September 23, 2020

Some background on Erdal Dere and Faisal Khan and Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd., charged in the SD/New York

"Beloved By Time, Four Millennia of Ancient Art"
Published by Fortuna Fine Arts (2000)

Given the United States Department of Justice announcement that the US Attorney in the Southern District of New York has issued an indictment against Erdal Dere and Faisal Khan charging them with defrauding antiquities buyers and brokers by using false provenances to offer and sell antiquities, we thought it might be worthwhile to review some of the earlier warning signs relating to this gallery and its principals, Salim Dere and his son Erdal Dere, as well as another member of the family. 

4 April 1973
A truck loaded with sand, parked on a side road in Istanbul, is discovered to contain a group of marble fragments later determined to be from the circa 170 CE sarcophagus depicting the twelve labours of the Greek hero Herakles. The artefact had been found in a farmer's field near the ancient metropolis of Perge, a Roman site near Antalya.

Tracking the movements of the truck and the pieces, police pay a visit to the shop of a goldsmith named Aziz Dere. There they discover an additional five fragments from the same sarcophagus, which Aziz Dere and Boris Alexander Musseinko had purportedly purchased for around $7,700.

Aziz Dere, Selim Dere, and Faraç Üzülmez, the father of Fuat Üzülmez, a suspect Munich-based antiquities dealer, were subsequently arrested.

The remains of the sarcophagus depicting the twelve labours of Herakles found in the truck and the pieces found in Aziz Dere's goldsmith's shop were sent to the archaeology museum in Istanbul.

Selim Dere is sentenced to two years in prison for antiquities smuggling in Turkey.

A few years after completing his sentence, Salim Dere migrated to New York, where he would later work in a jewelry store, and then open an antiquities gallery. Aziz Dere, believed to be his cousin, settled in Canada.

Turkish researchers identify artefacts from the same tomb as the 170 CE sarcophagus depicting the twelve labours of Hercules. These are repatriated by the John Paul Getty Museum to Turkey in 1983.

Two pieces from the same tomb group were sold by the Mahboubian Gallery in the United Kingdom to a private collection in Switzerland. Other pieces were located in Kessel, West Germany.

13 June 1984
Statuette of a Man, the moon god is sold to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by Selim Dere, operating as West Side Jewelry.

As series of frieze blocks were discovered at the Greco-Roman city of Aphrodisias in the Karacasu district of Aydın province during the 1984 excavation season.

Sometime in 1989
Three frieze blocks from the Tiberius portico are stolen from the excavation site at Aphrodisias and smuggled out of Turkey.

5 June 1989
Fortuna Fine Arts LTD is incorporated in New York.

8 September 1989
Selim Dere formally announced the grand opening of Fortuna Fine Arts in New York.

Selim Dere donates a gilt bronze Mirror cover: Venus and Adonis, circa mid–2nd century CE, accession number y1990-48 to the Princeton University Art Museum.

Mr. and Mrs. Selim Dere donate a 6th century BCE Archaic Silver Bracelet, accession number 1991.170.1 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

11 March 1993
One of the stolen frieze blocks of the Tiberius portico, depicting a garland of fruit leaves and flowers wrapping around a young male mask. is put up for sale at the Fortuna Fine Arts Gallery in New York and is identified by Aphrodisias Excavation President Professor Roland R. R. Smith, from NYU who reported his identification to the Turkish Ministry of Culture.

The Turkish authorities notify the US via a law firm representing Turkey in the US. The FBI launches an investigation.

14 April 1993
The relief head of the mythological hero Meleager, belonging to a heavy marble panel depicting a hunting scene, is stolen from the garden of the excavation house at Aphrodisias. The object's inventory number is noted as 80-134.

The relief head of the mythological hero Meleager is published in the INTERPOL newsletter for stolen art.

September 1994
New York University professor Roland R Smith spotted the relief head of the mythological hero Meleager in the window of the Fortuna Fine Arts Gallery. Smith again, promptly notified the Turkish authorities that the Meleager head relief was in the US, they in turn notified the FBI via their US attorney (Herrick).

After 1993/94 Identifications
Responding to a Turkish government request, agents from the New York FBI Art Theft group confiscate the relief head of the mythological hero Meleager and the frieze block from the Tiberius portico, depicting a garland of fruit leaves and flowers wrapping around a young male mask on sale with Fortuna Fine Arts on Madison Avenue.

At the gallery, FBI Special Agents note a mosaic showing the centaur Nessos carrying off Heracles' wife Deianira. 
Mosaic depicting Deianira and the centaur Nessos

Later, while Turkish archaeologists are comparing a photograph taken at Fortuna Galley of this mosaic, they discover by coincidence with another photo of the piece which was found in Nizip, a town near Zeugma, among the color negatives of a local photographer. The current location of this mosaic is unknown.

13 August 1994
After proving that the Aphrodisias frieze block I belonged to Turkey, the artifact was restituted in a ceremony in the US.

14 August 1994
The Aphrodisias frieze block is flown back to Turkey to become part oft he collection at the Aydın Aphrodisias Museum.

24 January 1995
After proving that the head of the mythological hero Meleager belonged to Turkey, the Turkish Culture Minister Timurcin Savas took delivery of the artefact from the United States and it was returned to Turkey.

