Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts

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. 

March 13, 2020

Supreme Court Decision on the Legal Status of Famous Picasso Painting

On March 2, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a case disputing who should own the Pablo Picasso masterwork, “The Actor,” created around 1904-05.  The painting was once owned by Jewish industrialist Paul Leffmann, who sold the artwork under duress for $12,000 in 1938, after leaving Germany in 1937 in order to fund his move from Italy to Switzerland. At the time in history, Italy was ruled by Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship.

ARCA extends its thanks the Holocaust Art Restitution Project  who continue to follow cases like this, as well as all the lawyers who worked on legal aspects of the case.  Each remind us that we need to continue to try to right the wrongs of the past and where possible consider the lingering and painful effects of the horrific circumstances faced by individuals like the Leffmanns under the Nazi and Fascist regimes. 

With the Supreme Court's decision, Paul Leffmann's great-grand-niece has no other recourse tham to visit her family's painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 


February 2, 2020

Supreme Court Asked to Consider Legal Status of Famous Picasso Painting

A petition for writ of certiorari has been filed asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a ruling dismissing a case against New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the return of a Pablo Picasso masterwork, “The Actor,” created around 1904-05.

Jewish refugee Paul Leffmann sold the painting under duress in 1938, because of Nazi and Fascist persecution, when he and his wife Alice, having already escaped Germany, sought to flee a fast-Nazifying Italy. The purchasers were art dealer Hugo Perls and Pablo Picasso’s own dealer Paul Rosenberg, a French art dealer who represented Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse.

Not satisfied with an appellate court decision affirming the dismissal of the family’s claim to the painting as having been filed too late, Laurel Zuckerman, Paul Leffmann's great grand-niece, through her attorneys, has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case.  The Supreme Court grants around 100 of the 7,000+ petitions it gets each year, focusing on cases of national significance,or  those which might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal Circuit courts. 

According to Zuckerman’s petition, her case raises an issue of nationwide importance concerning the HEAR Act: whether, “despite the introduction of a nationwide statute of limitations designed to revive Holocaust-era restitution claims,” the Act still allows the laws of each of the 50 states to declare a claim untimely, and to thereby put up additional roadblocks to the very Holocaust era claims Congress encouraged under the HEAR Act. 

Zuckerman, representing the estate of Alice Leffmann, had sued the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016, asserting in court papers that the museum does not hold good title to the painting because the businessman was forced to sell this artwork at a low price, under pressure, in order to finance their flight from Italy given the actions of the Nazi-allied Mussolini-led government and anti-jewish climate at the time in Western Europe.  The Nazis had already stripped the Leffmans of their home and business. Having lost in the district court, the case was then brought up on appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

The appellate court agreed that the case was properly dismissed. 

The appellate court's ruling noted that the federal Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 (known as the HEAR Act), designed to help facilitate the recovery of art and other prized possessions unlawfully lost because of Nazi persecution, needs to provide “some measure of justice, even if incomplete,” to the victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs.  However, the court sided with the New York museum stating that it would be unfair for the Metropolitan to relinquish the Picasso, given the "unreasonable" delay in demanding its return.  The appellate court noted: "This is not a case where the identity of the buyer was unknown to the seller or the lost property was difficult to locate." 

The cert petition to the U.S. Supreme Court raises two challenges to the appellate court ruling. First, “whether the nonstatutory defense of laches may bar an action to recover artwork lost because of Nazi persecution, where that action has been brought within the statute of limitations prescribed by Congress” in the HEAR Act. And second, whether a case can be dismissed so early without a factual exploration of the laches defense urging undue delay raised by the Museum. 

Zuckerman is represented by Mary- Christine SUNGAILA, Will Feldman, and Marco Pulido at Haynes and Boone, LLP, in the case before the Supreme Court.  Zuckerman was represented in the trial court and continues to be represented on appeal by Lawrence Kaye, Howard Spiegler, Ross Hirsch, and Yael Weitz of Herrick, Feinstein LLP.

November 27, 2019

"Hold on to your hat": Antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford, a/k/a “Pakpong Kriangsak”

Looted Cambodian art for sale by Douglas Latchford
Image Credit:  US DOJ
In a case being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Feinstein, in the Office’s Money Laundering and Transnational Criminal Enterprises Unit, prominent 88-year-old British art collector and dealer Douglas A.J. Latchford has been indicted in the US Federal Court of the Southern District of New York.  The charges against the Bangkok-based dealer include "wire fraud, smuggling, conspiracy and related charges pertaining to his trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian antiquities."

Latchford in his home standing next to
a Chola period (880 - 1279) Somaskanda from Tamil Nadu
For 50 years Latchford has been considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Asian Art, and at one point was believed to be the biggest single contributor to the National Museum of Cambodia, one of the very countries outlined in the indictment unsealed today at the US Federal Courthouse in Manhattan.  According to the prosecution, Latchford is believed to have been a major stakeholder, acting as a cross-border conduit in an multi-billion dollar cultural property network which trafficked in plundered artifacts from Southeast Asia to some of the most important galleries, auction houses, and museums in the western world charging him with conspiracy to smuggle, false import statements, wire fraud, and the illicit transport and sale of stolen cultural property.

According to the US indictment it is alleged that "from at least in or about 2000, up to and including at least in or about 2012, Latchford engaged in a fraudulent scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities on the international art market, including to dealers and buyers in the United States."

The statue of warrior Duryodhana, which once graced the cover of Sotheby’s Asia Week catalog was returned to Cambodia.  In situ, this warrior was one of two matching statues facing each other in a rendition of the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata. 
Included in that list of fraudulent activity is involvement in the illicit removal and sale of the Angkorian sandstone statues stolen from Prasat Chen, the most northern sanctuary in the remote Koh Ker temple complex in Northern Cambodia.  Koh Ker (Khmer: ប្រាសាទកោះកេរ្ដិ៍) sits 120 kilometres northeast of Siem Reap and was briefly the capital of the Khmer kingdom from 928 to 944 CE.

In 2012, Latchford was already identified in a civil lawsuit, as a middleman in the trafficking of looted Khmer sculptures from “an organized looting network” and said to have conspired with the London auction house Spink & Son Ltd., to obtain false export permits for the sandstone temple antiquities.

Some of the incriminating evidence against the dealer related to charges against him include a brazenly written email sent on/about April 23, 2007, which leaves little to no  doubt about the dealer's level of direct involvement and knowledge in transnational criminal activity against cultural artifacts.  Attached to this email was a photograph of a freshly (and clandestinely) excavated standing Buddha statue, still covered in dirt.  In that email, Latchford is reported as having written "Hold on to your hat, just been offered this 56 cm Angkor Borei Buddha, just excavated, which looks fantastic. It’s still across the border, but WOW.”

It should be noted that by 1996, Cambodia had already enacted its overarching Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, which criminalizes both the unauthorized excavation, looting, and unauthorized export of antiquities, defining "movable cultural property found by chance" to be public property. This law, known colloquially as "the 1996 Law" remains in effect and is the relevant governing law, supported by a number of decrees, sub-decrees, and regulations.  Cambodia further demonstrates its determination to protect its cultural heritage by being a signatory to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (joined 1962); the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import (joined 1972); the World Heritage Convention (joined 1991); the Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (joined 2002), and the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (joined 2007).

