Showing posts with label illicit trafficking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label illicit trafficking. Show all posts

July 17, 2018

Quotes given by ancient art dealer William Veres outlining Balkan trafficking methods.

Image Credit:  Screenshot from documentary “The Hunt for Transylvanian Gold.”  
In 2008, following a ten-year investigation coordinated by Prosecutor General Augustin Lazăr of Romania, a number of individuals were charged in connection with illegal excavations carried out in the dense forests of the Orăştie Mountains in the vicinity of the Sarmizegetusa Regia fortress, one of six heritage sites which make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Dacian Fortresses of the Orăştie, dating to the mid-first century BCE.  To date twenty-eight individuals have been named in connection with this multinational investigation which has resulted in antiquities recoveries from New York, Zurich, Paris, Munich, and Hunedoara – Romania. 

Some of the persons identified in this complex investigation include Ioan Bodea, Radu Horia Camil, Iulian Ceia, Călin Corhan, Ciprian Hidişan, Daniel Jurca, Ilic Ljubisa, Ilie Luncan, Viorica Luncan, Daniel Moc,  David Magda, Ion Nedelcu, Miu Nedelcu, Adrian and Florin Nistor, Ovidiu Olah, Remus Pop, and Mihai Zerkula, each of whom were associated in some way with a criminal enterprise that has been identified as being involved in unauthorized excavations conducted in the Dacian citadels in the Orăştie Mountains, located in the counties of Hunedoara and Alba, in Romania.


In 2017 details of this looting case, which began in the capital of the Dacians civilization in the central mountains of Romania, were detailed in a fifty-minute documentary called “The Hunt for Transylvanian Gold.”  

Of the 24 gold spirals, stolen between 1998 and 2001, only 13 have been recovered.  They are now on display at the Muzeul Național de Istorie a României.  Six of the bracelets are believed to have passed through the hands of one antiquities collector, Ilic Ljubisa, believed to have been the organizer of a group of traffickers known as the "Serbian cartel" which operated out of Zurich.  Ljubisa bought three pairs of the gold spirals and is believed to have been involved in their transport to Belgrade.

To understand how Romania's golden artifacts made their way out of Romania via Serbia and onto the antiquities market, the documentary makers, Boston-based Kogainon Films, interviewed many people, including Hungarian born and London-based antiquities dealer William Veres.  Veres is now the subject of his own multinational police investigation of antiquities trafficking originating in Italy. 

In the documentary, Veres is filmed making several interesting, if not quite incriminating, statements regarding the methodologies used by the antiquities handlers caught up in the Dacian gold looting case.  

Veres comments on the city of Belgrade in Serbia and its role in the illicit trade of cultural heritage

“Belgrade, as you know, is *inaudible* the biggest capital maybe in the whole world for stolen art. So...the....let's call it the Serbian mafia, it would be a number of individuals who, would, amongst other things, deal with ancient objects and would have clients in the west.

Veres comments on the differences between art dealers in Western Europe and art dealers in the Balkans

“I've known these people as dealers, and as I say, you can look at this in a...in another context, as I say, if, the laws in countries like Serbia and Romania were different, these people wouldn't be much different from myself. But the point is that, this activity you can carry on legally in somewhere like Germany, France, even Italy, let's say, and in other countries, you can't carry it on because of the nature of cultural.... the laws of cultural property.

While drawing out a hypothetical illicit trafficking route, Veres comments on how plundered art moves from Romania to Serbia

“In the case of these spirals, once you have, once they are here in Belgrade, then of course they go to ahh Vienna, ummm Munich, maybe Zurich, and Geneva. These are the, I would say, the first stops, and from here then, to America. So it is a personal trade, run by professionals, who know what they are doing very, very well. The bus drivers they know where to hide things. So you give them a small package, you know, five hundred euros and I'm sure ahhh this can be transported to Belgrade, to Vienna overnight.  It's very efficient, like DHL.

Efficient like DHL.  Words worth remembering. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 6, 2018

More details on Operation Demetra

Image Credit:  Carabinieri TPC
As has been noted to be the case in the past, Sicilian trafficking cases sometimes have organized crime origins and that appears to also be the case with this week's announced Operation Demetra, named after the Greek divinity much venerated in Sicily.   As new individuals are identified with this investigation, it is interesting to see how some of them are connected to one another, to incidences of trafficking in the past and how they fit into the puzzle of this multinational investigation. 

Gaetano Patermo
Begun as an anti-mafia investigation, initiated by the Nissena Prosecutor for the territory of Riesi, Operation Demetra grew to international proportions when the Carabinieri began reinvestigating the activities of Gaetano Patermo (A.K.A "Tano"). 

Gaetano Patermo
In 2007 Patermo was named along with other individuals,  including Angelo Chiantia and Simone Di Simone, in a 35-person investigation involving illegal excavations, theft, reproduction, falsification, exportation, sale and receipt, even in foreign territory, of archaeological assets belonging to the public domain.

Although acquitted for these earlier alleged offences the details of the 2007 case were remarkably similar to the methodology used by traffickers involved in the 2014-2018 investigation that Patermo has now been arrested for.  According to the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Property responsible for the archaeological heritage of Palermo, led by Major Luigi Mancuso, the antiquities were being transferred from Sicily to northern Italy, hidden inside baggage along with travellers garments and inside the linings of suitcases. 