In relation to a 2001 donation to the Cornell Museum, suspect Dealer Michel Van Rijn made angry claims on his website that the extensive donation of Babylonian cuneiform tablets from the 4th millennium BCE made by Jonathan Rosen were mainly sourced through Selim Dere and were imported into the United States under false customs documentation. While statements made by Van Rijn, may or may not be self-serving, this claim is worth exploring further to determine its veracity.

The source of the Garsana tablets would become the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security where it was noted that the tablets were subsequently appraised at a much higher value, a tactic often used, in making donations to museums in the US.

Selim Dere donates:
  • a Greek bronze coin, accession number 2002.228.3, to Harvard Art Museums' Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
  • a Coin of Ephesos, accession number 2002.228.2, to Harvard Art Museums' Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
  • a relief plaque depicting Nergal, god of the netherworld, circa 1800-1600 BCE, accession number 2002.228.3 to the Princeton University Art Museum.
Erdal Dere and his wife make a small financial donation to the Corning Museum of Glass.

June 2009
The owner of Fortuna Fine Arts was stopped upon arrival at John F Kennedy International Airport following a flight originating in Munich, Germany where he had stated on his entry documentation that he had nothing to declare. Despite that affirmation, a physical examination of his person and luggage uncovered three artifacts: a red intaglio stone, a Byzantine gold pendant, and a terracotta pottery fragment.

All three objects were seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the basis of 18 U.S.C. § 545 (1982) and 19 U.S.C. § 149 (authorizing penalties for failure to declare articles upon entry into the United States) and authorizing Customs agents to search and seize property imported contrary to U.S. laws).

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

30 June 2015
An Etruscan aryballos in the shape of a reclining hare is sold for £950 in London via Rome-based Bertolami Fine Arts through ACR Auctions, an online auction firm used by the Italian auction house.

29 June 2018
At the request of the Manhattan district attorney's office, the Hon. Ellen N. Biben, Administrative Judge of New York County Supreme Court, issued a seizure warrant for the Etruscan terracotta aryballos in the shape of a reclined rabbit now known to be at Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd.

22 September 2020
The Hon. Sarah Netburn - Southern District of New York sets bail for Erdal Dere at  $500,000 bond with one co-signer, secured by residence on 78th Street, with his passport retained by the court. 

Given that the federal authorities have alleged that now defect Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd. (Erdal Dere) and business associate Faisal Khan have been engaging in a years-long scheme to defraud buyers and brokers in the antiquities market by using false provenances and given that Erdal Dere is also charged with aggravated identity theft for his misappropriation of the identities of deceased collectors who were falsely represented to be the prior owners of the antiquities it might be time to drag out "Beloved By Time, Four Millennia of Ancient Art" Published by Fortuna Fine Arts (2000) and other catalogues to see what else might be interesting. 

Archaeology Magazine Archive. ‘A Plundered Past’. News, 2000.
Acar, Özgen. ‘Mosaics and Heads of Statues Plundered from Zeugma’. Culture Without Context, no. 7 (Autumn 2000).
———. ‘Zeugma Plundered Mosaics’. News. Artnet News, 29 August 2000.
Acar, Özgen, and Melik Kaylan. ‘The Turkish Connection. An Investigative Report on the Smuggling of Classical Antiquities.’ Connoisseur, October 1990.
Bertolami Fine Arts – ACR Auctions. ‘ACR Auctions - Auction 17 - Antiquities’. Auction. Bertolami Fine Arts – ACR Auctions, 30 June 2015.
Carrigan, Margaret. ‘Two Manhattan Antiquities Dealers Arrested on Charges of Fraud | The Art Newspaper’. News. The Art Newspaper, 23 September 2020.
‘Countries Demanding That Museums Return Their Antiquities’. Wilson Daily Times, 13 June 1983.
Felch, Jason. ‘Cornell to Return 10,000 Ancient Tablets to Iraq’. Los Angeles Times, 3 November 2013, sec. Entertainment & Arts.
———. ‘The Rosen Connection: Cornell Will Return 10,000 Cuneiform Tablets to Iraq’. Chasing Aphrodite (blog), 3 November 2013.
‘Fortuna Fine Arts Celebrates Gallery Grand Opening’. The Celator 3 3, no. 10 (1989).
Haberleri, Yaşam. ‘Zeugma Evine Dönüyor’. Milliyet, 17 May 2000.
Hardy, Samuel. ‘Antiquities, Drugs and Arms – Organised Crime, Intelligence Operations and Dirty Wars in Turkey and Beyond’. Conflict Antiquities (blog), 9 April 2018.
Harvard. ‘From the Harvard Art Museums’ Collections Coin of Ephesos’. Museum. Harvard Art Museums. Accessed 23 September 2020.
———. ‘From the Harvard Art Museums’ Collections Greek Coin’. Museum. Harvard Art Museums. Accessed 23 September 2020.
Lynda Albertson. ‘Seizure: An Etruscan Hare Aryballos Circa 580-560 B.C.E.’ ARCA Art Crime Blog (blog), 29 June 2018.
Michel van Rijn. ‘Michel van Rijn - Art News  -  Latest Update’, 29 April 2007.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. ‘Statuette of Men, The Moon God’. Museum. ine Arts, Boston. Accessed 23 September 2020.
Özet, M. Aykut, ed. Yitik miras’ın dönüş öyküsü: değişik yollarla yurtdışında çıkarılan, iadesi sağlanan ve halen yurtdısında bulunup iadesi çalışmaları sürdürülen kültür varlıklarımız. T.C. Kültür Bakanlığı yayınları 2908. Ankara: Kültür Bakanlığı Anıtlar ve Müzeler Genel Müdürlüğü Yayını [u.a.], 2003.
Princeton University Art Museum. ‘Mirror Cover: Venus and Adonis (Y1990-48)’. Museum. Princeton University Art Museum. Accessed 23 September 2020.
———. ‘Relief Plaque Depicting Nergal, God of the Netherworld (2002-74)’. Museum. Princeton University Art Museum. Accessed 23 September 2020.
R. Lowry. ‘The Museum Sacking That Wasn’t’., 27 May 2003.
Rym Brahimi. ‘Stolen Ancient Bust to Return to Turkey’. UPI, 23 January 1995.
Smith, R. R. R., and Christopher Ratté. ‘Archaeological Research at Aphrodisias in Caria, 1994’. American Journal of Archaeology 100, no. 1 (1996): 5–33.
‘The Corning Museum of Glass Annual Report 2007’. The Corning Museum of Glass Annual Report. The Corning Museum of Glass, 2007.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘Silver Bracelet, Greek, Archaic’. Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed 23 September 2020.
Thomas Maier. ‘History as an Endangered Species’. The Baltimore Sun, 29 May 1995.
U.S. Department of Justice. ‘Antiquities Dealers Arrested For Fraud Scheme’. Government. The United States Attorney’s Office - Sothern District of New York, 22 September 2020.