As part of the present indictment Latchford is also alleged to have created "false letters of provenance and false invoices" misrepresenting the nature, age, country of origin, and/or the value  of an antiquity in order to conceal the illicit nature of the objects he brokered.  It should also be mentioned that he is also mentioned obliquely, though not directly named, as Co-Conspirator #1, in the criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan district attorney against Nancy Wiener, and several co-conspirators in December 2016.

In that New York criminal complaint co-conspirator #1 (Latchford)

  • allegedly is an antiquities dealer based in London and Bangkok
  • allegedly entered into an agreement with Nancy Wiener to purchase and sell a looted Baphuon Shiva from Cambodia, dated to the 11th Century C.E
  • allegedly shipped the Baphuon Shiva to London to be “cleaned, put together, and mounted.”
  • allegedly sold Nancy Wiener a bronze Buddha sitting on a throne of Naga stolen from Thailand or Cambodia, dated to the 10th Century C.E.
  • allegedly falsified provenance along with Nancy Wiener and Co-conspirator 2 for the bronze Buddha sitting on a throne of Naga stolen from Thailand or Cambodia, dated to the 10th Century C.E.
  • allegedly is a male 
  • allegedly admitted in email that he gave Co-Conspirator #2 bronze statues in exchange for false letters of provenance
  • allegedly purchased the Krishna Dancing on Kaliya from Subhash Kapoor
  • allegedly colluded with Nancy Wiener to create appraisal report for the Krishna Dancing on Kaliya 
Evidence collected in both cases illustrate a textbook formula of how looted antiquities are laundered onto the licit art market through poor controls and a lack of ethics and transparency among the major dealers working at the highest levels of the ancient art market.

Note: the charges contained in the US indictment are merely accusations and the defendant should be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.  For now Latchford, in purportedly poor health, remains at large in Bangkok, though it should be noted that the USA & Thailand signed an agreement on December 14, 1983 in which Article 2 permits extradition for any offense punishable under the laws of both States by imprisonment for more than one year.  By unsealing this indictment, it seems that the US intends to bring Latchford to the US, despite his reported ill health, to stand trial.

In conclusion, ARCA has elected to transcribe the entire SD/NY statement below, to make it searchable by future scholars conducting open source research on known/suspected traffickers.

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Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Peter C. Fitzhugh, the Special Agent in Charge of the New York Field Office of the Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”), announced today the unsealing of an indictment charging antiquities dealer DOUGLAS LATCHFORD, a/k/a “Pakpong Kriangsak”— with wire fraud, smuggling, conspiracy and related charges pertaining to his trafficking in stolen and looted Cambodian antiquities.  LATCHFORD remains at large, residing in Thailand.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said:  “As alleged, LATCHFORD built a career out of the smuggling and illicit sale of priceless Cambodian antiquities, often straight from archeological sites, in the international art market. This prosecution sends a clear message to the art market and to those who profit from the illegal trafficking of cultural treasures: the United States and the Southern District of New York will use every legal tool to stop the plundering of cultural heritage.”

HSI Special Agent in Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh said:  “The theft and trafficking of cultural property and priceless national treasures is a global concern. Historical artifacts are living sources of knowledge, objects of worships, and symbols of hope that must be safe guarded for future generations.  Through the investigative efforts of HSI special agents, three stolen artifacts from Cambodia and another from India, valued at a total of $750,000, were successfully recovered and will be returned to their rightful homeland.  In addition, an alleged major player in a multi-billion dollar cultural property transnational criminal network was identified and revealed.   Working hand in hand with our partners at the United States Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York, HSI will not waiver in its commitment to stopping the illicit distribution of cultural property, both domestically and abroad.”

According to the allegations in the Indictment unsealed today in Manhattan federal court:

Background on Looting of Cambodian Antiquities

From the mid-1960s until the early 1990s, Cambodia experienced continuous civil unrest and regular outbreaks of civil war.  During these times of extreme unrest, Cambodian archeological sites from the ancient Khmer Empire, such as Angkor Wat and Koh Ker, suffered serious damage and widespread looting. This looting was widely publicized and well-known to participants in the international art market.

Looted artifacts usually entered the international art market through an organized looting network.  Local looters, often working with local military personnel, would remove statues and architectural elements from their original locations, sometimes breaking and damaging the antiquities in the process of excavation and transportation. The antiquities would be transported to the Cambodia-Thailand border and transferred to Thai brokers, who would in turn transport them to dealers of Khmer artifacts located in Thailand, particularly Bangkok. These dealers would sell the artifacts to local or international customers, who would either retain the pieces or sell them on the international art market. Widespread looting of ancient Khmer and Cambodian antiquities continued into the 1990s.

The Scheme to Sell Looted Cambodian Antiquities

At all times relevant to this Indictment, DOUGLAS LATCHFORD, a/k/a “Pakpong Kriangsak,” the defendant, was a prominent collector and dealer in Southeast Asian art and antiquities, in particular, ancient Cambodian art. Starting in or about the early 1970s, LATCHFORD supplied major auction houses, art dealers, and museums around the world, including in the United States, with Cambodian antiquities from the ancient Khmer Empire. LATCHFORD, a dual citizen of Thailand and the United Kingdom, maintained residences in Bangkok and London.

From at least in or about 2000, up to and including at least in or about 2012, LATCHFORD engaged in a fraudulent scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities on the international art market, including to dealers and buyers in the United States. As part of that scheme, in order to conceal that LATCHFORD’s antiquities were the product of looting, unauthorized excavation, and illicit smuggling, and to encourage sales and increase the value of his merchandise, LATCHFORD created and caused the creation of false provenance for the antiquities he was selling. In the context of art and antiquities, provenance refers to records and other evidence documenting the origin and history of ownership of an object. In particular, LATCHFORD misrepresented the provenance of Cambodian antiquities in letters, emails, invoices, and other communications. As part of the scheme, LATCHFORD also falsified invoices and related shipping documents to facilitate the international shipment of the antiquities to dealers and buyers, and to avoid restrictions on the importation of Khmer antiquities into the United States.

Beginning in or about the early 1970s, LATCHFORD regularly supplied an auction house based in the United Kingdom (“Auction House-1”) with looted Khmer antiquities, including from the archeological site of Koh Ker in Cambodia. LATCHFORD conspired with representatives of Auction House-1 and others to conceal the real provenance of looted Khmer antiquities and to create false export licenses and documentation. Many of the antiquities that LATCHFORD consigned to Auction House-1 were eventually sold to museums and collectors in the United States.  In or about 2011, an auction house in New York (“Auction House-2”) offered for sale one of the Koh Ker statutes that LATCHFORD had originally supplied to Auction House-1, a stone guardian figure called the “Duryodhana.” During the course of preparing to sell the Duryodhana in or about 2010, Auction House-2 asked LATCHFORD and a scholar closely associated with LATCHFORD (the “Scholar”) to help trace the provenance of the Duryodhana back to the early 1970s. LATCHFORD falsely stated to Auction House-2 that he had the Duryodhana in London in 1970, and that he had consigned it with Auction House-1 in 1975; whereas in truth and in fact LATCHFORD had exported the Duryodhana from Cambodia in or about 1972. About a month later, LATCHFORD changed his story, telling Auction House-2, in substance and in part, that he had never owned the Duryodhana. Around the same time that LATCHFORD falsely denied owning the Duryodhana, the Scholar warned LATCHFORD in an email, “I think maybe you shouldn’t be known to have been associated with the Koh Ker Guardian figures[.] . . . Let’s fudge a little, and just put the blame squarely on [Auction House-1] .  .  .  .”

