August 15, 2018

Repatriation: The Case of the Stolen TEFAF Buddha

Screen Shot of ID Matching Buddha stolen 57 years ago.
Image Credit:  ARCA with permission from ASI Archives in India
In a tale that began as a follow up to a funding initiative, I was scheduled to be in the Netherlands this past March to meet with folks at Maastricht University who ARCA was collaborating with on an EU funded Horizon 2020 grant proposal designed to address the critical issues involved the illicit trafficking of antiquities (which, by the way, we were later not awarded).  "The European Fine Arts Fair," or more simply by its art market acronym, TEFAF.  Part of the impetus for meeting in the Netherlands was that I was already in Maastricht, as each year, since 1988, the city has played host to an annual art, antiques, and design fair at the MECC which is organized by The European Fine Art Foundation called

I was at TEFAF to keep an eye open for looted antiquities which might be on sale with fabricated provenances — artworks from the ancient past which have no legitimate pedigree as they have been looted directly from the ground.  Illicit antiquities like these have a propensity for eventually bubbling up into auction house and trade fair sales as their illicit excavation from archaeologically rich sites means that they will not appear in any for-fee stolen art database searches as there is no way to report a previously unknown object as missing.  Once a looted object gains a plausible fabricated provenance, it only takes a few purchases and a publication in one or two glossy exhibition catalogs, to give a looted object a superficial patina of legitimacy.

I was not expecting to find an object stolen from a museum as these types of thefts are routinely registered with police, as well as with art market theft databases.  Searching services, conducted by Art Loss Register, are also incorporated into the vetting of objects for sale at TEFAF in both their New York and Maastricht sales events and are designed to reduce or resolve art-related ownership disputes.

But on Thursday, 15 March 2018 around lunchtime, I pressed the send button on my smartphone application and passed a high resolution photo of a suspicious object I had seen at the stand of one of the international art dealers.  The photo sent was of a Post-Gupta, seated Buddha in the Bhumisparsha Mudra pose, a delicate bronze with his right hand as a pendant over the right knee and with the palm of his left hand facing upward.  The person I sent the photo to was Vijay Kumar, the cofounder of India Pride Project.  

IPP has been responsible for identifying countless Indian treasures stolen and smuggled overseas, some of which have been found in prestigious museums around the globe.  Less than 2 hours later, and with careful comparison with  images obtained through a retired ASI employee, Dr. Sachindra S Biswas, Kumar and I were fairly confident we had a match.  

Image Credit:  Left - ARCA Photo from TEFAF Maastricht 2018
Right - ISA Archive photo
The following morning, Friday, 16 March 2018 and after multiple cross checks, between the photos of the object I took and those of the ASI, I contacted Martin Finkelnberg, Head of the Art and Antiques Crime Unit of the Netherlands National Police Force, INTERPOL, UNESCO and the Indian authorities and presented everyone with the supporting evidence of our identification.   In our opinion, as well as the opinion of two external experts, we felt confident, to the best of our abilities, that the object for sale at TEFAF in March 2018 was an exact match to one of 14 objects stolen from the Nalanda Archaeological Museum of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Nalanda, Bihar, India on August 22, 1961.

Despite its theft, the stolen Buddha was pictured in Ulrich Von Schroeder's book "Into-Tibetan Bronzes," a book published in Hong Kong in 1981.  By that time the object had already been satisfactorily laundered into the licit market and was  listed as part of a private collection in London.  

Pages from Ulrich Von Schroeder's book "Into-Tibetan Bronzes,"
illustrating the stolen Buddha
Based on the preponderance of evidence we presented, the Dutch police force acted immediately and sent officers to pay a visit to the dealer's representative on site at TEFAF for the last day of the Dutch fair.  The manager of the stand reported to the Dutch police that the firm was holding the object for a consignor who resided outside of the Netherlands.  

Working cooperatively with law enforcement, the dealer agreed to be in touch with the Buddha's current owner as well as New Scotland Yard, London's Metropolitan Police upon their return to London where an investigation could be taken up by the UK authorities.  ARCA and India Pride Project, in turn, passed all the evidence we had obtained on to Detective Constable Sophie Hayes, of New Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Unit. 