August 28, 2020

When a work of art is particularly popular among thieves. "Two Laughing Boys" has been stolen three times.

On 26 August 2020 the beautiful Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum in Leerdam, which houses a unique collection of 17th-century paintings, was struck by thieves.  As if three times is the charm, for the third time in a span of thirty-five years, an enterprising thief made his way into the Dutch museum and made off with the same painting.

The culprit(s) entered the museum by forcing open the back door of the museum at around half past 3 in the morning.  This, in turn, triggered the site's security system which automatically notified the local police authorities.  Unfortunately, by the time the dispatched officers arrived on the scene, the art thief was long gone. 

After a sweep of the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden with the museum's manager, it was determined that the 1626 painting "Two Laughing Boys" by Dutch Golden Age master Frans Hals was the only work of art taken...again. 

Stolen the first time in 1988 and recovered in 1991.  The Frans Hals artwork depicts two boys, one of whom is glancing longingly into his beer-mug.  The painting was then filched for a second time on 27 April 2011 and recovered on 28 October 2011 after the group of accomplices tried to sell it.  

This week's third theft occurred strategically on the anniversary of the artist's death and makes it the second painting stolen from a Dutch museum this year.  The first being Van Gogh's "Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring" taken from the Singer Laren Museum on Vincent's birthday.

Dutch police are looking for witnesses to the break-in. If you or someone you know has seen or heard anything please contact the police on 0900-8844 or their anonymous tipline at 0800-7000 (free of charge).

August 25, 2020

Tuesday, August 25, 2020 - , No comments

3.4 million LiveAuctioneers users suffer at the hands of a data breach

On July 12 New York-based art, antiques, and collectibles online marketplace LiveAuctioneers gave their online auction users some bad news.  Their cybersecurity team confirmed, one month after the incident occured, that a recent cyber-attack on 19 June 2020 had allowed hackers to access data contained in the company's records.  That data included personal information from 3.4 million buyers and sellers including names, email addresses, mailing addresses, phone numbers, visit history, and users' encrypted passwords stored as unsalted MD5 hashes.  Thankfully sensitive credit card details were apparently not exposed to the data thieves this time around. 

While LiveAuctioneers disabled passwords on all its bidder accounts and advised users to follow the necessary steps to change any matching email/passwords on other sites, the time delay between the attack and the actual acknowledgment of the breach left many site users, on and offsite, at further risk for fraudulent transactions, identity theft and phishing via other platforms.  ARCA has learned of at least one purchaser, paying for an item purchased on LiveAuctioneers via Paypal, who inadvertently sent funds, later reimbursed via Paypal, to a third-party who was not the actual seller they assumed they were buying the item from.

The attack was apparently orchestrated by a hacker who offered the user data on a surface web hacker forum who apparently goes by the screen name Megadimarus and who listed his work title humbly as "God." Megadimarus is the same culprit responsible for the data breaches of dozens of other user data-rich websites and for those of you who want to delve further just google the pseudonym of this in-your-face-and-up-your-left-nostril attacker.

Yet, while it looks like LiveAuctioneers may have, like so many others, failed to adequately protect their user's data, the shocking truth is that oftentimes an individual's password in and of itself can be easily cracked even with salting if the salt is kept with the hashed password, as most systems do.  This is why, as a general rule people are prompted by more security-minded websites to not use weak passwords like ISolemnlySwearImUpToNoGood or FBISurveillanceVan or any combination of characters that comes straight from a dictionary and are more easily cracked.  It's also wise not to use the same passwords over and over again on multiple sites as breaches like these are far too common. 

