Showing posts with label Ports Franc. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ports Franc. Show all posts

March 24, 2017

Repatriation: Roman sarcophagus held at Swiss Freeport finally clears last hurdle for its return to Turkey

Image taken September 23, 2015
by the Office of the Attorney General of the Canton of Geneva - Image Credit: AFP
In December 2010, Swiss Federal Customs Administration authorities, acting under new customs legislation to combat trafficking in works of art, requested access to the inventory of Phoenix Ancient Art SA., a major supplier of museum-quality antiquities, which stores ancient works of art at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève, a freeport located in a sprawling grey industrial building on the corner of a busy junction in southwest Geneva. 

For more information about freeports as a tax free haven to store art, please see a few of ARCA's earlier blog posts here, here, and here

At the time of the audit, authorities inspected the holdings of both Phoenix Ancient Art and its warehouseman and freight forwarder, Inanna Art Services.  During this inspection, Swiss authorities discovered, but didn't physically seize, a 1-2 ton, 150-180 CE Roman sarcophagus which depicted the twelve labours of the ancient Greek war deity, Hercules. According to customs information on file for the antiquity, the sarcophagus was imported into Switzerland in the name of Phoenix Ancient Art, which often used Inanna Art Services to store its goods or to transport works of art to and from other countries. 

This extraordinary ancient funerary object, likely only one of four of this significant quality documented in the ancient art world, had little in the way of detailed provenance.  For a piece of its quality to have nothing tying it to a previously known ancient art collection; no notations of its discovery or find spot, and nothing notable in the way of published scholarly examination of its style and iconography, rang alarm bells in Switzerland. 

In a recent video, with Al Jazeera news, Ali Aboutaam claimed that the ancient funerary object had been purchased by his father and had been in their family for 25 years. While under their control, he indicated that the sarcophagus had always been stored at the Geneva freeport aside from when it was shipped to the UK for conservation treatment.   Ali Aboutam added that in 2010 the object was sold to the Gandur Foundation as a donation to the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire in Geneva and according to Phoenix Ancient Art's attorney Bastien Geiger, Sleiman Aboutaam purchased the object in the early 90s.

Phoenix Ancient Art had proposed the sarcophagus to billionaire Swiss tycoon and commodities trader, Jean-Claude Gandur in the spring of 2010 for an estimated $1 - 4 million saying that the firm was acting on behalf of a third party whom they interestingly refused to disclose.  Gandur, who made a fortune during the 1990s buying oil concessions in Africa, has long been a powerful collector of ancient art, as well as a long term patron of the Musée d’Art et d’histoire in Geneva. 

In consideration of the donation, Marc-André Haldimann, head of the archaeology department of the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire of Geneva and the director of the museum, Jean-Yves Marin, went to the freeport and inspected the sarcophagus to carry out an appraisal for consideration.  The pair however remained highly skeptical of the lack of established information on the ancient sarcophagus, which implied possible illicit origins.  

How could such a prestigious object emerge on the ancient art market having never been talked or written about previously?   

Wouldn't the archaeologist who discovered such a masterpiece have mentioned this spectacular find in his or her field notes?  

Wouldn't a scholar of some repute have compared it in an academic article with the other known artworks by the same signatory group of sculptures or other sarcophagi depicting Hercules?

The only documentation Phoenix Ancient Art produced which attested to the fundamental question of this exceptional object's past, were independently established statements attesting that the ancient work of art was part of the Aboutaam collection from 2002 onward and a certificate from Art Loss Register attesting the object had been checked against ALR's known stolen art database registry.  Ultimately the sale to the Gandur Foundation was cancelled, in no small part because of suspicions that the object had been smuggled out of its source country. 

In March 2011, the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (FOC) issued a statement that they believed the sarcophagus had originated from the general area of the famous marble quarries of Dokimion in Phrygia, the present day Antalya region of Turkey. The Dokimeian white marble sarcophagus was likely sculpted sometime during the the second century, when the area was under Roman rule. 

Based on the FOC's examination, Swiss authorities alerted their counterparts in Ankara, and Turkey in turn, issued a demand for the restitution of the rare antiquarian work by a letter rogatory of July 2011. Turkey also sent a request for mutual assistance to the Geneva court and an inquiry was formally opened in Switzerland to look into alleged violations of the Cultural Property Transfer Act (LTBC).  This act requires art market professionals keep a register for 30 years, in which the "origin of the cultural property" is to be documented. 