In the older case, clandestine material was transported out of Sicily through Spain and Switzerland by means of campers or trucks loaded with fruits and vegetables.  Once out of the country the antiquities and coins were also passed on to potential international buyers.  

As it relates to Operation Demetra, it is alleged that Patermo had contacts with the network of couriers that transported illlicit material and interacted with individuals connected to the London-based art dealer William Thomas Veres. 

Angelo Chiantia and Simone Di Simone
Angelo Chiantia (Left) and Simone Di Simone (Right)
Not picked up in the original sweep earlier this week, but wanted by the Italian authorities in connection with this more recent investigation, Angelo Chiantia of Riesi and Simone Di Simone of Gela, in the presence of their lawyers, turned themselves in to law enforcement authorities yesterday afternoon.  Both are believed to have played roles as middlemen in the smuggling of cultural heritage abroad. 

Francesco Lucerna is from Riesi, hometown of the notorious Mafia boss Giuseppe Di Cristina in the province of Caltanissetta, whose death was a prelude to the Second Mafia War.  In addition to being an alleged "tomborolo" Lucerne was identified in February 2015 as the person who put together this organized network of tombaroli and counterfeiters, selling authentic and imitation archaeological remains to wealthy entrepreneurs and industrialists in Piedmont, where he had relocated, as well as on to buyers in Germany.  

Following the 2015 search and seizures carried out in the province of Caltanissetta more than one thousand artifacts were seized including 859 clay vases and amphorae, 146 ancient coins dating back to the Greek and Roman age, 191 paleontological finds and two illegal metal detectors.   The antiquities were believed to have come from an undocumented fourth or fifth century BCE villa, most likely discovered somewhere in the archaeological area of ​​Philosopiana, between Butera and Riesi.  Unfortunately without a find spot, and with nothing known about the context around where the antiquities were excavated, little can be concretely ascertained.  Police also raided two forgers in Misterbianco and Paternò, near Catania, whose workshops contained 878 counterfeit coins and 960 forged coin dies which were used to strike the authentic-looking fakes.  These were being prepared to be sold to collectors, possibly being told they were authentic. 

Andrea Palma
Lists himself on Linkedin as a Numismatic Expert & Advisor at Martí Hervera, SL in Barcelona as well as at Soler y Llach Subastas Internacionales, S.A.

Interestingly, he also appears to have been affiliated in some way with an excavation at the Villa Romana del Casale di Piazza Armerina (EN), in Sicily and to have earned a degree from the Università degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza" where he studied at numismatics, epigraphy and archaeology. 

William Veres

The Hungarian-born antiquities dealer William Veres has always walked a fine line in who and how he has worked with individuals known to have had connections to illicit trafficking.  In addition to the questionable incidences already mentioned in our earlier blog posts, in which he received a suspended sentence, and the billionaire purchaser was acquitted, Veres was once accused by former self-confessed smuggler and police informant Michel Van Rijn of running a London-based business that deals in smuggled relics.  One of those relics was a Coptic Ps.Gospel of Judas (Iscariot), part of an ancient codice written in Coptic and Greek which surfaced on the international art market once connected to many well known names and faces.

Veres was arrested at his home at his home in Stanmore, northwest London this week. 

William Veres
Lest we forget, art criminals don't just deal with tomb raiders, gallery show rooms and collectors of ancient art.  Sometimes they also rub elbows with the worst of the underworld. And if you think that the Procura di Caltanissetta only deals with heritage crimes you would be wrong.

Personnel of the provincial command of the Carabinieri of Caltanissetta, at the request of the DDA (Direzione Distrettuale Antimafia) and of the local prosecutor are also following investigations in the region against the 'family' of Riesi, the "stidda" of the Cosa Nostra.  This group is believed to be responsible for not only the trafficking of drugs, and extortion, but also appear to have been the executors of numerous murders and attempted murders which took place in the early 1990s. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 4, 2018

Operation Demetra: The Trafficking of Sicilian Archaeological Treasures

Image Credit: Carabinieri TPC

Updated 13:00 GMT+1

In a press conference held today, at 11:00 at the Public Prosecutor's Office of the Court of Caltanissetta, Italy announced the result of an illicit trafficking investigation, long established under the code named "Demeter" which first started in 2014.

In coordination with officials from EUROPOL and EUROJUST, the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Caltanissetta and the Carabinieri of the Cultural Heritage Protection Unit of Palermo, in collaboration with the investigative nucleus of Caltanissetta, an order for the application of precautionary measures was issued by the Court of Caltanissetta, against 23 people.

Precautionary measures, were issued to individuals in Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Crotone, Enna, Lecce, Naples, Novara, Taranto, Turin, Ragusa, and Syracuse, where simultaneously or in tandem, raids were carried out which also included searches for illicit archaeological finds.  Precautionary measures against those taken into custody are those measures of privation or restriction of the rights of a person, adopted on the basis of a dual premise: the serious indications of guilt (article 272 c.p.p.) and the precautionary requirements related to ensuring their presence at judicial proceedings (article 273c.p.p.).

