May 19, 2020

Prosecutors file a civil forfeiture complaint for the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet which they say was looted from Iraq.

The Gilgamesh dream tablet, Iraq, c. 1600 BCE
while on display at Museum of the Bible

“Strange things have been spoken, why does your heart speak strangely? The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror.”  ― The Epic of Gilgamesh, N.K. Sanders translation. 
Authorities in the United States have filed a civil forfeiture complaint for a 1600 BCE cuneiform tablet featuring a dream sequence from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Acting as the Plaintiff in the case, the US authorities brought an action in rem for the tablet pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c)(1)(A).  Under this section, US law authorizes the forfeiture of any "merchandise" that is "introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States contrary to law." In this case, that's when it is believed that the property was stolen in a foreign country and imported into the United States illegally.  

In the complaint, Special Agent John Paul Labbat with the United States Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, cited that the object was stolen Iraqi property introduced into the United States contrary to 18 U.S.C. § 2314, the stolen property act.  This act serves as an independent basis for the forfeiture of any stolen property that moves in interstate or foreign commerce and which is utilized whether the object in question was stolen overseas or inside the United States.

The ancient clay object, originally part of a larger six-column tablet, contains seventy-four lines of Middle Babylonian cuneiform text, and is known to be one of only thirty known surviving fragments from the Epic of Gilgamesh created during the old and middle Babylonian periods.  Written almost 4,000 years ago, the Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known literary works in the world. The earliest parts of the poem were first discovered in the ruins of the library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, in Nineveh, Iraq in 1853. 

Based upon the facts as set out in the Verified Complaint in Rem, on July 30, 2014, Hobby Lobby wired $1,674,000 to an unnamed auction house as payment for the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, having purchased the artifact for donation or display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.  This was the same year that the company's fundamentalist president, Steve Green, persuaded the United States Supreme Court that it deserved a religious exemption from a federal requirement under which employers in the country are made to provide their workers with access to contraceptives.  It is also the same month that the Egyptian Exploration Society gave Dirk Obbink an ultimatum: cut ties with the Green family or lose his editorship of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, several fragments of which are now part of a separate ongoing investigation into another illegal sale in the United Kingdom.

Three months earlier, in April 2014 Manchester-based papyrologist Roberta Mazza had already published a blog post after visiting the Green's exhibition Verbum Domini II in Rome, Italy.  There, Professor Mazza recognized that another ill-advised Green purchase, a papyrus fragment of the Coptic codex of Galatians 2:2-4, 5-6, was one which had earlier been identified by Brice Jones and Dorothy L. King as having passed through the hands of a middleman trafficker on eBay, a gentleman going by the pseudonym Ebuyerrrrr, Yasasgroup, and later Mixantik.  As the investigations into the Green's buying habits progressed, Mazza, would be integral in determining that the Turkish middleman was Yakup Ekşioğlu, a name kept discreetly amongst researchers while investigations were undergoing.

Not long after the payment for the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was finalized, the firm affiliated with the sale shipped the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to their New York branch and then arranged for one of their representatives to hand-carry the tablet to Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma City, in order to avoid incurring a New York sales tax. The cuneiform tablet was subsequently transferred to the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, where it drew concerns with one of the Museum's curators, in the lead up to the museum's grand opening. This unnamed curator queried the parties involved in the object's history post-sale, looking for evidence that would establish the artifact's legitimacy; an act of due diligence that should have been done by the prospective buyer before the tablet was purchased, and not after.  Those involved were anything but helpful.

This likely explains one of the reasons why the cuneiform tablet, once on display on the 4th floor of the DC museum in the History of the Bibles Galleries, was displayed with no provenance information whatsoever.

On 24 September 2019, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was seized as part of this civil investigation.  As the complaint released demonstrates, the importance of export documentation, for potential owners and dealers, or the lack thereof is a useful tool for researchers, law enforcement, and customs agents who monitor and prevent the trafficking of cultural property, none of which was remotely in keeping with this particular object.

But where was the Dream Tablet before? 

As background to the case, the US document cites that the tablet was first seen by an unnamed antiquities dealer in 2001 on the floor of a London apartment belonging to antiquities dealer Ghassan Rihani originally from Irbid in northern Jordan.

Prior to Rihani's death as well as after, a substantial portion of his "collection" of Iraqi objects began appearing on the London ancient art market. Many were believed to have been illicitly exported out of Iraq during the Gulf War following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then recycled as being part of the not well documented Rihani family collection, something his son has denied in an interview with the New York Times.

By March/April 2003 the same dealer returned to London with a cuneiform expert and again viewed the tablet, this time with members of Rihani's family.  It is at this visit, where the dealer agreed to purchase the cuneiform table along with other items for a total of $50,530.  These items were subsequently mailed back to the United States and sold onward to two other dealers in ancient art for $50,000 along with a preliminary translation of the inscription.

By March 2007, false provenance documents had been created which omitted any mention of Rihani or the United Kingdom transaction.  Instead, the would-be provenance documentation proclaimed that the tablet had been purchased at a 1981 Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco, listed as LOT 1503.  All of which was blatantly untrue, as was the claim that the tablet had been deaccessioned from a small museum.

The cuneiform table would eventually make its way into the hands of Michael Sharpe, who published the object in his Rare & Antiquated Books catalog, where the object's constructed pedigree took a back seat to it's highlighted importance.



Like many cases before it, the multiple transactions surrounding the sales of the stolen Gilgamesh Dream Tablet reflects the inadequacy of the due diligence performed by intermediary dealers, the auction house, and the Green family themselves.  A simple check of the Butterfield & Butterfield auction records would have noted that LOT 1503 does not match the description of a terracotta cuneiform tablet from Iraq.  That alone should have given someone reason to pause.

At best, all of these dealers' behavior, the auction house's behavior and the collector's continued nonchalant attitude towards the object agreed to he purchase should be characterized as negligent. At worst, it shows the complicity of market actors, including those anonymously helping law enforcement post-facto, in prioritizing profits and plausible deniability as a masquerade for stewardship and collecting ethics.

As a result of this case, never shy Hobby Lobby has deflected its own ethical responsibilities towards due diligence by filing suit against Christie's, alleging fraud and breach of warranty in connection with the private treaty sale allegedly after the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet's provenance failed to stack up. This move confirms the auction powerhouse as the intermediary auction house, unnamed in the civil forfeiture complaint. That case has been listed as Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Christie's Inc. (1:20-cv-02239) to be heard in the Eastern District of New York and names Georgie Aitken, Head of the Antiquities Department at Christie's in London from 2009-2016 and Margaret Ford, the Senior Director, International Head of Group, Books and Science at Christie's.

