Showing posts with label police seizures. Show all posts
Showing posts with label police seizures. Show all posts

March 16, 2017

Repatriation: Attic Red-Figure Nolan Amphora by the Harrow Painter

Image Credit: Manhattan District Attorney’s Office
Left - Min. Plen. Francesco Genuardi, Consul General of Italy in New York
Right -  Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.
On February 25, 2017 ARCA announced a second antiquities seizure at Royal-Athena Galleries, a well known New York City-based gallery operated by Jerome Eisenberg, following object identifications made by forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis.  The item seized was an Attic Red-Figure Nolan amphora painted by the Harrow Painter, a vase painter known to have decorated column craters, oinochoai, and neck amphorae from approximately 480 until 460 B.C.E. 

A week earlier, Tsirogiannis had informed both ARCA and the Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, Matthew Bogdanos, that he had matched the ancient object to three images from the archive of disgraced Italian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina, convicted in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade. The dealer's accumulation of business records, seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002, consists of some 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents related to antiquities, bought and sold, which at one point or another are known to have passed through Becchina's network of illicit suppliers. 


Presented with irrefutable evidence of the object's illicit past, the neck amphora, valued at $250,000, was quickly forfeited by the New York dealer. 

Today, in New York City, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. formally handed over the amphora to the Italian authorities during a repatriation ceremony attended by Minister Plenipotentiary Francesco Genuardi, the Consul General of Italy in New York, and the Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge of Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) New York, Debra Parker.

According to the New York County District Attorney website, the Neck Amphora will be exhibited at the Consulate General of Italy in New York for a few months in celebration of its return before ultimately going back to Italy.  Once home, the object will be placed on permanent display in one of Italy's museums which are part of the regional Polo Museale del Lazio,’ a grouping of museums in the territory near Rome, some of which are in the immediate vicinity of where the object was likely looted. 

The DA's website also mentioned that the amphora will be displayed in Italy with "a special mention of the decisive contribution of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for its repatriation."

Here is hoping there is also room on the museum's brass ID plate for the name "Tsirogiannis." It was through this diligent researcher's identification, and the earlier work of Maurizio Pelligrini from Rome's Villa Giulia, which ultimately tied this Neck Amphora to the specific group of identified traffickers, middlemen and dealers who had working relationships with Becchina.   It is his analysis of the dealer's archival records, which proved to be the critical component of the evidentiary material which ultimately paved the way for the New York DA's office through the request of attorney Matthew Bogdanos, to request that this object be seized.  This request for seizure in turn leading to the eventual "voluntary" forfeiture of the amphora.  

As a general rule, antiquities dealers do not voluntarily give up ancient works of art worth six figures unless they have to.   They do so, only when the evidence presented makes a compelling legal case which persuades them that it would probably be in their best interest to do so. 

By: Lynda Albertson

February 25, 2017

Auction Alert and Antiquities Seizure: Second seizure at Royal-Athena Galleries, New York


On February 17, 2017 forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis alerted Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos in Manhattan that he had identified another antiquity, likely of illicit origin, apparently being laundered via the US art market.  The object in question had been listed for sale via Royal-Athena Galleries, a New York City-based gallery which is operated by Jerome Eisenberg.   Royal-Athena Galleries is the same New York gallery which relinquished an illicitly trafficked sarcophagus fragment to the country of Greece a few weeks ago. 


Attic Red-Figure Nolan Amphora
By the Harrow Painter
Ex C.H. collection, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Exhibited: Yale University Art Museum, 2003-2015.
Price: P.O.R.  (Price on Request)

As per Tsirogiannis, this same vase appears in three images from the Gianfranco Becchina archive pictured below.


The Becchina Archive is an accumulation of records seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland.  This archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer's business.  

Becchina's records include shipping manifests, dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images.  Many of the images are not slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, crude point and shoot polaroids taken by looters and middlemen depicting recently looted antiquities. Some of these polaroids show objects immediately after their looting and show objects which often still bear soil and salt encrustations. 