In order for the sarcophagus to have been in good standing in Switzerland under the LTBC, the dealers would be obliged to prove that the acquired object was in an old collection outside the source country prior to 2005 or to demonstrate that the object was not stolen or exported illicitly after 2005.

In October 2013, the case made its way through Swiss court. The Geneva Chief Public Prosecution Office and the Chief Public Prosecutor of Antalya conducted a comprehensive joint study with the Swiss magistrate in charge of the case traveling to Antalya, Turkey where Turkish Public Prosecutor Osman Şanal provided access to witnesses.   

Testimonies were heard from Professor Haluk Abbasoğlu and Professor İnci Deleman who conducted excavations in the region where the sarcophagus was illegally excavated.   The Swiss prosecutor also met with an unnamed imprisoned smuggler serving time on a separate smuggling charge in Elmalı prison.  This smuggler allegedly confirmed that the artifact had been looted and smuggled out of Turkey. 

Based on the evidence gathered, on September 21, 2015 Swiss authorities ordered the repatriation of the sarcophagus. But international legal proceedings move at a snail’s pace and the return of this one object, approved by the Geneva Court of Justice on May 2, 2016, was slowed again, due to a challenge by the Swiss Federal Court. 




More on the dealers involved in this repatriation case.

Phoenix Ancient Art operates a gallery in New York city as well as in Geneva Switzerland.  Founded by Sleiman Aboutaam in 1968, the firm was incorporated in 1995.  The second-generation family business is now managed by Sleiman's sons, Hicham Aboutaam and Ali Aboutaam, who took over the firm's operation after Sleiman’s death in 1998.  The firm has been embroiled in a significant number of antiquities-related controversies. 

A sampling (not a complete listing) of other instances of concern involving this firm include:

A third-century CE South Arabian alabaster stele the brothers attempted to sell in May 2002 via Sotheby’s auction house in New York for approximately $20,000 to $30,000 in which they listed the provenance for the piece as having belonged to a private English collection. Sotheby's researchers conducting due diligence before the auction found published photographs of the stele indicating that this tablet, carved in low relief, with an image of the fertility goddess Dat-Hamin, had been stolen in July 1994 from the Aden Museum in Yemen's port city during the country's previous war.  This object was forfeited to the U.S. government in December 2003 and eventually returned to Yemen.  

Hicham Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 for smuggling a looted ceremonial drinking vessel from Iran into the US, claiming that it had come from Syria.  Hicham pled guilty to the charges in 2004, paid a fine, and the vessel was returned to the Iranian authorities.  Hicham Aboutaam stated that his conviction stemmed from a "lapse in judgment."

The Egyptian authorities have accused Ali Aboutaam of involvement with Tarek El-Suesy (al-Seweissi), who was arrested in 2003 under Egypt’s patrimony law for illegal export of antiquities. Ali Aboutaam was tried in absentia, pronounced guilty and was fined, and sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Egyptian court in April 2004.  To date, he has not served any of the Egyptian sentence. 

The Aboutaams voluntarily repatriated 251 Antiquities valued at $2.7 Million to the State of Italy in May 2009 tied to one of Italy's most notorious smuggling rings.

Advice on collecting ancient art

ARCA encourages its readers to remember that the only way to avoid looting is to pressure dealers and collectors to not participate directly or indirectly in looting through their sourcing and purchases.  Collectors of ancient art are only the most current stewards of objects with long and telling histories. The provenance, or ownership history of a piece of art is important and should detail strong proof that an object has come from a legitimately traded collection.  

Buying and trading in ancient works of art, without well documented collecting histories, simply for their beauty or for the purpose of rescuing them from countries in conflict, only encourages further looting and further laundering of smuggled illicit objects. 

ARCA strongly discourages collectors and museums from buying or accepting objects that cannot pass the 1970 test or which lack a legitimate export permit from the actual and correct country of the object's origin.

By: Lynda Albertson

December 3, 2016

Geneva authorities report the confiscation of 9 artifacts from Palmyra, Syria, Yemen and Libya

Swiss authorities have confiscated nine archaeological objects originating from Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Through document records obtained by Swiss tribunal it has been determined that the objects were shipped to Switzerland between 2009 and 2010 and were stored at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève in their 6-story La Praille facility, located in a sprawling grey industrial building on the corner of a busy junction in southwest Geneva.

