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

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



June 28, 2019

Interview with Shaaban Abdel-Gawad - Head of the Egyptian Department of Repatriation

Shaaban Abdel-Gawad
By Edgar Tijhuis 

When a civil war starts in a country, everyone and everything pays a price, including heritage.  In response to this ARCA initiated its Minerva Scholarship in 2015 in order to allow heritage professionals from the conflict countries of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen to train with us as a means of analysing criminal behavior which affect the security of movable cultural heritage during times of conflict.  This ARCA scholarship has allowed participants from Middle East source countries to come to Amelia for ten weeks and to learn from ARCA instructors as well as share their experiences with other heritage peers.  Minerva scholar's time in Italy also serves to build capacity between source and market country experts as they also on hand to share their own very valuable insight and experience in protecting their country's heritage, oftentimes under extremely difficult conditions.  

This year, in 2019, with funding obtained through a successful crowdfunding campaign, ARCA has been able to extend its Minerva scholarship initiative to an important post-conflict country, Egypt. During our 11th year of producing training programs we are pleased to have welcomed Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, as our first Minerva scholar from Cairo. To hear more about him, and his plans during his time in Italy, I sat down with him at one of the local coffee bars in Amelia, right in front of the old Medieval gate, which overlooks some of the city's Neolithic walls which circle the old town in order to ask him a few questions about his work and career.


Can you tell me something about your work in Egypt?

In Egypt, I am the head of the antiquities repatriation department. The department was founded in 2002 and I have been the department's head for the last four years. Since the start in 2002 over 10.000 pieces have been repatriated, most of them in the last four years. We work in different ways to achieve these results and to protect our heritage as best as possible. First of all, we collaborate with the authorities in market countries, for example through bilateral agreements like the 2010 agreement with Switzerland concerning the illicit import and transit of antiquities.  Also through the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States, the first of its kind for the US with a Middle Eastern country. Under these agreements and other bilateral and formal agreements we have also collaborated with Italy, France, Switzerland, Spain, and the UAE, and when objects are seized abroad, we check all documents and decide what can and should be done.


Images of the sarcophagus recovered from Kuwait in 2018
Furthermore, we have several officers who systematically scan all planned sales of all major auction houses, online platforms like Ebay, Facebook and other channels that can be used to sell antiquities these days.  Online we find many fakes, but between all the fakes, there are also real antiquities that are sold illegally. An example of this is the case of the relic that was recently offered for sale at a London auction. The relic — a tablet carved with the cartouche of King Amenhotep I — has been recovered by Egypt, after the websites of international auction halls were scoured.


Can you tell me more about the rules concerning antiquities from Egypt?

Tablet from Saqqara recovered from Switzerland
Well, one needs to go back in time a bit to at least 1911. * In that year the first Egyptian law on antiquities was adopted. It said, among other things, that foreign excavation missions could take half of the excavated objects out of Egypt. In 1951, a new law was adopted. ** Under this law export licences were required for every single object leaving Egypt and unique objects were never allowed to leave the country. Finally, in 1983 the current antiquities law was introduced. Under this law, antiquities cannot be exported anymore from Egypt.***

The coffin of Nedjemankh is a gilded ancient Egyptian coffin
from the late Ptolemaic Period (First Century B.C.E) .
Are there any recent examples of repatriation of antiquities to Egypt? 

There are many and I will mention a few. After the relic in London in January of this year, we had the case of the gold-sheathed coffin from the 1st century BC. It was recovered in the United States where it had become part of the collection of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. According to a statement by the museum which purchased the coffin, inscribed with the name Nedjemankh, a priest of the ram-god Heryshef, in July 2017. Per the investigative work of the Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, the museum learned that it had received a false ownership history, fraudulent statements, and fake documentation, including a forged 1971 Egyptian export license for the coffin. The museum handed the coffin over to the authorities after evidence showed that it was looted from Egypt in 2011.

In February of this year, another case was handled by Shaaban. Egypt’s embassy in Amsterdam received a 2500-2000 B.C.E Pharaonic limestone statue of a standing man with hieroglyphic marks on the right arm.  The object had been consigned to an auction house in the Netherlands and was scheduled to be sold at the European Fine Art Fair in Amsterdam.  The Ministry of Antiquities, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, succeeded in proving Egypt’s ownership of the archaeological piece and its illegal removal from the Saqqara area of Egypt sometime in the 1990s.

