March 26, 2017

Late Application Period Extended for the 2017 ARCA Postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection

Who studies art crime?


ARCA's Postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will continue to accept applications through April 28, 2017. 

In 2009 ARCA started the first of its kind, interdisciplinary, approach to the scholarly study of art crime. Representing a unique opportunity for individuals interested in training in a structured and academically diverse format, the summer-long postgraduate program is designed around the study of the dynamics, strategies, objectives and modus operandi of criminals and criminal organizations who commit a variety of art crimes.  

Turn on the news (or follow this blog) and you will see over and over again examples of museum thefts, forgeries, antiquities looting and illicit trafficking of cultural goods.  Intentional heritage destruction during armed conflict, once a modern-day rarity, now affects multiple countries and adds to regional instability in many areas of the globe.  Looted art, both ancient and Holocaust-related finds its way into the galleries of respected institutions, while auction houses and dealers continue to be less than adept at distinguishing smuggled and stolen art from art with a clean provenance. This making dealing with art crime an unrelenting problem and without any one easy solution.

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

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


Here is 11 reasons why you should consider joining us for a summer in Amelia, Italy. 

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

In 2017 participants of the program will receive 230+ hours of instruction from a of range of experts actively committed to combatting art crime from a variety of different angels.

One summer, eleven courses.

Taught by:

Archaeologist, Christos Tsirogiannis from the University of Cambridge, whose forensic trafficking research continues to unravel the hidden market of illicit antiquities.  His tireless work is often highlighted on this blog and reminds those interested in purchasing ancient art, be it from well-known dealers or auction houses, that crimes committed 40 years ago, still taint many of the artifacts that find their way into the licit art market today.

London art editor and lecturer Ivan Macquisten who eloquently paints a picture of the burgeoning business which is art whilst examining the interplay between our cultural obsession with risk and collecting.  Macquisten disentangles the paradoxical alliances between the financially lucrative art market and the collector, relationships that feed upon the art market's unregulated trade and lack of transparency in its transactions.

Duncan Chappell, the Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence in Policing and Security. Chappel is a national award winner for his lifetime achievements in criminology and will be lecturing on the growing number of bilateral, regional and global legal agreements that reflect a growing realization that transnational art crime has to be addressed through international cooperation, and that just as criminal groups operate across borders, judicial systems must consequently do the same.  

Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of HARP, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project who will lecture on the variations among countries’ historical experiences and legal systems, as well as the complexities of provenance research and the establishment of claims processes.  Focusing not only on the implementation of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated art but also on modern day examples that underscore the difficulties facing any heir in recovering their property, Masurovsky underscores the need for fully trained provenance experts within museums and auction houses. 

Richard Ellis, private detective and the founder of the Metropolitan Police - New Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Squad.  His law enforcement background reminds us that trafficking in art and antiquities provides criminals with an opportunity to deal in high value commodities that are often poorly protected, difficult to identify and easy to transport across national boundaries. Ellis' lectures paint a little-talked-about portrait of the motley cast of characters who operate in the high-stakes world of the art crime.  His course introduces students to sophisticated criminal organizations, individual thieves, small-time dealers and unscrupulous collectors who don't just dabble in hot art, but who also may be involved in other crimes, such as the smuggling and sale of other illicit commodities, corruption or money-laundering.

Criminal defense attorney and criminologist Marc Balcells, whose animated lectures on the anatomy and etiology of art crimes will illustrate that even if every art crime is unique unto itself, often the underlying causes of criminal behaviors fit into certain established patterns.  Students will explore various theories of crime causation each of which are key to understanding the crime and the criminal as well as evaluating its danger to our cultural patrimony.

Museum security and risk management expert Dick Drent, whose role in the recovery of two Van Gogh paintings from a Camorra reminds us that finding stolen works of art is much harder than protecting them in the first place, especially when organized crime is involved. In Drent's course students will learn about safeguarding culture before it goes missing, analyzing practical approaches to securing a collection, using risk and decision analysis as a form of analytics to support risk-based decision in museums, galleries and reference institutions around the globe.