In closing, it is interesting to note that in the past Christie's has voiced a willingness to work closely with law enforcement agencies and ministries of culture to resolve issues when suspect antiquities passing through their organization, but reading the emails detailed in the civil forfeiture complaint for this cuneiform tablet show acting employees of the firm being anything but that. Instead, Christie's appears to have been trying to extract itself from the difficult situation it found itself in, having failed to so their advance homework prior to accepting the object for consignment or at any point up to the final sale.

Yet guarding our past for the future, is also going to be a tough sell for the Oklahoma-based retailer/donor.  In 2017 Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million after federal authorities alleged that the firm bought thousands of historical artifacts that were smuggled out of Iraq.  In 2019 the Museum of the Bible deaccessioned and restituted a number of stolen EES papyrus fragments removed illegally from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri housed at the Sackler Library in Oxford and in 2020 the museum relinquished 11,500 antiquities to the Iraqi and Egyptian governments, which had been acquired with a lack reliable provenance, or ownership histories.

Then there is that Galatians fragment Dr. Mazza has been asking about for years now, as well as many other pieces, have been tied back to Dr. Dirk Obbink and his private antiquities enterprises. 

At the time of the last restitution Mr. Green stated:

“One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased.” 

One would question just how many legal entanglements it will take before Mr. Green starts to acknowledge that he is a significant contributor to the problem and not merely an innocent victim.  His failure to have engaged in serious due diligence of the artifacts he has purchased has already caused the Museum of the Bible to suffer by their own hands.  Likewise, due diligence of looted antiquities, especially those that could be from conflict-based countries, must be meaningful and not superficially plausible, in the furtherance of a sale's commission.  Partially-documented histories in an object's collection background, do not necessarily always point to fresh looting or illegal export but when an antiquity's background looks murky, as is the case with this important cuneiform tablet, the art market and wealthy donor collectors need to step up their game, by no longer participating in the laundering and by allowing researchers access to past sales details so that wrongs can be righted.

By:  Lynda Albertson

May 6, 2020

INTERPOL, Europol and World Customs Organization joint investigation produce results.


Interpol has issued a preliminary announcement on Operations Athena II and Pandora IV. 

In both initiatives, 300 investigations led by customs and other law enforcement authorities from 103 countries, supported by Europol, INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization (WCO), have joined forces against the trafficking of cultural goods within the framework of #EMPACT (European multidisciplinary platform against criminal threats). 

Europo, INTERPOL and the WCO played a key role in implementing the entire operation by facilitating information exchange and by providing analytical and operational support.  

The footage coming from the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) is pretty impressive. 


As can be seen by the Roman numerals after these target investigations, these are not the first coordinated initiatives designed to target criminal activity related to art.  For several years now, law enforcement and customs has worked together to inspect auction houses, art galleries, museums and private residences, as well as ports, airports and border crossing points in search of illicit material.

According to the EUROPOL press release more than 19,000 objects have been recovered in the course of some 300 investigations.  Seizures are reported to include ancient coins, archaeological objects, ceramics, historical weapons, paintings, fossils and metal detectors.

April 30, 2020

Remembering the long returned Orpheus Taming the Beasts Mosaic

Photograph from the Sanliurfa Prosecutor’s Office
which led to the restitution of the Orpheus Mosaic
The city of Şanlıurfa, modern-day Urfa, is situated in the Taurus Mountains of southern Anatolia, where the east-west highway from Zeugma on the Euphrates to where the Tigris meets with the north-south route from Somaysāṭ.  Known also as Edessa in history, the city is also referred to as Admi in Assyrian cuneiform tablets from the 7th century BCE,  Ōrhāy in Syriac sources, and as ar-Ruhā in Arabic texts.  Its location is important as the city stood along what was once the trade route upon which silk and spices flowed from China and India through to Asia Minor.

Upper Mesopotamia and Syria in the early Christian period,
showing Edessa within the Kingdom of Osroene
It was here, for a brief period, that the Kingdom of Osroene, a vassal state of the Parthian and Roman Empires, created their own original mosaics, some of which help us date them precisely because their makers tellingly embedded the year of their creation within their designs. These mosaics, which use the Seleucid calendar, were created from the end of the 2nd century through the middle of the 3rd century CE and have characteristics that make them identifiable to this specific region of modern-day Turkey.

Many of the mosaics which have been discovered in the area of Şanlıurfa originally lined the flooring of archaeological cave tombs in the city.  Some have been discovered during the building of current-day structures, as modern development encroached over the city's historic past.   Unfortunately, and despite their initial recording, a number of known Edessa mosaics were subsequently destroyed. Or, as is the case with this long particular tale, taken halfway around the globe illegally, far from the city and its ancient inhabitants, whose history illustrates once paid deep respect for their dead. 

For some of the lost mosaics, only photos, or drawings, and written academic references remain.  Others, like two fragments from the region's Tripod Mosaic, later surfaced on the Beirut antiquities market, taken there sometime after their initial looting.  

This is the story of just one of the lost Şanlıurfa mosaics. 

In the 1950s and 1960s Judah Benzion Segal, (otherwise known as J. B. Segal) visited and studied at Urfa. A widely respected scholar of Syriac and Aramaic languages, his explorations were funded by the University of London and the Pilgrim Trust Fund.  Before Segal began recording the epigraphic remains he found from ancient Edessa, only three of the four mosaic floors in Şanlıurfa had been documented.  One of those is the Aphtuha mosaic, which is now in the Istanbul Archeology Museums. Two of the others are missing.

In total Segal would go on to document a total of nine mosaic floors in the city's cave tombs dating from the first three centuries CE.  Several of these he visited during his second season in Urfa, in the summer of 1956, which he wrote about shortly thereafter.

The importance of these mosaics tells us much about the rich traditions of Edessa's westward-looking elite during the Osroene Kingdom (132 BCE - 242 CE).  They were a population whose funerary practices were sometimes known to intermingle with tales of Greco-Roman mythology, yet still proudly added touches of their local identity.  Strikingly, in paying homage to their loved ones, they laid their dead to rest with inscriptions in the local dialect, a clue from the past which helps us identify these works of art.

Orpheus Mosaic identified by Segal
One of the mosaics documented by Segal is pictured to the left, in a black and white photograph.  The face of the principal character has been torn away at some earlier point in history.  This mosaic depicts the Greek poet Orpheus, and while the entire mosaic is also known to have been lost, this antiquity is not the subject of this article and serves merely as our story's preamble.

