Showing posts with label antiquities looting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label antiquities looting. Show all posts

February 29, 2020

Flash Back to Restitutions: Remembering the Apulian dinos, 340-320 B.C.E. attributed to the Darius painter


A long time ago, in a galaxy seemingly far far away, a red-figure 340-320 B.C.E. Apulian dinos, attributed to the Darius Painter, once lived in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.   The antiquity was purchased by the Met via the Classical Purchase Fund, the Rogers Fund and the Helen H Mertens and Norbert Schimmel gifts in November 1984. 

This red-figure vase, sometimes called a lebed, was decorated with scenes from a comedy, perhaps by Epicarmos, involving one of the numerous adventures of Herakles in which he encountered Busiris, a king who had been advised to sacrifice all strangers to Zeus in order to avoid drought.


In the primary image on the vase and to the right of the altar and column stands Busiris, dressed in traditional oriental-style clothing. He is the one holding a scepter and who is brandishing a menacing knife. Heracles, pictured on the opposite side of the altar, casually draped in a lion's cape, is his intended victim.

Others in the scene include two Egyptians, busy assisting in the pending mayhem.  One carries a butcher's block with more knives while another is seen adding water to a kettle, placed to boil on the fire. There are also servants depicted carrying a tray of cakes, an amphora, and a wine jug. What better way to end a murder than with a quick snack washed down with wine.  

Yet, in the end, Herakles ultimately prevailed over Busiris, much in the same way the Italian government did in February 2006 they reached an agreement with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to return this and five other plundered antiquities identified in the museums collections.

Polaroids photographs of the dinos (inv. 1984.11.7 when at the Met) were seized by law enforcement during a raid at the Geneva Freeport.  These identified the antiquity in three different conditions, first in guilty fragments, then partially restored with the glued joints still visible, and lastly in a photo after it had been purchased and put on display at the Metropolitan Museum.

As Dr. David Gill pointed out, five objects, each attributed to the Darius painter were acquired by different museum institutions between 1984 and 1991, a period when southern Italy was subject to extreme plundering.  Some of those items, are still in museum collections outside of Italy.

In 2001 Ricardo Elia, who surveyed Apulian pottery, estimated that some 31 per cent of the total corpus of Apulian pots totalling more than 4200 vases, all surfaced on the ancient art market between 1980 and 1992 virtually all of which has little or no substantiated history.  A group of 21 of these are (still) on display at the Altes Museum (German for Old Museum) on Museum Island in Berlin, Germany, the major part of which come from a single burial are attributed to the workshop of the Darius painter, and were acquired in 1988.  Documented in the museum as coming from an ancient Swiss collection, photos from the seized Giacomo Medici archive show the fragments from these same vases, still dirty with earth, waiting to be put back together again.

Apulian Vases at the Altes Museum, Berlin
If you want to see this ancient object in its natural habitat and see the video in this post as it works its magic in person, please stop by the fabulous Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto - MArTA and take a look.

If you would like to read more about this grouping of stolen antiquities: please consult the following:

"Homecomings: reflections on returning antiquities", David W.J. Gill

"Analysis of the looting, selling, and collecting of Apulian red-figure vases: a quantitative approach" Trade in illicit antiquities: the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage, by Elia, R J 2001

The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities-- From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museum, by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini

La diplomazia culturale italiana per il ritorno dei beni in esilio. Storia, attualità e future prospettive, by Stefano Alessandrini

Art and Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World, edited by Noah Charney

February 26, 2020

Valerie Higgins returns to Amelia this summer to teach “Antiquities and Identity” at ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection

By Edgar Tijhuis 

This year, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will be held from May 28 through August 12, 2020 in the beautiful heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy. In the months leading up to the start of the program, this year’s lecturers will be interviewed. 

Valerie Higgins
Can you tell us something about your background and work?

I am the Program Director for the Master’s program in Sustainable Cultural Heritage and Associate Professor in Archaeology at The American University of Rome. I am an archaeologist by training, and I began my professional career as an archaeologist working in local government before returning to university to complete a Ph.D., studying human remains from a medieval Italian monastery site.