According to the Italian authorities, Francesco Lucerna, a 76-year-old "tombarolo" from Riesi, a small town in the province of Caltanissetta, worked alongside a network of individuals fencing archaeological finds for decades uncovered via clandestine excavations.  Many of these illicit excavations purportedly took place in the provinces of Caltanissetta and Agrigento, areas in Sicily which are rich with ancient objects of Greek and Roma production, many of which date back to the IV-V centuries BCE.  The plundered objects dug up by this group were transported to Northern Italy via middlemen and from there made their way into collectors hands and the greater European art market.

With regards to in this multiyear long investigation the following individuals are being held in pre-trial detention:

• Francesco Lucerna, also known as "Zu Gino", 76 years old from Riesi (CL);
• Matteo Bello, 61, from Ravanusa (AG);
• Francesco Giordano, 71, from Campobello di Licata (AG);
• Luigi Giuseppe Grifasi, 64, from Ravanusa (AG);
• Calogero Ninotta, 39, from Ravanusa (AG);
• Gaetano Romano, 58, from Ravanusa (AG);
• Gaetano Patermo, 63, from Riesi (CL);
• Palmino Pietro Signorello, 66, from Belpasso (CT).

The following have been released on house arrest pending the outcome of their cases:
• Giovanni Lucerna, 49, from Turin;
• Maria Debora Lucerna , 55, from Turin;
• Salvatore Pappalardo, 75, of Misterbianco (CT);
• Calogero Stagno, 51, of Favara (AG);
• Luigi Signorello, 34, from Belpasso (CT);
• Luigi Laroce, 62, from Strongoli (KR).

While most of the individuals implicated reside in Italy, three others were arrested in Great Britain, Germany and Spain.

They are:

William Thomas Veres, 64, residing in London, UK;
Andrea Palma, 36, originally from Campobasso but resident in Barcelona, Spain;
Rocco Mondello, 61 years old from Gela, a resident of Ehingen, Germany.


Each is accused in various ways of criminal association and/or the receiving of stolen goods as it relates to the trafficking of antiquities.

William Thomas Veres has been previously arrested in Spain on August 16, 2017 on un unrelated trafficking case via an extradition warrant from Italy for the alleged theft of antiquities and cultural heritage objects.  Veres was also given a suspended sentence of one year and ten months imprisonment for his role in a November 09, 1995, U.S. Customs seizure of a $1.2 million fourth century BCE gold phiale used for pouring libations sold on to Art Collector Michael Steinhardt.


Utilising a European Investigation Order issued by the prosecutor of the Republic of Caltanissetta and with the coordination of EUROPOL and EUROJUST, searches were conducted abroad where numerous archaeological finds, 30,000 euros in cash and documentation useful for further investigations were all seized.  Investigations are also reported to be ongoing at two auction houses located in Munich, Germany.

Entered into force 22 May 2017, a European Investigation Order is based on mutual recognition, and requires that each EU country be obliged to recognise and carry out the request of the other EU country, as it would do with a decision coming from its own authorities. 

In total some 3,000 archaeological objects are said to have been recovered with an estimated value of €20 million.  Placing value on material culture outside of their context though cheapens the loss as the loss of context and what we can learn from the objects found in situ is not factored in their estimated valuation. 

Interestingly this network is also believed to have been involved in counterfeiting ancient coins and other objects intended for sale when the demand for ancient material exceeded the supply chain's capacity to provide looted material. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

May 25, 2018

Countering Antiquities Trafficking (CAT) in the Mashreq

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

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


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

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

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

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

Criminals work outside border considerations.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Time to look further ahead as well as looking back.

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

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

March 30, 2018

Illegal chains which mirror legal ones and function in the penumbra of the legal ones


While much has been discussed with regards to terrorism financed via the sale of plundered antiquities, substantiating claims with clear and defined ‘evidence’ is not straightforward. From the outside these networks are labyrinthine, multi-tiered and opaque.  From the inside militants and non-militant criminals are known to conduct illicit transactions with cash and cash alternatives which are, by their very nature, structured to fly below the radar of law enforcement authorities. This makes assessing their impact difficult to estimate and the detection and prosecution of criminals complicated. 

Even when uncovered, traffickers involved in the laundering of illicit antiquities usually haven't kept substantive incriminating paper trails that investigators can peruse to determine what their profit margin was on the antiquities they launder.  Nor are people facing charges of laundering antiquities through the art market likely to be forthcoming with incriminating evidence that identifies who else has benefited from the layered transactions that occur from the time the object is looted from an archaeological rich region until the antiquity reached the identified collector, dealer, gallery, or auction house.

All this to say that those involved in the illicit market don't advertise their relationships with known criminals and the same holds even more true when the profiteering parties have direct or indirect business dealings with transnational criminal networks or militant organizations.

Additionally the economic behavior of terrorist groups and transnational criminal networks during conflicts share many of the same characteristics, methods and tactics.  Both operate in secrecy and little is known about how the groups coexist and, or, interact within the same geographic space.  

But like any legal supply chain does, an illegal supply chain matches supply with demand. So while much of our evidence of where the proceeds of transnational artefact crime finish is condemned by the market as being anecdotal, what we see clearly is the regions from which illicit contraband flows.  From there we can extrapolate that illicit antiquities originating in countries of conflict, from zones where terrorists or militants have a controlling stake territorially, are a potential revenue stream for terrorism.

Where the two chains, the legal and the illegal, meet.