By the 1970s the city of Şanlıurfa's mosaics had suffered greatly. Due in part to neglect, theft, or destruction, it was commonly stated that only a few of the ancient floor mosaics survived in their city of origin, including two preserved in private homes.  A third mosaic and fragments of a fourth had been relocated to Istanbul.  The bulk of the rest of the known mosaics had been destroyed or carted off.  This is the story of one of them.  Or to be clearer, this is as much of the story as I have been able to piece together from a variety of sources, and yet the saga leaves many unanswered questions.

We begin in 1998, when Turkish authorities have reported that they received an unexpected bit of intel into the looting of a previously unknown Odessa mosaic; a clue that wrote the first known passages of the plunder of "Ikinci Orpheus Mozaiği," or what some have called the "Second Orpheus Mosaic."

That year, a customer, perhaps one of the looters, dropped off film to be processed at a photo shop in the city of Şanlıurfa.  The patron then forgot to pick up the film/prints, or perhaps in hindsight, decided that it is wiser to abandon them.  One of the images captured by the eye of the camera detailed an Osroene Kingdom mosaic in situ, its decorative red ocher and black frieze bordering a central element that depicts a scene from the fateful love of Orpheus of Thrace.

The mosaic, like the earlier one documented by Segal, showed the son of Apollo, enchanting a group of ferocious animals with the magical sweetness of his lyre.  As the wild beasts gather around him mesmerized, his playing subdues their innate hostilities. In the upper left, near the head of our instrument strumming Greek hero, is a short, three-lined inscription.

The photo's content also gives a clue that something is afoot.  Resting atop the nearly-perfect mosaic is an incriminating can of Turkish adhesive, a thief's tool.  The metal canister is photographed sitting strategically over the single area of the mosaic's design where some of the tesserae are missing.   Perhaps the can was positioned there to allow the photographer to capture the remaining parts of the mosaic's design or after the looter(s) had set to work.

At some point in the process, the thieves would use the can of sticky fixative, to apply a thin coat over the top of the mosaic's tesserae.  Once applied, the next step would be to cover the entire artwork with cheesecloth or another thin fabric, to give the workmen a flexible, yet sturdy, adhesion to rip up the mosaic from its foundation.  After that, the mosaic would be rolled up and carried off, in the same way as a rolled-up Anatolian carpet.

Seeing the subject of the photo, and probably wanting no problems with the police, the shop owner turned the incriminating evidence to the local authorities.  At some point later, Turkish authorities would postulate that evidence pointed to the mosaic being taken from the Kalkan Neighborhood of Şanlıurfa.  Unfortunately, I have found no reference as to when, or how, this theory was arrived at.  Without further leads, the investigation apparently ground to a halt for a period of time.

The mosaic surfaces one year later, on the art market in the United States

On 9 December 1999, the mosaic appeared with Christie's Auction in New York, identified as Lot 388.  By then its beautiful bordering frieze had been cut away, leaving just the lyre-playing Greek bard surrounded by his animals.  In the span of just one year, the fixative used to uproot the mosaic from its findspot had been carefully eliminated and the mosaic polished up; made ready for purchase on the U.S. ancient art market. 

Christie's listed the mosaic in its 1999 antiquities sale catalog as a Roman Marble Mosaic, Eastern Mediterranean.  It dated the artwork as having been created in 204 A.D.  Not surprisingly for that period, the object's Lot description gave no provenance information whatsoever.


In addition to its striking lack of ownership history, Christie's gets an epic fail for Rand and Becker's translation of the mosaic's epigraphy, and for calculating its age.  At the time of the auction, in 1999, neither man listed as having contributed to the translation had completed their studies.  Michael Rand was studying Jewish liturgical piyyut composed mostly in Hebrew with some Aramaic and Adam Becker was working on a second MA, in Classics.  

The pair translated the small inscription in the field to the left of Orpheus incorrectly as:

"Son of Zagrios, the player, is playing."   

In actuality, we would learn later that this inscription gives the name of the creator and identifies his craft.  The lower inscription was likewise jumbled and incomplete, as was someone's interpretation of the Seleucid calendar.  This error put Christie's dating of the mosaic off by ten years.

Interestingly, the auction house's interpretation failed to document that the inscription was written in Estrangelo, the earliest form of Syriac, and the lingua franca of the peoples of ancient Edessa.  This alone would have given prospective buyers a stronger clue as to the mosaic's origins, something the translators themselves or the auction house either failed to comprehend, didn't value, or intentionally omitted when preparing the write-up for the ancient object.

Meanwhile, Turkish authorities state that they tried to block this sale at Christie's in 1999 on the grounds that the mosaic was illicit and had been removed illegally from the ancient city of Edessa, modern-day Şanlıurfa but I found no opensource evidence to back up this later press statement within searchable records in the public's domain.

In any case, with or without the objection of Turkey, the auction moved forward regardless, despite the auction house's faux pas in art history.  When the hammer dropped, the mosaic had sold for US$ 85,000

Given the title of "Orpheus Taming Wild Animals," the mosaic's acquirer was the Dallas Museum of Art. Listed in the DMA's February 2012 catalog with accession number DEACC.1999.305, it was purchased via gifting funds from of David T. Owsley and the Alconda-Owsley Foundation, along with two anonymous donors, in honor of Nancy B. Hamon.  Although Owsley presently lives in New York, he is a prominent collector of antiquities and long-time donor/patron of the DMA whose donations have on occasion been questioned.

From that point onward, the second Orpheus mosaic would remain quietly on public view without garnering much in the way of further attention until 2006, when its inscriptions are correctly translated and published by Professor John F. Healey of the University of Manchester.  It is in the Autumn of that year that the academic penned his article on "A New Syriac Mosaic Inscription" for the October issue of the Journal of Semitic Studies. 

In his article, Healey highlights the correct editio princeps of the inscription written in Estrangelo that Christie's translators had botched.  The first, to the left of Orpheus, gives the name of the creator and identifies his craft stating:

"Bargased, mosaic-maker, laid the mosaic"   

The second, lower inscription reads:

"In the month of Nisan in the year five hundred five I, Pāpā, son of Pāpā, made for myself this chamber of repose, for myself and for my children and for my heirs. Blessed be whoever sees and gives blessing." 