In closing, I feel your pain.  Especially whenever I sign up for a new website with enhanced password protection protocols as my experience inevitably goes something like this:

WEBSITE: Please create your preferred password.
ME: klimt
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password must be more than 8 characters.
ME: gustav klimt
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password cannot have blank spaces.
ME: gustavklimt
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password must contain 1 numerical character.
ME: gustavklimtdiedin1918
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password must contain at least one uppercase character.
ME: gustavKLIMTdiedin1918
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password cannot use more than one uppercase character consecutively.
ME: GustavKlimtdiedin1918StupidContraryWebsite
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password must contain a special character
ME: GustavKlimtdiedin1918StupidContraryWebsiteGiveMeAccessNow$£%&!
WEBSITE: Sorry, that password is already in use.

By:  Lynda Albertson

August 11, 2020

Dying to get away with it: How one defendant's death may thwart justice for the people of Cambodia, Thailand, and India

Douglas Latchford's Facebook page photo
on 9 November 2017, two years
before he was indicted in the USA
Wire fraud,
conspiracy to commit wire fraud,
conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States,
and entry of goods by means of false statements.

These were the five related charges pertaining to the trafficking in stolen and looted antiquities that art expert Douglas A. J. Latchford, a/k/a “Pakpong Kriangsak” had been charged with in the 26-page indictment unsealed by the Department of Justice's U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York last November.  But since deceased persons cannot be prosecuted, the charges against Latchford will likely be dismissed by the court, once his death certificate, attesting to his demise on 2 August 2020, has been submitted to the court through his defense counsel.

Before the investigation into the smuggling and illicit sale of priceless antiquities from Cambodia, Thailand and India cast a long shadow over Latchford's activities, he was once considered a highly respected sponsor in museum circles, a person above reproach.  As such, his donations to the National Museum of Phnom Penh earned him a knighthood with the Royal Order of Saha Metrey Thnak Thib Badin, by the government of the Kingdom of Cambodia, an honor conferred with an award brooch, pinned primarily on foreigners who have rendered distinguished services to the King and to the people of Cambodia.

Apparently unaware of Latchford's role in plundering, Hab Touch, then Director General of the Department General of Cultural Affairs, now Secretary of State and high representative of Phoeurng Sackona, Minister of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in Cambodia once said of Latchford:

“His gifts are very important because these artifacts teach the Cambodian people about their history...We hope his generosity will set a good example for others.”

Other pieces acquired directly or indirectly through Latchford's network also dotted collections at many important art institutions, where, at the time of their acquisitions, questions of provenance didn't seem to bother the museum's renowned curators.

Latchford is known to have donated at least seven objects to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York including the Kneeling Attendants (restituted), the stone head of a Buddha, and the bronze head of a Shiva, both from the 10th-century Khmer Angkor period.  He also donated four statues to the Denver Art Museum.

Other Latchford pieces found their way through direct or indirect sales and donations to US collections at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the Denver Art Museum and the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth.  Yet, Latchford's purported acts of generosity were not just for USA museums' benefit.  His hands also touched objects lent to the Berlin Museum for Ancient Art and to the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.

By 2012, the tracks of the looters of the tenth-century site of Koh Ker lead repeatedly to Latchford.  Identified in a civil lawsuit as a middleman in the trafficking of looted Khmer sculptures from “an organized looting network,” he was alleged to have conspired with the London auction house Spink & Son Ltd., to obtain false export permits for the temple antiquities he brokered.

Some of the incriminating evidence against the dealer relates to a series of brazenly written emails.  One sent on 23 April 2007,  which left little to no doubt about Latchford's level of direct involvement and knowledge in transnational criminal activity against cultural artifacts.

Douglas Latchford's Facebook
photo on 28 October 2017,
two years before he was
indicted in the USA
In that email, Latchford is reported to have written:

"Hold on to your hat, just been offered this 56 cm Angkor Borei Buddha, just excavated, which looks fantastic. It’s still across the border, but WOW.”

Attached to the same brazen email was a photograph.  It depicted a freshly (and clandestinely) excavated standing Buddha statue, still freshly covered in dirt. 

A Manhattan DA's complaint also asserted that Latchford contrived to traffic in antiquities that coinvolved another ancient art dealer under investigation, Nancy Wiener. Citing another email seized by investigators, Latchford reportedly told Weiner that he would give bronze statues to his colleague Emma C. Bunker, in exchange for false provenance.  Sadly, and as if facilitating the plunder of Cambodia and Thailand were not enough, Latchford is known to have purchased, a Chandrasekara Shiva, a Chola bronze idol, stolen from the Sripuranthan temple in Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu through another bad actor in the art market, dealer Subash Kapoor,

The same Emma C. Bunker worked closely with Latchford writing three seminal volumes on the art of the Khmer people: “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” “Khmer Gold,” and “Khmer Bronzes.”  Flipping through each of these image-heavy books one can easily understand the pathway to profit involving the plundered and missing cultural patrimony of Cambodia.

