February 26, 2020

Valerie Higgins returns to Amelia this summer to teach “Antiquities and Identity” at ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection

By Edgar Tijhuis 

This year, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will be held from May 28 through August 12, 2020 in the beautiful heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy. In the months leading up to the start of the program, this year’s lecturers will be interviewed. 

Valerie Higgins
Can you tell us something about your background and work?

I am the Program Director for the Master’s program in Sustainable Cultural Heritage and Associate Professor in Archaeology at The American University of Rome. I am an archaeologist by training, and I began my professional career as an archaeologist working in local government before returning to university to complete a Ph.D., studying human remains from a medieval Italian monastery site.

After completing a visiting university appointment in New Zealand, I returned to work in Rome where I was lucky enough to get a tenured position at the American University. Being based in Rome, a lot of my teaching has been outside at the monuments themselves, rather than in the classroom, and it was this that first sparked my interest in cultural heritage. The daily contact with the monuments and witnessing the issues of caring for such a massive patrimony, gradually led to me becoming more and more involved in that side of archaeology. Looting of antiquities is a huge problem in Italy and it has deep historical roots. An important part of tackling looting is to understand the societal context in which it takes place.

What do you feel is the most relevant aspect of your course?

The course incorporates discussion of contentious issues that are currently in the news, such as the role of museums and their obligation (or not) to reflect social issues, decolonization of heritage and museums, issues of identity politics relating to ownership, etc. Those of us who are engaged in protecting heritage need to get involved in these debates and we need to ensure that the discussion are well informed. This is increasingly difficult in an era of fake news and short soundbites.

What do you hope participants will get out of the courses?

I hope participants will understand the broader context behind art crime and will feel a greater engagement with topical issues. I hope that they will have a more profound understanding of the background to current disputes. Increasingly, journalistic sources present arguments in a very one-sided way and reduce complex arguments to emotive headlines. I hope that participants will appreciate more the complexity and long history that underlies many current issues.

What would a typical day be like in your classroom?

My classes are very interactive. I like everyone to contribute to class discussions from their own experiences. Every year at ARCA we get participants from all over the world, with diverse professional and personal backgrounds so when we are discussing issues we can get many different viewpoints, and this is very stimulating.

While each year participants are very enthusiastic about your courses, is there anything you learn from them in class?

A huge amount! I encourage everybody to take the topics we cover in the class and apply them to situations they face in their professional lives back home. As a result, I get to hear about new places, new disputes, new heritage sites, new groups and it is always fascinating to me. I regularly incorporate in my teaching at the American University information I have gained from ARCA participants and in that way I hope that I spread the knowledge.

In anticipation of your courses, what book, article, or movie would you recommend to participants?

I enjoyed the book ‘Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum’ by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. It is written by two journalists, not academics, but it conveys very well the attitudes that were current in the museum world in the last part of the twentieth century and the first decade of this century and the almost total disregard for ethics that should have governed museum acquisitions. I would also recommend the BBC podcasts in the series the Museum of Lost Objects. This series looked at antiquities that were lost or looted in Iraq, Syria, India and Pakistan. I like the series because it focuses on the human cost of looting not the economic cost.

What makes the yearly ARCA program so unique?

The people! Every year we get an incredible mix of people taking and teaching the courses in the program and then, of course, during the conference this number increases dramatically. The setting in Amelia also makes the program special. Amelia is a small intimate setting where it is easy to meet people outside of class, over a coffee.

Which other course in the program would you love to follow yourself and why?

I am very interested in Marc Balcells course because he studies art crime as a sociological phenomenon rather than on an individual case by case basis. I believe this aspect is very underdeveloped. Although we will always need law enforcement as a backstop, the greatest impact on reducing art crime is to have a greater understanding of the underlying social forces. Very few people do this and Marc does it so well.

Is there anything you can recommend for future participants to do in Amelia or Umbria?

Amelia is set in beautiful countryside and there are some great walks and picnic spots in the countryside outside the walls. Don’t think that you always have to get on a bus or train to have a great day out!

Are there any funny or interesting things you experienced in Italy, outside class?