This month after almost three years of investigations, involving some fifty law enforcement officers, Spanish authorities have brought formal charges against two individuals for their alleged participation in a crime of financing terrorism, belonging to a criminal organization, concealment of contraband and use of forgery for their roles in facilitating the sale of illicit antiquities.

On orders from the Audiencia Nacional, a special high court in Spain with jurisdiction throughout the Spanish territory and over international crimes which come under the competence of Spanish courts, Barcelona antiquities dealer Jaume Bagot and his partner Oriol Carreras Palomar.  Both were taken into custody for their alleged role(s) in the sale of Greek and Roman antiquities plundered from Libya and Egypt, which prosecutors believe were then being sold through the licit European art market purporting to be antiquities from historic collections.

Screen Capture: 
Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XObAk1kDVp4
Answering to the charges, the pair appeared before Judicial Magistrate Diego de Egea of the Central Court of Instruction Number 6 of the National Court on Monday, March 26, 2018 where they were formally informed of the allegations against them. During the hearing the magistrate granted their release pending trial, imposing a financial surety (bond) and a series of pretrial release conditions which included the forfeiture of their passports, a mandate to remain within the territory of Spain, and biweekly court appearances as conditions of their release while awaiting trial.

Jaume Bagot established his gallery, J. Bagot Arqueología Ancient Art Gallery in 2005 in the heart of Barcelona.  According to his profile on the BRAFA art fair website, where he is a vetted dealer of ancient art, Bagot's firm specializes in the sale of art from the Etruscan, Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilizations, from Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Gandhara and from various Pre-Columbian cultures. No mention of Libyan cultural objects are mentioned in his BRAFA profile, and yet, police authorities in Spain have seized sculpture which originated from three cities of Libya: Albaida, Apolonia and Cyrene, some of which is believed to have been looted while the territory was under the control of Islamist militants.

Bagot's gallery is listed as a member of the influential dealer association C.I.N.O.A. (Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d'Art), as well as the F.E.A. (Federación Española de Anticuarios) where they list him as Jaume Bagot Peix, where he is identified as the vice-président of the  Professional Group of Antiquarians of the (Barcelona) Royal Shipyard (Asociación de Anticuarios de las Reales Atarazanas) 

In addition to forming strategic affiliations within the art market's important dealer associations, Bagot's gallery's "about us" page assures potential collectors that he is an ethical dealer by stating:

"Our main objective is to offer original ancient works of art guaranteeing their authenticity and maximum quality while at the same time strictly complying with the laws of protection of national, foreign and UNESCO heritage." 

and

"We also carry out exhaustive research into the provenance and previous ownership of the pieces. To this end we make use of the  data base [sic] of stolen objects, Art Loss Register, as well as making use of publications, sworn  statements, dated photographs, bills, customs documents and insurance policies."

All of which stands in stark contradiction to the apparent charges he now faces with the Spanish authorities of facilitating the sale of illicit antiquities from regions of conflict where terrorist actors might have been involved.

Criminal actors and investments in the legitimate art economy: 
The making of a case = Good (unfortunately usally unpaid) research.

As is all too often the case, some of the best evidence collected highlighting trends in the field of illicit trafficking, is research conducted by unpaid academics, as there has been little funding up until now, made available at the national or multinational level in market countries to financially support the type of in-depth specialized research required by provenance experts studying the flow of illicit objects onto the licit market.  This holds true as well for this particular Spanish investigation, which got its start thanks to an academic researcher.

During his PhD research on les sculptures funéraires de Cyrénaïque (the funerary sculptures of Cyrenaica), French historian, turned conflict antiquities researcher, Morgan Belzic, of the École Pratique des Hautes Études had been working with the French Archaeological Mission and Libya heritage authorities documenting antiquity in the northeastern part of modern Libya focusing on the cities of Shahat (Cyrene), Susa (Apollonia), Tulmaytha (Ptolemais), Tocra (Taucheira), and Benghazi (Euesperides/Berenike).

Looking at evidence useful for understanding the culture and history of ancient Cyrenaica, which thrived between the 6th century BCE and the 4th century CE, Belzic uncovered a worrisome correlation between the looting and destruction that has occurred over the past twenty years at the Greek necropoleis of Libya and an uptick in the number of ancient objects, identifiable solely to that specific region, appearing on the international art market. In conjunction with this increased availability of ancient material surfacing on the art market, he also noted that tomb destruction in the region had risen exponentially, in part as a result of the longstanding instability in the region, but notably over the last ten years in conjunction with items appearing in the market.

Speaking with Morgan about his research last summer, during an informal ARCA meeting of academic antiquities researchers, he told me that while the material remains, the alabaster, glass, and terracotta, found in the tombs of Cyrenaica could likewise be found in other Hellenistic regions, making it difficult to pinpoint the country of origin for looted antiquities of these types, the deities and funerary portraits of Cyrenaica are an exception.

Belzic explained that these sculptures are quite specific in their iconography and style, making it possible for experts, familiar with the sculpture of Cyrenaica, to objectively identify pieces from the region.  Then when these types of sculpture come on the market,  with limited documentation that does not match with existing established collections, one can begin to question their legitimacy and whether or not they may have come from ransacked tombs before making their way into some of Europe's prestigious galleries.