Asked in a 2014 interview, who held most of the orphan artworks depicted in the books, Latchford was cagey.  He answered saying they were held by collectors who trusted him to keep their identities confidential, leaving many unanswered questions that this dealer now takes to his grave, as sadly, dead men tell no tales.

By:  Lynda Albertson

August 7, 2020

Friday, August 07, 2020 - , No comments

A thanks to our readership on Twitter and Facebook

Five days ago, ARCA's art crime and cultural heritage protection blog began experiencing problems on the Facebook Platform posting to a few key heritage groups where our blog posts were sometimes being censored as spam.  While it took us a while to realize that this was not a technical glitch on the platform itself, by Thursday our blog's URL was totally banned, even from our own Facebook page despite us not having violated the site's Terms of Service.  

This total ban eliminated years of previous post links and information related to the issues surrounding art crimes that we have covered and published on the platform in an effort to increase awareness and build capacity on combatting art and heritage crime. 

Finding it difficult to find a way to engage directly with any sort of "help" department within the social media powerhouse's platform, we sent inquiries through about twenty different channels, each of which gave bot replies thanking us for our concerns but in no way indicating that our messages would be read by a human.   We also reached out to our readership asking our followers to help us get the lights turned back on by echoing our concerns with retweets and by contacting Facebook directly on our behalf.   Hoping that perhaps with external voices of support they would realize we were ok. 

This morning at 09:45 Italy time our access was restored.

In the end, we have no idea what changed Facebook's mind.  We have never received any communication from the social media platform as to why we were censored in the first place, nor did anyone contact us to tell us that our access had been restored but for now it seems we have been white-listed. 

We would like to thank everyone who helped our voice be heard and who banged the drums loud enough that we regained our posting capabilities on the platform. ARCA has been writing articles on art crime and cultural heritage protection for more than 10 years and while we still do not fully understand why we were suddenly censured on Facebook, it seems that everyone's notifications helped get the situation reversed relatively quickly. 

Without your group voice, ARCA's art crime blog would likely still be banned. 

August 6, 2020

Thursday, August 06, 2020 - , 1 comment

An intimate snapshot of Beirut's devastation through a look at the Sursock Palace and Museum

The Sursock Palace ravaged by the double explosion at
the port of Beirut on Tuesday
Image Credit: Basel Dalloul
For fifteen years, museums in Beirut suffered during a war that divided the city, as more than a dozen warring militias fought over the division of political power in a society with eighteen recognized sects.  Located on the front line separating the fighting factions, the Beirut National Museum was one of the first victims of war.  

Image overlooking the National Museum of Beirut,
November 22, 1992.

Yet, in 2020, it was not factional violence between Christians and Muslims, Isreali or Hezbollah forces, or even Islamist terrorists which dealt a harsh blow to the city's museums.  It was a perfect storm of bureaucratic incompetence, as those in positions of authority apparently failed to address the bomb-in-waiting, left for 6 years in one of the city's portside warehouses.

When the 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum and the Sursock Palace, located a half-mile away in the Achrafieh district of Beirut, were right in its path, two of many historic buildings impacted by the explosion's spherical blast wave.  Once a fixture of Beirut’s art scene, the Sursock Mansion had once been home to Nicolas Sursock, the Lebanese philanthropist and art collector, who bestowed his property to the city of Beirut upon his death, with instructions to open his mansion as a public museum.

Well on the east side of the Green Line, the Sursock Museum stoically never closed throughout the country's civil war, remaining open until 2008 when in closed for much-needed renovations and expansion.  Reopening in 2015, after a $15 million makeover, the museum is home to the Fouad Debbas photographic collection and a large collection of modern and contemporary paintings, comprised of works by predominantly Lebanese artists, from the late 1800s to the early 2000s.  With a restaurant on its grounds, rotating art exhibitions, and concerts, the museum stood at the heart of the city's art scene, and was a prominent hub for the dissemination of modern and contemporary Arab art.

When the world lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Sursock Museum, with fresh curatorial vision, was keen to keep culture in the forefront.  Even while its doors were closed due to the virus, the museum remained relevant, releasing a virtual tour of one of its exhibitions, Baalbek, Archives of an Eternity, curated by Vali Mahlouji.  In this way, its patrons could remain safe and still engage with the museum's collections in the age of social distancing.

Having tentatively reopened in mid-June only to have to reclose due to the second wave of health-related restrictions, the museum's marvelous collection now lays in shambles, thanks to the port authority's excruciating and improper management. When the combustible agricultural fertilizer exploded, the museum's paintings and drawings were blown from their walls or left hanging in tatters, some pierced by the flying glass shards from the windows that once protected them.

The Sursock Palace 
There is no way, in one single blog post to adequately cover the devastation of the massive explosion in the Beirut port just after 6pm on August 4 which killed more than 135 people, injured thousands, and left 300,000 people homeless.

This is just one snapshot, of the damages inflicted on one cultural institution, which is suffering in its aftermath.

The Sursock Palace
Sursock Museum
Image credit: Marie Nour Hechaime, curator
If the museum and palace are to survive the Friends of the Sursock Museum will likely play a pivotal role in supporting its continued existence, and ensuring that the museum and palace collections can be conserved and eventually be accessible once again.