Italians certainly have their own ways of doing things which often seem incomprehensible to foreigners. It is not uncommon to go to see something that is supposed to be open and you find it isn’t. However, if you ask around there may be someone who can help you to get in or you might find something else to see that you did not even know existed. Italy is full of fantastic sites that are not in any guidebook or on any website, you may end up having an even better day out. It pays to be flexible and laid back.

What is your experience with the yearly ARCA conference in June? 

I find the conference a very useful way to catch up with what is going on in the field and also people working in the field. The refreshments breaks are almost as valuable as the presentations. To my knowledge, no other conference has such an eclectic mix of people from museums, law enforcement and academia.

Anything else…. The most important thing is to enjoy yourself in Amelia!


For a detailed prospectus and application materials or for general questions about this postgraduate program please contact us at education@artcrimeresearch.org 

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Edgar Tijhuis serves as the Academic Director at ARCA and is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection and since 2009, has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program.

February 25, 2020

Mild prison sentences handed down in organized crime-related theft at the Bode Museum in Berlin


When a giant gold coin, weighing 100 kilos was stolen from room 243 of the Bode Museum and carted off without a hitch in the early morning hours of March 27, 2017 it wasn't long before the German authorities pinpointed a likely group of culprits.  Taking only 16 minutes to carry out the crime, complete with carbon-fiber-reinforced ax used to break the extremely heavy security glass, and with the help of a strategically placed roller and wheelbarrow, it was obvious that the museum's burglary was not a random smash and grab.  All clues pointed to inside help, especially as the culprits had walked straight passed higher value, but less liquidatable works of art.

Raids carried out by authorities in Neukölln, Berlin’s most impoverished district, in July 2017 turned up an interesting wrinkle; three of the four men taken into custody for questioning, Wayci Remmo (now 24) Ahmed Remmo (now 20), and Wissam Remmo (now 22) all appeared to have ties to one of Germany’s burgeoning ethnic crime syndicates.  Now headed by brothers Issa and Ashraf Remmo, the clan's defacto patriarchs, the Remmo clan includes an estimated 500 family members people, many of whom originate from Mardin, and immigrated first to Lebanon, and later to Germany.  

Der Spiegel estimates that while that clans make up just four percent of Berlin's inhabitants, 20 percent of suspects in organized crime cases belong to one of the well-known clans.  For decades it is believed that male members of this and similar ethnic family clans, have been associated with extortion, drugs, laundering criminal proceeds, theft and robbery.  The complicated family ties and ownership structures developed by the clans' membership make it possible for the tightly knit groups to launder money - and sometimes, but not in this case, make it considerably more difficult for investigators to work. 

In this case, it was the fourth suspect, Denis Wilhelm's friendship with Ahmed's which helped unravel the case.  Wilhelm had conveniently been hired as a subcontractor for night shift security at the Bode Museum the same month as the theft.

After lengthy hearings, cousins Ahmed and Wissam Remmo, both German citizens were convicted as having orchestrated the job with the help of their German friend, after evidence obtained during the search of 17 residences and related property tied the men to the scene of the crime. During these searches, police found clothing which to matched security footage from the theft as well as gold particles of the same purity as the mammoth coin and shards of glass similar to that of the protective casing which was smashed to access the coin at the museum.  

A search of Wissam Remmo's smart phone also showed an app used to calculate gold prices as well as recent searches on how to melt down chunks of gold. Given this, authorities have surmised that the €3.75 million coin was hacked up into smaller bits, melted down, and the proceeds distributed among an unknown or unnamed number of affiliates. 

Sentenced lightly, given the offense took place while they were juveniles, Ahmed and Wissam Remmo were each given just 54 months in prison.  Their heavist punishment appears to be the fine they were adjudicated, totalling €3.3 million , the estimated total loss of the stolen coin.  

Wissam Remmo's sentence comes on top of an earlier conviction where DNA at a crime scene tied him to another property theft.  In that criminal case he was recently sentenced to two years and six months in prison via the district court of Erlangen. 

Their inside-man accomplice, Denis Wilhelm, was given a sentence of 40 months and was fined fine of €100,000. The fourth defendant, Wayci Remmo, a cousin of the two brothers, was acquitted of all charges as the court found the evidence insufficient to convict. 