New Zealand District Court Judge and founding trustee of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust, Arthur Tompkins who gives us a fast-galloping 2000-year romp through the history of art crimes committed during war and armed conflict. Tompkins reminds us that armed conflict, whether interstate or intrastate, poses various threats to cultural monuments and cultural property and that while laws have been enacted in an attempt to prevent or reduce these dangers; better laws are also needed to sort matters out after the fact.

Independent art & insurance advisory expert Dorit Straus explores the worlds of specialist fine art insurers and brokers, who underwrite the risks associated with the fine art market.  As the former Vice President and Worldwide Specialty Fine Art Manager for Chubb & Son she knows first hand the active, financially-motivated role insurance firms play in analyzing the risks involved in owning, dealing, buying, transporting or displaying art to the public.  While art insurance expertise is sometimes overlooked as a less-than-sexy side of the art world, insurers have served to make galleries, museums and private collector's collections safer, as their oversight and contract stipulations have produced a dramatic reduction in attritional losses.

ARCA's founding director, Noah Charney who draws upon his knowledge of art history and contemporary criminal activity to explore several of the most notorious cases of art forgery. Emphasizing that art forgery not only cheats rich buyers and their agents, ruining reputations, his course illustrates how crime distorts the art market, one which once relied heavily on connoisseurship, by messing with its objective truth.

Valerie Higgins, archaeologist and Program Director for archaeology, classics and sustainable cultural heritage at the American University in Rome. Higgins course examines material culture as the physical evidence of a culture's existence, illustrating that through objects; be they artworks, religious icons, manuscripts, statues, or coins, and through architecture; monumental or commonplace, we can and should preserve the powerfully potent remains which truly define us as human.

For more information on the summer 2017 postgraduate professional development program, please see ARCA's website here.

Late Applications are being accepted through April 28, 2017.

To request further information or to receive a 2017 prospectus and application materials, please email:  education (at)artcrimeresearch.org

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

Here are some blog posts from and by students who have attended in 2016, in 2015 in 2014, and in 2013.


March 25, 2017

United Nations Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2347 to strengthen protections for heritage during armed conflicts

On March 24,  2017 the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2347 to strengthen protections for heritage during armed conflicts where they are most vulnerable. – Said resolution, inacted by the 15-member council, univocally condemns the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage in the context of armed conflicts, notably by terrorist groups, affirming that such attacks might constitute a war crime and must be brought to justice.

The resolution also calls upon Member States to take appropriate steps to prevent and counter the illicit trade and trafficking in cultural property originating from countries of armed conflict.


A complete copy of the resolution is listed here.


                Resolution 2347 (2017)