The Seleucid date of 505 translates to 194 CE.  The month of Nīsān translates to March/April.  This dated the mosaic a full ten years earlier than Christie's had recorded it, and more importantly, makes this artwork the earliest dated Syriac mosaic known.  While the article itself may pay-walled, limiting its access, the fully viewable abstract for Healy's paper clearly lists the location of the mosaic as the Dallas Museum of Art.  Given the artifact's newfound importance as the earliest known mosaic written in Estrangelo, it remains to be seen why Turkish authorities did not pick up on this evaluation or the mosaic's location, in order to begin direct overtures with the Dallas museum regarding the suspect object in their collection. Perhaps this was because the article was written in English, or perhaps it was the fact that texts on epigraphic remains were not on anyone's radar.  Whatever the case, this illustrates the disconnect that can occur between academia and law enforcement which when combined can be useful in identifying suspect objects in various known and published collections.

The next academic red flag to be waved was in Turkish. 

From 28 May-1 June 2007 Turkish archaeologist and Ahi Evran University lecturer Barış Salman attended a Research and Results meeting in Kocaeli, Turkey with his country's Culture and Tourism Ministry - General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and Museums.  There Salman gave a presentation on his findings regarding the life and death of the peoples from the Abgar Royal Period, as interpreted through their mosaics from the Region of Osroene (Şanlıurfa).

In 2008 Salman followed up that meeting with a Turkish-language paper summarizing his presentation at the meeting which at last garnered some attention in Turkey. In his paper, Salman documented that only a small portion of the discovered mosaics from Şanliurfa had been properly recorded or brought to the city's museum or Istanbul over the course of the last century.  The scholar also noted that despite some archival photos and drawings documenting some of the mosaics identified from the 1950s onward, a number of these ancient mosaics had been lost or damaged.  Salman's paper also went on to emphasize that some of Turkey's mosaics had been secreted out of the country and taken abroad.

Salman cited the presence of Abgar Royal Period mosaics at the Louvre Museum in Paris, at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, Australia, a Japanese Museum, and in private collections in France.  He also specifically mentioned the "Orpheus Taming Wild Animals" on public view at the Dallas Museum of Art, and cited Professor Healey's 2006 translation of the mosaic.

In 2008 Salman also wrote a second paper,  this time in English, again explaining his concerns about his country's mosaic losses.

It wasn't until American art Historian Maxwell L. Anderson replaced Pitman as the museum's Eugene McDermott Director in early 2012 that anyone at the Texas museum showed much of an interest in exploring the provenance of suspect acquisitions within their collection.

Ushering in a new era, Anderson started his reign by scrupulously emailing General Pasquale Muggeo, then heading up the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, and Maurizio Fiorill, the Avvocato Generale dello Stato for Italy on 27 January 2012 alerting them to the presence of three works sold to the museum in 1998 by antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagià.   Almagià was concerning as his name had already been attached to other tainted objects found in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art and Princeton University Art Museum.

The objects Anderson was concerned about were two Etruscan funerary shields from the 6th century BCE and a Volute krater by the Underworld Painter from the 4th century BCE which depicts the man-bull deity Acheloos.  U.S. Customs officials had raided Almagià's New York apartment, in 2006 confiscating photographs, documents, and archaeological material, and the director, perhaps to avoid the scandals that had already befallen other museums, was being proactive about contacting the Italian authorities regarding artifacts within the DMA collection which were proving to be concerning.

By March 2012 (the earliest date I have found via a Wayback Machine save), Dorothy King and the Lootbusters website had drawn attention, to the English-speaking public about the serious problem of mosaic thefts from Turkey, though not specifically the theft of this particular Orpheus mosaic.  King's blog and the Lootbusters' website both pointed to a page that the Turkish Ministry of Culture had published which documented a series of identified mosaics known to be missing from Şanlıurfa Province, including the Orpheus 1, without the face.  The original Turkish ministry link of these identified mosaics and their descriptions can be viewed here.

It is sometime in March that Dorothy King emailed Anderson voicing her concerns about the museum's Orpheus mosaic.*

If the Turkish authorities were, as was later stated, already working on the theft of the second Orpheus mosaic since 1998 when the looted photo was first turned in to the authorities, as well as in 2000 when the mosaic was auctioned at Christie's then why wasn't this mosaic included in this list of missing pieces when Turkey published its detailed alert?

In March of 2012, after Kings contact, Anderson wrote to the Embassy of Turkey stating he did so after having viewed the Turkish Ministry of Culture website with its series of mosaics known to have been illegally removed from Edessa after the 1950s. One of the objects in that list, the Orpheus Mosaic missing his face, which was discussed earlier, raised his concern. 

Speaking of the DMA's acquisition of its own Orpheus mosaic, in relation to the Republic of Turkey ministry web page, Anderson told the press:

"The mosaics included examples that were virtually identical to this one... and with the same Seriac inscription, specifically identifying the site from which the mosaic was obtained. And therefore, it raised questions for me."

Stylistically and iconographically, the DMA's Orpheus is similar to other Edessa mosaics. Specifically, the inscription is similar both in style and content to other Edessa mosaics as is the Estrangelo script which originates in Edessa. Other features typical of the area include the absence of depth to mosaics from that region's design, the light colors used, and the expression and facial features of the subjects. The date of the DMA's mosaic inscription also coincides precisely to the period of mosaic production in Edessa.

In explaining the chain of events with the Turkish authorities, Anderson would tellingly state in the New York Times:

"For whatever reason, they hadn’t found their way to the Christie’s catalog or to us."

Anderson's statement and the timing in which he gave them, again contradicts various Turkish press statements that the authorities in Turkey were aware of the auction at Christie's in 1999 or had paid heed to any of the academic articles written that identified where the mosaic ultimately landed.

By 7 June 2012 outrage over the thefts of Turkish mosaics had started to seriously simmer within the general public in Turkey.  It is around this point in time that Aktüel Archeology Magazine initiated a citizens' campaign to return the Edessa Mosaic located in the Dallas Museum of Art's collection.  In a series of articles and linking blog posts, readers are encouraged to complete an English-language petition to be addressed and sent to the Dallas museum administrators, likely not aware that a discussion with the Turkish authorities had been opened by the museum in the Spring.

Following Anderson's March embassy inquiry the Turkish authorities pulled all the pieces of the puzzle together and an investigation was (re)launched by the Şanlıurfa Chief Public Prosecutor's Office reviewing all of the collected evidence of the theft.  At this point, the previous evidence in the archives of the Attorney General's office, including the 1998 photograph taken by the smugglers before the mosaic's removal, became critical to the success of their investigation and ultimately to the objects forthcoming restitution.