To learn more about the structure of these groups, German readers can read 
Ralph Ghadban's Arabische Clans: Die unterschätzte Gefahr.  Ghadban, who has spoken out about the criminal machinations of the Arabische Großfamilie clans which dominate Berlin's underworld, is now under permanent police protection, for his criticism of the clans and the power of the Lebanese mafia in Europe. 

February 16, 2020

Christies Auction Identification and Restitution: A Roman Marble Sarcophagus Fragment of Sidmara Type

Christie's, London, 4 December 2019
Catalog Cover and Lot 481 – Description
Note:  This blog post has been revised with further information on 17 February 2019.

While I was focused on the provenance of an Etruscan antefix in Christie's antiquities auction last December, more on that outcome in another article at a later date, the Turkish authorities were interested in another ancient object which was on consignment in the same auction. In the auction house’s catalog, the marble artefact was listed as: a Roman Marble Sarcophagus Fragment of Sidamara Type, Circa 2nd-3rd Century B.C.

Christie's had listed the provenance for Lot 481 in the December 4, 2019 sale as follows:

German private collection. The Property of a German private collector; Antiquities, Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989, lot 112. with Atelier Amphora, Lugano, acquired at the above sale. 

They also gave a lengthy description to illustrate how a Sidamara sarcophagus might have ended up with an Italian ancient art dealer in Lugano, Italy.

Their description read:

Sidamara type sarcophagi were decorated in high relief on all four sides and usually placed in the centre of a tomb in an open burial ground so they could be viewed in the round. The decoration featured complex architectural designs with figures placed in arched niches separated by fluted columns. Despite their monumental dimensions and weight, they were exported all over Asia Minor and even to Greece and Italy, with several examples found on the coast at Izmir, which was probably the shipping point to the West. A Sidamara-type sarcophagus, similar to the present example, while no doubt sculpted in Asia Minor, was excavated near the town of Rapolla in Southern Italy, and is now in the Museo Nazionale del Melfese, in the Castle of Melfi. The type was also copied in the West, probably being produced by Asiatic sculptors who migrated to Italy.

While a review of the earlier Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989 description for Lot 112 is pretty much the same in terms of origin, the sale entry had no provenance details listed whatsoever.


Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 112 - Description
And the Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989 auction has other similar fragments including:

Lot 83
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 83 - Image and Description

Lot 84
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 84 - Image

Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 84 - Description
Lot 111
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 111 - Image
Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1989
Lot 84 - Description
But let's take a closer look at who the dealer was who operated Atelier Amphora

The owner of Atelier Amphora was Mario Bruno, a prominent intermediary dealer, known to have handled illicit antiquities covering a swath of Italy in the 1980s and 1990s.  Before his death, in 1993, his name could be found, front and center, on many antiquities ancient art transactions from that period.  Several other objects with Atelier Amphora were also up for auction in the same December Christie's sale.

Bruno's first initial and last name also featured in the now famous Medici organigram.  Listed mid-way down the page on the left, the creator of the org chart listed the territories Bruno covered: Lugano, Cerveteri, Torino, North Italy, Rome, Lazio, Campania, Puglia, Sardinia, and Sicily.

In an article in the Journal of Art Crime (Spring 2013) Christos Tsirogiannis writes of Bruno's history saying: 


"According to the Becchina archive (CD 1, pagina 5, foto 1375), Mario Bruno -- who was known as a "receiver of stolen goods" (Watson & Todeschini 2007:86) and "a major grave-robber" (Isman 2008:30) sold 12 antiquities to Gianfranco Becchina, on 22 August 1987. "

Bruno also is known to have played a role in the fencing of one of Italy's most important recoveries, the Capitoline Triad, a representation of the central pediment of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.  This marble sculpture is known to have been illegally excavated in 1992 by a well-known tombarolo from the town of Anguillara Sabazia named Pietro Casasantawho brokered a deal with Mario Bruno to sell the Triad, with the Lugano dealer as the primary middleman between the looter and a Swiss buyer.