With two rival governments, and countless local militias in Libya, Belzic understood that the probability of staunching the flow of illicit objects following out of Libya could only be tackled by disrupting the demand side of the supply chain.  With that in mind, he turned his research over to law enforcement authorities in Spain who began their lengthy investigation building upon the foundation of his academic research.

In an interview with Crónica Global Media “JBP,” as the Catalan antiquarian prefers to be called, denies any direct involvement with purchasing antiquities from parties in Iraq, Libya or Syria.  He goes on to add that all the items in his inventory have been purchased in good faith, without knowing that the objects in question had been stolen or looted.  His statements imply that any illegal antiquities that made their way into his gallery's inventory did so by honest, unknowing mistake, rather than willful ignorance or a lack of due diligence.

Bagot’s statements are telling as they touch upon the legal framework, technicalities and procedural obstacles that the dealer may try to use in his defence and when fighting any cross-border restitution claim presented by Libya and Egypt in relation to the seizure of his merchandise. It is this culture of willful impunity, the eye's closed "I didn't know" approach which has, for so long, contributed to the challenges of preventing the illegal trafficking of cultural objects through the means of prosecution. 

Unless we establish mandated due diligence accountability for dealers, those who deal in the grey area of the market will continue to rely on the legal conceptualizations of property and ownership in countries favourable to their mercurial transactions.  

Last week I spoke at an UNESCO-EU-funded conference in Paris entitled “Engaging the European Art Market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property” where I recommended more dedicated public prosecutors and law enforcement officers assigned to focus on art crimes, and building capacity (i.e. funding) in support of experts dedicated to analyzing trafficking from regions at risk.   Belzic, who sat beside me, listened thoughtfully to Erika Bochereau, General Secretary of C.I.N.O.A. (Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d'Art) as she said “It is in the interest of dealers to work only in the licit trade because their business depends on it.”  

I wonder what the confederation's stance will be now that one of their members has come under prosecutorial scrutiny.  

By:  Lynda Albertson

January 20, 2018

Hobby Lobby turns over more artifacts to federal prosecutors in New York

Image Credit:  US Dept of Justice
According to documents released by the US Federal authorities, officials affiliated with Hobby Lobby, the American craft-supply mega-chain, have relinquished another 245 ancient cylinder seals (in some articles it has been misquoted that the forfeiture included cuneiform tablets), originating from ancient Mesopotamia, to a storage facility within the Eastern District of New York on Wednesday, January 17, 2018. 

According to the letter signed by United States Attorney Richard Donoghue and Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Orenstein, the forfeited items, from the zone of modern day Iraq 

“constitute merchandise that was introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States contrary to law, and are therefore subject to seizure and forfeiture to the United States, in accordance with 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c)(1)(A),”

This new forfeiture was done by way of an earlier settlement and decree of forfeiture between the the United States of America and Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., dating to June 29, 2017 related to "The United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty (450) Ancient Cuneiform Tablets; and Approximately Three Thousand (3,000) Ancient-Clay Bullae"

As noted in documents related to that civil forfeiture agreement, Hobby Lobby president, and evangelical benefactor, Steve Green, through his designated buyers, began building a substantial private collection of antiquities in anticipation of the opening the the Green-sponsored $800 million, eight-story Museum of the Bible,  which later opened this past November.

According to the Museum of the Bible website, the Green's purchased their first biblical object in November 2009.   Since that time, their private collection has grown to an accelerated rate to an estimated 40,000 objects which includes Dead Sea Scroll fragments, biblical papyri, rare biblical texts and manuscripts, cuneiform tablets, Torah scrolls, and rare printed Bibles.  

On one of the Green's authorised purchasing trips in July 2010 to the UAE, in which Green himself attended, Hobby Lobby negotiated the purchase of
"5,548 distinct artifacts: 1,500 cuneiform tablets, 500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets and 500 stone cylinder seals." [page eight]
paying $1.6 million despite the lack of accompanying legitimate paperwork and the likely plundered origin of the artifacts.  The procured antiquities were then shipped to the purchaser in multiple shipments via Federal Express to Oklahoma City to various different destination addresses affiliated with Hobby Lobby and its subsidiaries.  

Five of these shipments, however, were intercepted in transit between January 3rd and January 5th 2011 and were found to have been falsely labeled as "Ceramic Tiles" or "Tiles (Sample)" [pages 13-14] misidentifying the contents of the packages so that the  artifacts instead appeared to be simply arts and crafts items.

As the importation of cultural property into the United States in violation of a foreign country’s patrimony law (in this case Iraq) violates the National Stolen Property Act, codified at Title 18, United States Code, Section 2314, et seq. the objects were seized by federal authorities and an investigation was initiated. 

As an outcome of that US Federal investigation, Hobby Lobby agreed to hand over 5,548 smuggled artifacts in July 2017 and the firm was heavily criticized by both academics and the general public for supporting the illicit trade through its unethical purchase of antiquities.



The June 2017 stipulation of settlement between Hobby Lobby and the United States stated that:
"in the event that any of the Artifacts not included in the Defendants in rem were to “come into [Hobby Lobby’s] physical custody or control, whether inside or outside of the United States, [then] Hobby Lobby will immediately notify the Office and arrange for such Artifacts to be delivered to a place to be designated by the [United States] at Hobby Lobby’s sole expense." [page eight]
Where are the remaining 1709 objects Hobby Lobby has agreed to hand over? 