Over the course of his lengthy career, LATCHFORD continued to act as a conduit for recently looted Cambodian antiquities. LATCHFORD advertised purportedly newly discovered and excavated pieces for sale to trusted associates, including a Manhattan-based dealer in Southeast Asian art (the “Dealer”). For example, on or about August 12, 2005, LATCHFORD emailed the Dealer photographs of a bronze seated Buddha, visibly covered in earth. Latchford explained that the photographs showed the statute “before cleaning” by a restorer, and “[w]hen it was found they took off most of the mud, or as it was, a sandy soil, it was found near Sra Srang, the lake in front of Banteay Kedi, right in the Angkor [Wat] Complex.”  Similarly, on or about March 13, 2006, LATCHFORD sent the Dealer an email labeled “PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL -------- FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.” The email contained a photograph of a bronze head. LATCHFORD explained that the head “was recently found around the site of the Angkor Borei group in the N E of Cambodia, in the Preah Vihar area. They are looking for the body, no luck so far, all they have found last week were two land mines !! What price would you be interested in buying it at? let me know as I will have to bargain for it.”  On or about April 23, 2007, LATCHFORD sent the Dealer another email, attaching a photograph of a standing Buddha statute that appears to be covered in dirt. LATCHFORD wrote, “Hold on to your hat, just been offered this 56 cm Angkor Borei Buddha, just excavated, which looks fantastic. It’s still across the border, but WOW.”

In order to facilitate the sale and international transportation of the antiquities to buyers and to conceal that the antiquities were looted, LATCHFORD, created false letters of provenance and false invoices, including letters of provenance purporting to have been drafted by a particular art collector (the “False Collector”). For example, in or about 2000, LATCHFORD sold a 12th Century stone Khmer sculpture to a museum in Colorado (the “Colorado Museum”). LATCHFORD informed the Colorado Museum that he had purchased the piece from the False Collector in June 1999, and provided the Colorado Museum with a letter of provenance purportedly from the False Collector as part of the sale.  However, LATCHFORD also supplied the Colorado Museum with records indicating that the statute was transported from LATCHFORD’s residence in Bangkok to London in 1994, long before he claimed to have purchased it from the False Collector.  The False Collector died in or about 2001. Thereafter, LATCHFORD continued to provide numerous provenance letters purportedly provided by the False Collector, while claiming, falsely, that the False Collector was still alive.

On other occasions, LATCHFORD directed third parties to create false provenance documents and false invoices for him.  For example, in or about September 2005, LATCHFORD sold the Dealer a 12th Century Angkor Wat-style standing Buddha statue for $90,000. LATCHFORD told the Dealer that the Buddha “needs to be cleaned, as there is surface corrosion and earth still on it,” indicia of recent excavation. LATCHFORD arranged to ship the Buddha from Bangkok to an “antique consultant/collector” in Singapore (the “Singapore Collector”), and from Singapore to the Dealer’s gallery in Manhattan. LATCHFORD instructed the Singapore Collector to “re-invoice[]” the Buddha on the Collector’s letterhead, “mentioning it has been in your collection for the past 12 years.” The Singapore Collector followed LATCHFORD’s instructions, creating a new, false invoice and letter of provenance stating that the Buddha had been in the Singapore Collector’s private collection in Singapore for the last 12 years, omitting any mention of LATCHFORD, and falsely describing the statute as a “17th C. Bronze Standing Figure from Laos.” The Singapore Collector then shipped the Buddha with the false invoice and false provenance to the Dealer in Manhattan.

As part of the scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities in the United States, from at least in or about 2005 up to and including in or about 2011, LATCHFORD supplied false information to the United States Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) regarding the antiquities he imported into the United States for resale. In particular, LATCHFORD’s false invoices misstated the nature, age, country of origin, and/or value of the Cambodian antiquities. LATCHFORD misrepresented the country of origin and the age of the goods in particular in order to conceal that they were looted antiquities, and to avoid an embargo on the importation into the United States of Khmer antiquities exported from Cambodia after 1999. Frequently, LATCHFORD listed the “country of origin” as “Great Britain” or “Laos,” rather than Cambodia, and often described the objects as “figures” from the 17th or 18th century.

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November 15, 2019

Revisiting the case of the marble head of Alexander the Great as Helios, the Sun God

Sotheby's Website Screen Capture
taken 24 July 2018
This week journalist John Russell, of Courthouse News Service, reported that the attorney representing Safani Gallery Inc., in New York has filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to block the application for turnover request for a marble antiquity seized by the Manhattan District Attorney.  In their complaint Safani Gallery Inc., wholly owned by Alan Safani, is seeking a trial by jury for the return of an Augustan Age marble head of Alexander the Great as Helios, the Sun God, or damages for the losses it believes it has incurred, from the Italian Republic.  On page 15 of that complaint, Safani through their council asks for a ruling by jury for either the return of the marble sculpture or the full fair-market value of the Head of Alexander, plus legal expenses and interest.

In its complaint Safani Gallery also represents that it was given express representations and warranties of the authenticity, ownership, export licensing, and other attributes of the provenance for the marble head from Foundation, Classical Galleries. Ltd., which sold the New York gallery the antiquity. The complaint also states that by seizing the sculpture, Italy seeks to receive a benefit, including the expropriation of the gallery's property for Italy's own use and gain, to which the country has no claim, interest, or right.

To provide background on this case, Matthew Bogdanos, Senior Trial Counsel in the Office of New York County District, through Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., submitted an Application for Turnover on 23 July 2018 in support of an order pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law §450.10 (Consol. 2017) and N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law §690.55 (Consol. 2017) requesting the transfer of this antiquity, seized pursuant to a previously executed search warrant, from the custody of the court, to the custody of Italy.

Under order of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, the marble head of Alexander the Great had been seized at Safani Gallery  on 22 February 2018.  As a result of that seizure, the object was taken into evidence as part of a state investigation seeking to demonstrate the crime of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree.  That seizure was carried out based on evidence provided by the Italian authorities that the object had been stolen and illegally exported from the country of origin in contravention of Italy’s cultural heritage law (No 364/1909).

Looking across the remains of the Basilica Aemilia
towards the Severan Arch,
the Tabularium, and the Modern Senate House
Image Credit: B. Dolan
In terms of its history, the NY District Attorney court documents set out that the head was discovered during excavations of the Basilica Aemilia, located on the Via Sacra.  This is the ancient road between the Capitoline Hill and Rome's Colosseum, located within the Roman Forum. While little remains of the Basilica Aemilia today, its presence in the form is documented by Rome historian Pliny the Elder as being one of the three most beautiful elements on the site alongside the Forum of Augustus and the Temple of Peace.


