appear on march 19, 2014 in the morning at the Edmonton courthouse.
We have posted a copy of the French press release from the Canadian authorities in Quebec below (the original can be viewed here):
Objet: Artéfact de 1,2 million $ rapatrié au Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal
Montréal, le 13 février 2014 – L’Équipe intégrée des enquêtes en œuvres d’art de la Sûreté du Québec a retrouvé, le 22 janvier dernier à Edmonton, l’un des deux artefacts volés en septembre et en octobre 2011 au Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. La pièce d’une valeur de 1,2 million $, qui a été volée le 3 septembre 2011, est un fragment de bas-relief perse datant du 5e siècle avant Jésus-Christ. Elle a été rapatriée au Québec et restituée au Musée des beaux-arts à la suite de sa découverte lors d’une perquisition dans un logement d’Edmonton en Alberta. Un homme de 33 ans d’Edmonton a été arrêté à la suite de cette perquisition réalisée avec la collaboration des policiers de la Division K (Alberta) de la Gendarmerie royale du Canada. 
L’enquête se poursuit pour retrouver le deuxième artefact volé, une statuette de marbre représentant la tête d’un homme de style Égypto-archaïsant datant du 1er siècle avant Jésus-Christ. Cette pièce a été volée le 26 octobre 2011. Toute information pouvant permettre de la retrouver peut être communiquée à la Centrale de l’information criminelle de la Sûreté du Québec, au 1 800 659-4264 ou à l’adresse art.alerte@surete.qc.ca. Tous les signalements seront traités de façon confidentielle. Soulignons la collaboration de la compagnie AXA Art qui a permis de faire progresser  cette enquête. L’Équipe intégrée des enquêtes en œuvres d’art est formée d’enquêteurs de la Sûreté du Québec et de la Gendarmerie royale du Canada. Elle travaille en étroite collaboration avec différentes organisations qui détiennent des expertises permettant d’enquêter sur les crimes liés au marché de l’art. 
Pour plus d’informations sur l’Équipe d’enquête et pour s’inscrire au service gratuit de diffusion ART ALERTE, les intervenants du monde de l’art sont invités à visiter le site web de la Sûreté du Québec, au www.sq.gouv.qc.ca.
Here's a link to the article announcing today's press conference and links to other published reports:

"Edmonton man charged with possessing stolen artifact 'honoured' to have looked after it", Jana G. Purden, Cailynn Klingbeil, Edmonton Journal:
EDMONTON - For two years, a stolen ancient artifact worth $1.2 million sat on an Ikea bookshelf in a south Edmonton apartment, displayed above a plastic Star Wars spaceship, flanked by crystals and a small collection of stuffed animals. The Persian bas-relief sculpture, dating from the fifth century BC, sat slightly behind a handmade vase decorated with a painted fish and filled with dried flowers. Then, at about 9 a.m. on Jan. 22, a team of police officers working with Quebec RCMP’s Integrated Art Crime Investigation Team banged on Simon Metke’s apartment door. “There’s like 20 RCMP officers flooding my place, the sunshine’s coming in, the crystals are making rainbows everywhere, the bougainvillea flowers are glowing in the sunrise light,” Simon Metke, 33, said Thursday evening, sitting cross-legged in his south Edmonton apartment. “And I’m just sort of, ‘What the heck is going on?’ And, OK, here’s the thing I think you’re looking for. This thing is a lot more significant than I thought it was.”
Police say the sculpture was stolen from Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts in September 2011. The same thief is then believed to have taken a second piece from the museum a month later. That piece, a statuette of a man dating from the first century B.C., is still missing. The man who took the pieces has not been charged. Police aren’t saying what led them to Metke. Metke said he bought the sculpture from the neighbour of a friend in Montreal, thinking it was an “interesting replica” or maybe an antique — but mostly drawn to it because of his own interest in Mesopotamian religion and art. “I didn’t realize that it was an actual piece of the Persepolis,” he said, referring to the ancient Persian ceremonial capital. “I’m honoured to have had it, but I feel really hurt that I wasn’t able to have a positive experience in the end with it.” He said he was somewhat skeptical about buying the piece for $1,400 — mostly because he thought it might not be worth it. In the end, he said he bought it to help out his friend, a “starving artist” who received a $300 commission, and the seller, who said he needed to pay child support and rent, and assured Metke it was “a good deal.”
Twice during fall 2011, someone walked into Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts and walked out with two ancient artifacts worth close to $1.3 million. The Sûreté du Québec, with the help of the RCMP, recently found one of the rare pieces of art in an Edmonton home and arrested a man. The other, from the first century BC, is still missing. Yet the museum said its security system — cameras and agents — is fine and they have no intention of putting the treasures under protective glass. "This is very unusual," Danielle Champagne, director of the museum's foundation, said about the thefts. "Montrealers are very respectful." The last theft from the museum was in 1972, she said.
"Artifact taken from Montreal museum found in Edmonton; 2nd piece still missing", Peter Rakobowchuk, The Canadian Press:
A reward was offered several months after the theft. Provincial police spokeswoman Joyce Kemp said Thursday that whoever bought the artifact after it was stolen paid less than what it was actually worth. "We know that the person purchased it for a price really inferior to what is the real value of the artifact," she told reporters. Kemp would not give any details about how it was purchased. "The investigation is still ongoing (and) it might interfere with the next steps of the investigation," she said.
The SQ/RCMP Integrated Art Crime Investigation Unit issued an Art Alerte for the "Recovered World of Art" (Case File: 11-098) to announce the return of sandstone Bas-Relief, noting its size (21 x 20.5 x 3 cm). Here's the link to the YouTube channel for the Sûreté du Québec if they publish a video of the conference.

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