Framed painting at the Sursock Palace
For more information on how to become a friend of the Sursock Museum they can be reached here.

Sursock Museum
Image credit: Marie Nour Hechaime, curator

The Sursock Palace
For more information on how to donate to relief efforts via the Lebanese Red Cross, contact them here.

Maybe together we can help Beirut's citizens pick up the pieces.

July 30, 2020

Restitution: Lot 448, Christie's

Early last November we wrote a blog post asking Christie's about an interesting polychrome painted 5th century BCE antefix in the form of a dancing maenad.  It had been scheduled to come up for sale in their December 4, 2019 auction and I felt the artefact deserved a closer examination regarding its legitimacy on the ancient art market.  For those who do not know, an anteflix is a decorative upright ornament, used by ancient builders along the eaves of a roof to conceal tile joints.

The provenance of the antefex was listed by Christie's as follows:


While nothing before 1994 was specified in Christie's single-line collection history, we know that before she died Ingrid McAlpine was once the wife of Bruce McAlpine, and for a time, before their divorce, both were proprietors of McAlpine Ancient Art Limited in the UK. 

While not completely identical, the Christie's antefix closely resembles another ancient Etruscan antefix in the form of a maenad and Silenus.  This one once graced the cover of the exhibition catalog "A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art from the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman" depicted to the left.  

That South Etruscan, 500-475 BCE, polychrome anteflix was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum from the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection via Robin Symes for a tidy sum of $396,000 and displayed in an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art back in 1995.  In 2007, that antefix was restituted back to Italy by the J. Paul Getty Museum after a Polaroid photo, recovered during a 1995 police raid on warehouse space rented by Giacomo Medici at Ports Francs & Entrepôts in Geneva, was matched to the artefact in the California museum's collection.

The Christie's auction dancing maenad also closely resembled another pair of suspect polychrome antefixes depicting a maenad and Silenus.  This grouping was once part of the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum.  Like with the J. Paul Getty purchase, an image of one of the Copenhagen antefix and a foot were matched with photos law enforcement seized in the dealer Giacomo Medici's business dossier.  Eventually, as with the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Danes relinquished the pair of objects back to Italy.

Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine's names also comes up with other plundered antiquities later identified as having been laundered through the licit art market and accessioned into the prestigious Museum of Fine Arts in Boston collection.   An Attic black-figured hydria, (no.3) came through McAlpine via Palladion Antike Kunst, a gallery operated by Ursula Becchina, the wife of disgraced dealer Gianfranco Becchina.  The couple's names also appear alongside Robin Symes AND (again) Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman for the donation of an Apulian bell-krater. Both of which were restituted to Italy.

In addition, former Judge Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the Italian judge who worked heavily on these looting cases, showed me a letter, seized by the Italian authorities during their investigations which was written by the staff of Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine Ancient Art Gallery.   This letter, dated 8 July 1986, tied them once again to at least one transaction with Giacomo Medici and Christian Boursaud and referred obliquely to companies the convicted dealer operated through third parties, fronts or pseudonyms. 

All of which lead me to several (more) questions.

Why was Bruce Alpine's name, and the name of his ancient art firm conveniently omitted from the provenance record published by Christie's ahead of the December 4th auction?  
Was this omission an accidental oversight on Christie's part or an elective decision, perhaps as a way to reduce the possibility of the object's previous owners connections to the above mentioned dealers drawing unnecessary attention?    
What collection history did the auction house have, if any, that shows where or with whom this artefact belonged prior to the 1994 McAlpine acquisition date to demonstrate its legitimacy in the ancient art market?

Given that three antefixes depicting satyrs and maenads had already been returned to Italy as coming from clandestine excavations I brought my concerns to other Italian experts collaborating with ARCA, and to experts from the Villa Giulia, the Louvre,  and to the Carabinieri TPC.  Each acknowledged I had a right to be suspicious.

ARCA forensic researchers and a forensic archaeologist affiliated with the Louvre Museum pointed me to examples of molds that have been discovered at Etruscan excavations which also depict maenads and helped with comparison imaging.  Researchers in Rome who worked on the Becchina and Medici case identifications with the Rome courts pointed out similar antefixes from the ancient Etruscan cities of Veii and Falerii Veteres, which are part of Rome's Villa Giulia collection.  Both zones, situated on the southern limits of Etruria, were looted extensively.

But I was running out of time and without a smoking gun photo of the object in a looted state, I was also running out of evidence and leads.

I watched the days tick down until the item went up for auction and then sold, in just under two minutes of bidding.  Frustrated, and thinking this little lady was lost for the present, I filed my research away, hoping that down the road she might reappear and that by that point the Carabinieri, MiBACT or I might have more evidence, enough to build upon to make a case for restitution.

Surprisingly, BVLGARI, the Italian luxury brand came to the aid of its country and one frustrated antiquities researcher.  They too had been watching the auction and knew of our efforts to try and bring our girl home. Unbeknownst to me the jewelry firm had purchased the antefix, and then working through cultural diplomacy channels, donated it, through the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism, to the Italian State and to the Villa Giulia specifically.