In 2017, according to documentation filed with the US Federal Courts in July 2017, Hobby Lobby relinquished 3,594 clay bullae, cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets and other Near Eastern artifacts out of a total of over 5,500 documented in the same purchase. This weeks additional 2018 forfeiture of 245 cylinder seals brings the total number of artefacts relinquished to date by Hobby Lobby to only 3,839 objects.  

Equally important, when will the Museum of the Bible answer scholars who have been posing questions for several years about the provenance and authenticity of additional key objects which remain part of, or are on display at the newly opened Museum of the Bible.  

One of these, a Galations coptic papyrus fragment, was once on sale in 2012 via a dubious seller on eBay before being spotted at the Green’s Vatican exhibit Verbum Domini II in 2014.  Until now, despite numerous requests from University of Manchester scholar Roberta Mazza dating as far back as 2014,  the Museum of the Bible has declined all requests to clarify how and from whom this trafficked fragment and ca. 1,000 papyrus fragments and the other Egyptian objects in the collection were acquired.

By:  Lynda Albertson

For more on the collection practices of the Green family and its former associates please see these previous ARCA articles. 


January 9, 2018

List of 6 (additional) objects and warrant details on objects seized from Phoenix Ancient Art by New York State District Attorney's Office

Copy of search warrant executed at Phoenix Ancient Art in New York can be viewed here.

On Friday, January 5, 2018, Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., and assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos also initiated seizures at Phoenix Ancient Art, New York, in connection with an investigation into the purchase of illicitly trafficked antiquities.

The second-generation family business Phoenix Ancient Art has galleries in New York and Geneva. The business was founded by Sleiman Aboutaam in 1968 and is now operated by his sons, Hicham and Ali Aboutaam.  The Aboutaam name comes up frequently on ARCA's blog. 

The search warrants executed at 47 East 66th street resulted in the seizure of the following objects:


A) Rhodian Seated Monkey with missing arms (the “Seated Monkey”)
Period: dating to 580-550 BCE
Measurement: 5.25 inches tall
Valued at: $150,000


B) Attic Female Head Flask (the Female Head Flask”)
Period: dating to 500-490 BCE
Measurement: 5.5 inches tall by 2 inches wide.
Valued at: $80,000


C) Ionian figural vessel representing a Siren (the”Siren Vessel”)
Period: dating to 500-525 BCE
Measurement: 4 inches tall by 4.5 inches wide.
Valued at: $35,000


D) Teano Ware figural representing a Dove (the “Dove”).
Period: dating to 330-300 BCE
Measurement: 4.5 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide.
Valued at: $25,000


E) Corinthian figural representing a Ram (the “Ram”) painted with black dots.
Period: dating to the 6th century BCE
Measurement: 2 1/8 inches tall by 3 1/8 inches wide
Valued at: $20,000


F) Corinthian figural representing a Sea-Serpent with a human torso and head of a man (the “Sea-Serpent”) painted with black dots.
Period: dating to the 6th century BCE
Measurement: 4.5 inches tall by 1.75 inches wide
Valued at: $140,000

In addition to the antiquities, as with the seizures which were executed at Michael Steinhardt's residence and office, the DA's seizure warrant called for the seizure of:

any and all documentation or other evidence related to the appraisal, consignment, sale, possession, transportation, shipping, provenance, importation, exportation, restoration, marketing, or insurance of the listed antiquities, including but not limited to appraisals, insurance policies, agreements, leases, contracts, emails, letters, invoices, receipts, documents, handwritten notes, internal memoranda, photographs, recordings, financial records, address books, date books, calendars, and personal papers;

found in the premises and that constitutes evidence, and tends to demonstrate that the crime of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree was committed.

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

November 16, 2017

Il vento sta cambiando, updates on Gianfranco Becchina asset seizure, fire, and vote fixing.

Politics and mafia are both powers which draw life from the control of the same territory; so they either wage war or come to some form of agreement.
--Paolo Borsellino,
Italian magistrato italiano, murdered by the Mafia


Yesterday ARCA reported on the assets seizures involving 78-year-old Gianfranco Becchina, an action taken in relation to probable collusion with the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra. The disgraced Italian antiquities dealer was convicted in the first degree in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade. A portion of his accumulated business records, up until 2002, were seized earlier by Swiss and Italian authorities during raids conducted on Becchina’s Swiss art gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland. This archive of documents and photos, known as the Becchina archive, consists of some 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents and photos related to antiquities, bought and sold, which at one point or another are known to have passed through this dealer's network of illicit suppliers.


Mafia association is a formal criminal offense provided for by the Italian penal code introduced into law via article 416-ter of Law no. 646/1982, and designed to combat the spread of the Mafia.

Art. 416-ter reads: 

"Any person participating in a Mafia-type unlawful association including three or more persons shall be liable to imprisonment for 7 to 12 years. 

Those persons promoting, directing or organizing the said association shall be liable, for this sole offence, to imprisonment for 9 to 14 years. 

Mafia-type unlawful association is said to exist when the participants take advantage of the intimidating power of the association and of the resulting conditions of submission and silence to commit criminal offences, to manage or at all events control, either directly or indirectly, economic activities, concessions, authorizations, public contracts and services, or to obtain unlawful profits or advantages for themselves or for others, or with a view to prevent or limit the freedom to vote, or to get votes for themselves or for others on the occasion of an election. 