This month, in an important case which is still developing, the Egyptian authorities are working to stop the auction of a quartzite sculpture of Tutankhamun through Christie’s auction house in London.  This important piece is scheduled to go up for bidding in early July and the Egyptian authorities have raised concerns that the object may have been stolen, possibly from Karnak, an extraordinary complex developed over more than 1,000 years ago made up of sanctuaries, temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings near Luxor. 

While it remains uncertain whether the Egyptian authorities will be able to successfully claim the object back, Shaaban and his team are diligently pursuing leads and have pointedly asked the auction house to provide the Egyptian authorities with all of the documentation they were given by the consignor in furtherance of the sale.

So far Christie's has continued to state the object is legitimate but has withheld the requested documentation.

Tablet recovered from Australia
How did you hear about ARCA and the Minerva Scholarship? 

When I was in Sudan for an UNESCO workshop Effective implementation of the 1970 Convention for the prevention of illicit traffic of cultural property and of the UNESCO 2015 Recommendation on museums and collections in the Cluster countries I met Samer Abdel Ghafour. Samer completed the ARCA program in 2015 as a Minerva scholar from Syria before moving on to consult with the UNESCO Secretariat within the Section for Movable Heritage and Museums, at the Unit for the 1970 Convention. So I applied and in the end was chosen to come to Italy.

From Cairo to Amelia, that must be a big change….

Yes, it surely is. Cairo is a city with around 20 million inhabitants and Amelia a little town. But actually, I grew up in a village in Egypt and worked a lot at archaeological sites outside the cities. Italian life is Mediterranean, and in many ways similar to our culture in Egypt. The people in Amelia are very friendly and welcoming, and they ‘talk with their hands’ like we do in Egypt. There is even an Egyptian shop in Amelia! Furthermore, I enjoy the company of the ARCA staff and my fellow participants in the program, who come from all over the world. I think it’s great that this special town was chosen to host the program.

Do you see any similarities between Italy and Egypt? 

Yes, there are some interesting parallels between our countries. While we are both source countries of antiquities, we also play a role in educating other countries. We have helped countries like Libya, Uzbekistan, China, Yemen and Iraq to deal with the problem of antiquities looting. And we have seized objects from Italy in Egypt, as well as objects from several other countries that went through Egypt as a transit country.

What do you expect to learn during the program? 

I expect to learn how other countries work in this field, learn more about the laws regulating the antiquities trade and establish an international network for the future.

Ancient model of a boat, 2000 BC, recovered from Italy
More about Minerva Scholarships….

ARCA's Minerva scholarship is set aside to equip source country professionals with the knowledge and tools needed to build or improve heritage protection capacity at their home institutions and to advance the education of future generations. Scholarships are awarded through an open, merit-based competition, subject to available funding.

Accepted candidates must be able to speak and write, in English, at a university level proficiency. Those who do not, cannot be considered as all courses are taught in English. Beneficiaries of the Minerva will be granted a full tuition waiver to ARCA’s intensive professional development postgraduate program which runs annually in Amelia, Italy.

For further information about this multidisciplinary program and/or to request a prospectus/Minerva application form please if you are from a conflict or post conflict country, please write to us in English at education @ artcrimeresearch.org.

* Finalized on 12/6/1912 Law nr. 14 established that all antiquities found in Egypt belonged to the State, and forbade the selling of them, unless they were already part of a collection or coming from legal excavations, recognised by the State.  This law prohibited the export of antiquities from Egypt to other countries, except through a special license which only the Antiquities Department was entitled to grant or withhold.  This article further stipulated that any antiquity, illicitly removed from the territory was subject to seizure and confiscation. 

**Finalized on 31/10/51 Law nr. 215 amended by laws nr. 529 of 1953 and nr. 24 of 1965 enacted provisions which made penalties harsher for the theft and smuggling of antiquities. The law prohibited taking antiquities out of Egypt unless there were multiple items similar to them, and then solely with the approval of the Department of Antiquities, who meeting by a committee formed of museum personnel in the presence of a representative of the department of customs, could issued a license approving an object's exportation.  Failure to have obtained such a license implies that the antiquity in question was stolen or smuggled from Egypt.

***Enacted 06/08/1983 Law nr. 117 of 1983, emended in 2003 abolished completely all export of antiquities outside of Egypt.


Edgar Tijhuis is Academic Director at ARCA and 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. Since 2009, Edgar Tijhuis has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program

October 18, 2018

ARCA's Postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection is now accepting applications.


Who studies art crime?

ARCA's Postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection is now accepting applications.

Early applications will be accepted through 30 November subject to census limitations. 
In 2009, ARCA started the very first interdisciplinary program to study art crimes wholistically.