Once in London, Constable Hayes began her own necessary due diligence in order to ensure that our impressions were correct.  After reviewing the documentation we had provided to the London police, Hayes contacted France Desmarais of the International Council of Museums (ICOM).  

Desmarais arranged for a neutral external expert opinion on the Buddha currently held in the UK by the antiquities dealer for the consignor.  This evaluation was conducted for evidence of authenticity as well as in comparison to the evidence provided by ARCA and India Pride Project related to the theft in Nalanda, Bihar 57 years ago. 

ICOM's expert found the bronze in question to be authentic, and a match to one of the 14 objects stolen in 1961.

To understand how experts authenticate ancient art of this type it is important to understand that bronzes produced in the later medieval period (circa 12th century) in eastern India were made using the “lost wax” method.  This is a process where a wax model is made which can be used only once, as the wax melts away when the molten bronze is poured into the mould. For this reason, each bronze Buddha made using the lost wax method is unique, and while other Buddhas may have a similar appearances or poses, no two will be exactly alike as each object has to be made from its own individual wax mold. 

Completing this confirmation check took some time, as the number of post-Gupta era experts is limited and authentication is not something experts working in the museum community perform without careful consideration and thoughtful examination.  I'd like to personally thank both the anonymized expert and Ms. Desmarais for their time and expert assistance regarding the origins of this bronze. 

With ICOM's confirmation in hand, the Met's Art and Antiquities Squad worked to convince the current owner of the Buddha, who, along with the dealer had been cooperative throughout the investigation, to voluntarily relinquish the object back to its home country.   Today, it was handed over to Indian High Commissioner to the UK, YK Sinha during a ceremony this morning at the Gandhi Hall, India House, Aldwych in London, timed to coincide with India’s Independence Day.

Mr Rahul Nangare, First Secretary (Trade), High Commission of India,
and Dr Rajarajan, IPP volunteer
Imae credit:  IPP
Speaking with Vijay this morning hee stated "this is a great demonstration of inter governmental and activist groups and also the need for proper documentation. We hope this is just the beginning in finding closure to this case as we are still after the rest of the stolen artifacts. Hope the museums in America are looking at this with interest. "

While I, like Vijay am overjoyed that this stolen Buddha is finally going home, another similar to it, identified in February and stolen during the same theft, still sits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in Los Angeles, California.  The question remains, if the US-based museum will be as forthcoming as this collector and UK dealer.  Both of whom did the right thing by cooperating during the investigation and eventually returning the stolen object back to India voluntarily.  

By:  Lynda Albertson

August 8, 2018

Sicilian judges reject appeal made by William Veres

Screenshot of William Veres from the documentary
“The Hunt for Transylvanian Gold
Judges from the Tribunale del Riesame di Caltanissetta, the court of first instance with general jurisdiction in criminal matters within the territory of Caltanissetta, Sicily, have rejected an appeal made through attorney, Davide Limoncello,  presented in relation to a European arrest warrant (EAW) issued for William Veres.  The London-based Hungarian antiquities dealer is one of 41 persons who have been named in Operation Demetra, an Italian-led illicit trafficking blitz carried out by law enforcement authorities in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom in July 2018.  

The appeal presented by Limoncello on behalf of Mr. Veres was made to address the personal and real precautionary measures requested by the Italian authorities in relation to his client, deemed necessary by the prosecutor in the context of the criminal proceedings related to the case. 

Veres was taken into custody on 4 July by officers from London's Metropolitan Police - Art and Antiques Unit at his home in Forge Close, Stanmore in north-west London.  Subsequent to his arrest, Veres was released on bail with supervised release conditions while he awaits the UK's ruling at London’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court as to whether or not he should be extradited to Italy to face the charges against him.

Extradition to Italy is regulated by law as well as by international conventions and agreements. In general, extradition, is this case between Britain and Italy, means that Italy has asked the UK to surrender Veres as a suspected criminal in order to stand trial for an alleged violation of the Italian law.  But before doing so, the antiquities dealer is entitled to an extradition hearing.