Back in September ARCA posted its own concerns about Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA attempt to reduce their risks surrounding the trade in stolen antiquities, both in terms of money-laundering and as a potential support for arms traffickers or terrorist groups. At that time, the free port was set to make changes that may or may not have been prompted to address this seizure, but still, in our opinion fall short of the thoroughly addressing the problem of storing looted artworks.

Originally set to be implemented this past summer, the new internal policy was implimented on September 19, 2016 and requires that anyone wanting to store ancient artifacts at the sprawling facility will have to undergo checks by an independent firm KPMG.  This group is tasked with investigating the validity of requests and the precise origins of any antiquities before the object is approved for transport to the complex for subsequent storage.  It should be noted that KPMG is a powerhouse accounting audit firm and in no way has had prior experience with this type of art-related transport auditing.

Back in October French finance minister Michel Sapin's, speaking on terrorism funding criticized security at Switzerland's free ports saying "there is a weak link, which is the existence of free ports."    And while it should be clearly noted that the recently publicized seizures in the tax-free zone predate both the Syrian and the Yemen conflict, ARCA agrees that controls by art provenance experts and not accounting experts would be a better means of addressing the continued problems seen at not just Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève but freeports as holding facilities for art world wide. 

The antiquities were discovered during an target-based Federal Customs Administration audit of the free port in April 2013 in a space rented by a private individual.  Presently that individual has not been publically identified.

In January 2015 Swiss authorities, through the Federal Office of Culture (FOC) confirmed the authenticity of the ancient objects, and have stated that some of the seized objects were shipped to the facility from Qatar (Items 1-6) and the United Arab Emirates (Item 7).  Swiss authorities have also stated that evidence gathered during the investigation has led the prosecutor to conclude that the goods seized were from looting and as a result, confiscation was ordered.  In addition a criminal case has been opened by the Tribune de Genève in March 2016 to be followed by Prosecutor Gregory Orci.

North-West Façade
Musée d'Art et d'Histoire
While the objects await permanent release to their countries of origin Swiss prosecutors have transferred the objects for safekeeping from Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève to the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire located at Rue Charles-Galland 2, 1206 Genève where they will be placed on public display.  

The objects have been identified by the Swiss authorities as follows with the following designations and in the order as they appear in official records.

Item 1 - A head of Aphrodite, origin Hellenic North Africa, Libya

Image: Geneva Public Prosecutor
Item 2 - A priest wearing his miter head, origin Palmyra, Syria

Image: Geneva Public Prosecutor
Item 3 - A circular table with decoration of ovals and head of ibex, origin southern Arabian Peninsula, Yemen

Image: Geneva Public Prosecutor
Item 4 - A praying [sic] origin southern Arabian Peninsula, Yemen


Image: Geneva Public Prosecutor
Item 5 - anthropomorphic stele, origin southern Arabian Peninsula, Yemen


Item 6 - anthropomorphic stele, origin southern Arabian Peninsula, Yemen
Image: Geneva Public Prosecutor
Item 7 - A quâtabanite registration stele, origin southern Arabian Peninsula, Yemen


Image: Geneva Public Prosecutor 
Item 8 - Funerary bas-relief from Palmyra, Syria

Image: Geneva Public Prosecutor
Item 9 - Funerary bas-relief from Palmyra, Syria
Image: Geneva Public Prosecutor

No longer simply Italian and Greek objects raising concern at the free ports, the Geneva port authority also recently relinquished a Nile Delta stele to Egyptian authorities following a two-year investigation after an inventory control by Swiss Federal Customs at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA facility at the Geneva airport.   The stele was identified as suspicious using the ICOM red list for Egypt and as a result was held pending authentication and then reported to Swiss prosecution for its irregularities. Criminal proceedings were conducted by the Attorney Claudio Mascotto and the object was returned in November of this year.

By: Lynda Albertson 

September 19, 2016

Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA addressing concerns about the trade in stolen antiquities

Google Earth View of Ports Franc
As Geneva officials at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA attempt to address previously raised concerns about the risks surrounding the trade in stolen antiquities, both in terms of money-laundering and as a potential support for arms traffickers or terrorist groups, tighter controls have been implemented today on shipments which affect everyone in the art shipping industry that handle the shipment of antiquities to this free port. 