                     Adopted by the Security Council at its 7907th meeting, on
24 March 2017


        The Security Council,
        Taking note of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) General Conference’s resolution 38 C/48, by which Member States have adopted the Strategy for the Reinforcement of UNESCO’s Actions for the Protection of Culture and the Promotion of Cultural Pluralism in the Event of Armed Conflict, and have invited the Director General to elaborate an action plan in order to implement the strategy,
        Reaffirming its primary responsibility for maintenance of international peace and security, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, and reaffirming further the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,
        Reaffirming that terrorism in all forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable regardless of their motivations, whenever and by whomsoever committed,
        Emphasizing that the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, and the looting and smuggling of cultural property in the event of armed conflicts, notably by terrorist groups, and the attempt to deny historical roots and cultural diversity in this context can fuel and exacerbate conflict and hamper post-conflict national reconciliation, thereby undermining the security, stability, governance, social, economic and cultural development of affected States,
        Noting with grave concern the involvement of non-state actors, notably terrorist groups, in the destruction of cultural heritage and the trafficking in cultural property and related offences, in particular at the continued threat posed to international peace and security by the Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities, and reaffirming its resolve to address all aspects of that threat,
        Also noting with concern that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities are generating income from engaging directly or indirectly in the illegal excavation and in the looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites, which is being used to support their recruitment efforts and to strengthen their operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks,
        Noting with grave concern the serious threat posed to cultural heritage by landmines and unexploded ordnance,
        Strongly concerned about the links between the activities of terrorists and organized criminal groups that, in some cases, facilitate criminal activities, including trafficking in cultural property, illegal revenues and financial flows as well as money-laundering, bribery and corruption,
        Recalling Security Council resolution 1373 (2001) which requires that all States shall prevent and suppress the financing of terrorist acts and refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to individuals, groups, undertakings or entities involved in such acts, and other resolutions that emphasize the need for Member States to continue exercising vigilance over relevant financial transactions and improve information-sharing capabilities and practices, in line with applicable international law, within and between governments through relevant authorities,
        Recognizing the indispensable role of international cooperation in crime prevention and criminal justice responses to counter trafficking in cultural property and related offences in a comprehensive and effective manner, stressing that the development and maintenance of fair and effective criminal justice systems should be a part of any strategy to counter terrorism and transnational organized crime and recalling in this respect the provisions of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols thereto,
        Recalling the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 14 May 1954 and its Protocols of 14 May 1954 and 26 March 1999, the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 14 November 1970, the Convention concerning the protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage of 16 November 1972, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions,
        Noting the ongoing efforts of the Council of Europe Committee on Offences relating to Cultural Property concerning a legal framework to address illicit trafficking in cultural property,
        Commending the efforts undertaken by Member States in order to protect and safeguard cultural heritage in the context of armed conflicts and taking note of the Declaration issued by Ministers of Culture participating in the International Conference “Culture as an Instrument of Dialogue among Peoples”, held in Milan on 31 July-1 August 2015 as well as the International Conference on the victims of ethnic and religious violence in the Middle East, held in Paris on 8 September 2015, and the Conference on Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage held in Abu Dhabi on 3 December 2016 and its declaration,
        Welcoming the central role played by UNESCO in protecting cultural heritage and promoting culture as an instrument to bring people closer together and foster dialogue, including through the #Unite4Heritage campaign, and the central role of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and INTERPOL in preventing and countering all forms and aspects of trafficking in cultural property and related offences, including through fostering broad law enforcement and judicial cooperation, and in raising awareness on such trafficking,
        Also recognizing the role of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee, in identifying and raising awareness on the challenges related to the illicit trade of cultural property as it relates to the financing of terrorism pursuant to resolutions 2199 (2015) and 2253 (2015), and welcoming the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) guidance on recommendation 5 on the criminalization of terrorist financing for any purpose, in line with these resolutions,