Designed to give participants a unique opportunity to train in a structured and academically diverse format, ARCA's summer-long postgraduate program was designed around the study of the dynamics, strategies, objectives and modus operandi of criminals and criminal organizations who commit a variety of art  related crimes.  

Turn on the news (or follow this blog) and you will see over and over again examples of museum thefts, forgeries, antiquities looting and illicit trafficking of cultural goods.  Intentional heritage destruction and religion-based iconoclasm during armed conflict, once a modern-day rarity, has affected multiple countries and adds to regional instability in many areas of the globe.


Looted art, both ancient and Holocaust-related, can and often does find its way into the world's premiere auction houses and the galleries of respected museum institutions while dealers working in the field continue to be less than adept at distinguishing smuggled and stolen art, from art with a clean provenance. Thus making dealing with art crime an unrelenting problem and one without any easy solution.

Taken incident by incident, it is difficult to see the impact and implications of art crime as a global concern, but when studied across disciplines, looking at the gaps of legal instruments, country to country, one begins to have a clearer picture of the significance of the problem and its impact on the world's collective patrimony.

The world's cultural heritage is an invaluable legacy and its protection is integral to our future. 

One summer, eleven courses.

At its foundation, ARCA's summer-long program in Italy draws upon the overlapping and complementary expertise of international thought-leaders on the topic of art crime – all practitioners and leading scholars who actively work in the sector. 

In 2019, participants of the program will receive 220+ hours of instruction over 11 courses taught by a range of experts actively committed to combatting art crime from a variety of different angles.

For more information on the summer 2019 postgraduate professional development program, please see ARCA's website here.

To request further information or to receive a 2019 prospectus and application materials, please email:
education (at) artcrimeresearch.org

Interested in knowing more about the program from a student's perspective?

Here are some blog posts from and by students who have attended in 20162015, 2014, and in 2013.



March 2, 2018

Repatriations - a 17th century Italianate landscape and a first century CE marble sculpture depicting Aphrodite

Two months into the new year brings with it two significant repatriations for objects stolen in Italy and illegally transferred for sale on foreign art markets.  Both artworks, an oil painting and a marble statue, were discovered during auction sales, despite having been stolen in Italy. 

This week a 17th century Italianate landscape, attributed to either Giovanni Paolo Pannini (1691-1765) or Andrea Locatelli (1695-1741), has made its way home to Italy.  

Donated in 1892 by the Italian noble Torlonia family, the oil painting was stolen on January 1, 1994.  In November 2017 the artwork was identified by the Italian authorities when it came up for sale at a London auction house. Its starting bid: 40.000 GBP.

At some point the painting appears to have passed through the hands of the Roman branch of the London auction house, before being transferred to London for sale.  Under Italy’s Cultural Heritage Code any artwork created more than fifty years ago (i.e. before 1947 in this case) by a deceased artist requires an export licence in order to be exported.  No information has been released by the Italian authorities as to if the consigner provided the auction house with such a document and if so, if that document was valid or fabricated.  

After this week's press conference, the painting will be returned to the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism and reintegrated into the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica where it will go on display at either the the Palazzo Barberini or the Palazzo Corsini. 


One month earlier, on January 30, 2018 the Carabinieri reported that a first century CE marble sculpture depicting the torso of the goddess Aphrodite had also been repatriated to Italy.  This marble statue, with an estimated value of €300.000 had been stolen in 2011 from the University of Foggia and was identified by Italy's Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale for sale in Munich Germany in 2013. 

In the scope of a lengthy investigation, Italian and German authorities identified identified an organized smuggling ring, operating between Italy and Germany, where looted antiquities plundarded from Italy passed from the hands of a looter, through a  middleman, who carried out the deliveries abroad, on to the individual in Germany who sold objects to collectors interested in antiquities in Germany. 

In 2016, when those involved in this trafficking operation were taken into custody, more than 2,500 objects were seized which had not yet made their way to Germany.   The statue of Aphrodite, was returned to Italy via international letters rogatory and with cooperation from the German authorities as well as the Public Prosecutor's Office of Rome. 


January 8, 2018

Venezuela has returned nearly 200 pre-Columbian stone and ceramic archaeological artifacts to Costa Rica

Image Credit: Ernesto Emilio Villegas Poljak,
Minister of Culture, Venezuela @VillegasPoljak
As a welcome start to 2018 repatriations, Venezuela has returned 196 pre-Columbian stone and ceramic archaeological artifacts to Costa Rica created by the indigenous cultures and peoples who once populated the Americas.