Documents and imagery also attest that Bruno handled a substantial Etruscan terracotta sarcophagus, the lid of which depicted a sculpted couple lying on the triclinium, similar to only two others, artifacts now held in the Louvre Museum in Paris and in the Villa Giulia in Rome. (Isman 2009)  That looted Etruscan antiquity has unfortunately never resurfaced.

All this to say that the fact that something stolen or looted, or something as big and heavy as portions of an illicit sarcophagus, having passed through this Bruno's hands is not at all surprising. What is provocative is that we again have an contemporary example of a major auction house, who prides itself on the legitimacy of their offerings, organizing the sale of a poorly vetted ancient object which dates to the Roman period, with no other provenance recording its presence on the licit market before its December 1989 sale, on consignment by a long-dead suspect dealer.

Fast forward to 2019 

Staff working with Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism identified the sarcophagus fragment while cross-checking the catalog Christie's had prepared for their December 4, 2019 auction in London. (T.C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı 2020) By now the Turkish authorities were aware of the 1989 Sotheby's sale in the UK and were alert for this and another fragment’s reappearance in the London market.  Having identified their artifact the Ministry of Culture contacted their INTERPOL National Central Bureau (NCB) and Europol affiliates through established law enforcement procedures and began voicing their concerns with the Metropolitan Police in London. The Turkish authorities then provided their British counterparts with documentation which substantiated their claim that sarcophagus fragment was the property of Turkey and Scotland Yard officers spoke with the auction firm.  Christie's in turn agreed to have the object withdrawn from the sale, pending an investigation. 

But where did the sarcophagus come from? 

The sarcophagus was first identified and documented as having been discovered, broken into five fragments, by the Isparta Göksöğüt Municipality in the 1980s.  At some point later, the pieces were moved from their original find spot to the Municipality where they were then photographed in 1987 by Mehmet Özsait.  In 1988 the finds were transferred to the Isparta Museum Directorate but were recorded as consisting of only three large marble fragments along with a few smaller pieces. How the object was moved out of Turkey is not known or has not been disclosed.
However, two years after the photo was taken, the two missing fragments had already made their way to London and were published in a Sotheby's catalog.  The object fragments were then sold at auction on December 11, 1989, to two different buyers.

It wasn't until 2015 when German classical archaeologist Volker Michael Strocka, researching a specific sub-genus of Asian sarcophagus, referred to as columnar sarcophagi, helped to reconcile that two of the fragments represented in the archival photographic record were unaccounted for.  Given sufficient evidence that the marble sculpture had been illegally smuggled out of Turkey and into the U.K., all parties involved worked together to successfully mediate the object's return through discreet negotiations with the consignor.  This is the same methodology used by London’s Metropolitan Police for the restitution of the a Post-Gupta, seated Buddha in the Bhumisparsha Mudra pose identified in 2018 which was stolen in 1961, appeared for sale at TEFAF in 2018, and upon identification, was voluntarily relinquished by the consignor back to the source country. 

Columnar sarcophagi in the Roman Empire came from Docimium, an ancient city in Phrygia, in the west central part of Anatolia, or what is now known as Asian Turkey.  Known for their famous marble quarries, Sidamara type sarcophagi were also shipped to other areas of the Roman Empire, including Italy, just as Christie's stated.  But in the case of this particular object, the artefact returning home to Turkey seems to be a very close match to other Phrygia fragments still in Turkey that I was able to find quite easily with only a few hours research.

One set of fragments I found photographs of are a part of the Isparta Museum's collection though I am not yet sure if these come from the same sarcophagus Volker Michael Strocka matched the missing pieces to.  Interestingly, as recently as 2018, another group of 100 kilo pieces were seized by the gendarmerie when smugglers were caught trying to sell them showing that the climate for looting costly ancient artifacts similar to this restituted piece has not changed much between 1987 and 2018. Yet how the objects came to be in Bruno's hands, and who he was working with in Turkey, is worth exploring in the future. As are any other items which come up for sale with this dealer's thumbprint.