In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade. While he later appealed this conviction, antiquities like this vase, traced to this network of antiquities traffickers, continue to surface years after their original looting.  Objects like this one, have resurfaced in private collections, museums and some of the world's most well know and ostentatious galleries and auction houses specializing in ancient art so it is important for collectors to remain on alert to the history of the objects they consider for purchase. 

When discussing his identifications with ARCA Tsirogiannis andicated that the photograph below, of a handwritten note by Gianfranco Becchina himself, documents that the Italian dealer had knowledge of the looted Neck Amphora's existence at least as far back as 28 February 1994.  Documents in the archive which represent the dealer's own meticulous record-keeping, shows that Becchina acquired the vase on the 15th of March 1994 and paid for the object on the 11th of April of that same year.


It is important to note that this red-figure attic vase is one of the most important styles of figural Greek vase painting.  In the Italian dealer's records, the object appears in photographs together with another object, an amphora.  This second object has been redacted from the image presented for the purposes of this blog post as the object is still in circulation.  Both antiquities seem to have come from a single Italian looter or middleman trafficker identified only as 'Robertino'. Given this information, it is plausible that the second identified piece of Attic pottery was looted at or near the same period of time, and may likely come from the same Etruscan tomb. 

It is Dr. Tsirogiannis' opinion that the two object photo ties the vase definitively to the country of Italy and that therefore, the vase should be repatriated to the Italian authorities.  

Other examples of illicit material which have passed through this New York dealer's art and antiquities firm include:



Eight antiquities stolen from museums and archaeological sites worth US$ 510,000.

And most recently, on February 10, 2017, a sarcophagus fragment depicting a battle between Greeks and Trojans looted from Greece and relinquished to the Greek Authorities.

Speaking with Dr. Tsirogiannis about this most recent identification he stated "As in the recent case of the sarcophagus fragment that has been repatriated to Greece, so in this case the identification and the evidence are sending back to Italy a valuable Greek vase. This result was achieved with the cooperation of assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos in New York who handled the seizure and the archaeologist of the Villa Giulia museum in Rome Mr. Maurizio Pellegrini who provided crucial information about the identity of the looter involved."

Given the fact that it often takes sound identifications, such as those conducted by researchers actively working on the Becchina dossier, forfeiture by art market dealers should not be misconstrued as spontaneous acts of good well. In many of such cases, the antiquities are relinquished either to avoid lengthy litigation or as a gesture by the suspect holder of the object to remove themselves from any negative publicity caused by having their name associated with having handled or purchased trafficked art.

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 14, 2017

Auction Alert and Antiquities Seizure: Royal-Athena Galleries, New York

On January 8, 2017 forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis alerted Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos in Manhattan and ARCA that he had identified another illicit antiquity, apparently being laundered via the US art market.  The object in question had been listed for sale via Royal-Athena Galleries, a New York City-based gallery which is operated by Jerome Eisenberg

Screen Capture - Royal-Athena Galleries 1
According to Tsirogiannis the object identified was a 64.8 x 90.8 cm. sarcophagus fragment which matches four polaroid images and three handwritten notes found in the Becchina archive. 

This accumulation of records was seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Gianfranco Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland.  The Becchina Archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer's business.  

These records include shipping manifests, dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images.  Many of the images are not slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, are point and shoot polaroids taken by looters and middlemen which depict recently looted antiquities, some of which still bear soil and salt encrustations. 

In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade and while he later appealed this conviction, looted antiquities traced to his trafficking network, like this sarcophagus fragment, continue to surface in private collections, museums and some of the world's most well know auction firms specializing in ancient art.  

In releasing his identifications to ARCA Tsirogiannis said:

"Regarding the sarcophagus fragment, each of the four Polaroid images depicting the fragment is included in a different file of the Becchina archive:

I discovered the first image (attachment no. 1) in a file that Becchina created to archive the antiquities he was receiving from a Greek trafficker termed in the archive ‘ZE’ or ‘ZENE’ (the beginning of his surname) or ‘Giorgio’ (Giorgos, his first name in Greek). This trafficker, now deceased, was well-known to the Greek police art squad.

attachment no. 1

In a separate handwritten note (attachment no. 2), Becchina records that he received the antiquity (‘1 Frto. [meaning ‘Fragment’] di sarcofago’) for 60.000 Swiss Francs on 25 May 1988. 