        Expressing in this regard concern at the continuing use in a globalized society, by terrorists and their supporters, of new information and communications technologies, in particular the Internet, to facilitate terrorist acts, and condemning their use to fund terrorist acts through the illicit trade in cultural property,
        Underlining the importance that all relevant United Nations entities coordinate their efforts while implementing their respective mandates,
        Noting the recent decision by the International Criminal Court, which for the first time convicted a defendant for the war crimes of intentionally directing attacks against religious buildings and historic monuments and buildings,
        1.     Deplores and condemns the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, inter alia destruction of religious sites and artefacts, as well as the looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites, in the context of armed conflicts, notably by terrorist groups;
        2.     Recalls its condemnation of any engagement in direct or indirect trade involving ISIL, Al-Nusra Front (ANF) and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaida, and reiterates that such engagement could constitute financial support for entities designated by the 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee and may lead to further listings by the Committee;
        3.     Also condemns systematic campaigns of illegal excavation, and looting and pillage of cultural heritage, in particular those committed by ISIL, Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities;
        4.     Affirms that directing unlawful attacks against sites and buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, or historic monuments may constitute, under certain circumstances and pursuant to international law a war crime and that perpetrators of such attacks must be brought to justice;
        5.     Stresses that Member States have the primary responsibility in protecting their cultural heritage and that efforts to protect cultural heritage in the context of armed conflicts should be in conformity with the Charter, including its purposes and principles, and international law, and should respect the sovereignty of all States;
        6.     Invites, in this regard, the United Nations and all other relevant organizations to continue providing Member States, upon their request and based on their identified needs, with all necessary assistance;
        7.     Encourages all Member States that have not yet done so to consider ratifying the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 14 May 1954 and its Protocols, as well as other relevant international conventions;
        8.     Requests Member States to take appropriate steps to prevent and counter the illicit trade and trafficking in cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance originating from a context of armed conflict, notably from terrorist groups, including by prohibiting cross-border trade in such illicit items where States have a reasonable suspicion that the items originate from a context of armed conflict, notably from terrorist groups, and which lack clearly documented and certified provenance, thereby allowing for their eventual safe return, in particular items illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990 and from Syria since 15 March 2011, and recalls in this regard that States shall ensure that no funds, other financial assets or other economic resources are made available, directly or indirectly, by their nationals or persons within their territory for the benefit of ISIL and individuals, groups, entities or undertakings associated with ISIL or Al-Qaida in accordance with relevant resolutions;
        9.     Urges Member States to introduce effective national measures at the legislative and operational levels where appropriate, and in accordance with obligations and commitments under international law and national instruments, to prevent and counter trafficking in cultural property and related offences, including by considering to designate such activities that may benefit organized criminal groups, terrorists or terrorist groups, as a serious crime in accordance with
article 2(b) of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime;
        10.    Encourages Member States to propose listings of ISIL, Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities involved in the illicit trade in cultural property to be considered by the 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and Al‑Qaida Sanctions Committee, that meet the designation criteria set forth in resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015);
        11.    Urges Member States to develop, including, upon request, with the assistance of UNODC, in cooperation with UNESCO and INTERPOL as appropriate, broad law enforcement and judicial cooperation in preventing and countering all forms and aspects of trafficking in cultural property and related offences that benefit or may benefit organized criminal groups, terrorists or terrorist groups;
        12.    Calls upon Member States to request and provide cooperation in investigations, prosecutions, seizure and confiscation as well as the return, restitution or repatriation of trafficked, illicitly exported or imported, stolen, looted, illicitly excavated or illicitly traded cultural property, and judicial proceedings, through appropriate channels and in accordance with domestic legal frameworks as well as with the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols thereto and relevant regional, subregional and bilateral agreements;
        13.    Welcomes the actions undertaken by UNESCO within its mandate to safeguard and preserve cultural heritage in peril and actions for the protection of culture and the promotion of cultural pluralism in the event of armed conflict, and encourages Member States to support such actions;
        14.    Encourages Member States to enhance, as appropriate, bilateral, subregional and regional cooperation through joint initiatives within the scope of relevant UNESCO programmes;
