Showing posts with label Turkey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Turkey. Show all posts

February 16, 2020

Christies Auction Identification and Restitution: A Roman Marble Sarcophagus Fragment of Sidmara Type

Christie's, London, 4 December 2019
Catalog Cover and Lot 481 – Description
Note:  This blog post has been revised with further information on 17 February 2019.

While I was focused on the provenance of an Etruscan antefix in Christie's antiquities auction last December, more on that outcome in another article at a later date, the Turkish authorities were interested in another ancient object which was on consignment in the same auction. In the auction house’s catalog, the marble artefact was listed as: a Roman Marble Sarcophagus Fragment of Sidamara Type, Circa 2nd-3rd Century B.C.

Christie's had listed the provenance for Lot 481 in the December 4, 2019 sale as follows:

German private collection. The Property of a German private collector; Antiquities, Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989, lot 112. with Atelier Amphora, Lugano, acquired at the above sale. 

They also gave a lengthy description to illustrate how a Sidamara sarcophagus might have ended up with an Italian ancient art dealer in Lugano, Italy.

Their description read:

Sidamara type sarcophagi were decorated in high relief on all four sides and usually placed in the centre of a tomb in an open burial ground so they could be viewed in the round. The decoration featured complex architectural designs with figures placed in arched niches separated by fluted columns. Despite their monumental dimensions and weight, they were exported all over Asia Minor and even to Greece and Italy, with several examples found on the coast at Izmir, which was probably the shipping point to the West. A Sidamara-type sarcophagus, similar to the present example, while no doubt sculpted in Asia Minor, was excavated near the town of Rapolla in Southern Italy, and is now in the Museo Nazionale del Melfese, in the Castle of Melfi. The type was also copied in the West, probably being produced by Asiatic sculptors who migrated to Italy.

While a review of the earlier Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989 description for Lot 112 is pretty much the same in terms of origin, the sale entry had no provenance details listed whatsoever.


Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 112 - Description
And the Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989 auction has other similar fragments including:

Lot 83
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 83 - Image and Description

Lot 84
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 84 - Image

Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 84 - Description
Lot 111
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 111 - Image
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 84 - Description
But let's take a closer look at who the dealer was who operated Atelier Amphora

The owner of Atelier Amphora was Mario Bruno, a prominent intermediary dealer, known to have handled illicit antiquities covering a swath of Italy in the 1980s and 1990s.  Before his death, in 1993, his name could be found, front and center, on many antiquities ancient art transactions from that period.  Several other objects with Atelier Amphora were also up for auction in the same December Christie's sale.

Bruno's first initial and last name also featured in the now famous Medici organigram.  Listed mid-way down the page on the left, the creator of the org chart listed the territories Bruno covered: Lugano, Cerveteri, Torino, North Italy, Rome, Lazio, Campania, Puglia, Sardinia, and Sicily.

In an article in the Journal of Art Crime (Spring 2013) Christos Tsirogiannis writes of Bruno's history saying: 


"According to the Becchina archive (CD 1, pagina 5, foto 1375), Mario Bruno -- who was known as a "receiver of stolen goods" (Watson & Todeschini 2007:86) and "a major grave-robber" (Isman 2008:30) sold 12 antiquities to Gianfranco Becchina, on 22 August 1987. "

Bruno also is known to have played a role in the fencing of one of Italy's most important recoveries, the Capitoline Triad, a representation of the central pediment of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.  This marble sculpture is known to have been illegally excavated in 1992 by a well-known tombarolo from the town of Anguillara Sabazia named Pietro Casasantawho brokered a deal with Mario Bruno to sell the Triad, with the Lugano dealer as the primary middleman between the looter and a Swiss buyer.

Documents and imagery also attest that Bruno handled a substantial Etruscan terracotta sarcophagus, the lid of which depicted a sculpted couple lying on the triclinium, similar to only two others, artifacts now held in the Louvre Museum in Paris and in the Villa Giulia in Rome. (Isman 2009)  That looted Etruscan antiquity has unfortunately never resurfaced.