After completing a visiting university appointment in New Zealand, I returned to work in Rome where I was lucky enough to get a tenured position at the American University. Being based in Rome, a lot of my teaching has been outside at the monuments themselves, rather than in the classroom, and it was this that first sparked my interest in cultural heritage. The daily contact with the monuments and witnessing the issues of caring for such a massive patrimony, gradually led to me becoming more and more involved in that side of archaeology. Looting of antiquities is a huge problem in Italy and it has deep historical roots. An important part of tackling looting is to understand the societal context in which it takes place.

What do you feel is the most relevant aspect of your course?

The course incorporates discussion of contentious issues that are currently in the news, such as the role of museums and their obligation (or not) to reflect social issues, decolonization of heritage and museums, issues of identity politics relating to ownership, etc. Those of us who are engaged in protecting heritage need to get involved in these debates and we need to ensure that the discussion are well informed. This is increasingly difficult in an era of fake news and short soundbites.

What do you hope participants will get out of the courses?

I hope participants will understand the broader context behind art crime and will feel a greater engagement with topical issues. I hope that they will have a more profound understanding of the background to current disputes. Increasingly, journalistic sources present arguments in a very one-sided way and reduce complex arguments to emotive headlines. I hope that participants will appreciate more the complexity and long history that underlies many current issues.

What would a typical day be like in your classroom?

My classes are very interactive. I like everyone to contribute to class discussions from their own experiences. Every year at ARCA we get participants from all over the world, with diverse professional and personal backgrounds so when we are discussing issues we can get many different viewpoints, and this is very stimulating.

While each year participants are very enthusiastic about your courses, is there anything you learn from them in class?

A huge amount! I encourage everybody to take the topics we cover in the class and apply them to situations they face in their professional lives back home. As a result, I get to hear about new places, new disputes, new heritage sites, new groups and it is always fascinating to me. I regularly incorporate in my teaching at the American University information I have gained from ARCA participants and in that way I hope that I spread the knowledge.

In anticipation of your courses, what book, article, or movie would you recommend to participants?

I enjoyed the book ‘Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum’ by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. It is written by two journalists, not academics, but it conveys very well the attitudes that were current in the museum world in the last part of the twentieth century and the first decade of this century and the almost total disregard for ethics that should have governed museum acquisitions. I would also recommend the BBC podcasts in the series the Museum of Lost Objects. This series looked at antiquities that were lost or looted in Iraq, Syria, India and Pakistan. I like the series because it focuses on the human cost of looting not the economic cost.

What makes the yearly ARCA program so unique?

The people! Every year we get an incredible mix of people taking and teaching the courses in the program and then, of course, during the conference this number increases dramatically. The setting in Amelia also makes the program special. Amelia is a small intimate setting where it is easy to meet people outside of class, over a coffee.

Which other course in the program would you love to follow yourself and why?

I am very interested in Marc Balcells course because he studies art crime as a sociological phenomenon rather than on an individual case by case basis. I believe this aspect is very underdeveloped. Although we will always need law enforcement as a backstop, the greatest impact on reducing art crime is to have a greater understanding of the underlying social forces. Very few people do this and Marc does it so well.

Is there anything you can recommend for future participants to do in Amelia or Umbria?

Amelia is set in beautiful countryside and there are some great walks and picnic spots in the countryside outside the walls. Don’t think that you always have to get on a bus or train to have a great day out!

Are there any funny or interesting things you experienced in Italy, outside class?

Italians certainly have their own ways of doing things which often seem incomprehensible to foreigners. It is not uncommon to go to see something that is supposed to be open and you find it isn’t. However, if you ask around there may be someone who can help you to get in or you might find something else to see that you did not even know existed. Italy is full of fantastic sites that are not in any guidebook or on any website, you may end up having an even better day out. It pays to be flexible and laid back.

What is your experience with the yearly ARCA conference in June? 

I find the conference a very useful way to catch up with what is going on in the field and also people working in the field. The refreshments breaks are almost as valuable as the presentations. To my knowledge, no other conference has such an eclectic mix of people from museums, law enforcement and academia.

Anything else…. The most important thing is to enjoy yourself in Amelia!


For a detailed prospectus and application materials or for general questions about this postgraduate program please contact us at education@artcrimeresearch.org 

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Edgar Tijhuis serves as the Academic Director at ARCA and is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection and since 2009, has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program.