The authorities in Turkey would then forward the museum director their copy of the incriminating photo and six experts, one of which was Barış Salman, weighed-in giving their expert opinions that the mosaic could only have come from within the territory of Turkey.  Faced with overwhelming and irrefutable proof that the mosaic had been looted, negotiations quickly got underway to deaccession the mosaic from the Dallas Museum of Art and to develop a memorandum of understanding covering bilateral cultural cooperation.  As part of this process, the agreement was carefully worded to say that the DMA had acquired the mosaic in good faith in accordance with the laws of the United States of America, and without knowledge of any issue as to its ownership or title.

On 3 December 2012, within this framework of mutual goodwill, the Director-General of Cultural Heritage and Museums for the Republic of Turkey O. Murat Suslu and DMA Director Anderson formally signed their memorandum of understanding in Dallas in the presence of Cemalettin Aydin, the consul general of Turkey in Houston.  With this MOU Turkey took legal possession of the mosaic, while also agreeing to future loan arrangements between the Texas museum and the Republic of Turkey.

On 6 December 2012 the mosaic was flown home to Turkey on Turkish Airlines and was soon exhibited within the Istanbul Archeology Museums Directorate. Later it was transferred, first to the Sanliurfa Museum, and in 2015, to its final home at the Haleplibahçe Mosaic Museum.

All of this seems to conclude our story with a happily ever after ending, wrapped in a pretty red bow of cultural diplomacy.  But is it really?  

What about the loose ends?

Much time has been spent applauding the museum’s "unwavering ethical stance" and the proactive work of Maxwell Anderson, as well as the investigative work of law enforcement in the Republic of Turkey.  Some lesser attention, at least in academia has been paid, to the textual scholars whose work contributed to raising the preliminary alarm bells that a mosaic, located in Texas, was suspect.  

Nothing, however, has been said about: 

--WHO Christie's dealt with in the purchase of or consignment of this mosaic? 

--WHO conserved the mosaic after its illicit removal?  As every step of the process: from removing the gauze facing, to cleaning away any remaining soil or lingering adhesive, to transferring the mosaic to a supportive backing, or to consolidating any loosened tesserae, would have involved someone professionally trained in working with mosaics. 

--WHY hasn't this restorer/conservator been identified, or come forward of their own accord, either when initially approached by someone with on the rolled-up antiquity, or afterward when the object gained notoriety as having been looted from Turkey? 

--WHY did the Dallas Museum of Art purchase/accept via donation a mosaic advertised with no provenance? Or if they were privy to additional documentation from Christie's not available to the public at the time of the sale, why not disclose what information led them to believe this purchase was legitimate?  

and lastly...

--WHY did it take Turkey a decade to put two and two together?  Despite having a smoking gun photo, academics citing the mosaic's pedigree and location in both English and Turkish, it (still) took a public initiative activated to look into the theft and the DMA director's subsequent contact with the embassy to finally bring things together. 

To me, this restitution is not celebration-worthy, but more a textbook example of just how frayed, disjointed and inefficient, efforts to identify looted property can be.    This is not a criticism, it just serves as a reminder of just how difficult it is to chase these pieces and how collaboration can and does facilitate restitutions. 

I will close this lengthy article with another mosaic inscription found in cave tombs in this area of Turkey.  One which states that the dead are watched over by the eyes of the gods and aptly reads:  

"I, Gayyu, daughter of Baršuma, made this grave for myself. Whoever comes here shall not remove my bones. Whoever does it shall not have the other world (afterlife) and Maralahe curses him"

I can only hope the gods are truly watching.

By:  Lynda Albertson

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*01 May 2020 - This article has been revised for clarity and to include a notation posted by Dorothy King on 30 April 2020 that she had contacted the Dallas Museum of Art Director Anderson in 2012 about concerns regarding the Orpheus mosaic in the museum's collection.
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Colledge 1994: Colledge, M., "Some Remarks on the Edessa Funerary Mosaics",
La Mosaïque Gréco-Romaine IV, Paris, 1994. s. 189-197. Association Internationale pour l’Étude de la Mosaïque Antique.

Drijvers, H. J. W., Old Syriac (Edessean) Inscriptions, Leiden,1972.

Drijvers, H.J.W and Healey, J.F., The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene, Leiden-Boston-Köln, 1999.

Güler, S. and Çelik, B., "Edessa Mozaikleri, Şanlıurfa Uygarlığın Doğduğu Şehir", A.C. Kürkçüoğlu, M. Akalın, S. S. Kürkçüoğlu,  E. Güler (ed.) 2002, 182–189.

Healey, J. F., "A New Syriac Mosaic Inscription", Journal of Semitic Studies 51-2, 2006, s. 313-327.

Salman, B., "2005 Yılı Şanlıurfa ve Adana Müzeleri Mozaik Çalışması", 24. Araştırma Sonuçları Toplantısı, C: 1, Çanakkale, 2006, s. 513-532.

Segal, J. B., "New Mosaics from Edessa", Archaeology 12.3, 1959, s. 150-157.

Segal J. B., "New Syriac Inscriptions from Edessa", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 22.1, 1959, s. 23-40.

Segal, J. B., Edessa (Urfa) Kutsal Şehir (Çev. A. Arslan), İstanbul, 2002.

April 25, 2020

Saturday, April 25, 2020 - ,,,,, No comments

Christ Church loans and other Dirk Obbink answered and unanswered questions.


In an article in today's UK Times, the London newspaper reported that a review of Christ Church college's annual reports indicate that there was an equity-sharing arrangement with Dr. Dirk Obbink for £434,000 in 2018 in order for the professor to purchase a property. 

Agreements of this type are not unusual per se and are even written into the Statutes of Christ Church Oxford:

5. Equity sharing arrangements for Official Students, Officers and other persons employed by the House 

(a) Subject to such provisions (if any) as may from time to time be contained in the By-laws but without prejudice to the powers of investment contained in clause 2 of this Statute the Governing Body may enter into equity sharing arrangements with an OfficialStudent, Officer mentioned in Statute XVI.  1 or other person employed by the House who does not reside in the House.
 

(b) Subject as aforesaid, the Governing Body may dispose of any interest in a property acquired under an equity sharing arrangement to any co-beneficiary of the trust of land on such terms as it thinks fit.
 

(c) For the purposes of sub-clauses (a) and (b) of this clause, an equity sharing arrangement is an arrangement to purchase property jointly with an Official Student, Officer or other person employed by the House and with family members of such persons is a constituent college of the University of Oxford.

Awkward timing and unfinished business

While The Times didn't give an exact date of the execution of this financial arrangement with Obbink, we know that by 4 June 2018, in a statement issued by the Egyptian Exploration Society that they had questioned Dr. Obbink about the sale of P.Oxy. 5345, the so-called First Century Mark fragment.  The EES has repeatedly affirmed that this papyrus fragment has never been for sale and was allegedly sold without their consent or knowledge along with other fragments determined to be missing from the collection held at Oxford University’s Sackler Library, all of which made their way into the collections at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.