        15.    Takes note of the UNESCO Heritage emergency fund as well as of the international fund for the protection of endangered cultural heritage in armed conflict as announced in Abu Dhabi on 3 December 2016, and of other initiatives in this regard, and encourages Member States to provide financial contributions to support preventive and emergency operations, fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, as well as undertake all appropriate efforts for the recovery of cultural heritage, in the spirit of the principles of the UNESCO Conventions;
        16.    Also encourages Member States to take preventive measures to safeguard their nationally owned cultural property and their other cultural property of national importance in the context of armed conflicts, including as appropriate through documentation and consolidation of their cultural property in a network of “safe havens” in their own territories to protect their property, while taking into account the cultural, geographic, and historic specificities of the cultural heritage in need of protection, and notes the draft UNESCO Action Plan, which contains several suggestions to facilitate these activities;
        17.    Calls upon Member States, in order to prevent and counter trafficking of cultural property illegally appropriated and exported in the context of armed conflicts, notably by terrorist groups, to consider adopting the following measures, in relation to such cultural property:
        (a)     Introducing or improving cultural heritage’s and properties’ local and national inventory lists, including through digitalized information when possible, and making them easily accessible to relevant authorities and agencies, as appropriate;
        (b)    Adopting adequate and effective regulations on export and import, including certification of provenance where appropriate, of cultural property, consistent with international standards;
        (c)     Supporting and contributing to update the World Customs Organization (WCO) Harmonized System Nomenclature and Classification of Goods;
        (d)    Establishing, where appropriate, in accordance with national legislation and procedures, specialized units in central and local administrations as well as appointing customs and law enforcement dedicated personnel, and providing them, as well as public prosecutors, with effective tools and adequate training;
        (e)     Establishing procedures and where appropriate databases devoted to collect information on criminal activities related to cultural property and on illicitly excavated, exported, imported or traded, stolen, trafficked or missing cultural property;
        (f)     Using and contributing to the INTERPOL Database of Stolen Works of Art, UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws, and WCO ARCHEO Platform, and relevant current national databases, as well as providing relevant data and information, as appropriate, on investigations and prosecutions of relevant crimes and related outcome to UNODC portal SHERLOC and on seizures of cultural property to the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team;
        (g)    Engaging museums, relevant business associations and antiquities market participants on standards of provenance documentation, differentiated due diligence and all measures to prevent the trade of stolen or illegally traded cultural property;
        (h)    Providing, where available, to relevant industry stakeholders and associations operating within their jurisdiction lists of archaeological sites, museums and excavation storage houses that are located in territory under the control of ISIL or any other group listed by the 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee;
        (i)     Creating educational programmes at all levels on the protection of cultural heritage as well as raising public awareness about illicit trafficking of cultural property and its prevention;
        (j)     Taking appropriate steps to inventory cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific and religious importance which have been illegally removed, displaced or transferred from armed conflict areas, and coordinate with relevant UN entities and international actors, in order to ensure the safe return of all listed items;
        18.    Encourages Members States, relevant United Nations entities, in accordance with their existing mandate, and international actors in a position to do so to provide assistance in demining of cultural sites and objects upon request of affected States;
        19.    Affirms that the mandate of United Nations peacekeeping operations, when specifically mandated by the Security Council and in accordance with their rules of engagement, may encompass, as appropriate, assisting relevant authorities, upon their request, in the protection of cultural heritage from destruction, illicit excavation, looting and smuggling in the context of armed conflicts, in collaboration with UNESCO, and that such operations should operate carefully when in the vicinity of cultural and historical sites;
        20.    Calls upon UNESCO, UNODC, INTERPOL, WCO and other relevant international organizations, as appropriate and within their existing mandates, to assist Member States in their efforts to prevent and counter destruction and looting of and trafficking in cultural property in all forms;
        21.    Requests the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee to continue, within its existing mandate, to provide the Committee with relevant information regarding the illicit trade of cultural property;
        22.    Also requests the Secretary-General, with the support of UNODC, UNESCO and the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee, as well as other relevant United Nations bodies, to submit to the Council a report on the implementation of the present resolution before the end of the year;