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

February 14, 2020

Charge of unlawful possession of items of cultural value has been added to existing charges against Vasil Bozhkov


During a news briefing on Thursday, 13 February, Bulgarian authorities announced that they have added two additional charges to add to those already filed against fugitive billionaire Vasil Bozhkov. 

In addition to the charge of leading an organized crime group, coercion, extortion, attempted bribery of an official and incitement to malfeasance in office, Bozhkov will now be formally charged with influence trading and holding and expropriating valuable cultural artefacts,.

The spokesperson representing the Prosecutor General has indicated that a 200 page application for Bozhkov's extradition has been prepared and awaits translation into Arabic.  Once completed, it will then be sent to the Justice Ministry in the UAE to forward to the competent judicial authority. 


February 11, 2020

The less than clear origins of fugitive Vasil Bozhkov's Thrace and Private Collection

Vessel from the
Panagyurishte Treasure
As Bulgarian authorities work through how to get their fugitive gambling tzar extradited from the UAE to stand trial, the cultural heritage community is crossing their fingers that the country's cultural ministry will (eventually) release a list of the nearly 3,000 artefacts which make up the art and antiquities previously purchased by the business mogul.  But to understand the current state of affairs as it is related to their sequestration, it is necessary to first understand the standing of private collections within this former Soviet-led Eastern Bloc country. 

In the past, Bulgaria's April 1969 Law on the Monuments of Culture and Museums (LMCM), a carryover from the country's communist era, defined cultural objects holding market actors as government agencies, state-owned museums, private and legal individuals.  As such, the LMCM did not explicitly ban the private ownership of antiquities, but it left their legal status somewhat vague.  This allowed collectors, like Bozhkov, and others, to benefit from quasi-legalized private collections, which in Bulgaria seemed to be purchased to philanthropically polish the reputations of the controversial new rich.

Rhyton Vessel from the Panagyurishte Treasure
Faced with a countryside increasingly devastated by archaeological pillaging throughout the 1990s and into the next century, Bulgaria's Ministry of Culture went on to adopt an amendment, Ordinance No.1 in 2005 on the procedure for the evaluation of declared cultural goods owned by legal entities or individuals.  The motivation for this new procedure stated that the implementation of the regulation was done in accordance with the obligations undertaken by the Bulgarian government with respect to their EU accession negotiations under negotiation Chapter 25, Customs Union.  It required that any legal entity or individual in possession of cultural property must complete and submit registration documents for each object within their collection, and for those documents to then be filed with the closest regional or specialized state museum. Unfortunately, despite its unifying intentions, the mandate set no fixed term deadline for an object's registration once purchased and again had gaps which further needed closing. 

Rhyton Vessel from the
Panagyurishte Treasure
Experiencing rampant looting and the moonscape-like devastation which occurred at the ancient Roman settlement of Ratiaria, Bulgaria adopted further stringent rules and legislation related to private collections, in part to address the loot-then launder-then-purchase cycle of plunder which had become a driving force in the market for Bulgaria's Thracian and Roman artifacts.  Revised in part to meet the new requirements corresponding to the rules of the European Union, the country's new Cultural Heritage Act (CHA) was adopted in March of 2009 and was subsequently put into force in April of 2009. This new law included stricter registration requirements and most importantly, the need to show demonstrable proof of legal ownership of objects.

Yet each tightening of restrictions continued to meet with resistance.  

Bulgarian coin collectors grumbled that the newly imposed paperwork was too costly and time consuming to compile for small dealers, i.e. those who make their livelihood off of the buying and selling of ancient ancient coins which are known to change hands frequently.  Likewise, wealthier collectors, already with established collections of costly ancient artifacts, complained that the rules did not allow for any sort of amnesty on prior acquisitions before the law was put in place. Some believed that the change in requirements favored those in political favor, and complained that even the country's own state museums could not pass the new stringent requirements now being required of them.  Privacy advocates also voiced suspicions that burglaries of private collections might be committed with the involvement of corrupt government officials who would, as a result of the new rules, have access to the property registration documentation of private citizens.

Which brings us back to the current state of Mr. Bozhkov's collection. 