The contested marble head was discovered at some point during Italian research excavations carried out by Professor Giacomo Boni and later by Professor Alfonso Bartoli, who conducted archaeological surveys of the Palatine Hill in Rome between 1899 and 1939.  Written documentation from these explorations suggest that the head was once part of the “Statues of Parthian Barbarians” which are believed to have adorned the Basilica Aemilia.  As such, these objects represent a valuable testimony to the art and architecture decorating buildings in the Forum during the Augustan Age.

After 20 BCE Roman art often portrayed the people of the Empire and during its restoration in 14 BCE, Augustus chose to line the Basilica with a series of Parthian figurines, perhaps to humiliate the ancient foreign enemy of Rome.  Representing individuals from the Parthian Empire (also known as the Arsacid Empire), these human likenesses depicted the conquered Parthians as representatives of the Orbis Alter, subjects of Rome not considered to be part of the “civilised” world.  Stylistically, they differ from representations we have from the same time period of people from the Orbis Romanus which makes this statue grouping particularly identifiable.

Correlating statue from the Basilica Aemilia
According to New York court documents, the Italian Soprintendenza alle Antichità Palatino e Foro Romano began keeping archival ambrotype photographic documentation of the objects it discovered during these excavations beginning in 1908.  This method of documentation most likely came about as a result of the country having instituted regional "Superintendencies" in 1907 on the basis of law no 386 dated 27 June 1907.   Prior to that, Italy lacked a strong national framework to encompass cultural heritage laws and regulations, and the area's cultural heritage was protected by the individual laws and decrees inherited from the many states and kingdoms that formerly made up Italy prior to it unification.

To archive the excavation finds from the Roman Forum, the city's cultural authorities placed the smaller antiquities discovered during this excavation upon a table in the Museo Forense cloister for cataloging.   The objects were then photographed against a dark background to aid in their identification and documentation.

Italy's archival records from this period document an image of the Head of Alexander, taken after its initial excavation, resting alone on this table in the aforementioned cloister.  The location where this image was taken is confirmed via a second image photographed in the same cloister of additional excavation finds from the Basilica Aemilia excavation which depicts objects photographed on the same table, but taken from a wider angle which allows the viewer to see the architectural elements from the cloister.  Based on these photographic records, the contested head of Alexander the Great is believed to have been discovered during the second phase of excavations which began after 1909, one year after the superintendency began using this type of photographic imagery for this excavation.

An ambrotype is an early form of photography dating to the 1850s which, in many ways, is a more cumbersome antique equivalent to the modern day slide, with the exception being the photograph was created by way of a fragile glass negative.  To preserve them, ambrotypes are generally stored in cases called a casket or union case and in single envelopes which require special care given their fragility. 

Sample ambrotype photo in its union case.
To date the find period for this object it must be remembered that the Italian authorities also have no contradicting written entries or alternative photographic archival documentation of any marble head finds, Alexander the Great or otherwise, from the Basilica Aemilia excavations related to the Barbarian statues prior to 1909.  All records of this marble head date from 1909 and points thereafter.

It is important to note that Professors Bartoli and Boni began their explorations in the zone of the Basilica Aemilia, where the head has been reported to have been excavated, in September 1909.  This time period, discussed at length in the State of New York's Application for Turnover, is documented in the archaeological record and demonstrates that in all likelihood, the marble head was found after September 1909 when excavations at the Basilica resumed.  Possibly more precisely, the first written documentation of marble sculptural heads of this type being found at the Basilica Aemilia were documented in  Bartoli's excavation journal in March and June 1910.  

This dating is critical to this restitution case in so much as Italy's Code of the Cultural and Landscape Heritage (No 364/1909) was made into law less than three months earlier, on 20 June 1909.  According to that law, there is a presumption of State ownership for all archaeological objects discovered after the law's implementation, unless the Italian cultural ministry acknowledges that the object does not have a cultural interest.  Given the importance of the Roman Forum excavations, it is not likely that the newly established Superintendency responsible for Rome would have categorized the symbolic head of Alexander the Great, from a site as important as the Basilica Aemilia, within the Forum Romanum,  as insignificant.

History tells us though that records for the marble head notated "perduta" (Italian for the word "lost") in November of 1960, when a review of the photographic negative of the Head of Alexander, inventory number 5862, no longer could be matched with a correlating object within the state's collection inventories.  Yet, at the time of this notation, there was no evidence to indicate that the object, or a second, also notated missing antiquity, had been stolen.  It is for this reason perhaps that the object was not archived within Italy's Leonardo database, the Italian state's archive for stolen art and antiquities.

But where was the object bought and sold before ultimately being located by the Italians? 

While the documentation of this object's collection history is spartan, we know that on 22 November 1974 the head of Alexander sold for a mere $650, having been consigned by the Hagop Kevorkian fund to Sotheby Parke Bernet. Sotheby’s Auction House acquired Parke Bernet Galleries in 1964 and adopted the name Sotheby Parke Bernet throughout the 1970s.  Today, that auction house is now known simply as Sotheby’s.  The buyer at this time was listed only as "Altertum Ltd."

Sometime after that date, the object was then purportedly purchased by Professor Oikonomides who indicated to others that he purchased the object while vacationing in Cairo, Egypt sometime between 1984 and 1986.  The object was then bequeathed to Dr. Miller by Oikonomides when he passed away in 1988.

Sotheby's Website Screen Capture
taken 24 July 2018
On 08 December 2011 the object then sold at Sotheby's for a second time, during Sotheby’s Egyptian, Classical and Western Asiatic Antiquities sale .

At the time of this second auction, the purported provenance for the object was listed as:

Hagop Kevorkian (1872-1962), New York, most likely acquired prior to World War II
The Hagop Kevorkian Fund (Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, November 22nd, 1974, no. 317, illus.)
A.N. Oikonomides, Chicago

At the time of this transaction, there was very little in the way of documentation to confirm the provenance narrative.  Despite this, the marble head sold to a then unidentified buyer for $92,500 USD.

In May 2017, the head of Alexander surfaced once again, but on the other side of the Atlantic.  This time the ancient marble head went up for sale in the United Kingdom, having once been in the possession of former Qatari culture minister and cousin of the current ruler of the oil-rich Arab country, Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Ali Al-Thani.  Before his death in 2014 Sheikh Saud Al-Thani was believed to have been the world's richest art collector.

Through Classical Galleries Limited, UK the Sheikh’s foundation in turn sold the head of Alexander to Alan Safani of Safani Gallery for $152,625 on 20 June 2017.

Object Identified by the Italians

Safani Gallery Booth - TEFAF 2018
Image Credit: L. Albertson
By an amazing bit of serendipity, on 19 February 2018, Dr. Patrizia Fortini, Director and Coordinator of the Archaeological Site of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill chanced upon an art fair advertisement which featured a photo of the stolen head in a publication for the upcoming 2018 fine arts fair known as TEFAF.  In the dealer's documentation, a photograph of the head had been included highlighting Safani Gallery's offerings for the upcoming Maastricht sale due to be held in the Netherlands, 10-18 March 2018.  Fortini determined that the photo in the advertisement and the old archival documentation photo of the head in the Museo Forense’s cloister were of the same object.

