September 11, 2018

Recovery: Gold Objects stolen from the Nizam Museum

Image Credit: Hyderabad Police

Holding a press conference in Hyderabad, authorities announced that the  gold tiffin box, saucer, cup & spoon stolen from Nizam Museum on September 3rd have been recovered by Hyderabad Police. The two accused, Mohammed Gaus Pasha (23) and a relative Mohammed Mubeen (24) from the Himayat Sagar area of ​​the city have been arrested.

The pair of thieves had accessed the museum by dislodging a four-feet wide ventilation grill and then dropping some 20 feet down into the exhibition gallery.  

For full details on the theft please see ARCA's earlier blog post here. 

Restitution: An Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele returned to Greece


On June 9, 2017 forensic archaeologist Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, wrote to ARCA and to the Art and Antiques Unit of London's Metropolitan Police (New Scotland Yard), INTERPOL and the Greek police Art Squad reporting that he had identified an Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele coming up for auction in Sotheby's June 12, 2017 London auction which he had traced to the archive of convicted Italian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina. 

This accumulation of records was seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland.  The Becchina Archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer's business.  

These dealer records include shipping manifests, antiquarian dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images.  Many of which are not the slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, point and shoot Polaroids taken by looters and middlemen.  This latter type of image often depicts looted antiquities in their recently plundered state, some of which still bear soil and salt encrustations. 

Two of the identifying Polaroid images of the object
located in the Becchina archive. 
In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade and while he later appealed this conviction, he is currently under investigation by Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) who moved to seize his cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., his olive oil company, Olio Verde srl., Demetra srl., Becchina & Company srl., bank accounts, land, and real estate properties including Palazzo Pignatelli in November 2017. 

Looted antiquities traced to Becchina's trafficking network, like this attic marble anthemion, continue to surface in private collections, museums and some of the world's most prestigious auction firms specializing in ancient art and are frequently identified by Tsirogiannis, archaeologists working with Italy's Avvocatura dello Stato, the Italian Carabinieri and the Greek police. 

In his email, Tsirogiannis stated that he had identified the attic marble anthemion in three professional and two Polaroids images as well as in four separate documents found in the confiscated Becchina business records. The dealer's documentation indicated that the stele appeared to have been in Becchina's hands from 1977 until 1990, when it was then sold on to George Ortiz, a collector and heir to the South American Patiñho tin fortune who lived in Geneva and whose name has appeared with regularity on this blog tied to purchases of objects of illicit origin.   Ortiz's name has long been associated with this trafficking network as his was one of the names found on the network organigram found in Pasquale Camera's personal possessions.

Interestingly both Becchina and Ortiz were never mentioned in the 'Provenance' section given by Sotheby's.   During the sale, the object's collection history was listed simply as follows: 


Possibly as a result of Tsirogiannis' identification, the 340 B.C.E. object (thankfully) failed to sell.  Eleven months later, in a May 7th 2018 issue of the Times, the newspaper reported that Sotheby's, not Tsirogiannis, had discovered that they had a false collecting history on the stele at which point "by way of a voluntary goodwill gesture" handed the stele over to the Metropolitan Police in London.  The Greek Embassy in London working with the Greek The Ministry of Culture authorities via the Directorate for the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Property, followed up with the legal claims necessary for restitution and on June 27th, 2018 Christos Tsirogiannis testified at the Greek consulate in London as to his findings. Subsequent to the above, the object was formally handed over on September 8, 2018.

After its return to Greece, yesterday, the column has been delivered to the Epigraphical Museum of Athens, Greece. 

September 8, 2018

Saturday, September 08, 2018 - , No comments

Repatriation: The Sicán funeral mask finally goes home to Peru

Image Credit: Patricia Balbuena
Ministry of Culture Peru
In a legal battle that has taken 19 years of litigation, Germany's Plenipotentiary of the Free State of Bavaria, Dr. Rolf-Dieter Jungk, has turned over the eighth-century pre Columbian gold Lambayeque (Sicán) funerary mask to the Peruvian Culture Minister, Patricia Balbuena, at the Peruvian embassy in Berlin on Thursday. The priceless mask, made of hammered sheet gold alloy, was confiscated in Wiesbaden in 1999.


Decorative masks such as these have been found in tombs in the Lambayeque region of Peru, near the modern city of Chiclayo. As they lack perforations to see with, or holes to breathe through, they are believed to have been created solely as ornaments for the deceased, and likely covered the faces of high status individuals as part of their burial processes.


According to investigations by the Fiscal Police of Peru, the mask is believed to have been smuggled out of Peru sometime in 1997 and was brought to Germany by Aydin Dikmen. Dikmen was arrested in 1998 for his role in selling looted mosaics from the 6th century church of the Virgin of Kanakaria in the village of Lythrangomi sold on to Peg Goldberg in the United States.  The mask was formally confiscated in 1999 by the INTERPOL Office in Wiesbaden, Germany. 
 
Cover article in El Comercio
June 16, 1998
The case for restitution took years, winding its way through the Regional Court of Munich.  In December 2016, the 6th Civil Chamber issued a sentence ordering the release of the Sican Mask, confiscated by the Munich Prosecutor's Office and authorized its delivery to the Peruvian State.

For more information illustrating the search for recorded cultural goods, stolen, auctioned and repatriated from Peru, please follow the excellent writing at Memoria Robada. 