Prior to the recent freezing of Bozhkov's assets the Thrace Foundation is believed to have successfully completed the applications for legalization for just 212 of Bozhkov's nearly 3,000 objects.  Many of these registered objects have been displayed in travelling exhibitions which have toured in Brussels, Moscow, and Sofia between 2005 and 2018. 

These objects, reportedly authorized by the Ministry of Culture, appear to have been registered as part of the private Vasil Bozhkov Museum which is said to be an independent legal entity. This entity "owns" the exhibits which make up the collection belonging to the Thrace Foundation, a non-profit organization, founded by Vasil Bozhkov in 2004.

It has been reported by some news agencies that the approximately 2700 remaining Bozhkov items have been declared with the government within the last ten years, and that the businessman applied for registration via the National Institute of Science, though no dates for these applications has been specified.  Even if the objects were dutifully declared, the bulk of the art and antiquities have not been formally evaluated to determine their origins or authenticity, nor has Bozhkov paid the 30 Bulgarian lev fee for each object's registration.   What should be noted however is that there is no deadline for paying this fee stated in the country's regulations, nor is there a deadline for the government to rule on an object's legitimacy, once it has been filed.  

Given that the objects have not yet been formally evaluated by heritage experts approved by the Ministry of Culture, is not clear at present how many of the artefacts in Bozhkov's private collection would meet the following Bulgarian two-step registration criteria. 

That identification/qualification process consists of two steps:  
  • identification the object to be registered via photos and historical or scientific records which concretize an artifact's authenticity and origin. 
  • provide supporting evidence of the object's legitimacy and purchase, via  substantiated collecting histories, concretized by an object's accompanying provenance records. 
Failure to establish an artwork or artifact's legitimacy via the above criteria, can result in the object's legal registration being withheld.   In some cases, said objects may be subject to seizure in favor of the state under Art. 278a (Last amendment, SG No. 27/2009 in force as of 10.04.2009) of the Penal Code which states:

(1) An individual who offers a valuable cultural artifact to the purpose of expropriation or expropriates a valuable cultural artifact which is not identified or registered, is imposed a punishment of imprisonment from one to six years and a fine from one thousand to twenty thousand BGN.

(2) The punishment is also imposed to an individual who acquire such cultural artifact.

(3) In the cases when the crimes under para 1 and 2 have been committed over again or are qualified as dangerous recidivism or they have been committed after an order or in implementation of a decision of an organized criminal group or they have been committed with the purpose the object of crime to be exported over the state border, the punishment which is imposed is imprisonment for a term from three to ten years and a fine from five thousand BGN to fifteen thousand BGN.

The gambler makes a case for buying antiquities to save them

Bozhkov himself is known to have admitted that not all of his antiquities would pass the country's registration sniff test.  In a 2005 interview with Bulgaria's daily newspaper Trud he unremorsefully confessed "I buy from people who buy from treasure hunters...I have more opportunities than the state."  He then justified his purchases by admitting "I am satisfied that I have at least somewhat limited the export of this wealth."   

By agreeing to purchase unprovenanced antiquities to develop his private collection and to fill his private museum, in furtherance of irresponsible collecting practices, Bozhkov and collectors like him, have continued to  incentivize destructive or clandestine excavations, feeding the demand for illicit goods. 

How big a demand?

Bozhkov's thirst for antiquities was large.  His collection of Thracian gold is believed to be larger than that held by Bulgaria's National Museum of History.  His collection is known to include three gilded silver vases representing Orpheus, situlae, several gold wreaths from Thracian rulers, gold funeral masks, kylix, lekanes, epichysis, oinochoi, phialae, a silver kantharos with an image of Theseus, and at least ten silver rhytons.  And that is just representative of some of what we know from the exhibitions of his collection to date. 