All this to say that the fact that something stolen or looted, or something as big and heavy as portions of an illicit sarcophagus, having passed through this Bruno's hands is not at all surprising. What is provocative is that we again have an contemporary example of a major auction house, who prides itself on the legitimacy of their offerings, organizing the sale of a poorly vetted ancient object which dates to the Roman period, with no other provenance recording its presence on the licit market before its December 1989 sale, on consignment by a long-dead suspect dealer.

Fast forward to 2019 

Staff working with Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism identified the sarcophagus fragment while cross-checking the catalog Christie's had prepared for their December 4, 2019 auction in London. (T.C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı 2020) By now the Turkish authorities were aware of the 1989 Sotheby's sale in the UK and were alert for this and another fragment’s reappearance in the London market.  Having identified their artifact the Ministry of Culture contacted their INTERPOL National Central Bureau (NCB) and Europol affiliates through established law enforcement procedures and began voicing their concerns with the Metropolitan Police in London. The Turkish authorities then provided their British counterparts with documentation which substantiated their claim that sarcophagus fragment was the property of Turkey and Scotland Yard officers spoke with the auction firm.  Christie's in turn agreed to have the object withdrawn from the sale, pending an investigation. 

But where did the sarcophagus come from? 

The sarcophagus was first identified and documented as having been discovered, broken into five fragments, by the Isparta Göksöğüt Municipality in the 1980s.  At some point later, the pieces were moved from their original find spot to the Municipality where they were then photographed in 1987 by Mehmet Özsait.  In 1988 the finds were transferred to the Isparta Museum Directorate but were recorded as consisting of only three large marble fragments along with a few smaller pieces. How the object was moved out of Turkey is not known or has not been disclosed.
However, two years after the photo was taken, the two missing fragments had already made their way to London and were published in a Sotheby's catalog.  The object fragments were then sold at auction on December 11, 1989, to two different buyers.

It wasn't until 2015 when German classical archaeologist Volker Michael Strocka, researching a specific sub-genus of Asian sarcophagus, referred to as columnar sarcophagi, helped to reconcile that two of the fragments represented in the archival photographic record were unaccounted for.  Given sufficient evidence that the marble sculpture had been illegally smuggled out of Turkey and into the U.K., all parties involved worked together to successfully mediate the object's return through discreet negotiations with the consignor.  This is the same methodology used by London’s Metropolitan Police for the restitution of the a Post-Gupta, seated Buddha in the Bhumisparsha Mudra pose identified in 2018 which was stolen in 1961, appeared for sale at TEFAF in 2018, and upon identification, was voluntarily relinquished by the consignor back to the source country. 

Columnar sarcophagi in the Roman Empire came from Docimium, an ancient city in Phrygia, in the west central part of Anatolia, or what is now known as Asian Turkey.  Known for their famous marble quarries, Sidamara type sarcophagi were also shipped to other areas of the Roman Empire, including Italy, just as Christie's stated.  But in the case of this particular object, the artefact returning home to Turkey seems to be a very close match to other Phrygia fragments still in Turkey that I was able to find quite easily with only a few hours research.

One set of fragments I found photographs of are a part of the Isparta Museum's collection though I am not yet sure if these come from the same sarcophagus Volker Michael Strocka matched the missing pieces to.  Interestingly, as recently as 2018, another group of 100 kilo pieces were seized by the gendarmerie when smugglers were caught trying to sell them showing that the climate for looting costly ancient artifacts similar to this restituted piece has not changed much between 1987 and 2018. Yet how the objects came to be in Bruno's hands, and who he was working with in Turkey, is worth exploring in the future. As are any other items which come up for sale with this dealer's thumbprint.

Similar fragments from Sidamara type sarcophagi found at Sarkikaraagac in the district of Isparta and now located at the Isparta Archaeological Museum
Image Credit: by Roberto Piperno https://www.romeartlover.it/Isparta.html

For now, the fragment has made its way home, arriving on the 15th of February 2020 along with another identified stolen antiquity via special arrangements with Turkish Airlines. The sculpture will now be presented to the press at a formal ceremony at the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara, along with the other recently recovered object, which will be attended by Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, Turkey's Culture and Tourism.