The pieces, some 96 crates in total, weighing in at a whopping 5,000 kilos, had been trafficked illegally.  The repatriated cargo includes two of the incredibly mysterious pre-Columbian spheres sculpted from gabbro, the coarse-grained equivalent of basalt, believed to have been created by the Diquís civilization, as well as pottery, vases, human figurines, zoomorphic ocarinas (musical instruments), and metates (grain-grinding stones).

The ancient cargo arrived to Port Moin in Limón, Costa Rica by boat on Tuesday, January 2, 2018 and concretized Guatemala's promise to return plundered goods, once part of a controversial private collector's extensive collection. 


Found deep in the jungles of Costa Rica, the Las Bolas petrospheres (literally "the balls") of the Diquís civilization date back to the Aguas Buenas Period (300–800 CE) and Chiriquí Period (800–1550 CE).  Some researchers believe the round stone balls, varying in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter, may possibly have served as landmarks, though their exact significance remains uncertain. 

The Las Bolas were discovered in the 1930s when Companía Bananera de Costa Rica, a branch of the United Fruit Company, began clearing portions of the nutrient-rich jungle delta in preparation for banana cultivation.  They are unique to Costa Rica. 


In October 2016, La Nacion published a special report titled "Memoria Robata" which revealed a longstanding network of Costa Rican traffickers supplying the illicit market of global archaeological art.

Beginning in 2014 Venezuela began making significant progress in its fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property. One of the country's most important cases included the seizures of archaeological pieces from Case Männil, also known as the Casa de los Jaguares (the House of the Jaguars), a property which belonged to the alleged Estonian Nazi collaborator Harry Männil. 

After the Second World War, Männil, also known as Harry Mannil Laul, spent most of his life in Latin America, and until a few years before his death resided in Venezuela.  During his lifetime he was considered to be one of Venezuela's powerhouse businessman serving as one of the founders of the country's ACO, C.A., a holding company for an umbrella organization of over eighty companies engaged in a wide variety of industries throughout the country.  

Despite being listed as the 10th most wanted Nazi criminal by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for crimes against jews while working for the political police in 1941–1942 during the German occupation of Estonia, Männil was awarded the Order of the Star of Carabobo and the Order of Francisco de Miranda by the Venezuelan government.

As a philanthropist and art collector, Männil was also owner of one of the world’s largest and most coveted private collections of art.  In 1997 his collection of pre-Columbian art, modern Latin American art, and art of the South American Indigenous people influenced Artnews to list him as one of the 200 most important private collectors in the world. 

Despite that art market accolade, the possession, trade and trafficking of pre-Columbian art has been severely banned in Costa Rica since 1982 and the country's laws state that all discovered historic objects from specific periods must be relinquished into the hands of the state.

Costa Rica's national laws define cultural property as: 

National archaeological heritage in Costa Rica is defined as:

As a result of national law, the National Museum of Costa Rica filed a formal complaint against both Harry Mannil Laul and his son Mikhel Mannil D’Empaire, for the “illegal trade in archaeological property” laying claim to significant portions of the family's collection.

After Mannil passed away on January 11, 2010, Costa Rican authorities raided his farm in San Rafael de Heredia on July 22, 2010 and seized 108 pieces of pre-Columbian art, including fourteen additional Bolas. Officials at that time stated that the pieces had been obtained through illegal purchase which broke the country's law against trafficking in archaeological artifacts.

Pre-Columbian pieces seized in 2010 in the San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rican
home of Harry Mannil. Image Credit: La Nacion
In 2010 fifty-six pieces of Männil’s collection were seized by the Customs Police and the Institute of Cultural Heritage of Venezuela, when the family tried to export the Pre-Columbian objects to the United States.

In 2014, a second seizure of objects was made, this time at Männil's Caracas home, the Casa de los Jaguares (House of the Jaguars). Archaeologist Marlin Calvo, head of the Department of Protection of Cultural Heritage Museum National, traveled to Caracas and surveyed the historic remains recovered during that raid as well as immovable pieces which remained on the property and determined that many of the pieces were from pre-Columbian cultures and originated in Costa Rica.  This including jaguar metate, whose heads had been decapitated and embedded into masonry walls as decorative elements, lending their name to the collector's residence. 

Image Credit: La Nacion

How Männil exported these pre-Columbian pieces from Costa Rico to Venezuela was not clear. 

Image Credit: Museo Nacional de Costa Rica
The Pre-columbian Chiefdom Settlement where the Stone Spheres Las Bolas of the Diquís in Costa Rica were found was inscribed to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2014.