Should the association be of the armed type, the punishment shall be imprisonment for 9 to 15 years pursuant to paragraph 1 and imprisonment for 12 to 24 years pursuant to paragraph 2. 

An association is said to be of the armed type when the participants have firearms or explosives at their disposal, even if hidden or deposited elsewhere, to achieve the objectives of the said association. 

If the economic activities of which the participants in the said association aim at achieving or maintaining the control are funded, totally or partially, by the price, the products or the proceeds of criminal offences, the punishments referred to in the above paragraphs shall be increased by one-third to one-half. 

The offender shall always be liable to confiscation of the things that were used or meant to be used to commit the offence and of the things that represent the price, the product or the proceeds of such offence or the use thereof. 

The provisions of this article shall also apply to the Camorra, ‘ndrangheta and to any other associations, whatever their local titles, even foreigners, seeking to achieve objectives that correspond to those of Mafia-type unlawful association by taking advantage of the intimidating power of the association." 

To further dismantle Matteo Messina Denaro’s operational funding, Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) moved to seize Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., his olive oil company, Olio Verde srl., Demetra srl., Becchina & Company srl., bank accounts, land, and real estate properties including Palazzo Pignatelli yesterday.  Palazzo Pignatelli is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider, a separate portion of which is owned by the city of Castelvetrano and houses the town hall. 

During the execution of the seizure of assets at Palazzo Pignatelli, a fire mysteriously broke out in a first-floor study, located in Becchina's wing of of the property.  Called on the scene, fire department officials extinguished the flames yesterday and returned for a second time today, along with the DIA and scientific police to uncover any traces that would determine the cause of the fire.

The seizure of these Becchina assets comes following the cooperation of mafia associate/police informant Giuseppe Grigoli, known in wiretaps as Grig.  Grigoli once owned a chain of Despar supermarkets in northwestern Sicily, used to launder mafia proceeds into the legal economy.  Starting out in 1974 as the owner of one grocery, Grigoli parlayed his relationship with Cosa Nostra, building a business empire which was once valued as a 700 million euro enterprise. 

The Italian authorities seized Grigoli's assets when they tied him to mafia  transactions through banking documents from 1999 through 2002, when the "king of supermarkets" was at the height of his business success. The arrest and conviction of Grigoli proved to be the tip of the Trapani Cosa Nostra iceberg and served to flush out many players in the hidden network of strategic partners that facilitate the activities of fugitive Castelvetrano boss, Matteo Messina Denaro, including now, Gianfranco Becchina. 

As a now cooperating police informant, Grigoli told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina which were to be delivered to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro.  But Becchina's mafia influence doesn't apparently stop at trafficking of antiquities and aiding and abetting a mobster on the run. 

An article written in today’s La Repubblica by journalist Salvo Palazzolo, reports that during a 2001 Carabinieri TPC wiretap into Becchina’s role in the illicit trafficking of antiquities, law enforcement authorities overheard conversations between Becchina and Santo Sacco, a former UIL trade unionist and city councillor for Castelvetrano, who was later sentenced for mafia association.

In police transcripts of those conversations Becchina implicated himself as being involved in vote fixing in support of the election campaign of Giuseppe Marinello, from the People of Freedom party, who, at the time, was running for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies representing Sciacca in Sicily.  In their conversation Sacco also boasted about his role in the campaign of Ludovico Corrao saying "But I fully carried inside an iron bell ... I'm not kidding, 6,400 votes..."  Both incidences clearly show the impact of organized crime on parliamentary elections in Sicily.

In a mysterious wrinkle to this story, ex senator Corrao was later the victim of a gruesome murder. In 2011 his throat was found cut with a kitchen knife, nearly decapitating his head, both wrists had been slashed and he was left in a bloody pool having apparently also been bludgeoned with a statuette. After the slaughter, Seiful Islam, a Bangladeshi servant, called the police and confessed to the murder.  Islam later attempted suicide while in custody and was found not guilty by reason of unsound mind and transferred to a psychiatric facility.

Illicit trafficking,
money laundering,
influence peddling,
vote fixing,
arson,
murder.

Organized crime is detrimental not just to art, but to the functioning of a society.

By:  Lynda Albertson

November 15, 2017

Assets of Gianfranco Becchina seized in relation to mafia collusion

DIA Seizing Gianfranco Becchina assets 
Most people who follow the illicit trafficking of antiquities will already be familiar with the name of Gianfranco Becchina -- a name frequently linked to Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes, and Bob Hecht and their roles in furthering the illicit antiquities trade.  Less well known perhaps, at least among the who's who list of criminals involved in art crimes, is Matteo Messina Denaro, or the details of Becchina's alleged involvement with the inner circle of this Cosa Nostra kingpin. This, despite the fact that Becchina seems to have been sent a warning message from the mob in January 2012, when someone fired shots from a shotgun at his door and left an intimidating gift of flowers.

L'omertà e la paura and the boss of bosses

With a name straight out of an Italian comic book, Matteo Messina Denaro, also known as "Diabolik", solidified his position in the mafia following the arrests of two of his predecessors, Salvatore "Totò" Riina in 1993 and Bernardo Provenzano in 2006.  He is said to command close to 1000 underlings, through 20 mafia families and white collar business associates.  This  makes his Trapani-based enterprise the defacto zoccolo duro (solid pedestal) of the Cosa Nostra, second only to the families in Palermo responsible for illicit trafficking across the Atlantic between the new generations of the American and Sicilian Cosa Nostra.