By: Lynda Albertson

June 29, 2018

Seizure: An Etruscan Hare Aryballos circa 580-560 B.C.E.


At the request of the Manhattan district attorney's office, the Hon. Ellen N. Biben, Administrative Judge of New York County Supreme Court, issued a seizure warrant for an ancient Etruscan terracotta vessel, in the shape of a reclined rabbit.  Listed as a Hare Aryballos, circa 580-560 B.C.E., the unguentarium was seized by New York authorities at Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd., a firm which specializes in antiquities and numismatics, located at 3 East 69th Street in New York City. 

Earlier, on 30 June 2018, this same aryballos sold for £950 in London via Rome-based Bertolami Fine Arts through ACR Auctions, an online auction firm used by the Italian auction house. 

PROVENANCE: From an European private collection.

The New York gallery where the seizure warrant was executed is managed by Selim Dere, Founder and Erdal Dere (son of Aysel Dere and Selim Dere), President of Fortuna Fine Arts.   There is no information available at this time as to whether or not Mr. Dere had valid import and export documentation. 

Prior to moving to New York, Selim Dere was reportedly arrested by Turkish police, along with cousin Aziz Dere and art dealer Faraç Üzülmez for their roles in the smuggling a marble sarcophagus depicting the twelve labours of Heracles from Perge, Turkey.  Purportedly sliced into pieces for transport, part of this sarcophogus was repatriated by the John Paul Getty Museum to Turkey in 1983 while others were located in Kessel, West Germany.

This fragment of sarcophagus was smuggled abroad after illicit
excavations in Perge and given back by Paul Getty Museum of USA in 1983.
Perge, 2nd Cent. AD
Inv. 1.11.81 - 1.3.99 - 2.3.99
Antalya Archaeological Museum
Image Credit:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/130870_040871/16937604198/in/photostream/
Later, in 1993, acting on an international letters rogatory from the Turkish Government, FBI agents from the New York field office went to the Fortuna Fine Arts gallery, then located on Madison Avenue, and seized a marble statue of a young man and fragment of garland taken from Aphrodisias, an ancient Greek Hellenistic city in the historic Caria cultural region of western Anatolia, Turkey. 


Later, in June 2009, the owner of Fortuna Fine Arts was stopped upon arrival at John F Kennedy International Airport following a flight originating in Munich, Germany where he had stated on his entry documentation that he had nothing to declare. Despite that affirmation, a physical examination of his person and luggage uncovered three artifacts: a red intaglio stone, a Byzantine gold pendant, and a terracotta pottery fragment. All three objects were seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the basis of 18 U.S.C. § 545 (1982) and19 U.S.C. § 149 (authorizing penalties for failure to declare articles upon entry into the United States) and authorizing Customs agents to search and seize property imported contrary to U.S. laws).

In March 2013, the intaglio and pottery fragment were examined by the Archaeological Director of the Special Superintendent, MiBACT in Rome, Italy, who determined that both objects were of Italian origin and had likely been illegally looted from an archaeological site somewhere in Italy.

**NOTE:  This article was updated 01 July 2018 to reflect repatriation details of partial sarcophagus to Turkey in 1983. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

May 25, 2018

Countering Antiquities Trafficking (CAT) in the Mashreq

From April 16 – 20, 2018 I had the pleasure to be one of a specialised group of trainers for Countering Antiquities Trafficking in the Mashreq: A Training Program for Specialists Working to Deter Cultural Property Theft and the Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities, a programme developed through the Secretariat of the 1970 Convention, the unit responsible for the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. 

Funded through UNESCO's Heritage Emergency Fund, the multidisciplinary practical training programme took place at UNESCO's Regional Office in Beirut, and involved experts working with and in collaboration to UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, a specialised agency of the UN based in Paris,  ARCA — the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, UNIDROIT — the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law, ICOM — the International Council of Museums, UNODC — the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and INTERPOL— the International Criminal Police Organization.