While legal mechanisms are currently in place to protect Costa Rica's archaeological heritage and to control the traffic in antiquities, the looting of sites by huaqueros (grave robbers, nighthawks) has been and to a lesser extent still is a significant problem which results in the destruction of archaeological evidence and the loss of knowledge about Costa Rica’s past. 

Between 1983 and 2016, 519 complaints of trade, transport and illegal export  in archaeological material were filed in Costa Rica, 386 of which  resulted in seizures.  

By:  Lynda Albertson

October 6, 2017

Recovered: Antiquities, historic weaponry and a church relic that likely dates to Pope Innocent XI

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
Today, Italy’s Guardia di Finanza unit in Foggia announced the recovery of a large stash of antiquities, antique weaponry and religious art and relics. 

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
In two separate raids between Cerignola and the provincial capital of Foggia GdF officers have recovered 350 archaeological objects including votive statues, two volute craters decorated with moulded Medusa head handles, an impressive quantity of gnathia vases, attic pottery, painted plates, pouring vessels, and ancient jewelry decorated with gold, stone and bronze elements.  

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
According to the superintendence who evaluated the finds, some of the ancient objects likely plundered  from a Roman or Samnite tomb, possibly that of a soldier.

In addition to the antiquities officers recovered a canvas painting taken a few years back from the rural church of Palazzo d'Ascoli in the countryside of Ascoli Satriano, in the province of Foggia and what appears to be slipper, attached with a note proclaiming it belonged to the Blessed Pope Innocent XI (1611-1689).

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
Also recovered were a group of antique firearms dating back to 1600 -1800, as well as modern weaponry. 

Image Credit:   Guardia di Finanza
Two individuals, a 48-year old from Orta Nova and a 61 year old from Cerignola have been taken into custody by the financial police of the provincial command of Foggia charged with illegal possession of weapons, stolen goods and violations of the rules on the protection of cultural heritage.  The latter individual, an attorney, has been released for the present time.  

April 29, 2017

Auction Alert: Christie's New York and the Guennol Stargazer

Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism,  Nabi Avcı 
Jussi Pylkkänen, global president of the auction house Christie's has indicated that at the behest of a request by the Turkish authorities and following the interim judgement of the United States District Court, his firm will apply precautionary measures regarding the sale of the 9-inch, 5,000-year-old female sculptor the "Guennol Stargazer."  Turkey's Culture Minister Nabi Avcı told the press that the auction house will abide by the Court's recommendation for a temporary 60-day hold on the antiquity while an investigation into the object’s provenance is conducted. During that time period, the purchaser’s hammer price + buyer's premium bid of $14,471,500 USD is confirmed but not collected. 

As spoken about in Dr. Sam Hardy's blog, the Guennol Stargazer is a rare 3rd millennium BCE idol, likely from the Akhisar district of Manisa province in Anatolia.  The object first kicked up a fuss when Özgen Acar wrote of his concerns about the object's origins in Hurriyet Daily News.


An investigative journalist, Acar has crusaded for the return of Turkey's cultural patrimony for decades.  He is probably most famous for his dogged quest for the repatriation of the Metropolitan Museum's Karun Treasure, alternatively known as the Lydian Hoard, a name given to 363 Lydian artifacts that once belonged to a courtier of King Croesus of Lydia dating back to the 7th century B.C.E., originating from the Uşak Province in western Turkey.  In the case of the Guennol Stargazer, Acar openly questions the licit or illicit origin of the idol and its legitimacy in the New York auction house's April sale, in light of stringent Turkish antiquity laws.

This 60 day status will allow the Turkish government the opportunity to put forward evidence to convince the consignor to voluntarily forfeit the ancient idol, or if necessary, facilitate a court order of restitution.

Not a great start to Christie's Classic Week

In advance of the auction, Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism,  Nabi Avcı learned of the upcoming sale of the Anatolian Kilia sculpture and contacted the country's cultural representatives through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Turkish embassy in Washington DC and the country's New York consulate. The Turkish authorities wanted to ensure that any potential buyer was completely aware that the idol was likely looted from Turkey. 

In a battle for hearts and minds - whose outcome will affect ancient art connoisseurs worldwide, the ministry also took out a full-page advertisement depicting the idol in the New York Times discouraging the collecting community from purchasing items that irretrievably damage a tangible link to the past.


In that open letter, pictured above, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey stated: 

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey extends its appreciation to the institutions and individuals that have helped to repatriate lost artefacts to the Anatolian origins.  

We thank the Dallas Museum of Art for returning the 194 A.D. “Orpheus Mosaic” to promote an international cultural exchange of art and ideas in 2012.  

We thank the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston which in 2011 returned part of the 1,800-year-old sculpture “Weary Herakles” that was excavated from the Turkish site of Perge. 