attachment no. 2
This antiquity is recorded as the 9th object included in the 34th group of antiquities that ‘Zene’ sent to Becchina (see attachment no. 3).

attachment no. 3
Another note (attachment no. 4), a handwritten page, lists a group of antiquities that Becchina bought from ‘Zene’, from November 1986 until October 1988, for more than $250,000, including the sarcophagus’ fragment (no. 9).

attachment no. 4
The fifth attachment is a photocopy of a Polaroid image, depicting the same antiquity; this image was attached to a blank A4 page, together with other Polaroid images depicting other antiquities that ‘Zene’ smuggled from Greece to Becchina, under the title ‘in PF’, meaning that all these antiquities were stored at the time at the P[ort] [F]ranc (the Free Port) of Basel. 

attachment no. 5
In Becchina’s list of antiquities stored in his warehouses in the Free Port of Basel, the sarcophagus fragment was number 21 (see sixth attachment, another Polaroid image).

attachment no. 6
Finally, I am sending you another handwritten note (attachment no. 7), in which Becchina is asking one of the restorers he was using, Andre Lorenceau, to clean (‘reinigen’) the fragment and to add a base (‘sockeln’), as a support (by drilling into the antiquity). I discovered this note in the Becchina file dedicated to his cooperation with the restorer Andre Lorenceau."

attachment no. 7
According to the Royal-Athena Galleries website, the sarcophagus fragment has been attributed by Dr. Guntram Koch, an academic with an expertise in Roman sarcophagoi. 

Screen Capture - Royal-Athena Galleries 2

In addition to notifying the New York authorities, Tsirogiannis informed INTERPOL and the Greek police art squad. 

The object in question was seized by US authorities at approximately January 14 2:00 pm EST.

Nearly ten years ago in November 2007 Eisenberg returned eight antiquities stolen from museums and archaeological sites worth US$ 510,000 to Italy. Given the fact that it often takes sound identifications, such as those conducted by researchers such as Tsirogiannis, restitutions by art market dealers should not be misconstrued as spontaneous. In most cases pieces are relinquished merely to avoid lengthy litigation or in order for suspect dealers to remove themselves from the negative publicity caused by being subject to criminal charges.

By: Lynda Albertson





December 7, 2016

Seizure: Cairo International Airport - Islamic-era manuscripts and antiquarian books


On November 28, 2016 customs agents at Cairo International Airport foiled a plot to illegally export a shipment of antique Islamic-era books.  Suspicious of the 43-box shipping documentation on objects destined for Doha, Qatar, the items being exported were flagged for further controls.  Upon examination by customs officials, the shipment was found to contain a large quantity of antiquarian books and manuscripts.  Based on their initial findings, and the markings on some of the books, the shipment was frozen on suspicion that the objects may have been illegally acquired.  

Tawfiq Massad, Director General of Customs, authorized that the shipment be held, pending a comprehensive review.  His office in turn formally notified the antiquities authorities so that they could explore the collection's authenticity and its legal or illegal export status as it relates to Egyptian law. 

Working with Ahmed El-Rawi, head of the Recuperation Antiquities Section of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities it was decided that a portion of the books and volumes fell under the protection of Egypt's Laws for rare and ancient books, e.g.

To be the product of Egyptian civilization or the successive civilizations or the creation of art, sciences, literature, or religion that took place on the Egyptian lands since the pre-historic ages and during the successive historic ages till before 100 years ago. --Law No. 8 of 2009, as amended in 2014 on the protection of rare and ancient books and manuscripts, 

Sixty-six rare books and volumes were seized in total; some dating back to the early printing age.  The rare Islamic-era books, having been published during the period needed to be considered as a heritage asset, will be sent to the Egyptian National Library and Archives.  Forty-four volumes, that still bore the stamps of the Al-Azhar library, will be returned to the university's library collection.

September 23, 2016

“Decorative Panels for the Garden” Since when has garden furniture been the code word for antiquities?