For now, it remains unknown which, if any of his purchases will eventually be restituted to the state on the basis on illicit origin, or, in the case of licit purchases, might be lawfully returned to Bozhkov after the conclusion of the state's current assessment. His collection might also be subject to criminal forfeiture by means of confiscation should he be convicted of the charges he is facing and should it be proven that the art and antiquities were acquired through the proceeds of crime. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

January 31, 2020

Vasil Bozhkov's antiquities collection ordered to be seized by Bulgarian authorities


The National Museum of History (NIM) has received a prosecutorial decree and a letter from the Ministry of Culture to seize and accept the art and antiquities collection of Bulgarian gaming czar Vasil Bozhkov.  This court order, along with seizure orders pertaining to his business assets, accompanies charges stemming from an investigation into allegations of serious financial violations within the gambling industry.  Filed on 29 January 2020 by the country's Prosecutor General, Ivan Geshev, the post-communist era mogul has been indicted in absentia for a series of offenses ranging from leading an organized crime group, incitement to commit criminal offenses, extortion, coercion, blackmail, and attempted bribery of an official. 

Believed to be the country’s richest man, Bozhkov has been referred to as Bulgaria's most infamous gangster, and as being reportedly active in money laundering, privatization fraud, intimidation, extortion, racketeering, and illegal antiqueè [sic] dealing as attested in a diplomatic cable of the US Embassy in Sofia, as far back as 11 September 2009 and released publically via WikiLeaks.  As owner of the country's biggest lottery,  Bozhkov has often been linked in the Bulgarian press to the Bulgarian mafia, but up until now, he has never been convicted of any crime. 

Bozhkov's ancient art collection consists of more than 3,000 antiquities and dates from 4,000 BCE though the 6th century CE.  With questionable provenance and transparency in their acquisition, the assembled objects, some of which can be viewed in the film below, include ancient treasures left by the Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgars, and Thracians, one of the most powerful Indo-European tribes of the ancient world, and one who played an important, creative, and key role in the shaping of European civilization as a whole and Bulgaria's culture in particular. 


Bozhkov also founded the Thrace Foundation in 2004, perhaps to lend credibility to his seemingly controversial collection and began holding exhibitions at various locations throughout Europe thereafter.  Marking Bulgaria's entry to the EU in 2007, his Brussels exhibition, "The Grandeur of Bulgaria" was abruptly terminated at the European Parliament following outraged complaints about the collections origins. One of the most vocal critics was Vassil Nikolov, then director of the National Archaeological Institute with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and president of the state committee responsible archaeological surveys throughout the country. He signaled out the Bozhkov exhibition as "the fruit of grave-robbing." 

Private collections such as this one in Bulgaria, are often deemed unacceptable, given they are established without concerns for the the provenance of the objects  accumulated and against the backdrop of rampant treasure hunting which is actively eviscerating Bulgaria’s tremendous historical and cultural heritage.

Trying to get ahead of this week's growing scandal, the Thrace Foundation issued an interesting one page press release while their founder remained missing.  Via email, the press release, sent to ARCA and others in the heritage protection community, stated that the authorities had stormed into the laboratory and museum of Thrace Foundation. Their press release read in part:
"At the moment, the Bulgarian authorities are blatantly violating the law by seizing priceless objects from the Vasil Bojkov Collection without any legal justification. The authorities made the decision to export fragile and unique works of art in plastic bags during the unregulated raid that took place in the building of Nove AD Holding, which has the status of a museum."
The Prosecutor’s Office has denied the accusations that Bozhkov’s collection was being mishandled, with the National Museum of History (NIM) reporting that nine museum staff members are involved in the process of packing and transporting the items.

Charged in absentia, Bozhkov's current whereabouts were unknown at the time of this articles writing.  The last flight of his private jet was from Sofia to Dubai.

UPDATE 2 February 2020: Bulgarian Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev, confirms that Vasil Bozhkov, who is the subject of a European arrest warrant, has been detained in the United Arab Emirates.  Bulgaria will now prepare a formal extradition request for his return to Bulgaria to face charges, but given that the U.A.E. and Bulgaria do not have a bilateral extradition agreement, the wait for his return, may stretch indefinitely.

With at least nine people wanted by the Italian judiciary in the UAE, on charges including mafia association, money laundering, drug trafficking, and tax fraud,  the country has become a well-known refuge and money laundering paradise for criminals with big bucks.  Avoiding extradition when its own bilateral agreement was not signed, Raffaele Imperiale, who hid two stolen Van Gogh paintings in one of his family's homes, has avoided his own convictions in absentia for more than ten years.  