Ruthless and calculating,  Denaro earned a reputation for brutality by murdering rival Trapani crime boss Vincenzo Milazzo, and then strangling Milazzo's girlfriend who was then three months pregnant. A fugitive since 1993, he was convicted in absentia for mafia bomb attacks that killed 10 people in Rome, Florence and Milan and wounded many others.

As is common among organized crime syndicates, Denaro saught to diversify his interests.  Wiretaps obtained by prosecutors suggest that the crime boss had interests in more than 40 corporate entities and 98 properties, laundering funds through various third parties and third party entities.

In 2013 anti-Mafia task force investigators seized a prized Trapani-based olive grove in Sicily worth €20m on the basis that profits from this agricultural enterprise provided an economic support structure for the fugitive crime boss. In 2015, 16, and 17 more arrests and seizures followed as the authorities work to cut off the revenue streams of the boss on the run.

Despite being a fugitive from justice, this entrepreneur mafioso with dirty hands is thought to be hiding in plain sight somewhere in Sicily,  perhaps even in his home town, Castelvetrano, where Becchina resides and where Denaro's relatives and a daughter, conceived while on the lam, reside.

Image Credit: Bellumvider Cultural Society
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To further dismantle Denaro's operational funding, this week Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (Dia), through the Court of Trapani's penal and preventive measures section, seized all movable assets,  including real estate and corporate enterprises attributable to Gianfranco Becchina on the basis of an order issued from the District Attorney of Palermo.  This includes Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., Olio verde srl., his own olive oil production company, Demetra srl., Becchina & company srl., and Palazzo Pignatelli, once the noble residence of the family Tagliavia-Aragona-Pignatelli, which is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider (the public part is owned by the city and houses the town hall).  Investigators also seized Becchina's land, vehicles and bank accounts.

The Trapani branch of the Cosa Nostra is believed to have accumulated some portions of its wealth through the proceeds of illicit archaeological finds, many procured through grave robbers working at the isolated Archaeological Park of Selinunte, one of Sicily's great ancient Greek cities, located near Castelvetrano.  The archaeological site covers 40 hectares and includes Greek temples, ancient town walls, and the ruins of residential and commercial buildings and given its remote location, much of the site has not been formally excavated, leaving it prey to opportunistic looters.

Image Credit: Accademia degli incerti

The link from Matteo Messina Denaro to Gianfranco Becchina begins with Denaro's father,  Francesco Messina Denaro, who was the capo mandamento in Castelvetrano and the head of the mafia commission of the Trapani region. Francesco Messina Denaro was believed to have been behind the theft of the famous Efebo of Selinunte, a 3′ tall bronze statue of Dionysius Iachos from the 5th century BCE, stolen on October 30, 1962 and recovered in 1968 through the help of Rodolfo Siviero, who orchestrated a sting operation with mafia contacts by posing as the "nephew" of a Florentine art gallery that would purchase antiquities without asking too many questions about ownership.  When the mafia intermediaries tried to fence the statue in Foligno, six accomplices were arrested and the statue was returned to the Civic Museum of Castelvetrano, though not before a shootout with the authorities. 

Law enforcement authorities working on this case drew information about Becchina's connection to Cosa Nostra through former traffic cop, Concetto Mariano of the Cosa Nostra Marsala family. Mariano began cooperating with justice officials two months after being arrested.  A second informant, Giuseppe Grigoli, again a cooperating Cosa Nostra prestanome told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina, to be delivered discreetly to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro, both of whom have been convicted for their own mafia collusion and have had substantial property holdings of their own confiscated.

The Dancing Satyr
Image Credit piazza Plebiscito Museum
A unnamed Marsala family informant also told law enforcement that he had been instructed by the head of his mafia command to steal the bronze statue of the Dancing Satyr, attributed by scholars to Praxiteles housed at the Piazza Plebiscito Museum in Mazara del Vallo.  The order for the theft (never executed) was said to have come directly from Matteo Messina Denaro, who would then be marketing it  through experienced Swiss channels.

Interestingly, this dancing satyr bronze was purportedly fished from the Strait of Sicily by a fishing boat from Mazara called the "Captain Ciccio" in 1997.  Mafioso Francesco Messina Denaro, also went by the name  "Don Ciccio"

Mere coincidence? 

Maybe, but along with the eight men of his crew, the captain and owner of the Captain Ciccio received a hefty reward for their fishing expedition.


Maybe, but along with the eight men of his crew, the captain and owner of the Captain Ciccio received a hefty reward for their fishing expedition.

Shipowner Toni Scilla received fifty percent; Francesco Adragna, as captain, received twenty-five percent; and the rest of the prize was divided between crew members in proportion to their job duties as boatswain, engineer, or shipmate.

UPDATE:  As of late morning a fire has broken out at Becchina's residence at Palazzo Pignatelli.   Reports say the fire occurred in his daughter's apartment during the execution of the DIA search warrant.  Investigators suspect that it was a Becchina family member intent on destroying certain documents.

No confirmation by the fire department yet as to if the fire was arson or accidental.