And we thank all the private collectors, auction houses and universities for returning 4272 pieces of cultural heritage, including marble pieces, ancient coins, marble inscriptions, amphoras, statues, and a Roma-era bronze horse harness piece.  

The good faith shown in each instance is an example of how countries and cultural communities can work together to preserve the archaeological record. 

The trade and sale of cultural assets are governed by international conventions and domestic legislations, like UNESCO’s global “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export,and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” in 1970, as well as Turkey’s national Asar-1 Atika Regulation of 1884 that prohibits the export of any newly-found or yet-unearthed artwork.  

In the spirit of cultural cooperation, we embrace continued collaboration with the arts community to discover the archaeological context of such historic works, and have good faith that any current or future custodians of Anatolian relics will likewise work with the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism to return such pieces to their ancestral homes. 

The Business of Ancient Art for the Modern Collector

Christie's biannual auctions in London and New York offer some of the world's finest ancient art, but as the stakes for the art market go higher with each sales cycle, one has to question why auction houses prefer the potential customer embarrassment of the "identified as illicit" by an academic, country or journalist approach rather than simply conducting more intensive research into an ancient object's background before accepting a piece for an upcoming auction.

Bidding for bidders and it's about the money.

With plenty of money earmarked for Christie's April 28, 2017 ancient art sale coming from the best name purchasers, it's not a mystery why auction houses and antiquities dealers spend inadequate time worrying about a smudge-free pedigree when sourcing eye-poppingly priced antiquities for collectors. 


When an antiquities collector is willing to fork out $14 million for a purchase, you follow them around like a puppy, catering to their desires because you know in the end the auction house is going to make some decent money out of the sale. To achieve those "record prices" specialists spend significantly more time getting to know their collectors, listening to what they are interested in buying and what they already own, than they do researching where an ancient object came from and whose clean or dirty hands it passed through before arriving to its current consignor.

In the high-stakes art world with high commissions at stake, auction houses focus on wooing and wowing their customers in advance of potential purchases, not pointing out the holes in their consigned object's collection history. The market's focus is on the next bang of the auctioneer's gavel.  It's not on highlighting the murky backwaters an object may have passed through on its way to the auction block.

An auction house's competitive advantage in the marketplace rests as much on their knowledge of their big ticket buyers and sellers as it does on knowing where to source the objects these collectors want.  When someone is willing to offer $14 million for tiny object, an auction house or antiquities dealer will bend over backwards to get one for them.  

Given all of that, we shouldn’t wonder that the auction houses and antiquities dealers behave the way they do.  The bigger question haunting the ancient art market is how do we change the paradigm of "I don't care where it came from, it's pretty and I want it" to "I want something pretty, but I absolutely do care" and I won't buy anything without an ironclad well-documented provenance.

We do it by changing the minds of the collector. 

Collecting ancient art can be an extension of a personal passion, a status symbol or a piece of cultural currency but it also serves as a defacto calling card for the current-day purchaser's own collecting ethics. Deep-pocketed collectors can and should demand that their source dealer or auction house examine and not hide the provenance of the trophy works they are interested in acquiring.  They should also not discount the unacceptable buying and selling habits of the fading old guard of the art market.

If buyers behave conscientiously, the market will be forced to change its practices to keep up with their connoisseur clientele's ethically motivated demands. If only because it is the auction house’s job to know and to cultivate the sale of objects which their customers crave. That demand is what pushes the selling price past the guarantee.

If the antiquities art market really wants to clean itself up, it may be forced to accept in the not too distant future, that the priciest bombshells from the final “hammer price” tabulations may not simply be the rarest and most compelling, historically significant work of art, but also and equally importantly the one that hasn’t funded a war, or destroyed the archaeological record in a source country.

By:  Lynda Albertson

March 19, 2017

One well documented theft = three separate seizures - Egypt's successes in curbing the sale of a stolen ancient objects

Image Credit: Antiquities Repatriation Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt
Four years after being stolen and then trafficked illegally out of Egypt, a painted wooden New Kingdom mummy mask has been returned to its country of origin this week, after turning up at a French antiquities auction in December 2016.

The mask is just one of 96 artifacts from the Pharaonic, Greek and Roman periods, discovered during foreign archaeological missions which were stolen in 2013, during a break-in of the Museum of Antiquities storage facilities at Elephantine. An archaeologically rich island, Elephantine is the largest island in the Aswan archipelago in Northern Nubia, Egypt. The island lies opposite central Aswan, just north of the First Cataract on the Nile.  