Similar fragments from Sidamara type sarcophagi found at Sarkikaraagac in the district of Isparta and now located at the Isparta Archaeological Museum
Image Credit: by Roberto Piperno https://www.romeartlover.it/Isparta.html

For now, the fragment has made its way home, arriving on the 15th of February 2020 along with another identified stolen antiquity via special arrangements with Turkish Airlines. The sculpture will now be presented to the press at a formal ceremony at the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara, along with the other recently recovered object, which will be attended by Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, Turkey's Culture and Tourism.

By: Lynda Albertson

February 14, 2020

Charge of unlawful possession of items of cultural value has been added to existing charges against Vasil Bozhkov


During a news briefing on Thursday, 13 February, Bulgarian authorities announced that they have added two additional charges to add to those already filed against fugitive billionaire Vasil Bozhkov. 

In addition to the charge of leading an organized crime group, coercion, extortion, attempted bribery of an official and incitement to malfeasance in office, Bozhkov will now be formally charged with influence trading and holding and expropriating valuable cultural artefacts,.

The spokesperson representing the Prosecutor General has indicated that a 200 page application for Bozhkov's extradition has been prepared and awaits translation into Arabic.  Once completed, it will then be sent to the Justice Ministry in the UAE to forward to the competent judicial authority. 


February 13, 2020

19 profiles, posting to just one thread, within one private group, on one social media site. How many more are out there just like this one?


Group Member 1
Two of 23 stucco buddhas that I took out from storage. Varying from 25 cm to 40 cm. in height. Purchased in the 90’s as Ming, but I feel that they could be much older, Jin or Song perhaps. They came in batches of hundreds.... some poor temples raided. I had first pick, perks being good friend of dealer and selected the best ones. They were all gone within 2 weeks, a Korean bought the whole lot and shipped them to Korea. Any thoughts most welcomed!

Group Member 2
great to have the complet [sic] set

Group Member 1
no complete set.... there were hundreds! They came in three batches of about 150 to 200 pieces each.

Group Member 3
 Did they all come from a single place?

Group Member 1
yes! Poor temple got raided .... from Shanxi. Am sure these were dug out from the walls of the temple.

Group Member 3
Ouch 😰

Group Member 4
I heard was a cave but who knows? Here is a larger one, looks to have been restored/repaired about two or three times over.Free standing- not pried off a wall.

Group Member 1
what is the size? Do you have a photo of the back? Think they added a hand and repainted it .... looks wooden and stiff

Group Member 4
H: 43, made with clay and straw like ,adobe.

Group Member 1
I see what they have done!!! They added a backing.....so that it is no longer 2D

Group Member 4
No, I don't think the back was added (imo), on mine. It was "sculpted' or not molded.

Group Member 1
if you say so!

Group Member 4
I do.

Group Member 1
#4 am sure you seen these but not this quality !
[Image file deleted]

Group Member 4
I've had a few, very nice and hard to find in such good condition.

Group Member 5
Gorgeous.

Group Member 6
My guess!! is Yuan or early Ming - based superficially only on hairdo and facial features.

Group Member 7
👍🏻

Group Member 8
Just beautiful

Group Member 9
do you mind me saying that I find it alarming that someone knowingly buys looted, stolen things. You would probably not do it when it is a stolen television, but you would when it’s about a statue many people have revered during many years?

Group Member 3
I often have mixed feelings about these things. On one hand it saddens me that some historical and cultural heritage suffered irreversible damage from this. On the other hand, I would hate to see something like this in the hands of uncaring individuals who only see them as a commodity.

Group Member 10
I absolutely agree. This is disgusting :(

Group Member 4
*inserts laughing GIF*

Group Member 11
These were different times back then. In some ways they were going to be sold one way or another. At least they went somewhere they were protected/conserved.

Group Member 6
We do not know when the poor temple was raided and for what reason...

Group Member 12
With that logic not a single item would exist after cultural revolution. So you cannot demonize looting as a whole.

Group Member 13
The Buddhas could be from a temple that was impacted by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam which began in 1994. https://pages.vassar.edu/realarchaeology/2015/11/22/the-three-gorges-dam-and-the-preservation-of-archaeological-sites/


Group Member 12
i thinks or more of sort of looted for profit. As 99,9% of all items 😜 Off course its bad and not good but sometimes it happens that it was retrospectively better that those items where moved out of a country for other generations.