The CAT in the Mashreq training program was developed to provide technical support (risk management measures, situational interpretations, drawing conclusions, making recommendations) to staff from governmental authorities, art professionals, academics and decision-makers who work in fragile source countries, the very places where illicit antiquities originate and where heritage trafficking incidents are known to occur.

Developed by professionals for professionals, who understand the necessity of tackling the prevalent issues contributing to heritage crimes and cross-border smuggling of illegally exported antiquities, this initiative, hopefully replicable in more countries, was developed as a means of providing support to the affected source and transit countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

The overarching goal is to help heritage professionals address issues of common heritage concern in countries where civil unrest and social turmoil have contributed to porous borders where the absence of controls contributes to avenues for the looting and trafficking of cultural artifacts, as well as on occasion, incidences of cultural cleansing.

As a part of this ambitious initiative, 32 trainees where invited from the five aforementioned designated countries.  Each trainee, while there to learn, also contributed from their own professional knowledge, expertise and first-hand knowledge if the issues as they relate to the situation in their own country. Drawing upon my own professional experiences in cross-border policing, museum security and risk management, my objective in the initiative was to build multilateral capacity and to strengthen knowledge as it relates to the intricacies of art crime and heritage protection across jurisdictions.

Criminals work outside border considerations.

Always at the forefront of my training module was to need to develop a purposeful framework, for knowledge transfer and exchange, to be used to develop activities and approaches that move knowledge from those who have first hand experience in a specific area to others who need similar knowledge before during or after a similar incident.  Also of importance was to foster in others, the trust to work collaboratively and to be open to learning from one another as I believe it takes a non-political, multidisciplinary and multi-visionary approach to adequately deter and detect incidents of art crime as they across country boundaries.

There’s a difference between crime prevention and crime reaction:  Changing the way we think.

My contribution to the week-long training was to guide and coach participants through interactive case studies and exercises, promoting a proactive and systematically collaborative mind set to heritage risk management.  To that end,  I believe I was able to encourage the participants to take into consideration a variety of unexplored approaches to site security and protection.


This was done not only by analyzing and reviewing past incidents after they occur, in order to deter cultural property theft and illicit trafficking but to also fulfill my own goal for this training which was to raise individual and agency understanding of the need for a more proactive prevention and preparation approach, by predicting what types of emergencies might occur in advance of an incident or an all-out crisis, in order to rectify deficiencies in risk management, to prevent incidents from happening.

This was done by demonstrating the use of practical, proactive security measurements, proactive planning, predictive analysis, threat and risk management assessment, many of which can be applied to the conflict theatre and could be applicable to the situations occurring in this specific region.

During my module participants were given real world proactive vs. reactive examples of security measures and risk management advance planning techniques as this is the single most important thing an organisation can do to defend itself against a threat, i.e. understanding its existing vulnerabilities and setting up a framework for addressing them before incidences can occur.   By sharing and coordinating relevant information and existing security processes my goal was to help trainees be better able to protect assets, people, property (tangible and intangible), and archival information, before a loss occurs.

With so many incidents happening in the last decades in this region we still tend to look at the conflict itself and how to stop the trafficking of stolen goods after they have already been taken.  We need to start thinking outside the box and start looking how we can predict those incidents before they occur, and with that knowledge how we can find and develop solutions, measurements and support how to prevent them. And for the record, no I do not mean that this can stop a conflict, I mean that if it obvious that there can be a conflict, we should not wait until it is happening and react to it then.

Time to look further ahead as well as looking back.

Although I understand the current situations occurring in this zone, and the sensitive feelings of those involved, knowing that until now, their focus has been on getting the stolen, plundered or otherwise stolen or destroyed cultural heritage objects back, it is also time to look forward and try the prevent the next possible situation to happen.  I’m proud and honoured that I was asked to be part of this training and hope that a little seed of proactivity was planted, and there, will continue to grow.