Given that the professionally excavated objects were formal discoveries by authorized archaeological missions, versus illicitly excavated, the stolen antiquities, were well documented.   This gave the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities the necessary evidentiary documentation to list the ancient objects as possibly in circulation with national and international law enforcement authorities.  

One Well Documented Theft = Numerous Separate Seizures

Monitoring the antiquities market closely, Egypt has succeeded in stopping the sale of several stolen objects from this single theft over the last few years. In this most recent incident, once the mummy mask had been spotted, Shabaan Abdel Gawad, the general supervisor of the Antiquities Repatriation Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, was able to request that the mask's auction be halted, demanding the object's return through formal channels via the Egyptian embassy in Paris.

Image Credit: Antiquities Repatriation
Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt
Earlier, on January 29, 2017, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced that a deputy from the British Museum had handed over a 16.5 centimeter tall, carved wooden Ushabti statue with gold inscriptions.  This ancient object, stolen during the same break-in, had been relinquished by a British citizen. The funerary object had been excavated by Spanish archaeologists at the site of the Qubbet al-Hawa Necropolis in Aswan, and dates to ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period (circa 1990 BCE – 1775 BCE). 

Ushabti statues, sometimes called simply "Shabtis" by dealers in the antiquities trade, are very popular with ancient art collectors. These small wooden and stone figurines were once placed in Egyptian tombs, intended to function as the servants of the deceased during their afterlife.

Image Credit: Antiquities Repatriation
Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt
On June 14, 2015 a 2,300 year old Ancient Egyptian ivory statuette was identified up for sale at the Aton Gallery of Egyptian Art in Oberhausen, Germany. Stolen during the same 2013 robbery, this 11.5 cm tall, statuette of a man carrying a gazelle over his shoulders, was unearthed in 2008 by a Swiss archaeological mission that had been carrying out excavations at the Khnum Temple at Elephantine.  Once identified at the auction house, the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry reported the auction to INTERPOL.

The statuette is believed to date back to Egypt's Late Period, from 664-332 BCE which ended with the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

According to a screenshot grabbed by ARCA on June 14, 2015 (and since removed from the dealer's website), the web page depicted the object's upcoming auction and included a reserve price of $5050.  At the time of the auction, Aton Gallery had listed the provenance for the ivory figurine as being part of a German private collection, formed in the 60s and 70s, before being part of an earlier American Collection formed in the 1930s.  Misleading provenance, in this case either by the auction house or the consignor, underscores how easy stolen and looted antiquities can be made to appear part of older more established collections, when in fact they are not. 
ARCA Screenshot capture: June 14, 2015
Piece by priceless piece, Egypt is taking collectors and dealers to task.  And while 93 of the 96 stolen items are still out there, three recoveries are better than none.  

France Desmarais of ICOM’s International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods has stated 

"Stolen items are not necessarily lost forever because many can be recovered and will inevitably resurface at some point in time, whether in the art market or while crossing borders."

But Egypt’s police force and governmental heritage authorities can only do so much in their protection of the country’s thousands of archaeological sites, museums and historical objects.  This vulnerability is something looters are all too aware of. 

Playing on the limited resources of source countries, especially those suffering from political turmoil, looters, middlemen and traffickers can wait years before floating highly valued pieces onto the licit art market.   In the interim, those dealing in black market sales sustain themselves financially on the proceeds derived from a small but steady trickle of smaller finds, often dribbled out to lesser known dealers and galleries. As the art market is adapting to online sales, some items are not being sold through brick and mortar shops any longer, instead, objects are passing through simple one on one, online or social media transactions. 

But while objects from well documented thefts like the one on the Elephantine storeroom eventually do resurface, the process of identify-seizure-forfeiture, on an object by object basis is a painfully slow, and only moderately successful, road to repatriation.  

To staunch the flow of high demand antiquities for vulnerable source countries collectors must begin to hold themselves more accountable.  Knowing what we know today, collectors should curb their consumerist tendencies of wanting what they want when purchasing ancient art without documentation of legal export. More often than not, antiquities without sound paperwork have a higher probability of having been stolen or looted. 

It's time for collectors to take themselves to task, taking stock in the origins of their past purchases and voluntarily relinquishing items bought in the past without concern for legality, when they have have contributed to the theft and looting of historic sites around the globe.

Doing the Right Thing

If you are a collector and you suspect an antiquity you have purchased may have been looted or stolen, here are some things you can do.


If your object is on one of these lists, consult with your local museum's curatorial staff. 