The cargo was shipped labeled as “pierres d'ornement pour décoration de jardin” (ornamental stonework for garden decoration) and arrived on March 10, 2016 in transit from Lebanon to Thailand via Paris Charles de Gaulle/Roissy Airport (French: Aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle, IATA: CDG, ICAO: LFPG).  Attracting the attention of customs authorities, the crate was inspected based on data originating from the ICS (Import Control System) that came into force in the European Union at the end of 2010.

The ICS is an eSecurity Declaration Management System used for the importation of goods into the European Union customs territory. Designed in part to deal with the massive volume of cargo that passes through the EU annually, the new regulation requires that a certain number of data elements be sent to the EU customs office at the first port of entry, by a specific deadline, in this case, at least 4 hours before the long haul transiting cargo was scheduled to arrive at the first airport in the territory.  

In most cases this type of prearrival information is transmitted by the sender before the shipment has even left the country of export. Upon receipt of the Entry Summary Declaration message, what is known as the cargo's ENS, the customs office at the port of arrival can then elect to order a shipment pulled where it will undergo a security-related risk analysis.  

When the ENS arrived for the innocuously labeled garden decorations, the identifying data supplied, plus the shipping crates weight (108 kilos), and the cargo's shipper and recipient raised questions.   To be thorough, customs authorities earmarked the container for a cross-check.  

While examining its contents, search officers did not find ordinary household decorations mass produced for a garden, instead they found what appeared to be two original bas-reliefs intricately dotted with grape clusters and birds with no export license from any country of origin.  Called in for consultation, the Department of Antiquities at the Musée du Louvre believe that the carved stone reliefs are authentic and likely dating from between the 14th and the 16th century CE, possibly originating from the middle Euphrates valley, (North Western Syria). *NOTE: This assessment still needs further scientific and validating research.  


Some Import-Export information to chew on...

✈ The Charles de Gaulle, Roissy airport, north of Paris, is the first customs border of France. 

✈ Some 65 million passengers transit through CdG annually. 

✈ In terms of air cargo, just over 50 million metric tonnes of freight are shipped around the globe annually.  

✈ In 2015 a whopping 1,890,829 of those tonnes passed through CdG making it the number two European airport for freight, after Frankfurt.

✈ Art and antiquities valued above a certain threshold exported or imported from one country to another require export licenses

✈ More than 31,500 scheduled international flights depart Lebanon annually, destined for 54 airports in 41 countries.

✈ While legal instruments in place vary from country to country, cultural goods that reach or exceed specific age or monetary value threshold require an individual licence for export, whether on a permanent or temporary loan basis.

✈ Both national ownership laws and export controls are put in place as a restraint on the free circulation of artworks through the market and are promulgated in response to the sale of objects or dismemberment of ancient monuments and sites simply to satisfy market demand.

✈ Ancient artifacts, taken in violation of national ownership laws are stolen property in market nations, as well as in the country of origin.

✈ This is not the first time that smugglers have intentionally mislabeled an illicit ancient object as a contemporary outdoor accoutrement to circumvent the legal instruments. In a case involving the now imfamous Subhash Kapoor, a shipper was expecting the arrival of a shipment containing seven crates manifested as a single “Marble Garden Table Set.”  The consulate believed these crates contained stolen Indian antiquities. This merchandise was allegedly imported by Kapoor.

Kind of makes you wonder how many antiquities/garden sets there are floating around the world over our heads smuggled in or out under the radar.


Some examples of French customs seizures involving cultural objects (though by all means not an inclusive list)

🏺 In March 2006, more than 6,000 artefacts looted from archaeological sites in Niger and seized by French customs officials in 2004 and 2005 were given back to their country of origin.

🏺 In January 2007 customs seized nine suspicious-looking packages marked "hand­crafted objects" from Bamako,  the capital of Mali.  Inside they found more than 650 ancient objects, including ax heads, bracelets, flint stones and stone rings, excavated from a Neolithic settlement in Ménaka (Eastern Mali)

🏺 In 2008, French customs officials seized crates arriving from Togo stamped "craftwork" which contained artefacts. ICOM approached a specialist to appraise the objects, one of which was revealed through thermoluminescence testing to be a genuine Nok statuette from Nigeria. 