        23.    Decides to remain actively seized of the matter.

Links to the Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish versions of the resolution can be downloaded here.

March 24, 2017

Repatriation: Roman sarcophagus held at Swiss Freeport finally clears last hurdle for its return to Turkey

Image taken September 23, 2015
by the Office of the Attorney General of the Canton of Geneva - Image Credit: AFP
In December 2010, Swiss Federal Customs Administration authorities, acting under new customs legislation to combat trafficking in works of art, requested access to the inventory of Phoenix Ancient Art SA., a major supplier of museum-quality antiquities, which stores ancient works of art at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève, a freeport located in a sprawling grey industrial building on the corner of a busy junction in southwest Geneva. 

For more information about freeports as a tax free haven to store art, please see a few of ARCA's earlier blog posts here, here, and here

At the time of the audit, authorities inspected the holdings of both Phoenix Ancient Art and its warehouseman and freight forwarder, Inanna Art Services.  During this inspection, Swiss authorities discovered, but didn't physically seize, a 1-2 ton, 150-180 CE Roman sarcophagus which depicted the twelve labours of the ancient Greek war deity, Hercules. According to customs information on file for the antiquity, the sarcophagus was imported into Switzerland in the name of Phoenix Ancient Art, which often used Inanna Art Services to store its goods or to transport works of art to and from other countries. 

This extraordinary ancient funerary object, likely only one of four of this significant quality documented in the ancient art world, had little in the way of detailed provenance.  For a piece of its quality to have nothing tying it to a previously known ancient art collection; no notations of its discovery or find spot, and nothing notable in the way of published scholarly examination of its style and iconography, rang alarm bells in Switzerland. 

In a recent video, with Al Jazeera news, Ali Aboutaam claimed that the ancient funerary object had been purchased by his father and had been in their family for 25 years. While under their control, he indicated that the sarcophagus had always been stored at the Geneva freeport aside from when it was shipped to the UK for conservation treatment.   Ali Aboutam added that in 2010 the object was sold to the Gandur Foundation as a donation to the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire in Geneva and according to Phoenix Ancient Art's attorney Bastien Geiger, Sleiman Aboutaam purchased the object in the early 90s.

Phoenix Ancient Art had proposed the sarcophagus to billionaire Swiss tycoon and commodities trader, Jean-Claude Gandur in the spring of 2010 for an estimated $1 - 4 million saying that the firm was acting on behalf of a third party whom they interestingly refused to disclose.  Gandur, who made a fortune during the 1990s buying oil concessions in Africa, has long been a powerful collector of ancient art, as well as a long term patron of the Musée d’Art et d’histoire in Geneva. 

In consideration of the donation, Marc-André Haldimann, head of the archaeology department of the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire of Geneva and the director of the museum, Jean-Yves Marin, went to the freeport and inspected the sarcophagus to carry out an appraisal for consideration.  The pair however remained highly skeptical of the lack of established information on the ancient sarcophagus, which implied possible illicit origins.  

How could such a prestigious object emerge on the ancient art market having never been talked or written about previously?   

Wouldn't the archaeologist who discovered such a masterpiece have mentioned this spectacular find in his or her field notes?  

Wouldn't a scholar of some repute have compared it in an academic article with the other known artworks by the same signatory group of sculptures or other sarcophagi depicting Hercules?

The only documentation Phoenix Ancient Art produced which attested to the fundamental question of this exceptional object's past, were independently established statements attesting that the ancient work of art was part of the Aboutaam collection from 2002 onward and a certificate from Art Loss Register attesting the object had been checked against ALR's known stolen art database registry.  Ultimately the sale to the Gandur Foundation was cancelled, in no small part because of suspicions that the object had been smuggled out of its source country. 

In March 2011, the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (FOC) issued a statement that they believed the sarcophagus had originated from the general area of the famous marble quarries of Dokimion in Phrygia, the present day Antalya region of Turkey. The Dokimeian white marble sarcophagus was likely sculpted sometime during the the second century, when the area was under Roman rule. 

Based on the FOC's examination, Swiss authorities alerted their counterparts in Ankara, and Turkey in turn, issued a demand for the restitution of the rare antiquarian work by a letter rogatory of July 2011. Turkey also sent a request for mutual assistance to the Geneva court and an inquiry was formally opened in Switzerland to look into alleged violations of the Cultural Property Transfer Act (LTBC).  This act requires art market professionals keep a register for 30 years, in which the "origin of the cultural property" is to be documented. 

In order for the sarcophagus to have been in good standing in Switzerland under the LTBC, the dealers would be obliged to prove that the acquired object was in an old collection outside the source country prior to 2005 or to demonstrate that the object was not stolen or exported illicitly after 2005.