According to the EES statement, when questioned Obbink acknowledged having shown P.Oxy. 5345 to Scott Carroll, at the time affiliated with the MotB and the Green Collection's point person for purchases, as well as to Oxford students in his college rooms but had "insisted that he had never said the papyrus was for sale, and that while he did receive some payments from the Green Collection for advice on other matters, he did not accept any payment for or towards purchase of this text."

How this equity arrangement with Christ Church will be effected by Obbink's legal troubles, if at all remain to be seen.   

One also has to wonder what the impact will be, if any, of Obbink's legal entanglements on the publicly funded research grant he obtained through the UK's Research and Innovation (UKRI) on Living Virtually: Creating and Interfacing Digital Surrogates of Textual Data Embedded (Hidden) in Cultural Heritage Artefacts.  Funded from May 2019 through April 2022 for £845,579 Dr. Obbink is listed as the project's Principal Investigator.

One thing the Times article did clear up is that it was Professor Obbink's legal team, and not Christ Church College, who contacted The Oxford Blue newspaper and threatened legal action for them having named the professor in reporting his arrest on 2 March 2020.  That contact has resulted in the student newspaper amending their original article, which is now back online.

April 23, 2020

Shocking images of the theft of the Van Gogh in Holland shows thief used a sledgehammer

Vincent van Gogh – Parish garden in Nuenen, Spring 1884. 25x57
The Dutch police have released a portion of the video surveillance footage of a single suspect directly involved in the nighttime theft of Vincent Van Gogh's Parish garden in Nuenen from the Singer Laren Museum.  

On loan from the Groninger Museum in the city of Groningen, the painting was part of the Mirror of the Soul exhibition which highlighted more than 70 Dutch paintings and was stolen on Match 30, 2020, 167 years to the day of the artist's birth. The burglary took a matter of minutes.   

CCTV footage released by law enforcement and the museum shows a man approaching the museum by motorcycle and then smashing his way through the museum's front doors with a sledgehammer.  Once inside the museum, he finds a second glass door locked and with seven or eight blows, quickly bashes his way through to access the gallery area.  

The thief is then seen retracing his steps through the museum's gift shop carrying the 25-by-57-centimeter (10-by-22-inch) oil-on-paper painting under his right arm while balancing the sledgehammer in his left hand. 


Police would like to hear from any potential witnesses who saw the thief arrive outside the museum on a motorcycle.  You can pass your tip on 0800-6070 or online via https: //www.politie.nl/mijn-buurt/nie 

If you want to remain anonymous, please call 0800-7000.

April 18, 2020

Saturday, April 18, 2020 - ,,,,, No comments

Censorship by the Oxford University or by Dirk Obbink's law team?

On 16 April Lois Helsop at The Oxford Blue broke the news of that Thames Valley police had arrested American papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink, an associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford University, on 2 March 2020.  ARCA, as well as prominent news outlets, picked up on this news notice, and in our case, linked back to Helsop's original article and directed our readers also to earlier ARCA postings (see this running thread) of this professor and the buying and selling of ancient texts.   

Professor Obbink has been the focus of much journalistic attention regarding the unauthorised sale of papyrus from the Oxyrhynchus collection, which is owned by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) and housed at Oxford's Sackler Library, pieces of which were discovered to have been purchased by the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. 

Today that Oxford Blue article has been removed.  Replaced by a brief statement which reads:
"This article is currently not available while The Oxford Blue takes counsel on legal threats it has received. The factual accuracy of this article is not contested by any party."
One has to ask, whose lawyer's rattled the young newspaper's cage?  Was it Oxford University's or Dr. Obbink's? While official guidance over whether arrested suspects’ names should be published ahead of charge is mixed, it is poor form to intimidate journalists for reporting facts on a high profile case, knowing a student newspaper doesn't have the funds to fight a litigious battle.  Luckily, the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, a service that preserves web pages, has a copy of the original story archived, at least for now, or until they too receive a lawyerly take down request. 

Archived news articles are indispensable research resources as they can help reconstruct events, even the distasteful ones, which are necessary for historical and comparative research.  Often they are the last trace we have before knowledge is locked away in private nondisclosure settlements, or worse, when reporting is removed to avoid threats, legal and otherwise.

Here's to a universal access to all knowledge and if you have not already PDFed this webpage to memorialise the material for your own research, then now might be a good time, especially if you are following the interrelated cases of ethical behaviour in the museum and academic worlds as closely as we are.

Saturday, April 18, 2020 - ,, No comments

Understanding the chiaroscuro context of art crime and statistics


Erika Bochereau, the Secretary General of the Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Œuvres d’Art (CINOA), a trade organization for art and antiques dealers, has written a response to a recent report by ILLICID,  launched by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.   In their report, the researchers reported that thousands of archaeological cultural assets from the eastern Mediterranean are currently offered for sale in Germany and in most cases, it is impossible to use the accompanying information to assess whether the objects are legally or illegally placed on the market or even determine what is fake.  Bochereau's Op Ed article can be found on ArtNet News here

In her article the CINOA Secretary General expressed that the report is:

"part of the trend now dubbed “zombie statistics”—that is, pieces of information that are frequently cited by experts and institutions, despite having no basis in research or reality."

In one sense Bochereau is partially correct, statistics regarding art crimes are difficult to concretise and even harder to evaluate and there is the circular loop where off the cuff recorded stats are repeated by various institutions citing one another, without any of them actually taking responsibility for researching the statistic.

Frequently art crime statistics are inconsistent, incomplete, ineffectual or inconclusive, in part because the market is intentionally opaque with regards to object provenance, which makes data collection difficult, and therefore harder to quantify, especially when what is "clean" in the market and what isn't requires an object by object evaluation, and in part because statistics are only as good as the record keepers' records, and having some uniformity in how records are documented is a problem with all national and transnational crime.  

Bochereau is also correct that many of the numbers thrown about in newspaper articles can be based on word-of mouth evidence or are subject to individual interpretation:

"a “belief” held by some experts—but gave no evidence to support that belief."

But I would argue that point a bit further.

Statistical analysis, reported in the press or in loftier political, regulatory, or economic corridors is always problematic, even more so when interpreted by journalists with rapid deadlines, asking for quotes from talking head experts who are non statisticians,  or worse, citing a one-liner written in an academic article without a fuller examination.