🏺 In January 2013 France returned five ancient terracotta sculptures to Nigeria smuggled out of the country in 2010.

🏺 In 2014 France returned 250 Egyptian antiquities dating back to the Roman dominion over Egypt (circa 30-641 BCE) and the Coptic Christian era were seized from the luggage of travellers arriving in Paris in March and November of 2010.

If these are the launderers, then who are the buyers?  

Buying and selling ancient art requires a prudent purchaser, one willing to research the provenience (country of origin) and provenance (history of ownership) of an object they intend to own and to evaluate the available information in the context of the current legal framework.  

When details of an object's past are omitted, by the seller, by an antiquities dealer or by an auction house, either intentionally or accidentally, and a buyer knowingly turns a blind eye, they are just as complicit in facilitating the illicit market and the destruction of cultural heritage.  In the 21st century churning trafficked antiquities through the legitimate marketplace, buying and selling intentionally mislabeled pretty things while still conveniently clinging to the negligent “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach is inexcusable. 

By Lynda Albertson

March 29, 2015

Indystar Reports Death of Don Miller, 91-year-old man whose private collection of artifacts the FBI seized last year

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Jill Disis reported March 26 for Gannet's Indystar that Indiana resident and electrical engineer Don Miller died at the age of 91, one year after the FBI seized his collection of antiquities and artifacts:
News reports in the aftermath of the government seizure were awash with tales from those who had seen his collection, which reportedly included Aztec figurines, Ming Dynasty jade and an Egyptian sarcophagus. Miller never faced any charges related to his collection. No lawsuits were filed against him in the year since the seizure. In his final months, townsfolk told The Indianapolis Star he had disappeared from public life. And even after his death, progress of the federal investigation remains shrouded in mystery. FBI Special Agent Drew Northern declined to comment about the case Tuesday night. Officials from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis anthropology department, which is assisting the FBI in identifying and preserving the artifacts, also would not comment. But a legal expert told The Star it could take years, if not decades, before experts can sort out the legalities of the thousands of objects seized by the government.
Here's a link to the ARCA Blog's earlier post on the FBI seizure (along with a perspective by retired FBI Agent Virginia Curry and anthropologist Kathleen Whitaker).

May 19, 2012

BBC News reports Italian police seize 100 artworks from man convicted of altering slot machines in bars and cafes

Italian police seized 100 artworks, including an original painting by Salvador Dali, as part of an asset forfeiture of more than 330 million euros from a reputed Mafia member convicted last year of collecting millions of dollars in illegal profits from tampering with slot machines in Italy, reported Alan Johnston from Rome for BBC News.

The art will now belong to Italy.

The convict, associated with organized crime out of Calabria, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and had to give up more than 200 properties in Rome, Milan and Paris.


April 16, 2012

Irish Artist Michelle Rogers Secures Release of 14 Paintings Seized by Police at Gallery Suspected of Tax Fraud and Money Laundering

Michelle Rogers' Lampuedusa (200 x 300 cm)
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Fourteen paintings by Irish artist Michelle Rogers seized by police in a raid of a gallery in Rome two years ago were finally released to the artist in March.

Rogers' paintings were held in police custody when a gallery's inventory was taken as part of a police investigation into tax fraud and money laundering.

"The court believed that the paintings belonged to the gallery owner and my fight over the last two years was to get them to realize that the paintings belonged to me," Rogers explained.  "Eventually, after a lot of work by my lawyer and requests from my embassy in Rome, the courts accepted that the art work was mine."

The more than one dozen paintings ranged from 100 x 80 cm to 200 x 300cm.

Michelle Rogers, who also lives part-time in Rome, traveled to Bosnia in 1993 and exhibited works reflecting on the theme of the 9/11 attacks in North America.  Lampeudusa, according to her website, "explores the plight and flight of immigrants of Italy."

Wanted in Rome reported (Return of Michelle Rogers paintings in Rome) that the 14 paintings by Rogers had been exhibited at the Aequalias Contemporary Art Gallery on via Margutta when they were seized in an investigation of the owner, Massimo Micucci, suspected of tax fraud and money laundering for Silvio Scaglia, the billionaire owner of Italian telecommunications company Fastweb.