During that extradition hearing a UK judge will need to be satisfied that the conduct described in the European arrest warrant amounts to an extraditable offence in Great Britain.  This means, in almost all cases, that the alleged conduct of the suspect would also amount to a criminal offence were it to have occurred in the UK.  The UK courts would also have to evaluate whether or not  any of the UK's statutory bars to extradition apply. 

Most of the bars prohibiting extradition in the UK have to do with double jeopardy, the absence of a prosecution decision (whether the prosecution case against the accused is sufficiently advanced) or whether or not the request by the requesting foreign authority is improperly motivated.   The London judge will also decide if extradition would be disproportionate or incompatible with Veres'  human rights. 

Should the judge at the extradition hearing decide it would be both proportionate and compatible, Veres' extradition to Italy would subsequently be ordered.  Veres could then, if he so chose, ask the UK High Court for permission to appeal this decision, provided that request is made within seven days of the previous order.  

If the High Court grants an appeal, in that situation and later affirms the lower court's ruling that extradition is both proportionate and compatible, Veres would become subject to extradition within 10 days of the final court order (unless an agreement to extend, due to exceptional circumstances, is made with Italy).

By:  Lynda Albertson

August 7, 2018

August 3, 2018

Decision from the Greek Court on the Schinoussa and Psychiko seizure case

Antiquities and copies of antiquities from the 2006 Greek Seizures
In a court ruling coming in at the end of July, first reported by the blog of the Committee on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Material of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), the E (5th) 3 member Appeal Penal Court of Athens, Greece, hearing the case in first instance, has handed down their decision on members of the well-known shipping family Papadimitriou, originally accused on 22 November 2006 of illegally possessing and receiving illicit antiquities.

According to the contents of an email, apparently recieved by the State Legal Adviser's Office to the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic, relating the outcome of the 26 July 2018 hearing on the case (translated from the original Greek):

"The Court by majority found guilty Despina and Dimitri Papadimitriou for the act of embezzlement of monuments and convicted each one of them to suspended imprisonment of 4 years. It also ratified the seizure and ordered the confiscation of the seized items."
According to Greek Law No. 3028/02, “On the Protection of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in General” (article 56), destruction, damage or alteration of a monument, as well as theft or embezzlement of monuments, (articles 53 and 54 respectively) are punishable acts in Greece.

The objects which led to this reported conviction were confiscated twelve years ago from the family's villa on the Aegean island of Schinoussa as well as at a second family residence in the suburb of Psychiko, in northern Athens.

The Saint Basil area of the Island of Schinoussa.
The private peninsula owned by the Papadimitriou/Michaelides family.
Image Credit:  ARCA 2018 Google Maps screen capture
The antiquities connected to these charges were held on that occasion in accordance with Greek Law 3028/2002 on the Protection of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in General along with a significant number of photographic images, many of which represent additional antiquities, not recovered on the properties during the aforementioned Greek raids. The objects portrayed in the photos are related to the commercial transactions of antiquities dealers Christo Michaelides and Robin Symes who sold ancient art through Robin Symes Limited.

According to the book "The Medici Conspiracy" the 17 albums of photographic documentation seized, often referred to as the "Schinoussa archive" depict 995 artifacts in 2,191 photos.   The bulk of the images, shot by professional photographers.  The binders are said to be derived from the most important antiquities which are known to have passed through Symes and Michaelides' hands at some point during their business dealings from the 1980s through the 1990s.

While photographs from the Schinoussa archive do not, in and of themselves, prove that a specifically photographed antiquity is illicit in origin, the images photographed can raise disturbing questions about which middleman hands unprovenanced antiquities have passed through.  What we do know is that the Symes - Michaelides duo sold objects tied to other traffickers in completion of transactions to wealthy collectors and some of the most prestigious museums in the world.

An example of this is the recently repatriated calyx-krater mixing vessel attributed to Python, as painter which was returned to Italy. This object was purchased by Speed Art Museum through Robin Symes Limited, on the basis that the krater came from a private collector in Paris.  Instead the object was found to match photos from the Giacomo Medici archive, where the antiquity is depicted in an unrestored, and obviously looted, state.  This means the French provenance applied to the object and relayed to the museum was a fabrication.  It is for this reason, that objects represented in the Schinoussa archive and/or sold via Robin Symes Limited, in circulation within the world's thriving antiquities art market deserve careful scrutiny as they may represent antiquities derived from illegal sources.  