To illustrate my point in a less contentious manner, let's take a look at a non art crime case with its own more concrete, yet still frustratingly, very variable, set of statistics.  

Let's assume you are a news journalist or a researcher who wants to calculate a statistical result regarding a specific seizure of illicit drugs.  

In our test case, let's use last year's arrest of an Italian national connected to the seizure of 1,500 kilos of cocaine which had been destined for Europe and found aboard a fishing vessel bound for Spain.  Knowing that the UNODC keeps stats from 2007 to 2017 on cocaine prices in Western and Central Europe, it should be fairly easy to extrapolate the "value" of that particular haul.  

So let's set about calculating the value of this single cocaine seizure in a methodological manner. 

I could start with the wholesale price point of the drug in Spain, the port where the vessel was headed, which, as a country, values cocaine at $39,747 per kilo.
  • $39,747 multiplied by 1500 kilos = $59,620,500
Or, I could start with the wholesale price point of the drug in Italy, where the drugs may have been destined, which, as a country, values cocaine at $43,527 per kilo.
  • $43,527 multiplied by 1500 kilos = $65,290,500
Or I could start with the wholesale average price point of the drug in the whole of Europe, not knowing what country is the final destination of the drugs, in which the EU averages the values of cocaine across all reporting European countries is $44,083 per kilo.
  • $44,083 multiplied by 1500 kilos = $66,126,000 
Oh but those numbers might not be sensational enough for the daily newspaper,  so let's redo the exercise again, using the UNODC's retail values of a gram of cocaine purchased by the average party animal.

The street value price point in Spain for cocaine is $67 per gram.  
  • $67 per gram multiplied by 1000 grams (1 kilo) multiplied by 1500 = $100,500,000
The street value price point in Italy for cocaine is $92 per gram.
  • $92 per gram multiplied by 1000 grams (1 kilo) multiplied by 1500 = $138,000,000
And finally, by some weird quirk, the street value price point averaged out across the all reporting EU countries for cocaine is slightly lower, at $84 per gram.
  • $84 per gram multiplied by 1000 grams (1 kilo) multiplied by 1500 = $126,000,000
Which dollar value do you use?  Well, if you are law enforcement and want to validate the investigative successes of your detectives, you may elect to use the numbers related to your particular country.  If you are a politician coming up for reelection who wants to show a drop in crime during your administration, he/she may want to use the data that reflect the lowest dollar amount possible (to show a downturn in crime) or the highest number possible (to solidify a get tough on crime stance).  Lastly, if you are a journalist, well, bigger is always sexier right?  

Now imagine asking every law enforcement agency where drugs are seized which numbers they used when they gave their estimate to their governments, to news journalists, or to research academics.  And when asked to generate numbers on multiple seizures, confirming if anyone has bothered to specify which numbers they used or how they derived the figure. 

I can tell you form experience, many people are satisfied with just having any measurable number without exploring further where the statistical data was derived. 

All this to say that even with an illicit drug, which at least has a quantifiable price, and a finite weight, to determine a financial value, does not always give you a uniform formula for interpreting that data when left unspecified.

Heck, even with something as simple as counting the dead in the COVID-19 pandemic can give you skewed data, as some countries are keeping statistics which only count confirmed (i.e. tested) coronavirus deaths and leave out all the people who died before they could be tested.


But let's switch back to trying to establish financial numbers related to art crimes.  

Winding the clock back to September 2016 when two Van Gogh paintings, which were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum, were recovered in Italy.  

According to the New York Times, at the time of the theft, the estimated value of Vincent Van Gogh's “Seascape at Scheveningen” (1882) and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (1884/85), was 4 million euros, or about $4.5 million, according to Adriaan Dönszelmann, the managing director of the Van Gogh Museum. 

The UK's newspaper the Telegraph estimated that the two paintings were worth a total €100 million despite giving no explanation as to how they arrived at this exaggerated number.  

The Van Gogh Museum's administration at the time of the recovery gave no numbers whatsoever.  They stated only that the "art historical value of the paintings for the collection is "huge"

And lastly, given that the paintings were never actually up for sale in the first place, nor would they ever appear on the licit market auction block, others argued that the works of art were "priceless".  

What quantitative financial figure do you give to a "priceless" work of art? 

So how would you quantify that one single theft when trying to create a total value of art thefts from museums for example?

In making a financial accounting of not-for-sale plundered antiquities accessioned into museum collections, what value would you put on the Getty Bronze?  The price the museum originally paid for it?  The sales price, plus the price for restoring and maintaining it?  All of the above plus the cummulative years of attorney fees spent to litigate over and over again for its return?  Or would this statue also simply be referred to as "priceless".  

Now quantify the "damages" to heritage originating from conflict countries.  What price can you put on undermining the cultural identity of the local communities, the sometimes absolute destruction of their cultural and religious monuments, or the theft of private property (as in World War II related claims) and national collections?  What price do you put on art as it relates to its tactical value, for insurgencies and terrorist groups, when they destroy art as a means of displaying control, and loot the objects of their perceived opponents for financial gain in an asymmetrical conflict?

Better still, try quantifying the smaller, portable artefacts deliberately stolen from archaeological sites, temples and museums which are on the market now.  Here we COULD in theory at least give a market value based on searching out the individual sales prices of confirmed suspect artefacts, but that type of drilled down research isn't being done comprehensively and it sure isn't being funded by countries or academic institutions, let alone by the market itself.    

So there you have it.  A total standoff, between the market making excuses for its own provenance opacity, standing behind the convenient loophole that data protection rules prevent full disclosure without consent, and the traditionally clandestine nature of the art market in and of itself, each of which pose further challenges to putting financial figures together to concretely assess "the cost" of looting and trafficking in an easily digestible, and truly accurate way. 

What we do know is that the illicit market in movable cultural property motivates looting in developing nations.  On a transnational level, it is indisputable the trade in illicit art has been proven to put money in the hands of everyone, from gallery dealers, an unemployed workman, farmers, petty criminals, organised crime syndicates and on some occasions military insurgencies and terrorist groups. 

I will close by saying, I too question statistics frequently.  But I do look at facts, even in isolation.  Facts which clearly illustrate that the problem of illicit art being bought and sold on the licit art market still presently exists and it is real.  

I am also open to admitting the difficulties of data and its inherent fallibility, but I'd like to also see a similar openness from the art market's dealer associations openly addressing that there are still problems among some of their stakeholders that they should be taking an active role in addressing, instead of merely downplaying the research of others while putting their collective heads in the sand that there is real work to be done in order to clean up the art market. 