September 6, 2018

Museum Theft Update: Doge’s Palace - Venice, Italy

Exhibition Hall, Sala dello Scrutinio, Doge's Palace, Venice
Image Credit: Palazzo Ducale
Eight months into the investigation, Italian news sites have begun reporting more details on the band of thieves believed to be behind the theft of part of the jewellry collection of Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani. The jewels were stolen from an alcove just off of the Sala della Scrutinio at the Palazzo Ducale during a brazen, broad daylight, robbery from the "Treasures of Mughals and Maharajas" exhibition on January 3rd.

Reconstructing the events surrounding the 10 am theft on the final day of the exhibition authorities have apparently discussed their hypothesis with one or more members of the Italian press. 
According to a report first published on Twitter by Mediaset Journalist Clemente Mimun, it is believed that the thieves may be members of a Croatian and Serbian criminal network which specialized in high value thefts, known to have commited other offenses in Italy and other countries.  No information is given in Mediaset's formal article several hours after Mimun's tweet, nor in La Repubblica's subsequent article as to why authorities believe the squad is made up of Serb and Croat nationals or indicating what information aside from general speculation would lead to this assumption.


During the January 3, 2018 incident, two thieves, one serving as lookout, wearing a buttoned sweater and a fisherman's beanie, and a second serving as principal actor, took a remarkable 20 seconds to open, then pocket a pair of teardrop diamond earrings and a heavy brooch made up of diamonds, rubies, gold, and platinum.


Given that the display case and its alarm failed to activate or activate in a timely manner when the glass case was breached, it is reasonable to assume that the pair of thieves might have had insider help.  Perhaps from someone either connected to the museum with knowledge of or access to the exhibitions alarm systems as they were expressly installed for this specific exhibit and in normal circumstances would have been expected to sound an alarm as soon as the display case was opened which would allow time for the perimeter to have been sealed.

Gone in a Bling

In the CCTV camera footage a clean-shaven man wearing a hooded puffer jacket and casual pants, sporting a traditional coppola style flat cap, can be seen at first viewing the jewels in several display cases at a leisurely pace, along with five other individuals, one of whom is believed to have served as a lookout.


Once the room clears of potential witnesses, the thief, working quickly and discreetly, but in full view of the CCTV camera, opens the glass door on the case and pockets the jewellry in the pocket of his jacket.  Afterwards the pair calmly blend back in with the rest of the museum's patrons, and casually exit the Doge's Palace before security has time to apprehend them. 

Given that the security for this event was specifically requested and installed as a condition of the exhibition of the Sheik's jewels, it is reasonable to believe that the culprits were practiced experts, perhaps those who also had advance knowledge of the Doge's security routine, and the timing it would take for security to react to their breach.

Whether or not Mediaset was referring to a network of jewel thieves known as "The Pink Panthers", an elusive gang of jewel thieves which is believed to have members from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is unclear. This sometimes violent network of jewel thieves are believed to be responsible for more than 200 high value robberies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.  For fifteen years this network of Balkan jewel thieves have committed audacious heists, sometimes by violent means as depicted in the real-life surveillance footage shown in the documentary “Smash and Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers.” 


As in the Venice heist Pink Panther thefts usually involve prior preparation and advanced skill, often casting nondescript individuals to case locations of potential robberies prior to their execution.  In one particularly dramatic theft on May 19, 2003 at Graff on New Bond Street in London a member of the group was able to make off with more than thirty million dollars’ worth of diamonds at in less than three minutes.

Whether or not the Doge's Palace Museum theft is related to the Pink Panthers is unclear, but should they be, they will likely benefit from the inventive perpetrators uncanny ability to fence traceable high-end goods. In the past law enforcement authorities have indicated that the Panther network consisted of between twenty and thirty experienced thieves at any given time, with facilitators in various cities providing logistical assistance.   Often, stolen diamonds end up in Antwerp as well as among the collections of indifferent clients in wealthy countries like Italy, France, Russia and Switzerland.



September 5, 2018

Museum Theft: Nizam Museum (HEH Nizam's Museum) Hyderabad, India


According to local authorities, thieves broke into the Nizam Museum housed on the first floor of the Purani Haveli palace located in Hyderabad, Telangana, India sometime on the evening of Sunday, September 2, 2018.  The palace, located just a few kilometers away from Chowmahalla Palace, is also home to a library and the Mukarram Jah Technical Institute.

In the past the palace was once the official residence of the Nizam, the last of whom ruled over the region from 1911 to 1948, when Hyderabad State was annexed by India.  The museum showcases many gifts that the 7th and last Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII received on his silver jubilee in 1936.  The museum  has been privately run by the Nizam’s Jubilee Pavillion Trust, and managed by descendants of the Nizam since the year 2000.  It houses approximately 450 objects in its collection.

Dislodging a four-feet wide ventilation grill, the burglar or burglars appear to have worked as a coordinated pair, dropping some 20 feet down into the exhibition gallery.  


Once inside one of the culprits broke into a non alarmed exhibition case and removed a three-tier diamond-studded gold tiffin box with trays carved with flora and fauna, as well as a golden tea cup and saucer embedded with ruby and emeralds, a spoon and a tray which once belonged to the 7th Nizam. Tiffins (or dhabbas) are traditionally round metal lunch containers with three or four stacking compartments used for serving traditional homemade thali lunches which feature bread, pickles, spicy curries, and sometimes desserts.


Once the goods were in hand, the thief was then hoisted back up and out of the same way he entered before making their getaway.



The loss was discovered the following morning by the museum's personnel who discovered the broken locks and empty showcase and then alerted the police.


CCTV Footage of suspected burglers

Journalists in India report that workers at the museum have been asking for security upgrades for quite some time.   Initial thoughts on the theft are leaning towards someone familiar with its limited security as one of the limited number of museum CCTV cameras had been tilted in such a way as to limit the image capture of the burgler(s).