Dick Drent, CPE
Founding Director, Omnirisk
Associate Director, SoSecure Intl.
Museum and Site Risk Management Expert

October 6, 2017

Recovered by Turkish security forces: Two artworks by "Hoca" Ali Rıza stolen from the Ankara State Museum of Paintings and Sculpture


In August 2012 Hurriyet Daily News highlighted a report produced by Turkey's Culture and Tourism Ministry that examined more than 5,000 artworks in the country's State Art and Sculpture Museum in Ankara.  In that report, the ministry identified that it was unable to account for more than 200 artworks from the museum and that several of the pieces apparently missing had subsequently been replaced with poor quality reproductions to disguise their removal.  

Some of the works stolen included artwork by highly valued Turkish artists such as Şevket Dağ, Şefik Bursalu, Zühtü Müridoğlu, Hikmet Ona, and "Hoca" Ali Rıza. 

State Art and Sculpture Museum in Ankara
When the news of the theft went public, experts and common citizens alike complained that the museum, like many in many countries, did not have an adequate inventory system in place to track and account for artworks moving in and out of the museum and the museum's storage areas.  This vulnerability, it was partially reasoned, worked in the thieves favor. 

A subsequent investigation into the scandal brought 18 individuals in for questioning and three individuals were formally charged and sentenced to prison for their involvement in the affair. 

Cross checks conducted during this investigation revealed that some of the artwork originally listed as missing had instead been loaned out by the museum to government officials to decorate various governmental ministries and unauthorized buildings without proper documentation to account for their transfer.  Adjusting the loss number for artworks later identified off-site, the total number of objects was reduced to 180, and until this week, only sixty-four have been recovered.

Recovered "Hoca" Ali Rıza drawing I 
Yesterday, two drawings by Turkish painter and art teacher "Hoca" Ali Rıza, were seized by Turkish security forces from an art gallery in Istanbul with one individual being taken into custody for questioning.  A artist from the late Ottoman era, Riza is primarily known for his Impressionist landscapes which captured Turkish neighborhoods and architectural elements.  13 of his sketches are known to have been stolen and exchanged with forged replicas.

Recovered "Hoca" Ali Rıza drawing II


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

August 21, 2015

Two Syrians Detained in Istanbul’s Esenyurt District for Smuggling Ottoman-era “Sikke” Coins

By Lynda Albertson

Antiquities trafficking from source countries to collector markets requires a global network of routes and facilitation by domestic and international criminal groups and, or middle men. Although the various trajectories are always evolving, there are certain well-established trafficking routes regularly used for the purpose of transporting illicit goods, be they drugs, precursor chemicals, illicit arms, humans or portable antiquities.

Some trafficking routes are chosen out of geographic necessity, while others are selected when smugglers associate an alternate route with a lower risk of discovery, higher profit margin or simply because logistics, such as fuel supplies, transport or available couriers, make one transport route or trafficker more appealing than another. 

Turkey has long been a viable trade corridor for heroin as well as other illegal merchandise.  As a stop along what is known as the Balkan Route the country's strategic geographical location has helped to develop it into a major staging area and transportation conduit used by drug traffickers smuggling heroin destined for European markets, with the largest percentage flowing into Germany and the Netherlands. 
April 27, 2015 Heroin Seizure 


But does Turkey serve as a trade route for illicit antiquities?

This week Turkish authorities announced that police had detained two Syrian antiquities smugglers also in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district and confiscated 500 historic "sikke" dating back to the Tanzimat period (1839–1876) of the Ottoman Empire.  Along with the coins police seized ammunition, a firearm, and a substantial amount of cash in three separate currencies:
August 2015 Coin Hoard Seizure

€119,000 (Euros)
₺134,500 (Turkish lira)
$4,250 (US Dollars)

Is the antiquities trade always tied to the illicit drug trade? 