Lastly, Interpol, National Law Enforcement, UNESCO, ICOM and organizations like ARCA maintain contacts with experts familiar with looted and stolen art.   If you have doubts about a purchase and don't know who to contact or need help with the ancient remains in a specific country, please write to us here

By:  Lynda Albertson

February 21, 2017

Police Seizure: 250 artifacts recovered by police near Rome


250+ archaeological finds, some dating as far back as the late Republican period were recovered by the Finanzieri del Comando Provinciale di Roma as part of the "Lanuvium" initiative which was coordinated by the Public Prosecutor of Velletri, in the province of Lazio, near Rome.

Focusing on two women, who reportedly had established an elegant private museum in their upscale home, a variety of objects, many of them epigraphic remains such as brick stamps and marble inscriptions.  The pieces are believed to have come from illicit excavations in and around the Lanuvio archaeological site, a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of "Juno Sospita". 

The Soprintendenza ai Beni Archeologici del Lazio are presently involved in the full documentation of the objects seized. by law enforcement authorities. Unfortunately, artifacts ripped from their context by looters often lose much of their meaning. 

Illicit excavations not only destroy a site’s stratigraphic layers that help define an archaeological site’s chronology alongside unmoveable architectural elements. They also remove ancient objects from the context which gives the object its own cultural meaning.  

As a result of the seizure, three persons are now under investigation and will likely be charged with unlawful possession of archaeological material belonging to the country of Italy. 


January 4, 2017

Wednesday, January 04, 2017 - , 1 comment

Update on three Iranian heritage workers shot and seriously injured by antiquities smugglers in the Kurdistan province of Iran

Image Credit: ISNA News
NOTE:  This article has been updated January 5, 2017 as more information has been reported.

In an interview with Iran news reporters the Director General of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization of the Kurdistan province in Iran, Seyed Mohsen Alavi, has stated that a primary suspect in the attack on three cultural heritage protection unit officers has been arrested.  He further indicated that following the culprit's interrogation, other arrests were expected to follow shortly. Those believed to have been involved in the incident have now been formally indicted by Iranian authorities.

The suspects in this case were conducting illegal excavations in a remote area searching for ancient objects.

Image Credit: ISNA News
According to Azad News Agency, on Monday, January 3, 2017 two site workers and one heritage bureau activist from the town of Baneh were ambushed by the looters shortly after they arrived at a location in rural Baneh County along Iran's western border with Iraq. Responding to citizen reports of illicit excavations near the village of Mirabad and Shrg·h, the heritage personnel came across tools used by the looters to carry out illegal digging, as well as a large excavated looting pit, estimated to be approximately twelve meters deep.

Image Credit IRIB News

Image Credit IRIB News
Seven armed men reportedly opened fire on the heritage workers using both pistols and shotguns and in the onslaught the three workers were struck by projectiles and a vehicle was also overturned and damaged.

Image Credit: Khabarduni News
One veteran 42 year old cultural heritage protection unit officer remains in the hospital having sustained a penetrating wound to the head. Another suffered shotgun pellet wounds to his neck and left shoulder. Another is reported to have suffered a seriously hand injury.

Image Credit: ISNA News
The area where the looters were working lies along the border between the Kurdistan province in Iran and Eastern Iraq, a lengthy remote area which stretches 230 kilometres along the territorial divide between the two countries. Because the city of Baneh sits inside this scarcely populated zone, it has long struggled with underdevelopment and high unemployment, both key contributors to the zone's reputation as an area where illegal transportation, goods smuggling and illicit drugs pass on their way to or from porous country borders which are difficult to secure.

Kulbar — a colloquial word for the region's border couriers or load carriers, smuggle untaxed and prohibited goods between Iraq and Iran frequently via the Kurdistan province. Small time smugglers move food, electronics, or other hard-to-find necessities.  Bolder traffickers move riskier merchandise: satellite dishes, illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.  Sometimes violent confrontations occur between the kulbar and Border authorities but the payoff to traffickers and rampant poverty create a recipe for continued illicit activity, making it easy enough for heritage looters to use the already well-established smuggling conduit to transport looted antiquities out of the region.

Speaking to Iranian journalists during a press briefing the Director General of Cultural Heritage in Baneh in Kurdistan said that while violent incidents such as the one that occurred this week are unusual, he worries that there is an increased likelihood for events such as this to reoccur. Stating his concerns he said "Unfortunately, illegal excavations and smuggling have increased everywhere in the country and also [our] protection unit in the city does not have weapons. The poor empty-handed are sent out to these kind of locations more frequently and chances are, something like this could be repeated."

By: Lynda Albertson

December 3, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

By: Lynda Albertson