In October 2013, the case made its way through Swiss court. The Geneva Chief Public Prosecution Office and the Chief Public Prosecutor of Antalya conducted a comprehensive joint study with the Swiss magistrate in charge of the case traveling to Antalya, Turkey where Turkish Public Prosecutor Osman Şanal provided access to witnesses.   

Testimonies were heard from Professor Haluk Abbasoğlu and Professor İnci Deleman who conducted excavations in the region where the sarcophagus was illegally excavated.   The Swiss prosecutor also met with an unnamed imprisoned smuggler serving time on a separate smuggling charge in Elmalı prison.  This smuggler allegedly confirmed that the artifact had been looted and smuggled out of Turkey. 

Based on the evidence gathered, on September 21, 2015 Swiss authorities ordered the repatriation of the sarcophagus. But international legal proceedings move at a snail’s pace and the return of this one object, approved by the Geneva Court of Justice on May 2, 2016, was slowed again, due to a challenge by the Swiss Federal Court. 




More on the dealers involved in this repatriation case.

Phoenix Ancient Art operates a gallery in New York city as well as in Geneva Switzerland.  Founded by Sleiman Aboutaam in 1968, the firm was incorporated in 1995.  The second-generation family business is now managed by Sleiman's sons, Hicham Aboutaam and Ali Aboutaam, who took over the firm's operation after Sleiman’s death in 1998.  The firm has been embroiled in a significant number of antiquities-related controversies. 

A sampling (not a complete listing) of other instances of concern involving this firm include:

A third-century CE South Arabian alabaster stele the brothers attempted to sell in May 2002 via Sotheby’s auction house in New York for approximately $20,000 to $30,000 in which they listed the provenance for the piece as having belonged to a private English collection. Sotheby's researchers conducting due diligence before the auction found published photographs of the stele indicating that this tablet, carved in low relief, with an image of the fertility goddess Dat-Hamin, had been stolen in July 1994 from the Aden Museum in Yemen's port city during the country's previous war.  This object was forfeited to the U.S. government in December 2003 and eventually returned to Yemen.  

Hicham Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 for smuggling a looted ceremonial drinking vessel from Iran into the US, claiming that it had come from Syria.  Hicham pled guilty to the charges in 2004, paid a fine, and the vessel was returned to the Iranian authorities.  Hicham Aboutaam stated that his conviction stemmed from a "lapse in judgment."

The Egyptian authorities have accused Ali Aboutaam of involvement with Tarek El-Suesy (al-Seweissi), who was arrested in 2003 under Egypt’s patrimony law for illegal export of antiquities. Ali Aboutaam was tried in absentia, pronounced guilty and was fined, and sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Egyptian court in April 2004.  To date, he has not served any of the Egyptian sentence. 

The Aboutaams voluntarily repatriated 251 Antiquities valued at $2.7 Million to the State of Italy in May 2009 tied to one of Italy's most notorious smuggling rings.

Advice on collecting ancient art

ARCA encourages its readers to remember that the only way to avoid looting is to pressure dealers and collectors to not participate directly or indirectly in looting through their sourcing and purchases.  Collectors of ancient art are only the most current stewards of objects with long and telling histories. The provenance, or ownership history of a piece of art is important and should detail strong proof that an object has come from a legitimately traded collection.  

Buying and trading in ancient works of art, without well documented collecting histories, simply for their beauty or for the purpose of rescuing them from countries in conflict, only encourages further looting and further laundering of smuggled illicit objects. 

ARCA strongly discourages collectors and museums from buying or accepting objects that cannot pass the 1970 test or which lack a legitimate export permit from the actual and correct country of the object's origin.

By: Lynda Albertson

March 19, 2017

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

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

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


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

One Well Documented Theft = Numerous Separate Seizures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing the Right Thing

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


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

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

By:  Lynda Albertson