Certainly not.  However one could conclude that underworld figures willing to ply their trade with one black market item (heroin) might be convinced to transport/fence other lucrative goods (coins) available on the illicit market if and when opportunity knocks and they are presented with objects for which there are likely to be buyers.  

Is the antiquities trade tied to one specific district? 

Again certainly not.  Nor should any parallel be drawn by any of our readers connecting these two isolated events in one distinct of Istanbul.

The lack of solid statistical reporting in the field of heritage-related crimes and the clandestine nature of illicit trafficking in general make drawing conclusions as to how often one type of illicit trafficking overlaps with another impossible to ascertain.  What is important however is that we actively recognize that fluid network structures, rather than more formal hierarchies, coupled with porous borders and geographical proximity to destabilized source countries located in the vicinity of established trafficking corridors where transnational criminal networks are already active could be leveraged as a means to traffic movable heritage.   It should also be understood that the average participant may not be a career criminal, but a regular citizen attempting to exploit an opportunity to supplement their income as a single link in a complex chain. 









April 28, 2015

Gaziantep, Land of Antiquities and a Whole Lot More

By Lynda Albertson

On Sunday, April 26th The Independent ran a news piece titled "Syria conflict: The illicit art trade that is a major source of income for today's terror groups is nothing new." The meaty article, by Freelance Contributor Isabel Hunter, describes the events that unfolded as she posed as an agent for an antiquities buyer during a meeting with Syrians who were purported to be middlemen selling antiquities on the outskirts of Gaziantep.

Gaziantep (Antep) is a bustling Turkish city with 1.8 million inhabitants.  Sometimes referred to as "Little Aleppo" or “Aleppo in Exile” the city has become home to many Syrians who once lived in Aleppo province but who have been forced to flee as a result of the ongoing civil war.

Now in its fourth year, Syria's multi-sided conflict has claimed more than 150,000 lives and displaced two-fifths of the country's population.  It is estimated now that 3 million Syrians have fled their homeland since the start of war and UNHCR has stated that 1.7 million Syrian refugees now live within Turkey's borders.  

30,000 of these refugees have relocated to five camps just outside Gaziantep.  A municipal official who was interviewed in January of this year estimated that the overall number of refugees in Gaziantep state alone is a staggering 400,000 people so it's not surprising that “Hani” and his colleague are trying to eek out a meager living, in any way they can, including trafficking.

Located just 60 kilometers from the Syrian border, Gaziantep has long been an established trade route between Syria's Aleppo province.  Historically Aleppo and Antep were both part of Ottoman province of Haleb, a longstanding trade corridor along the Silk Road.  Before war broke out, it took two hours to drive the 100 kilometers from Aleppo to Gaziantep, making it a frequent destination for Syrian travelers. Former resident's of Aleppo that I spoke with this week said that to drive from Aleppo to Gaziantep now could take a full day, possibly even two, depending on which roads were taken and which security checkpoints you needed to pass through, or wanted to avoid. 

A bustling hub at the center of the Middle East’s biggest conflict, Gaziantep is a stopping off point for all manner of folk.  Insurgent fighters trying to get to Syria, refugees, foreign-aid workers, journalists, fixers and the ever opportunistic traffickers —all there in one way or another as the result of the Syrian conundrum.

Gaziantep Marijuana Bust December 2012
Traffickers in the past though have focused on commodities easier to shift than antiquities.  In December 2012 Gaziantep Police Department of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Branch seized 83 kilos of cannabis and arrested twelve people engaged in drug trafficking.  

In July 2014 Gaziantep Customs Enforcement teams confiscated 14,200 liters of diesel in one raid alone as smugglers began turning to the illegal fuel trade as the next hot commodity. In September 2014 Istanbul's Security Directorate Combating Smuggling and Organized Crime Branch arrested another eight traffickers for moving
Gaziantep Cigarette Trafficking 2012
9600 liters of fuel and 8500 of cartons of contraband cigarettes

Heroin, marijuana, ecstasy, fuel, mobile phones, pistachios, tea, and weapons — these are just a few of the fenced commodities trained Turkish law enforcement officers have seized in their fight against organized crime since the start of the Syrian conflict. I underscore the plethora of trafficked goods because I think it's important.