That same day, 19 February 2018, Fortini contacted the Carabinieri Headquarters for the Protection of Cultural Heritage a informed them of her suspicions.  On February 20, 2018, the Carabinieri likewise notified the New York authorities of Dr. Fortini's concerns.  Two days later, on February 22, 2019, a formal theft report had been filed with the Italian authorities and Lieutenant Colonel Nicola Candido, Commander of the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Rome, formally notified Matthew Bogdanos at the New York District Attorney's office that the Head of Alexander was “stolen from the L'Antiquarium Forense in Rome (Italy) - an Archaeological Site that belongs to the Italian State,” and that “the Italian Republic has never issued a state-approved license for the exportation of the [Head] from Italy; and has never transferred the ownership of the [Head] from Italy to any third party.”  These statements and the accompanying evidence gathered in relation to the assertion resulted in the seizure of the sculpture from Safani Gallery.

Statute of Limitations and Clear Title

Under New York law, barring the expiration of the statute of limitations or application of the laches doctrine, one cannot obtain title from a thief unless the present-day possessor's title can be traced to someone with whom the original owner voluntarily entrusted the art.  As clear title is not possible in the case of this marble head, this leaves Safani and his counsel, David Schoen, to see if they can make their case based on the laches defense.  The purpose of the doctrine of laches is to safeguard the interests of good faith purchasers, in this case of lost/stolen art, by weighing in the balance of competing interest against the owner's diligence in pursuing their claim.   

While delay in pursuing a claim for the head could be considered in the context of laches under New York law, given that the theft occurred at an unknown time so many years ago, it has long been the law of the state of New York that a property owner, having discovered the location of its lost property, cannot unreasonably delay in making their demand upon the person in possession of that property.  As Italy acted within days of its identification that its "lost" item was in fact stolen, this course of legal action doesn't seem to be a viable route for retaining the object in question.

Likewise, as of this date, Safani Gallery hasn't produced any records or bill of sale for any pre-1974 transaction for the Head of Alexander.  Nor are there any records or invoices for the 1974 sale by Sotheby’s to Altertum Ltd., or any export visas or stamp authorizing the Head’s legitimate removal from Italy. Nor are there any records which would confirm a date for which the object was shipped out of the source country, such as a bill of lading or a customs declaration.  This leaves Safani with little tangible evidence to disprove the NYDA's stance that the object was stolen and then illegally removed from Italy.

Despite this, on 14 November 2018 Safani's attorney reported that the New York courts denied the NY DA's Turnover Application

To clarify on the aforementioned tweet by David Schoen, which only presents a portion of the facts,  the judge in this complicated case has stayed the proceeding pending the outcome of the federal case, and ruled that New York does have jurisdiction to resolve ownership disputes of antiquities under PL 450.10, and that he will do so in appropriate cases.

So for now, the court wrangling continues to drag on.

To view the 22 February 2018 Seizure Order, please see here.
To view the 23 July 2018 Application for Turnover, please see here.
To view the 12 November 2019 Safani Complaint, please see here.

By:  Lynda Albertson

October 30, 2018

Recoverable or Not? The sale of the Assyrian gypsum relief of a winged Genius, reign of Ashurnasirpal II, circa 883-859 BCE


In March 2015, the Iraqi government formally announced that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL had purposefully destroyed much of the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II as part of their iconoclastic program of obliterating preislamic cultural heritage monuments in their original archaeological contexts.  But despite the worldwide outrage at the time of this tragedy, most of the general public had already forgotten about the losses faced by the Iraqi people by the time the Virginia Theological Seminary publicly announced, on April 13, 2018, that it would be selling one of their own objects from Nimrud.  On that date, the trustees announced that for various reasons, they had decided to sell their own seven-foot carved gypsum alabaster panel from the now-destroyed palace, a relief known as "The Bearded Winged Apukalu." It's auction is set to occur at Christie’s Antiquities Sale in New York on the 31st of October.

Image Credit:  ARCA 
Until very recently, the press hardly noticed the upcoming sale.  This despite the fact that art historian Kiersten Neumann drew attention to the upcoming event via Twitter on May 22, 2018.   The auction of this rare piece of history was also of much talk by Assyriologists and museum professionals around the world.
From ARCA's calculations there are at least 76 known public collections and 6 private collections which contain material culture from the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II.  

The last Assyrian relief to appear on the legitimate ancient art market sold to Noriyoshi Horiuchi after a bidding war between the Japanese antiquities dealer and an Italian phone bidder in 1994.  At that time, the relief sold for an eye-popping 7.7 million British pounds, a price 10 times what the auctioneers at Christie's had estimated. 

The Horiuchi-purchased bas-relief, like the one at the VTS, was excavated in the mid-19th century in what is now Iraq by British archeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard.  It was then given over to Sir John Guest, then owner of Canford Manor, who helped to pay for bringing the finds from Nimrud back to Britain.  That piece of the palace is now on display at the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan.

The public however only seems to have taken notice in the VTS relief months after the Seminary made its announcement and only after the high dollar estimate the object is likely to bring started arousing interest in the major news outlets.

Like with the relief purchased by Horiuchi, the VTS relief was also excavated sometime around 1845 by Sir Austen Henry Layard.   Layard in turn is reported to have sold the object to Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, a medical missionary who worked in the 1850's in Mosul.  Haskell was interested in objects from the palace as proof of biblical history, for Nimrud is known as the ancient site of Calah and is mentioned in Genesis 10:11.  Haskell in turn, passed them on to his friend Joseph Packard, then professor and later Dean at Virginia Theological Seminary and the relief was shipped to the United States where it has been housed at the Virginia Theological Seminary since 1860.

Screen Capture: Facebook
Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage 
Despite being part of the VTS collection for more than 150 years, a recent call for help and appeal from the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage has been made by Dr. Qais Hussein Rashid, Deputy Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities and President of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage asking for law enforcement intervention asking for help in stopping the sale.  Unfortunately, the evidence is quite strong that the relief was legally excavated and exported in the nineteenth century, which makes preventing the sale highly unlikely.

The three Assyrian reliefs are purported to have reached America in 1859 where their transfer to the Virginia Theological Seminary appears to have been well established.  Packard, citing Rev. J. S. Lindsay, writes that the three slabs, were so valuable that the Smithsonian Institution, on failing to purchase them, had plaster casts made of them (Packard, citing Rev. J.S. Lindsay, 1902, 305).  The relief is also documented in other academic articles including the 1976 article by Ross, J.F. "The Assyrian reliefs at Virginia Seminary", part of the Virginia Seminary Journal 28(1) pages 4-10.

The strength of the Iraqi's claim for the restitution of its heritage in this instance would likely hinge on the applicability of New York penal law, i.e. that a thief can never acquire good title.  To do so, the courts would have to prove that the Virginia Theological Seminary, was is possession of stolen property.  If that were to be the case, the New York District Attorney's office could then seize the property as evidence and then move to release the stolen property under PL §450.10(2)'s mandate that "unless extended by a court order...property shall be released...after satisfactory proof of such person's entitlement of the possession thereof." But this might be difficult, if not impossible for the Iraqi authorities to substantiate.

Despite the somewhat contentious nature of Layard’s early explorations at Nimrud, which were at first clandestine, the intervention of the British government, to gain official support for the archaeologist's excavations from the Ottoman Turkish authorities is well documented.