Group Member 13
 https://pages.vassar.edu/realarchaeology/2015/11/22/the-three-gorges-dam-and-the-preservation-of-archaeological-sites/

Group Member 1
I share your view. If that is your case , anything coming out of China without the wax seal mark prior to 1980 is illegal. After that, anything that is Qianlong or after, is illegal from China too. With the mass destruction and looting done by the West in the past, the trend continues but a trickle..... totally for commercial reason. By your values, every stolen object should be returned to China and anything pre Qianlong you yourself traded in from China, is illegal too.... including all the Tang, Han, Ming tomb figures . I totally am totally sympathetic to the wanton destruction for commercial gain, but could not help myself, if I see something beautiful and affordable. They would and have disappeared into the market. At least I have a few and sharing their beauty here.

Group Member 1
(Speaking to Group Member 10) all your Chinese Buddhas and wooden deities/altar figures were also stolen from temples!

Group Member 1
the buddhas were from Shanxi, North China.

Group Member 11
Also none of these are "cultural relics" level items.

Group Member 10
I don't think it is the same situation. Most of my pieces were inherited, bought in Macau, prior to the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese didn't really care about those pieces, and when there were plenty for sale in Macau. Later, many others were bought to Chinese from the mainland, bringing them to Macau saving them from being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. I think it is totally different than just looting temples for sale.

Group Member 12
at some point in their life they where in a temple

Group Member 10
not necesserally. Many were in private houses. I am sure you know there were beautiful private houses and palaces all over China and their owners brought what they could to Macau fleeing Communism China.

Group Member 1
looted items, with time is still looted items. Whether the Chinese cared or not is immaterial, but they were not taken from temples illegally. The inheritance of looted items do not make it ok. The buddhas just appeared in the streets of Hollywood one day in two or three dealer’s shops. I was dramatic to say looted, but maybe the temple was being torn down for some development or other reason.

Group Member 1
p.s. every piece of antique older has passed through many hands, even generations. Are you certain that every piece you have has legal provenance?

Group Member 12
objectively nobody can say that. I really dont understand the witch hunt here. 99,9% of all antiques are somehow looted if you dont keep them in the country of origin. Just think about all the museums which are full of stolen goods of major cultural significance.
Stolen.
looted and cultural appropiated
etc etc....

Group Member 14
Sadly, much of what we collect was, at some point, probably taken forcibly. There are religious items for sale that come out of European churches and monasteries all of the time. I own a few of the smaller items, but I was very tempted to buy a life size wooden statue of an angel that came out of a church somewhere in Eastern Europe. The truth of the matter is we cannot know for sure about most of the things we own or have purchased. I look at what I have collected and ponder this quite often. Collecting things will always be a double edge sword.

Group Member 5
well said.

Group Member 15
I am glad others shared the same dilemma as I do, as much as I know, the items that I owned were purchased from the owners but you can never be sure of its origin. I have been in a situation (uncomfortable) where the children of the owners (still alive and sad) are trying to sell their parents collections or heirloom to me. They claim it's taking up space and need the money for their medical bills. And I have met some monks who told me stories about how in the past they dont need to lock their monasteries but not so now. They show me places or empty spots where something sacred used to sit. And the metal chains and locks around those that survived.

Group Member 16
If it weren't for stolen objects, most (if not all) museums in the US and Europe would be shut for lack of artifacts. That is NOT justifying the looting, only a sad statement of fact.

Group Member 15
though there is a conscious effort now to return and recall back for those items but they will never return them.

Group Member 17
If a artifact ends up in my home it was karma

Group Member 18
Lots of Hindu temples dating as early as 7-11 century were broken down in Bangladesh ,the statues ended up in antique shops in Dhaka ,Guess many were exported to Europe and the authorities did not care as its a Islamic nation and were not keen to protect the ancient archeological heritage .