Imperiale supplied weapons for a clan feud in the drug ravaged Scampia neighborhood of Naples, working within the drug trade with criminal Rick van der Bunt, who was liquidated in Spain in 2008. Imperiale has been spotted at the seven-star Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai with others who are believed to control the European cocaine trade.

By:  Lynda Albertson

January 17, 2020

Marc Balcells comes to Amelia this summer to teach on the criminology of art crimes at ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection


By Edgar Tijhuis

This year, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will be held from May 28 through August 12, 2020 in the beautiful heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy.

In the months leading up to the start of the program, this year’s lecturers will be interviewed. This week I meet professor Marc Balcells, one of the world’s leading scholars on art crime.

Can you tell us something about your background and work?

I am a professor at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and an associate professor at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF). I teach criminology and criminal law. I hold degrees in Criminology, Law and Human Sciences, as well as a Masters in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. I also hold a PhD in Criminal Justice. My research focuses mostly around transnational and organized crime, mostly related to cultural heritage crime, among other topics in criminology that I am researching as we speak, such as sexual abuse in the church and cybercrime.

What do you feel is most relevant about your course? 

The course changed drastically last edition. Before, it was all about criminological theory applied to cultural heritage crime. But I felt a responsibility with my students regarding teaching them how to design and conduct good research in this field, always within a criminological angle.  That is, instead of piling up information on any given art crime that will probably be collected from books and newspapers, the course gives participants tools to conduct serious quantitative or qualitative research and learn how to design a research project within the field of cultural heritage crime. Challenging participants to see what serious research they are able to conduct in order to improve our knowledge on this field is essential! And of course, in the meantime participants not only learn about cultural heritage crime but also about criminology and criminological theory, using other crimes as examples of crime in general, as it is one of our everyday realities that we must live with. Last edition we worked with seminal articles and books that explored cultural heritage crime: in 2020 we have more new articles and academic books exploring forgeries, art theft or looting (to name a few) which are important as they can be used by students to see how research is being conducted in this field.

The 2019 class with Marc Balcells..
What do you hope participants will get out of the courses? 

A fascination for a criminological point of view when analyzing cultural heritage crime, as well as an enchantment with the field of criminology and a fascination for the craft of research. Again, it is very important to have a knowledge not only about the existing literature but also on how to produce more research like the one that is being disseminated in conferences and academic journals and books. I do hope to train more and more serious and disciplined researchers in this fascinating field.

What would a typical day be like in your classroom?

A dialogue between myself and the students. I do ask a lot of questions in order to prompt debate: getting to know what participants think about on different topics is very enriching. But I also like to challenge them and to see how they research art theft, or looting, to name two crimes, by giving them research examples and seeing how they would improve them or simply do things differently. Gathering data on cultural heritage crime is not always easy (on the contrary!) and we researchers struggle finding them: the opinion of the students is always valuable.
The Palgrave Handbook on Art Crime..
While each year participants are very enthusiastic about your course, is there anything that you learn from them in class?

So many things! Go figure: as I said, over the years I gather brilliant insights from students that are original and intelligent. Participants must know that before I became a professor in this degree, I was a student in it: I have sat on both sides of the classroom and, therefore, I do know what is to be a student and what I wanted from a professor when I was studying. I am not only a professor on the ARCA Program but I am a graduate of it! 

I am inquisitive by nature, but much more in class. I love to ask questions and see their points of view. Also, I do love to meet with the participants after classes and enjoy a tea with them while chatting about art crime in general or helping them with their projects.

In anticipation of your course, what book, article, or movie would you recommend to the participants? 

In my case, I would recommend that they read academic research produced by scholars in whichever field of cultural heritage crime they are interested in. I can assure you that they are as fascinating as any other art crime book that is being written by journalists, for example. Therefore, I would recommend they read everything that interests them, but mainly within academia. Right now I am reading the Trafficking Culture’s book Trafficking Culture: New Directions in Researching the Global Market in Illicit  Antiquities, and Hufnagel and Chappell’s The Palgrave Handbook on Art Crime, both new additions to academic literature published in 2019.

Field trips..
What makes the annual ARCA program so unique?

Let’s say it like this: it is the intensity. Where else can you learn so much, working with top experts in this field? It is intensive and complete and, at the same time, it immerses you in the local culture of Amelia! Field trips organized by the program gives participants the in-depth experience needed to grasp most of the subjects discussed in the courses. It is the perfect setting!