At the time of the Schinoussa and Psychiko villa searches, in April of 2006, the resulting haul of undocumented antiquities was considered to be the largest antiquities seizure by law enforcement in recent Greek history.  In total, some 152 undocumented ancient artworks were inventoried by investigating authorities.  Later, evaluations by two committees of experts were held in order  to determine which objects were authentic and therefore subject to seizure under existing Greek law.  The committee also looked at what might merely be fakes or reproductions.

Some of the notable objects identified on the Papadimitriou properties included two large Egyptian sphinxes made of pink granite, nine rare Coptic weavings from the fourth-to-sixth centuries C.E., multiple marble busts, Corinthian capitals, and Byzantine architectural elements.  There was even a fake statue that was once displayed at the Getty Museum.  One of the more unusual finds was the remains of an entire 17th century building which had been dismantled, perhaps to be reconstructed elsewhere at some later date.

Officers also found shipment boxes from Christie's auction house which included market transactions from 2001 through 2005.  Notably, many of the objects found during the executed search warrants were still wrapped, either having never been unwrapped, or perhaps having been rewrapped, awaiting transport elsewhere.

At the end of the committee evaluations a total 69 objects were confiscated by the authorities.  Their total estimated value:  a little more than €982,000 euros.


The largest find during the raid in Schinoussa.
A modern construction chapel dedicated to Saint Basil made up of architectural elements originating from other Byzantine temples. Photo Credit: C. Tsirogiannis
Those who follow illicit trafficking will already be familiar with the name of deceased antiquities dealer Christo Michaelides, who, prior to his death was the former partner of Robin Symes. Michaelidis lived with Symes from the 1970s until his death on 5 July 1999 as a result of a fatal fall which occurred during a dinner party in a villa in Terni, Italy hosted by the now famous American antiquities collectors, Leon Levy and Shelby White.

Michaelides descended from a Greek shipping family, run by his father, Alexander Votsi Michaelides.  His sister is Despina Papadimitriou, is one of the four original defendants charged by Greek prosecutor Eleni Raikou seven months after the Schinoussa and Psychiko seizures.  The other individuals named in this case are Despina's three adult children, Dimitri, Alexis, and Angeliki, though it appears that the court has ruled negatively on solely Despina and Dimitri.

According to the Greek indictment, the defendants unlawfully appropriated 
"ancient monuments, cultural goods dating back to prehistoric, ancient, Byzantine and post-Byzantine times until 1830." 
(Greek «ιδιοποιήθηκαν παράνομα αρχαία μνημεία, πολιτιστικά αγαθά που ανάγονται στους προϊστορικούς, αρχαίους, βυζαντινούς και μεταβυζαντινούς χρόνους έως και το 1830»)

And as stated in the hearing that referred them to the audience of the Triennial Court of Appeal of Athens: 
"There is an aim of income generation and a constant propensity to commit the crime, which is directed against the State, the embezzlement of monuments as an element of their personality."(Greek «Προκύπτει σκοπός για πορισμό εισοδήματος και σταθερή ροπή προς τη διάπραξη του εγκλήματος, που στρέφεται κατά του Δημοσίου, της υπεξαίρεσης μνημείων ως στοιχείο της προσωπικότητάς τους».)
During the proceedings the defendants disputed Greece's charges arguing that the seized property was owned by their husband/father, Alexander Michaelides, or by their brother/uncle, Christo Michaelides.  Prior to his death, Christo Michaelides spent a significant amount of time on the family estate in Schinoussa, socializing with individuals known to purchase ancient art, some with fabricated provenances, including Marion True, the former Curator of Antiquities at the J.Paul Getty Museum.

 Former Getty Curator Marion True, with
Christo Michaelides, in Greece, 1998
Image Credit:  The Medici Conspiracy


This statement is perplexing given her brother's longterm ties to his partner, Robin Symes, and the pair's business dealings with well-publicised dealers of ancient art who were already known to be involved in the handling and selling of tainted illicit antiquities.