Group Member 15
also too poor and too many of them around. I am working on nature conservation, people don't care about these things if their stomach is hungry and children are crying for food

Group Member 19



Transcribed as written from one day's posting (12 February 2020) within one private Facebook group.
  • 19 profiles.
  • None of which are from islamic countries. 
  • None seemingly terrorists, or buying ancient art from (current) terrorists.  
  • All posting in one singular thread, within one private group, on one social media site. 
How many more groups, just like this one, are out there?

{\displaystyle \mathrm {N} \!\!\mathrm {B} }
That was a rhetorical question. Too many to monitor.

February 12, 2020

Convictions in the Nizam Museum Theft.

Image Credit: Hyderabad Police
Two burglars, Mohammed Mubeen (24) and Mohammed Ghouse Pasha (23), responsible for the jewelry theft from the Nizam Museum housed in the Purani Haveli palace have been found guilty and convicted by a local court in Hyderabad, India on Tuesday. 

The palace was once the official residence of the Nizam, the last of whom ruled over the region from 1911 to 1948, when Hyderabad State was annexed by India. 

The pair entered the museum sometime on the evening of Sunday, September 2, 2018 by dislodging a ventilation grill which allowed them to enter an exhibition gallery where they proceeded to break into a non alarmed exhibition case and make off with a three-tier diamond-studded gold tiffin box with trays, as well as a golden tea cup and saucer embedded with ruby and emeralds, a spoon and a tray which once belonged to the 7th Nizam. Tiffins (or dhabbas) are traditionally round metal lunch containers with three or four stacking compartments used for serving traditional homemade thali lunches which feature bread, pickles, spicy curries, and sometimes desserts.

With the help of the public, Hyderabad City Police's Commissioner’s Task Force (South) team quickly recovered the stolen museum objects a short while later and identified the pair, who were then formally charged. 
Yesterday, City Police Commissioner Anjani Kumar confirmed that the court had issued its verdict, sentencing the duo to two years of imprisonment.

February 11, 2020

The less than clear origins of fugitive Vasil Bozhkov's Thrace and Private Collection

Vessel from the
Panagyurishte Treasure
As Bulgarian authorities work through how to get their fugitive gambling tzar extradited from the UAE to stand trial, the cultural heritage community is crossing their fingers that the country's cultural ministry will (eventually) release a list of the nearly 3,000 artefacts which make up the art and antiquities previously purchased by the business mogul.  But to understand the current state of affairs as it is related to their sequestration, it is necessary to first understand the standing of private collections within this former Soviet-led Eastern Bloc country. 

In the past, Bulgaria's April 1969 Law on the Monuments of Culture and Museums (LMCM), a carryover from the country's communist era, defined cultural objects holding market actors as government agencies, state-owned museums, private and legal individuals.  As such, the LMCM did not explicitly ban the private ownership of antiquities, but it left their legal status somewhat vague.  This allowed collectors, like Bozhkov, and others, to benefit from quasi-legalized private collections, which in Bulgaria seemed to be purchased to philanthropically polish the reputations of the controversial new rich.

Rhyton Vessel from the Panagyurishte Treasure
Faced with a countryside increasingly devastated by archaeological pillaging throughout the 1990s and into the next century, Bulgaria's Ministry of Culture went on to adopt an amendment, Ordinance No.1 in 2005 on the procedure for the evaluation of declared cultural goods owned by legal entities or individuals.  The motivation for this new procedure stated that the implementation of the regulation was done in accordance with the obligations undertaken by the Bulgarian government with respect to their EU accession negotiations under negotiation Chapter 25, Customs Union.  It required that any legal entity or individual in possession of cultural property must complete and submit registration documents for each object within their collection, and for those documents to then be filed with the closest regional or specialized state museum. Unfortunately, despite its unifying intentions, the mandate set no fixed term deadline for an object's registration once purchased and again had gaps which further needed closing. 

Rhyton Vessel from the
Panagyurishte Treasure
Experiencing rampant looting and the moonscape-like devastation which occurred at the ancient Roman settlement of Ratiaria, Bulgaria adopted further stringent rules and legislation related to private collections, in part to address the loot-then launder-then-purchase cycle of plunder which had become a driving force in the market for Bulgaria's Thracian and Roman artifacts.  Revised in part to meet the new requirements corresponding to the rules of the European Union, the country's new Cultural Heritage Act (CHA) was adopted in March of 2009 and was subsequently put into force in April of 2009. This new law included stricter registration requirements and most importantly, the need to show demonstrable proof of legal ownership of objects.