Looking back, with a view from the client's side of the equation:

When one wants to bid at an auction at Christie's, over the telephone, or online, a buyer has to prove that he or she is legitimate. To do so they must email the auction house a digital photo or PDF scan of a valid photo ID (eg. Driver’s Licence, Passport), and a proof of address.  For this proof, they will accept a recent utility bill or bank statement or corporate documents.  With these verifiable and valid documents, the auction house then trusts the potential buyer enough to open up an account in his or her name.

But Christie's seemed to need much less convincing paperwork before accepting the antefix of the dancing maenad for consignment.  Having reviewed the provenance paperwork for this antiquity, this antiquity came with only two, not very convincing documents, one of which had no dates whatsoever.

Those were:

1.) An undated document, which Christie's referred to as a "McAlpine stock card" for stock No. 2/114 noting a vendor in the name of ‘Kuhn’ of a "Terracotta antefix in the form of an akrotère."  

As mentioned above, an antefix, which comes from the Latin word antefigere, (to fasten before), is an architectural fixture which caps then end tiles of a tiled roof.

An akarotère is an architectural ornament placed on a flat pedestal called a plinth and is an ornamental sculpture or pedestal such as the one to the right. These sit above the pediment of a Classical temple and do not extend from the ends of roof tiles.  I also failed to find any Akarotères that picture a dancing maenad.

2.) An 8 February 1994 pricing document with no company names listed anywhere, which listed 15 carefully redacted artworks and one final artefact at the very bottom which listing item  2/156 as "an Antefix with musician, height 40 cm" with a list price of $35,000.

As with the first document, this second is puzzling.  The height of the listed object is slightly off, the stock number doesn't match, and the price indicated is three times higher than the antefix at Christie's sold for. And while the paper is dated 1994 in keeping with Christie's stated provenance, this document by no means shows that the document references the McAlpine's acquisition as it lists no company the purchase was made through and seems merely to be an price listing from some unidentified entity.  The visible item's description is also a bit puzzling.  While the Christie's maenad does depict her carrying a crotalum (a kind of clapper) in her right hand, it would be a stretch to call her a musician. Even if she could be described as a musician, generally speaking if you know the word antefix, its reasonable to assume you would be familiar with their depictions in history.  Why use the word pairing "with musician" instead of using "of a musician" or "of a maenad"?

This was all the documentation Christie's needed to consider an object valid for sale to a willing buyer?

They should be ashamed of themselves. 

Yet, at least we have a somewhat happy ending BVLGARI's donation.  Despite being auctioned and despite a long delay due to the COVID pandemic,she's finally home, and today, at 4pm, at a formal restitution ceremony, this lovely dancing lady took her place with her companions, in the Etruscan exhibition Colors of the Etruscans** at Rome's Centrale Montemartini.  

On the left the antefix as offered for sale by Christies. On the right the antefix at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia. This antefix was found in 1937 in Veii, in the course of regular excavations of the Soprintendenza at the Etruscan sanctuary of Campetti North: a site previously looted by tombaroli. It seems evident that both antefixes were cast from the same mould and decorated in the same workshop. Therefore, most probably were originally part of the decoration of a single building.

On hand for the restitution celebration were:

Claudio Parisi Presicce, Capitoline Superintendency for Cultural Heritage -Director of Archaeological and Historical - Artistic Museums

Valentino Nizzo, Director of the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia

Margherita Eichberg, ABAP Superintendent for the Metropolitan area of Rome, the Province of Viterbo and Southern Etruria

Sara Neri, Direzione Generale Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio (Service IV, Circulation)

Lt. Col.. Nicola Candido, Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage

Leonardo Bochicchio, Daniele F. Maras, curators of the exhibition

I for one am glad she's home, and to also have been a part of her journey.  She's travelled a long way, from the Etruscan city of Veii, to London, and back home again.  May her bare feet forever dance on Italian soil.

By:  Lynda Albertson

** This exhibition will be open at the Centrale Montemartini museum through 01 November 2020.

July 29, 2020

A flourishing trade in illicit antiquities despite what the market wants the public to believe

Way back in February 1998 thieves arrived at the Baroli Temples Complex on the outskirts of Rawatbhata taluk, one of the earliest temple complexes in Rajasthan.  Once there, they set to work removing an elegantly carved sculpture of Nataraj, a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as Lord of the Dance, from an ornamental niche attached to the thousand-year-old beehive-shaped Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple, the most prominent and the largest of the eight temples located at the sacred site.  

Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple in Rajasthan
A well-organized group of thieves known for targeting objects from temples or other cultural sites in India, the culprits used a jackhammer and deftly removed the statue from its centuries-old resting place.  It was then brought to Vaman Narayan Ghiya, a middleman, known to purchase stolen or looted objects from a network of intermediaries.  Ghiya had the ability to smuggle artworks out of India through a network of companies in Mumbai, Delhi, and Switzerland. 

The Nataraj in situ at the
Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple
The extent of Ghiya's three decades of operation in the illicit art biz was such that at the time of his arrest five years later, in June 2003, law enforcement officers discovered hundreds of photographs of ancient Indian sculptures, many of which depicted idols recently pried away from temple walls as well as sixty-eight glossy auction catalogues from auction powerhouses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York.