On 5 May 1846, the Grand Vizier of the Turkish Empire sent a letter to the Pasha of Mosul, based upon the intercession of Stratford Canning, the Viscount Stratford, who partially funded Lanyard’s explorations.  A diplomat who represented Great Britain at the Ottoman court for almost 20 years, Canning spent most of his career as ambassador in Constantinople and was influential in exerting a strong influence on Turkish policy in support of the sultan’s resistance to Russia’s attempts to increase its influence over Ottoman affairs which eventually would lead to the outbreak of the Crimean War.  Through Canning's assistance,  the Brits were able to obtain permission for Layard's excavation.

The vizier's letter reads as follows: 

There are, as your Excellency knows, in the vicinity of Mosul quantities of stones and ancient remains. An English gentleman has come to these parts to look for such stones, and has found on the banks of the Tigris, in certain uninhabited places, ancient stones on which there are pictures and inscriptions. The British Ambassador has asked that no obstacles shall be put in the way of the above-mentioned gentleman taking the stones which may be useful to him, including those which he may discover by excavations … nor of his embarking them for transport to England.

The sincere friendship which firmly exists between the two governments makes it desirable that such demands be accepted. Therefore no obstacle should be put in the way of his taking the stones which … are present in desert places, and are not being utilised, or of his undertaking excavations in uninhabited places where this can be done without inconvenience to anyone; or of his taking such stones as he may wish amongst those which he has been able to discover.

--H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria, Sidgwick and Jackson , 1984, page 305.

In order to succeed in stopping the sale in New York, Iraq as a claimant would have to first prove that they have standing to bring such a cultural claim in a US court.  If the VTS has documentation proving that Layard passed their relief on to Dr. Henri Byron Haskell with the permission of the authorities in power at that time, as the provenance in the auction seems to indicate, the seminary would likely be in the clear to move forward with tomorrow's auction. 

Unfortunately this means that unless Iraq has the liquidity to buy back its own cultural patrimony, or is able to find a generous benefactor willing to purchase the ancient relief on their behalf, this reminder of the lost Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II will unfortunately go to the highest bidder.

Update: 31 October 2018
The Assyrian gypsum relief of a winged Genius, reign of Ashurnasirpal II, sold for a USD $27,250,000 hammer price which equates to $35,903,875 including the buyer’s premium to an in-the-room buyer at Christie's New York: Paddle 811.

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 24, 2018

Request for Return: A marble head of Alexander the Great as Helios, the Sun God

Image Credit: Safani Gallery TEFAF Maastricht advertisement

On Monday, 23 July 2018 Matthew Bogdanos, Senior Trial Counsel in the Office of New York County District through Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., submitted an Application for Turnover in support of an order pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law §450.10 (Consol. 2017) and N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law §690.55 (Consol. 2017) authorising the transfer of a circa-1st-century CE marble head of Alexander the Great as Helios, the Sun God, seized pursuant to a previously executed search warrant, from the custody of the court, to the custody of Italy.

Under order of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, the antiquity had been seized at Safani Gallery on February 22, 2018 and was taken into evidence as part of a state investigation seeking to demonstrate the crime of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree.  This seizure was based on suspicions that the object had been stolen and at some point illegally exported from the country of origin in contravention of Italy’s cultural heritage law (No 364/1909).

Since February 22nd the object had been retained as evidence by the New York authorities pending confirmation of a formal request from Italy formally requesting intervention and while the legal case advanced through the New York legal system.

In terms of its history, court documents set out that the head was discovered during excavations of the Basilica Aemilia, located on the Via Sacra.  This is the ancient road between the Capitoline Hill and the Colosseum located within the Roman Forum in Rome. While little remains of the Basilica Aemilia today, it was considered by Rome historian Pliny the Elder to be one of the three most beautiful elements of the Roman Forum, this alongside the Forum of Augustus and the Temple of Peace. 

Looking across the remains of the Basilica Aemilia
towards the Severan Arch,
the Tabularium, and the Modern Senate House
Image Credit: B. Dolan
The head was discovered at some point during Italian research excavations carried out by Drs. Professors Giacomo Boni and later by Professor Alfonso Bartoli which were carried  out on the Palatine Hill between 1899 and 1939.  Documentation from the excavations suggest that the head belongs to one of the “Statues of Parthian Barbarians” which once adorned the Basilica.

After 20 BCE Roman art often portrayed the people of the Empire and during its restoration in 14 BCE, Augustus chose to line the Basilica with a series of Parthian figurines, perhaps in humiliation of Rome's ancient foreign enemy.  Representing individuals from the Parthian Empire (also known as the Arsacid Empire), these likenesses depicted the conquered Parthians as representatives of the Orbis Alter, subjects of Rome not considered to be part of the “civilised” world.  Stylistically, they differ from representations we have from the same period of people from the Orbis Romanus. 

According to court documents, the Italian Soprintendenza alle Antichità Palatino e Foro Romano began keeping archival photographic documentation of the objects discovered during the lengthy excavation starting in 1908.  Based on these records, the head of Alexander the Great, seized from the New York gallery, is believed to have been discovered during the second phase of excavations.  These began after 1909. This dating is derived as the Italian authorities have no written, descriptive entries or photographic archival documentation of any marble head finds from the Roman forum of the Barbarian statues prior to 1909.   It was also not until September 1909 that Dr. Professor Bartoli's team began their explorations in the zone of the Basilica Aemilia.  As a result of this and other evidence described in the Court's Application for Turnover it seems most likely that the marble head was likely found sometime around 1910.

Bear in mind 1909 is a critical date as it is this year that Italy's Code of the Cultural and Landscape Heritage (No 364/1909) was made into law.  According to this law, there is a presumption of the State's ownership for all archaeological objects discovered after 1909, unless the cultural Ministry acknowledges that the object does not have a cultural interest, something it would never do for objects located in the Roman Forum.

Italy's archival records from the Forum excavation document an image of the head of Alexander, taken after it was excavated, resting separately on a table at the Museo Forense cloister as well as other photos where the ovject is pictured with additional finds.  While the date of the actual theft of this head and another second missing object, which was also stolen, is undetermined the incident is believed to have occurred sometime before 1959.

What we can define with certainty, on the basis of the dating of the archival photograph, along with the excavation records of the start date of the Basilica site excavation, and documentation of the dates the Museo Forense cloister would have been available to be used as a evidentiary photographic venue, is that this object indisputably originated from Italy.  Predicated on the foregoing evidence, it can be proven that the marble head of Alexander was removed from Italian territory after the 1909 law was enacted.

It is on this basis that the object has been defined as stolen property by the State of New York, as its removal from the custody of the Italian authorities was in contravention of the 1909 Italian law.  Also, according to New York law, a thief can never acquire good title.  It should be noted that the removal of the head of Alexander from the Republic of Italy without an export license from the Italian governmental authorities authorising its removal from the territory is also a further violation of Italian law.

Interestingly though, like many stolen works of art illicitly obtained, antiquities remain fairly easy to launder, being sold over and over again through a lack of adequate due diligence in some of the finest, legitimate marketplaces and to and through some of the richest collectors in the world.  In this instance, the Alexander head has sold in the United States and in the United Kingdom on multiple occasions.

But where was the object bought and sold? 