Criminologists have long discussed transnational crime and the interface between legal and illegal actors broadening their activities into areas of antiquities trafficking and forgery.  But before I get into how the square holed, perforated Sumerian votive plaque in the Independent's article underscores this, I'd like to say that those in the cultural heritage protection field would be wise to discourage this type of investigative reporting when journalists come to us asking for leads.

The Syrian war is an exceptionally difficult story to cover due to the logistical barriers of the multi-sided and asymmetrical conflict, not to mention the public's insatiable desire for instantaneous news no matter the risk involved to the reporters.  More and more frequently journalists covering these conflicts are stringers; freelancer journalists paid by the article who work without the safety net (or insurance policies) of the news outlets they report for.  These types of reporters don't have an editor standing in the wings saying, "walk away from it" when a story is too risky or when the line between being a legitimate journalist and an intelligence operative gets blurred.

In many cases stringers are the first with breaking news in conflicts either by risk or by happenstance.  Their goal, like that of any good reporter, is purely to bring home the story no one else has.  The difference though is that a freelance reporter might be paid £200 for a 1,000-word article and most likely doesn't have anyone checking in on him or her to make sure what they are doing is safe. 

Gaziantep Gun Seizure March 2015
When reporters contact ARCA asking if we can put them in touch with sketchy antiquities dealers, I tell them no.  Reporting from war zones and delving into the world of organized crime is a dicey proposition. Scoops may sell papers or create page clicks, but the journalists who win Pulitzer Prizes are rare.  Finding the dealer that is fencing Syria's and Iraq's heritage for the sake of a story is just not worth anyone's life in my opinion.   A published exposée might rattle a trafficker, jeopardize the journalist, or interfere with ongoing criminal investigations, including those with heavier implications that just the world's cultural patrimony. 

I underscore this because I know there is a lot at stake as we try to draw clearer lines between terrorism, organized crime and heritage looting.   I know the topic is an important one and I know we want and need to understand what is happening better.  But as ethical professionals we should be asking our respective countries to spend more money on law enforcement and in documenting the world's heritage better, not tacitly condoning investigative journalism in the hopes that a reporter's shocking revelation will illuminate a point we have already surmized.  Sometimes we should ask ourselves if we really need to find the smoking gun, putting others at risk, to validate we understand this problem.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 journalists were confirmed killed doing their job in 2014. The vast majority of these dead journalists were working in, or covering issues in conflict areas. Some were killed intentionally, despite the fact that under the Geneva Convention, journalists are to be treated as civilians in times of conflict and harming or killing them is a war crime.

If governments need proof that antiquities are tied to crime and terrorism, they should be asking law enforcement professionals directly what their educated opinion is and dedicating appropriate resources to investigate and or address the problem, not sit on the fence because statistical analysts haven't been able to provide numerical data that translates easily into the financial numbers politicians prefer.

My fear when articles like the one in the Independent are published is that we use limited examples to make larger inferences about who is moving what and for whom instead of just examining the singular case itself and what data that case alone specifically tells us.   The first question I would ask myself is why these traders were eager to show their wares to an unknown female foreigner?

In doing due diligence, Isabel Hunter shared the images she obtained with a number of US academics who confirmed to The Independent that they believed the Sumerian plaque to be genuine.   Not having the details of their assessments,  I asked Ms. Hunter if I could have a copy of her larger format images as the online version used in the article had been optimized for internet viewing and made the inscription almost impossible to see.

Sumerian Relief Plaque with a Banquet Scene, Metropolitan Museum of Art
I passed the images Ms. Hunter shared with me among several researchers who helpfully pointed out that there are several so-called "banquet" votive plaques in existence and that they have been found in both northern and southern Mesopotamia, some of them with square-perforated holes, including a banquet scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two plaques at the Iraqi National Museum, here and here, as well as another one of Ur-Nanshe, king of Lagash, represented as the bird-god Anzu (or Im-dugud), a lion-headed eagle located at the Louvre.