But the villagers near the Baroli Temples Complex were so outraged by the theft that it is believed Ghiya quickly commissioned a replica and ordered his henchmen to leave it near the Rawatbhata Police Station police where it originally was at first mistaken to be the original. Worried that it might be stolen again, the new Nataraj was not returned to the Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple and was instead stored with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is an Indian government agency attached to the Ministry of Culture responsible for archaeological research.

During interrogation, where Ghiya was asked to flag the pieces he was involved moving, he marked nearly 700.  One, the original Nataraj, had been smuggled to England, sold to an unnamed dealer and then purchased by John"Kas" Kasmin, a British art dealer and collector.

Identified with the dealer in 2005, Kasmin agreed to return the sculpture which was still in his possession and handed it over to the Indian High Commission that same year. Since then, it has sat, in London, waiting to come home, until this week. Inspected by the ASI in 2017 in London it was, at last, confirmed that the London sculpture was indeed the original looted Natarajs and arrangements began to finally send this idol home. 

If you would like to read more about the rape of India's idols, ARCA suggests Peter Watson's  book and the BBC programme “Sotheby’s, The Inside Story”.  It goes into extensive detail explaining the work of the Rajasthan police and the investigation opened by the superintendent of police, Shri Anand Srivastava titled Operation Black Hole. 
Yogini Vrishanana

India Pride Project would like to take the opportunity of this object's homecoming to make an appeal to any collector in possession of a Yogini Vrishanana, a sister sculpture to the one depicted here.  Looted by the same gang, one was eventually restituted in 2013.   The other matching 10th-century stone sculpture has been missing for 22 years. 

July 24, 2020

Restitution in the time of COVID-19: A fertility statuette representing a mother goddess returns to Iraq

Modeled from clay and painted, this female figurine replete with voluptuous curves, and depicted naked and sitting with her arms folded under her breasts, in a pose suggestive of childbirth was discovered by officers working for the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, whose job it is to carry out surveillance of internet sales of suspect art.  

The tiny seated figurine, whose features clearly suggest fertility and the renewal of life, is typical of "mother goddess" figurines originating within the Neolithic culture of Halaf, named more than a century ago after one of the first sites where these types of figurines were found.  The people of the Halaf culture resided in the geographical regions later known as Northern or upper Mesopotamia.  Representations of these types of female figurines have been found as far west as Cilicia in Turkey, to the east along the border of Iran and Iraq, north as far as Lake Van in Turkey, and south as far as the Damascus basin in Syria. This one however made her way much farther.  She was found in fare away Udine, in northeastern Italy. 

Yesterday, in a formal handover ceremony in Rome at the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism, the Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini,  alongside General Roberto Riccardi, Commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, acknowledged the importance of this figurine as representative of the known narrative of sixth-millennium Halaf social practices.  In returning this artifact to the Iraqi people, Franceschini, in his role at Italy's Ministro per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e per il Turismo — MiBACT underscored the ministry's commitment in the field of cultural diplomacy, and the TPC Carabinieri Command's role tracking down and recovering illegally exported heritage from other vulnerable source countries found within Italy's jurisdiction.

These seated Halaf figurines in general range in size from small to tiny, and like this one, are usually less than 10 centimeters tall.  Picking it gently up, the Iraqi ambassador to Rome, Safia Taleb Al-Souhail demonstrated that it would fit comfortably in the palm of someone's hand.  It's tiny size, just 9 X 3 cm along with her suggestive imagery have made portable Mesopotamian antiquities like this one extremely popular among traffickers. So much so that an image of one, almost identical, is printed on the ICOM Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, given that the original site where these types of figurines were discovered was at Tel Halaf in Syria.

In describing the circumstances of this artefact's discovery General Roberto Riccardi, Commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage stated that the Carabinieri TPC squad in Udine first identified the suspect auction in an online sale, and working with historians affiliated with the Department of Humanities and Cultural Heritage at the Università degli Studi di Udine determined that the statuette was an authentic artefact of the Halaf culture.  The Italian authorities, in turn, worked with their Iraqi counterparts to coordinate details for this object's eventual restitution.  How the antiquity was determined to be Iraqi in origin was not discussed.

Ambassador Al-Souhail stated that she appreciated the efforts made by the Italian authorities and the Carabinieri forces in combating organized crime which involve the smuggling of Iraqi antiquities.  She also commended Italy's commitment to activate a Memorandum of Understanding which the parties signed, between both countries in that regard and to Italy's commitment to international agreements and relevant Security Council resolutions.
For those that would like to delve into the locations where seated Halaf sculptures can be found we highly recommend this paper by Dr. Ellen Belcher. In it Dr. Belcher reminds us that:

Many figurines identifiable as Halaf types regularly appear in museum collections, on Internet auction sites, and in antiquities dealers' catalogs in most cases illegally smuggled into Western countries, they can make no contribution to this contextualized study. However it is hoped that this study may prove useful for localizing the ongoing looting of Halaf sites.

Belcher also mentions (page 374) in the aforementioned paper that by the fall of 2013, there were no more ongoing scientific excavations of Halaf sites in Turkey, Syria or Iraq, highlighting that ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq had left these historic sites unprotected from looting. 

By Lynda Albertson