Originally set to be implemented this past summer, the new rule requires that anyone wanting to store ancient artefacts at the sprawling facility will have to undergo checks by an independent firm of specialists hired by the über-warehouse.  This group is tasked with investigating the validity of requests and the precise origins of any antiquities before the object is approved for transport to the complex for subsequent storage.  

The new check applies to all objects classified under HS Code 9705.   HS classifications are based on standardised international codes used in shipment data as a means of classifying specific types of goods.  Goods listed under this code are deemed to be "works of art, collectors' pieces and antiques, collections and collectors' pieces of zoological, botanical, mineralogical, anatomical, historical, archaeological, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest."

According to the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website, the first step of this procedure will be a documentation check made by KPMG, one of the Big Four global consultancy firms, (along with Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers) more famous for their financial audit, tax and advisory services. What this powerhouse finance firm's experience is as auditors of artwork provenance is not clear.  There is no mention of art services on the KPMG website. 

But moving along to what the shippers need to submit. 

To complete the new due diligence check, potential customers who wish to use the facility will be required to ship, a minimum of ten days prior to the intended shipment date, "all documents in your possession (invoices, lists, certificates, export licenses, passports, etc.) as well as a good quality photograph" for inspection.  The Ports Francs website doesn't specify what the photo should be of:  the object to be stored or a passport photo of the shipper.  

The Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website further states that "an Artloss register certificate is a big asset." 

While the Geneva freeport may see a certificate from an art loss database such as London-based Art Loss Register or Art Claim (another art loss database maintained by Art Recovery International) as the owner having done their individual due diligence these types of certificates are only helpful in cases where known objects are stolen from known collections.  Such paper assurances offer no proof that the proposed antiquity is of licit origin and are ineffective in diminishing the illicit trade in archaeological remains.   

Undocumented, looted antiquities without collection histories will never appear in art loss databases.  This has been underscored over and over again. Undocumented, looted antiquities appear most often at border crossings and all to frequently launder their way up and into the art market, popping up with embarrassing regularity in museum and private collections despite sometimes having accumulated probable paperwork that on first glance tacitly legitimises them along the way.

When suspicious, rather than relying on certificates, KPMG would be better served consulting with the WCO,  academics researching in the field of illicit antiquities and the International Council of Museums (ICOM).   ICOM's “Red Lists” offer detailed descriptions of objects the auditors should be suspicious of coming from countries that may currently be or have been at risk of looting. Trusting that an object is "clean" merely because it has a stack of papers tied to it will not deter trafficking.


In 2013 Connaissances des Arts, estimated that the Ports Francs free port held around 1.2 million artworks. Its huge warehouses offers 150,000 square meters (1.6 million square feet) of storage space.  In more visual terms, that's the equivalent of 22 soccer pitches.  

While the amendment to the Swiss Customs Act, approved by the Swiss parliament on Jan. 1, 2016, and this new ruling give new power to administrators, customs authorities and contractors to monitor and control the entry and exit of goods from its tax-advantaged art-and-collectible storage facility, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Four major free ports in Switzerland dominate the market in storing high value goods. Five free ports worldwide have bet their marketshare specialising in the storage of priceless art works. The oldest is Ports Francs in the La Praille neighborhood in Geneva, Switzerland which was founded in 1850.  The others include the ultra chic Singapore Freeport which opened in 2010, the Monaco Freeport by S.E.G.E.M., in Fontvieille, just minutes away from the lucrative casinos of Monte-Carlo.

Le Freeport in Luxembourg opened its doors just two years ago, benefiting in part from the overflow of taxable goods once destined for Ports Francs in Geneva.  In the Far East the Beijing Freeport of Culture located adjacent to Beijing Capital Airport, and the much anticipated Shanghai Le Freeport West Bund, which is lated to open in 2017, both will allow the art market to store a substantial amount of art in mainland China.

In 2013, the European Fine Art Fair annual report, known in the field as the TEFAF Art Market Report cited an estimate which estimated that approximately $100 billion of art is stored in tax friendly free port facilities.  To be effective in deterring trafficking through these facilities, any inspections undertaken in free ports should be harmonised in all facilities across the globe. 

By: Lynda Albertson