While the documentation of this object's collection history is spartan, we know that on 22 November 1974 the head of Alexander sold for a mere $650, having been consigned by the Hagop Kevorkian fund to Sotheby Parke Bernet. Sotheby’s Auction House acquired Parke Bernet Galleries in 1964 and adopted the name Sotheby Parke Bernet throughout the 1970s.  Today, that auction house is known simply as Sotheby’s.  The buyer at the time was listed only as "Altertum Ltd."

Sometime after that date the object was then purportedly purchased by Professor Oikonomides who indicated to others that he purchased the object while vacationing in Cairo, Egypt sometime between 1984 and 1986.  The object was then bequeathed to Dr. Miller by Oikonomides when he passed away in 1988.

Sotheby's Website Screen Capture
taken 24 July 2018
On 08 December 2011 the object sold at Sotheby's for a second time during Sotheby’s Egyptian, Classical and Western Asiatic Antiquities sale .

At the time of this auction, the purported provenance for the object was listed as:

Hagop Kevorkian (1872-1962), New York, most likely acquired prior to World War II
The Hagop Kevorkian Fund (Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, November 22nd, 1974, no. 317, illus.)
A.N. Oikonomides, Chicago

But with very little in the way of documentation to confirm this narrative.

The object ultimately sold to an unidentified buyer for $92,500 USD.

In May 2017, the head of Alexander surfaced across the Atlantic.  This time the ancient marble head went up for sale in the United Kingdom, having once been in the possession of former Qatari culture minister and cousin of the current ruler of the oil-rich Arab country, Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Ali Al-Thani.  Before his death in 2014 Sheikh Saud Al-Thani was believed to have been the world's richest art collector.

Through Classical Galleries Limited, UK the Sheikh’s foundation sold the head of Alexander on to Alan Safani of Safani Gallery for $152,625 on June 20, 2017.

Object Identified

Safani Gallery Booth - TEFAF 2018
Image Credit: L. Albertson
By an amazing bit of serendipity, on 19 February 2018 Dr. Patrizia Fortini, Director and Coordinator of the Archaeological Site of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill chanced upon an advertisement which featured a photo of the stolen head in a publication for the upcoming 2018 Fine Arts Expo known as TEFAF.  In the dealer's documentation, a photograph of the head had been included highlighting Safani Gallery's offerings for the upcoming Maastricht sale due to be held in the Netherlands, March 10-18, 2018.

The photo in the advertisement and the old archival documentation photo of the head in the Museo Forense’s cloister were one and the same object and as a result, Italy moved forward in requesting the object's seizure.

Statute of Limitations and Clear Title

Under New York law, barring the expiration of the statute of limitations or application of the laches doctrine, one cannot obtain title from a thief unless the present-day possessor's title can be traced to someone with whom the original owner voluntarily entrusted the art.  As clear title is not possible in the case of Italy's marble head of Alexander, it will be up to Safani and his counsel to see if they will base their case on the laches defense or voluntarily relinquish the object.  What is clear is that the plaintiff, in this case Italy, has not unreasonably delayed in initiating their action.

The purpose of the doctrine of laches is to safeguard the interests of good faith purchasers, in this case of lost/stolen art, by weighing in the balance of competing interest, the owner's diligence in pursuing their claim.   

While delay in pursuing a claim for the head could be considered in the context of laches under New York law given that the theft occurred at an unknown time so many years ago, it has long been the law of this state that a property owner, having discovered the location of its lost property, cannot unreasonably delay in making their demand upon the person in possession of that property.  As Italy acted quickly as soon as the ID was confirmed, this course of legal action doesn't seem to be a viable route for retaining the objet in question.

To view the New York Application for Turnover in its entirety, please see here.
To view the New York February 22, 2018 Seizure Order, please see here.

By:  Lynda Albertson

May 2, 2018

Auction Alert - Sotheby’s New York - a bronze Greek figure of a horse

On May 01, 2018 ARCA was contacted by Christos Tsirogiannis about a possible ancient object of concern in an upcoming Sotheby's auction titled 'The Shape of the Beauty: Sculpture from the Collection of Howard and Saretta Barnet' scheduled for 10:00 AM EST on May 14, 2018 in New York City. The antiquities researcher had also notified law enforcement authorities in New York and at INTERPOL. 

Since 2007 Tsirogiannis, a Cambridge-based Greek forensic archaeologist has drawn attention to and identified antiquities of potentially illicit origin in museums, collections, galleries auction houses, and private collections that can be traced to the confiscated Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes-Christos Michaelides and Gianfranco Becchina archives.  Tsirogiannis teaches as a lecturer on illicit trafficking with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.

Image Credit: ARCA
Screenshot taken 02 May 2018
Dr. Tsirogiannis noted that Lot 4 of the sale, a bronze Greek figure of a horse, lists the object's collecting history as:
Münzen und Medaillen AG, Basel, May 6, 1967, lot 2
Robin Symes, London, very probably acquired at the above auction
Howard and Saretta Barnet, New York, acquired from the above on November 16, 1973 .

For its literature, the auction house mentions the following text: Zimmermann, Les chevaux de bronze dans l'art géométrique grec, Mainz and Geneva, 1989, p. 178.

Through my own explorations I found that Scholar Paul Cartledge, in The Classical Review 41 (1):173-175 (1991), stated:

"Like Archaic Greek bronze hoplite-figurines (CR 38 [1988], 342), Greek Geometric bronze horse-figurines are eminently marketable (and forgeable) artefacts for which private collectors, chiefly in New York, London, Geneva and Basel, are prepared to part with a great deal of hard currency. Their (al)lure is undeniable; I have myself trekked halfway across Europe in pursuit of their elusive charm."

As if to underscore their allure, both past and present, Tsirogiannis sent along three photos of the object on auction which he conclusively matched to photos found in the confiscated Robin Symes archive. 

Three, (3) photos from the Symes -Michaelides Archive
provided by Christos Tsirogiannis

Saretta Barnet died in March of 2017.  Her husband had passed away in 1992. Collecting for more than 4 decades, the couple's collection included everything from pen and brown ink landscapes by Fra Bartolommeo, works by Goya, François Boucher, Lucien Freud, tribal art and a noteworthy collection of antiquities.  

In a December 01, 2017 article in the Financial Times, discussing this upcoming sale, their son, Peter Barnet, indicated that “his late parents bought carefully and took their time to make decisions. For that reason, they preferred not to buy at auction but from dealers.”  Apparently though, not all of those purchases were carefully vetted. 

Screenshot:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bulletin 3269091
In 1999 the family of Howard J. Barnet donated a Black-Figure Kylix, ca. 550-525 B.C.E attributed to the Hunt Painter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That object according to an article by Dr. David Gill, was relinquished by the museum via a transfer in title in a negotiation completed with the Italian Ministry of Culture on February 21, 2006 and returned to Italy in one of the first repatriation agreements between Italy and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

While the Barnet's may have been selective in the quality of the pieces they purchased for their collection, their relationships with dealers known to have dealt in plundered antiquities such as Symes, as well as collecting transactions with private collectors such as George Ortiz, who is also known to have purchased tainted objects, leaves one to question how carefully the Barnet's vetted the objects they acquired.

Given that the bronze Greek figure of a horse appears in photographs found in the Symes archive and the fact that at least one other object donated by the Barnet's was tied to illicit trafficking and was repatriated to its country of origin, this statue deserves a closer look.  With further research, the object and its past collecting history might lead to a link in the trafficking chain that has not yet been fully explored or considered. 