Which other course in the program would you love to follow yourself and why? 

So many. Since I was once an ARCA participant myself, new courses have developed, and I would love, especially, to attend Professor Christos Tsirogiannis’ course on the hidden market of illicit antiquities. I admire his work and he is a great colleague. He was a great help with my earlier research and I could not be more grateful. He is widely acknowledged as an expert in the field and his media attention and the scope of his work is simply amazing! Again, it is the living proof of what I mentioned in my previous answer. Learning all about antiquities trafficking with Professor Tsirogiannis in Italy is an opportunity not to be missed!

Amelia...
Is there anything you can recommend to future participants of things to do in Amelia or Umbria? 

Come with an open and ready mind. Learn the culture of the place in which you will be living during your summer there. And be ready to learn a lot: work hard and there can be fantastic rewards afterwards. It is a fantastic field and it requires more and more trained minds to work in it!

Are there any funny or interesting things you experienced in Italy, outside class? 

Indeed! We are still good friends after all these years, with my colleagues. We have so many good memories with the locals, the professors, etc: after all, it is a summer-long experience. The food, the setting, the people... everything counts!

What is your experience with the annual ARCA conference in June? 

Sadly, I am always immersed teaching courses at that time and I cannot attend as much as I would like to, but I hope to change this in the near future. I have presented and attended years ago, and it is overwhelming being able to meet colleagues in this field and getting to know their research and the latest advances. These are very intense days: it is not only the conference, but the networking involved, in every single meeting. And of course, some fun to be had too, as the dinners and lunches are always fantastic!

Anything last thoughts? 

I would like to end this interview by saying that I am looking forward, as every year, to meeting our new cohort. I always come back to Amelia and ARCA with a fluttering heart, knowing I will get to meet and get to know new participants, see again some old friends, and spend days teaching and talking about cultural heritage crime.

For a detailed prospectus and application materials or for general questions about this postgraduate program please contact us at education@artcrimeresearch.org



Edgar Tijhuis serves as the Academic Director at ARCA and is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection and since 2009, has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program.

September 18, 2019

Mexican Foreign Ministry urges French auction house Millon (in Paris) to halt an auction of pre-Columbian art

Image Credit: Millon Drouot
The Mexican government, through its Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and its Ministry of Culture, have formally challenged the auctioning of 95 pieces of pre-Hispanic origin.  In doing so, they are calling upon French auction house Millon Drouot to halt its sale of the Manichak and Jean Aurance Collection of Pre-Columbian art which is scheduled to take place today and includes some 130 pre-Columbian art objects.  

During a press conference, the Mexican Ambassador to France, Juan Manuel Gómez-Robledo, indicated that a concern was lodged on September 12, 2019 by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, the competent authority in the matter asking that the auction be cancelled and that the objects in the collection contested restituted to the country. 

Raising their concerns about the provenance of the pieces, the Mexican authorities allege that some of the artifacts appear to have been stolen and/or illegally exported. Concerned with their status, María del Socorro Villarreal Escárrega, national coordinator of legal affairs for Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History stated that the INAH has filed a corresponding complaint with the Prosecutor's Office General of the Republic, collaborating with diplomatic authorities in order to seek the restitution of the objects. 


In their formal statement, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry stated that 95 of the 120 objects up for auction appear to be from early Mesoamerican complex civilizations such as the Olmec, which inhabited the Gulf Coast territory of Mexico extending inland and southwards across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, from 1600 BCE until 350 BCE and the Maya who assimilated Olmec influences into the emerging the city-states of the Maya civilization.  

According to the Millon catalog, and the Antiques Trade Gazette collectors Manichek and Jean Aurance purchased their first pre-Columbian artwork in 1963 from the French dealer Olivier le Corneur who operated Galerie Le Corneur-Roudillon.  They continued purchasing tribal art  for their Art Deco lakeside home in Vésinet from le Corneur, Henri Kamer, Pierre Langlois, René Rasmussen and Charles Ratton.  Some of those pieces seem to have passed through Los Angeles art dealer Earl Stendahl.