A Votive relief of Ur-Nanshe, representing bird-god Anzu, the Louvre,   Paris
But what was off on the Independant's plaque featuring Anzu was its inscription.  I spoke with Professor Eleanor Robson of University College London whose research focuses on the social and political contexts of knowledge production in the cuneiform culture of ancient Iraq.  Without publishing the details of our conversation, so as not to be of benefit of future antiquities forgers,  Dr. Robson pointed out irregularities within the inscription, which, in her academic opinion, meant the piece was not authentic, or at a minimum had been altered.  She also added that while it's theoretically possible that the text could have been added a few centuries after the artefact was made she doubted it.*

Not to discount the possibility of a later-day alteration, I forwarded Dr. Robson's thoughts back to the journalist who put me in touch with Michael Danti, a co-director of The Syrian Heritage Initiative (SHI), supported by the US Department of State and the American School of Oriental Research.  Danti had helped Ms. Hunter identify experts to determine if the piece she was shown was authentic.

Danti advised me that he had shared the Gaziantep images with Dr. Richard Zettler, Dr. Jean Evans, Dr. Robert Biggs, and Dr. John Russell who all were of the opinion that the plaque was authentic and that he would share Dr. Robson's findings with the others for clarification.  It is my hope that by sharing thoughts on authentication with one another we can better understand the motivations of this particular seller as well as to determine if this is indeed an authentic looted Iraq plaque or a passing forgery.

To that end, it is not unusual forgeries to be mixed in, knowingly and unknowingly with authentic antiquities as academics and professional dealer associations can testify. They even have a term for intentional mixing, a practice known in the trade as "seeding".  It is also not unusual for forgeries and counterfeits of Assyro-Babylonian antiquities to deceive the eyes of specialists as some may specialize in iconography while others specialize in ancient texts. 

As soon as the explorations at Nimrod and Hatra attracted the public’s attention, forgeries began and its commonplace to find small objects, such as forged inscriptions, in the art market and markets throughout the middle east, especially where there is a tourist trade.  Most individuals, cannot read ancient languages and are simply looking to buy something which is aesthetically pleasing.  Plaques and tablets with wedge-shaped cuneiform script are also easier for forgers to execute with some precision, copying what they chisel character by character from photographs or books.

Since the early ’90s there’s been a notable supply of both real and forged cuneiform artifacts in the international antiquities art markets, some pilfered from archaeological sites, others lifted straight out of regional Iraqi museums, and still others gently handcrafted by modern artisans for the unsuspecting buyer.

In favor of the object's possible authenticity is the fact that the Turkish cities of Antakya, Gaziantep, Mardin, and Urfa have each been previously identified as cities where antiquities looted from Syria’s and Iraq can be found, including objects taken from Apamea and Dura-Europos, sites which also sustained looting while under governmental control, underscoring that opportunistic looting is not just restricted to terrorist organizations. Given that other items are fairly easy to fence in this zone, it is probably reasonable to assume that antiquities are another type of commodity being traded here.

But aside from the lettering incised in the tablet I also wonder whether or not the de-dolomitization (the way the surface of the stone has aged) is artificial.  If academics cannot even agree on if something is authentic vs. faked imagine how difficult this job would be for customs border authorities in stemming the flow of undocumented antiquities.  Looted antiquities pass through busy ports hidden among legitimate merchandise, or through porous borders in refugee bundles or intentionally packaged and mislabeled as reproductions only to revert back to being authentic when sold on the art market.   

With or without ISIS, fakes and illicit antiquities will continue to enter the art market wherever there is a willing buyer. Finding one dealer who will show a journalist his hidden treasure won't be a deterrent.  Artwork from the Early Dynastic Period (mid third-millennium BCE), a time when stone was the common medium, gives both looters and opportunistic forgers a lot of material to work with. 

* Researchers interested in reviewing these assessments can write to us privately to share opinions.


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