As this court decision moves forward to the second judicial phase it is interesting to note that London lawyers on behalf of all four members of the Papadimitriou family named in this court case have sent a lengthy letter, written one day after the Court's decision, to one of the Greek state's witnesses who testified on behalf of the government during their trial. The contents of this four-page letter, written to Cambridge-based forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, might be interpreted as witness intimidation. 

The letter, written by attorney's representing the Papadimitriou family, including its sharply worded final sentence,  can be read in its entirety in the EAA blog of the Committee on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Material.

Commentary regarding the allegations made in the text of this letter to Tsirogiannis can be found on the blog of antiquities trafficking researcher Dr. Samuel Hardy here.


By:  Lynda Albertson





August 1, 2018

Sad Conclusion: The case is von Saher v Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena et al, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-58308.

The protracted multi-million dollar lawsuit regarding the 480-year-old paintings of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder at the Norton Simon Museum that has lasted more than ten years has now come to a close.  A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a unanimous decision, has ruled in favour of the museum and not Marei von Saher, the sole surviving heir of the Dutch-Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who has long sought to recover her father in law’s artworks, looted during the Second World War. 

Throughout this protracted judicial process, Saher, had sought the return of the two 500-year-old biblical-themed paintings, which at one point had been appraised at $24 million.  

Jacques Goudstikker was once considered to be the preeminent dealer of Old Master paintings in Amsterdam and is estimated to have amassed an extraordinary collection of some 1400 works of art of the course of his professional career.  When Germany began its assault on Holland on May 10, 1940, Goudstikker knew that his family's time was up. As Rotterdam burned and the Nazi invasion under Reichsmarschall Göring gained speed, Goudstikker, his young wife Désirée von Halban Kurtz, and their infant son Edo boarded the SS Bodegraven, a ship docked at the port city of IJmuiden, departing for England and then on its way to the Americas. 

Goudstikker inventory of property

Unable to transport his collection with him, Goudstikker carried a neatly typed inventory of his property in a black leather notebook.  This notebook detailed artworks by important Dutch and Flemish artists like Jan Mostaert and Jan Steen, as well as works by Peter Paul Rubens, Giotto, Pasqualino Veneziano, Titian, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh as well as the Cranachs.  Unfortunately, in a further tragic twist of fate, Goudstikker lost his life on his journey to safety, breaking his neck in an accidental fall through an uncovered hatch just two days into the departing ship's voyage.

In less than a week after the German Luftwaffe of the Third Reich crossed into Dutch airspace, Dutch commanding general General Henry G. Winkelman surrendered and the country fell under German occupation.   As a result, Amsterdam came under a civilian administration overseen by the Reichskommissariat Niederlande, which was dominated by the Schutzstaffel.  

Goudstikker's collection was quickly liquidated in a forced sale typical of many World War II -era art thefts.  Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring himself cherry picked many of the choicest art works, including these two 6-1/4 foot (1.9 meters) tall Cranach panels. Göring went on to send more than 800 paintings to Germany, some of which were hung in his private collection at Karinhall, his country estate near Berlin.

On Monday, July 30, 2018, the three-judge panel with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which is the U.S. Federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the district courts in Alaska, Arizona and the Central District of California applied “the act of state doctrine,” validated the 1966 sale of the paintings by the Dutch government, which by then owned them, to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff who in turn sold them to the Norton Simon in 1971.

“The act of state doctrine,” limits the ability of U.S. courts, in certain instances, from determining the legality of the acts of a sovereign state within that sovereign's own territory and is often applied in appropriations disputes which immunizes foreign nations from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts when certain conditions are satisfied.

The judges held that in order for von Saher’s claim to have been upheld, the  court would have been required to invalidate the official acts of the Dutch government. Specifically, the Dutch government’s conveyance of the paintings to Stroganoff-Scherbatoff would have needed to have been deemed legally inoperative.  Additionally the panel would have needed to disregard both the Dutch government’s 1999 decision not to restore von Saher’s rights to the paintings, and its later statement that her claim to the paintings had “been settled.”

To view the Judges' opinion entirety, please download the file from the ARCA website here.

By:  Lynda Albertson