Earlier last week Guatemala confirmed that following their own formal protests on August 28, 2019 Millon had suspended the sale, at least for a while, of one of the pre-Hispanic pieces up for auction.


Lot 55 -  A stone relief depicting the Spearthrower Owl, was discovered by Teobert Maler in 1899 and dates to 700 CE.  It was stolen from the powerful city-state of Piedras Negras in the remote northwest area of the Department of Petén in Guatemala's Sierra del Lacandón in the 1960s.

Drawing from CMHI
v. 9-1.
According to UT-Austin archaeologist and Mesoamerican art historian and epigrapher, Dr. David Stuart, who first reported (in English) about Guatemala's Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes' efforts  to stop the sale in late August, the disputed stolen relief is a portion of Stela 9 found by Teobert Maler at the ruins if Piedras Negras in 1899 on the large terrace to the east of Structure J-3, and originally placed between Stelae 10 and 40.

Allowing time for the seller, the State of Guatemala and Millon to discuss the contested object and the legality of the sale in France, Drouot Paris issued the following comment on Twitter, hinting that the sale was a legitimate one, despite the crime of removing it from the territory.
In cases of property dispute, French law, articles 2274 and 2262 of the Civil Code, tend to prefer the bona fide purchaser, in their purchase of a stolen or misappropriated movable object over that of the victim, which in this circumstance is Guatemala and Mexico.   French Law provides that title can be obtained by a good faith purchaser by way of prescription after 30 years.

As of the writing of this article, neither the consignor nor Millon has not announced a response to the Mexican government's request. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 5, 2019

The value of a boy king in the form of the ancient Egyptian god Amen: All Sales Final

Engraving of Christie's auction Rome, "The Microcosm of London" (1808)
As the start of Christie's Exceptional Auction began on Thursday evening, the auctioneer present made an clipped announcement.  Those bidding on Lot 110, the 3000 year old Egyptian quartzite head of Tutankhamun portrayed as the god Amun, had to be registered bidders, a codicil she did not apply to other individuals bidding on remaining lots on offer last night.  Quickly, in less time than it takes a grim-faced Brit to drink a cup of tea, Christie's sold one off one of the most controversial items to pass through its doors.

The hammer price for the Egyptian head, a neat £4 million plus buyer’s premium, relevant fees. 

But this is not the only time that the firm has refused urgent appeals from source countries and concerned parties to remove items from auction.   

In one 2009 incident China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) protested the sale of a group of bronze animal heads, which once adorned a water clock fountain in the Chinese emperor's Summer Palace. These Chinese zodiac sculptures, on sale at Christie's in Paris, were part of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.  As the auction's presale advertising began to gather momentum, it was announced that the bronzes had been plundered during the Second Opium War which pitted the United Kingdom and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China in 1860. 

Hinting that the failure to withdraw the objects would have “serious effects” on Christie’s interests in the pronounced concerns, the source country applied pressure for the object's restitution. When that failed to achieve any desired results, a motion was formally filed through the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe (APACE) backed by a group of signatories hoping to block the sale through legal action via through the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris. 

Unfortunately in that case, basing their decision on  French law, there were no legal measure available to the source country, so the legal case went nowhere as French law, based on Napoleonic law,  allows a purchaser to obtain valid title to stolen cultural property if said purchaser acted in good faith and exercised due diligence. Given the length of time between plunder and sale, it was determined that Pierre Bergé, as well as those who owned the artworks before him, had each acted in good faith when purchasing the Chinese booty.

Left with no other option but to buy back their own art back, Chinese art dealer Cai Mingchao purchased the statues during the auction pledging to pay some € 28,000,000 and then sabotaged the sale by refusing to pay.  Later he admitted that he had placed his bid solely “to disrupt the sale of the items.”

The fact that registered buyers now sign agreements obligating specific responsibilities when they bid appears to be the reason for Christie's announcement requiring that all bidders on Lot 110, the Egyptian disputed antiquity, be formally registered.  By doing so, it thwarted any possibility of patriotism getting in the way of payment.

In the end, Christie's made a tidy sum off of Egypt's sorrow.  By ignoring Egypt's request for information as to the object's legitimacy, it also proves that their sensitivity to a source nation's plunder and looting is far more shallow, than their client's incredibly deep pockets.

By:  Lynda Albertson