Take the provenance listed in this sales event for example.  If the object's listing of a sale at Münzen und Medaillen AG, Basel in May 6, 1967 is not a fabrication, then exploring this sale in Switzerland, determining who the consignor was, might give us another name name in the looting/trafficking/laundering chain which could help us determine the country of origin and be worthwhile for law enforcement in Switzerland and New York to explore. 

At the very least, this upcoming auction notice seems to indicate that the auction house did not contact Greek or Italian source country authorities before accepting the object on consignment.  This despite the object's passage through the hands of a British antiquities dealer long-known to have been a key player in an international criminal network that traded in looted antiquities. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

April 11, 2018

Auction Alert - Christie's Auction House - an Etruscan 'Pontic' black-figured neck-amphora and a Roman bronze boar

ARCA has been informed by Christos Tsirogiannis that he had identified two potentially tainted antiquities, scheduled to be auctioned by Christie's auction house in New York on 18 April 2018.  The antiquities researcher had notified law enforcement authorities in late March.

On April 11th, 2018 one of these objects is now listed as withdrawn from the auction.

Lot 26, an Etruscan 'Pontic' black-figured neck-amphora attributed to the Paris Painter, Circa 530 BCE. was listed in the auction documentation, before its withdrawal with an estimated sale price of $30,000-50,000 USD.


The provenance published with this object is: 
"with Galerie Günter Puhze, Freiburg.
Acquired by the current owner from the above, 1993."

The second item, Lot 48, is a Roman Bronze Boar, Circa 1st-2nd Century CE., is currently still listed with an estimate sale price of $10,000-15,000 USD.


The provenance published with this object is: 
"with Mathias Komor, New York, 1974. Christos G. Bastis (1904-1999), New York. The Christos G. Bastis Collection; Sotheby’s, New York, 9 December 1999, lot 159."

Photo from the Gianfranco Becchina archive
Exhibited: 
"The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Antiquities from the Collection of Christos G. Bastis, 20 November 1987-10 January 1988."

Tsirogiannis matched the black-figured neck-amphora with two Polaroid images found pasted onto a 22 June 1993 document located within the confiscated archive of Sicilian antiquity dealer Gianfranco Becchina. The white piece of paper describes the scene depicted on the object, while the two photos pasted to the document show the same antiquity prior to its restoration.  In this image, the vase is still broken into many fragments and is seen with soil and salt encrustations.   The dealers handwritten notes on the page include numeric notations and refer to an individual named "Sandro."

Becchina's archive, an accumulation of business records, seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002, consists of some 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents related to antiquities, bought and sold, which at one point or another are known to have passed through Becchina's network of illicit suppliers.

As those who are familiar with Peter Watson's and Cecilia Todeschini's book, The Medici Conspiracy may recall, numerous handwritten notes and lists of antiquities, invoices, and etc., found in the Becchina archive refer to Sandro Cimicchi, an artifact restorer based in Basel, Switzerland.

This is interesting in that one of the supply chain elements in Becchina's enterprise frequently foresaw a first phase of restoration on the plundered artwork, then the subsequent creation of false attestations on the antiquity's origin, made possible also through the artificial attribution of ownership to associated companies.

Cimicchi's name also appears on a comprehensive hand-written organisational chart written by dealer/trafficker Pasquale Camera which was recovered by the Italian authorities in September 1995 during a Carabinieri raid.  This ‘organigram’ has been useful to Italian investigators and cultural researchers in piecing together members of this well known trafficking TOC group.  Starting from the bottom and working your way up, this document references everyone from tombaroli, to intermediaries, to restorers, to mid-level Italian dealers (Gianfranco Becchina and Giacomo Medici), and lastly, to wealthy international dealers Robert E. Hecht and Robin Symes.

Cimicchi name has consistently been connected with illicit antiquities dealers and had been noted to have been Gianfranco Becchina's usual restorer. 

Becchina was convicted in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade yet, this antiquity's passage, through or between Becchina and Cimicchi, has not been listed in the provenance details which were published by the Christie's auction house for its upcoming sale.

Tsirogiannis informed me that the second object, the Roman bronze boar, is depicted in two separate professional images in the business archive records of Robin Symes and Christos Michaelides,  two other high-profile art dealers we have written about in detail. 


The Becchina and Symes-Michaelides archives were presented publicly by the Italian judicial and police authorities during the trials of Giacomo Medici, Gianfranco Becchina, Robert Hecht, and dozens of Italian tombaroli in Rome from 2000-2011. Like the Becchina archive, this Greek file features a stash of images seized during a raid on the Greek island of Schinousa, that once formed the stock of Robin Symes and Christo Michaelides.

Unfortunately, neither Symes nor Michaelides appear in the provenance documentation published by Christie's for the upcoming sale on the Roman bronze boar.

With regularity, objects such as these, connected to tainted antiquities dealers, known to have profited from the trafficking of illicit antiquities, appear on the licit market.  Since 2006 Tsirogiannis, a Cambridge-based Greek forensic archaeologist, affiliated researcher and summer lecturer with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has, with some regularity, identified antiquities of suspect origin in museums, collections, galleries and auction houses, liking passages in their collection histories to Giacomo Medici, Fritz Bürki, Gianfranco Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides. 

As part of a rigorous due diligence process, auction houses are encouraged to check with the Italian or Greek authorities to ensure that the antiquities going up for auction are clean, so as not to pass tainted objects on to new owners.  Yet dealers in the art market sometimes forgo this due diligence step, as talking with the  law enforcement authorities, means they would likely be required to provide the name of the consignor, should the archive control, come up with a matching incriminating photo.  

As this poses problems of confidentiality for dealers, this step, is too frequently omitted, leaving the only way for matches to be made being when pieces like this  ancient vase, or bronze boar, or marble statue, or Roman glass bottle, eventually comes up for sale during a public auction. Given that TEFAF's newly released report states that there are more than 28,000 auction houses trading world-wide, the task of monitoring them all becomes gargantuan. 

In UNESCO's recent “Engaging the European Art Market in the Fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property”  I suggested to personnel of the art market on hand for the meeting that the legal conundrum of client confidentiality could be circumvented by auction houses and dealers implementing a policy whereby the consignor themselves contacts the Italian and Greek authorities for a check of the the Medici, Bürki, Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides archives before the auction house agrees to list these topologies of antiquities up for auction when the provenance the client has is short on clarity. This would eliminate the auction house's liability for disclosing a confidential client. 

While it might slow down the proposed sales cycle, or be an uncomfortable proactive step for good faith purchases who may have unfortunately purchased a suspect antiquity in good faith in the past, it would be the market's ethical step towards not furthering the laundering by selective omission and it would begin to help collectors understand that their purchases and eventual sales now need to be ethical ones given the onus for ethical behavior being placed on them. 

ARCA hopes that by continuing to publicize the frequency illicit antiquities penetrate the legitimate art market, with provenance irregularities such as these seen in these two identifications, will encourage auction houses or collectors themselves to adhere to more accurate and stringent reporting requirements when listing their object's collection histories.  It is only in this way that new buyers do not continue to launder objects with their future purchases, further prolonging the damages caused by the the illicit antiquities trade.