If the Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Œuvres d’Art (CINOA) wants to critically judge the research efforts of ILLICID, then let them do so, but they should also turn a critical eye to the concrete proofs that there is an ongoing problem with tainted artworks circulating in the art market amongst some of their membership, despite old and new legislation and conventions.  In doing so they should also be more forthcoming with acknowledging that some of the market's current problems can be traced to individuals directly affiliated with their member associations.

I have yet to read a statement by a member of CINOA management which seeks to address what stance CINOA has taken towards dealers-members like Jaume Bagot Peix, under investigation in Spain, or Jürgen Haering who has been listed in the sales of an oinochoe, a lekythos, and an attic cup all tied to disgraced dealer Gianfranco Becchina.    

Nor has CINOA openly addressed the fact that suspect objects for sale or on consignment with some of its association members are (still) being seized in connection with law enforcement investigations; some as recently as TEFAF Maastricht 2018, TEFAF New York 2018, BRAFA 2020, and TEFAF Maastricht 2020.  

Those seizures may not always make for irrefutable, pretty bar graph with an eye-popping stats, but they happen with enough frequently that both BRAFA and TEFAF have clauses written into their Terms and Conditions documents which specify that the fairs cannot prevent and are not responsible for any legal seizure and/or custody of works of art. 

By:  Lynda Albertson


April 16, 2020

Dirk Obbink arrested on suspicion of ancient papyrus theft


It has now been made public, by the Oxford Blue that American papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink, an associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford University, was taken into custody on 2 March 2020 by the Thames Valley police on suspicion of theft and fraud.  His arrest last month came in direct response to a formal complaint filed on 12 November 2019 involving the theft of papyrus fragments from the Oxyrhynchus collection, owned by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), and housed at Oxford's Sackler Library.  

To date some 120 pieces have been identified as having been removed without permission from Oxford University premises.  Thirteen of these fragments eventually found their way to the United States where they were purchased by the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.  


Genesis 5:  P.Oxy. inv. 39 5B.119/C(4-7)b.  [PAP.000121] 
Genesis 17:  P.Oxy. inv. 20 3B.30/F(5-7)b.   [PAP.000463] 
Exodus 20-21:  P.Oxy. inv. 102/171(e).   [PAP.000446] 
Exodus 30.18-19:  P.Oxy. inv. 105/149(a).   [PAP.000388] 
Deuteronomy:  P.Oxy. inv. 93/Dec. 23/M.1.   [PAP.000427] 
Psalms 9.23-26:   P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.188/D(1-3)a.   [PAP.000122] 
Sayings of Jesus:  P.Oxy. inv. 16 2B.48/C(a).   [PAP.000377] 
Romans 3:  <related to P.Oxy. inv. 101/72(a)>.   [PAP.000467] 
Romans 9-10:  P.Oxy. inv. 29 4B.46/G(4-6)a.   [PAP.000425 one part] 
1 Corinthians 7-10:  P.Oxy. inv. 106/116(d) + 106/116(c).   [PAP.000120 three small fragments] 
Quotation of Hebrews:  P.Oxy. inv. 105/188(c).   [PAP.000378] 
Scriptural homily:  P.Oxy. inv. 3 1B.78/B(1-3)a.   [PAP.000395] 
(parchment) Acts of Paul:  P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.192/G(2)b.   [MS.000514]

Obbink was appointed to the University Lectureship in Papyrology at Oxford in 1994, taking over the post vacated by Peter Parsons when the latter took up the Regius Chair of Greek.  His appointment at Oxford combined a variety of responsibilities, includes a Tutorship at Christ Church, where he lectured on a wide range of classical material and at one point included the direction of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project and its related Imaging Papyri Project which gave him complete access to the society's collection. 


Suspended from duties at Oxford in October 2019 pending further inquiry, Obbink has only issued one public statement, for his part, denying any wrongdoing.  In that public statement, Obbink stated: 


April 11, 2020

Christie's admits to failing to register to collect New York and local sales tax despite legal obligation to do so


The tax collectors, unsigned
Oil on panel : 78,2 X 100 cm, 16th century
In a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, the auction powerhouse Christie's has agreed to pay up to $16.7 million in sales tax, penalties and interest over a two-year period to the state of New York.  The firms unlucky legal happenstance has been brought about by failing to register, and to collect, New York and local sales between 2013 to 2017 despite a legal obligation to do so. 

In a statement released by the New York District Attorney's Office, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Roberts Vance, Jr, praised his office's tax probe saying: “Thanks to our unique expertise and our prosecutors’ hard work, the Manhattan D.A.’s Office is again delivering millions of dollars in badly-needed revenue to the people of New York.”  In addition to thanking his team, Vance thanked  the New York State Department of Taxation & Finance, the City of London Police Department, and DANY Supervising Rackets Investigator Matthew Winters who is embedded overseas. 

While shaving a little bit here and there on taxes is without a question a known problem in the art market, this instance is a bit different that when the average schnook, agrees to participate in a so called "box trick" scam to cheat on his taxes.   In that practice a vendor, knowing that he does not need to collect sales tax on sales purchases when the object being bought is to be shipped out of state,  agrees, and sometimes even suggests, that he can whittle the price of the object down by fudging the books a bit.  To do so, the vendor agrees to allow the purchaser to take the artwork home, while documenting the sale as out of state, shipping an empty box to an address outside the state where the purchaser resides. 

Back in 2004 then contemporary art consultant Thea Westreich and her former New York company, Art Advisory Services, Inc., pled guilty to filing a false business tax return and failing to collect New York City sales tax on $5 million worth of art over a four-year period, and was sanctioned with a $250,000 fine as well as the back taxes. 

But Christie's evasion problem was more extensive. 

According to the Deferred Prosecution Agreement, Christie’s London, Christie’s Private Sales and other affiliated Christie’s entities admitted to:

failing to register to collect and to collect New York and local sales tax between 2013 to 2017 on purchases made in and/or delivered to New York despite having a legal obligation to do so. In addition, Christie’s Private Sales also admitted that once certain employees finally determined in 2015 that the entity had an outstanding obligation to register to collect and to collect New York sales tax with the New York State Department of Taxation & Finance (“NYS Tax”), it failed to register the entity to collect tax with NYS Tax because of the perceived audit risk. Subsequently, Christie’s Private Sales began collecting sales tax from its customers without registering, and Christie’s New York, who were long registered to collect sales tax in New York, falsely reported and remitted this sales tax to NYS Tax as its own.

Sales taxes are big bucks for most states, and in some, like New York, they can be the second-largest source of revenue.  For this reason this kind of tax avoidance has serious consequences.