Yet each tightening of restrictions continued to meet with resistance.  

Bulgarian coin collectors grumbled that the newly imposed paperwork was too costly and time consuming to compile for small dealers, i.e. those who make their livelihood off of the buying and selling of ancient ancient coins which are known to change hands frequently.  Likewise, wealthier collectors, already with established collections of costly ancient artifacts, complained that the rules did not allow for any sort of amnesty on prior acquisitions before the law was put in place. Some believed that the change in requirements favored those in political favor, and complained that even the country's own state museums could not pass the new stringent requirements now being required of them.  Privacy advocates also voiced suspicions that burglaries of private collections might be committed with the involvement of corrupt government officials who would, as a result of the new rules, have access to the property registration documentation of private citizens.

Which brings us back to the current state of Mr. Bozhkov's collection. 

Prior to the recent freezing of Bozhkov's assets the Thrace Foundation is believed to have successfully completed the applications for legalization for just 212 of Bozhkov's nearly 3,000 objects.  Many of these registered objects have been displayed in travelling exhibitions which have toured in Brussels, Moscow, and Sofia between 2005 and 2018. 

These objects, reportedly authorized by the Ministry of Culture, appear to have been registered as part of the private Vasil Bozhkov Museum which is said to be an independent legal entity. This entity "owns" the exhibits which make up the collection belonging to the Thrace Foundation, a non-profit organization, founded by Vasil Bozhkov in 2004.

It has been reported by some news agencies that the approximately 2700 remaining Bozhkov items have been declared with the government within the last ten years, and that the businessman applied for registration via the National Institute of Science, though no dates for these applications has been specified.  Even if the objects were dutifully declared, the bulk of the art and antiquities have not been formally evaluated to determine their origins or authenticity, nor has Bozhkov paid the 30 Bulgarian lev fee for each object's registration.   What should be noted however is that there is no deadline for paying this fee stated in the country's regulations, nor is there a deadline for the government to rule on an object's legitimacy, once it has been filed.  

Given that the objects have not yet been formally evaluated by heritage experts approved by the Ministry of Culture, is not clear at present how many of the artefacts in Bozhkov's private collection would meet the following Bulgarian two-step registration criteria. 

That identification/qualification process consists of two steps:  
  • identification the object to be registered via photos and historical or scientific records which concretize an artifact's authenticity and origin. 
  • provide supporting evidence of the object's legitimacy and purchase, via  substantiated collecting histories, concretized by an object's accompanying provenance records. 
Failure to establish an artwork or artifact's legitimacy via the above criteria, can result in the object's legal registration being withheld.   In some cases, said objects may be subject to seizure in favor of the state under Art. 278a (Last amendment, SG No. 27/2009 in force as of 10.04.2009) of the Penal Code which states:

(1) An individual who offers a valuable cultural artifact to the purpose of expropriation or expropriates a valuable cultural artifact which is not identified or registered, is imposed a punishment of imprisonment from one to six years and a fine from one thousand to twenty thousand BGN.

(2) The punishment is also imposed to an individual who acquire such cultural artifact.

(3) In the cases when the crimes under para 1 and 2 have been committed over again or are qualified as dangerous recidivism or they have been committed after an order or in implementation of a decision of an organized criminal group or they have been committed with the purpose the object of crime to be exported over the state border, the punishment which is imposed is imprisonment for a term from three to ten years and a fine from five thousand BGN to fifteen thousand BGN.

The gambler makes a case for buying antiquities to save them

Bozhkov himself is known to have admitted that not all of his antiquities would pass the country's registration sniff test.  In a 2005 interview with Bulgaria's daily newspaper Trud he unremorsefully confessed "I buy from people who buy from treasure hunters...I have more opportunities than the state."  He then justified his purchases by admitting "I am satisfied that I have at least somewhat limited the export of this wealth."   

By agreeing to purchase unprovenanced antiquities to develop his private collection and to fill his private museum, in furtherance of irresponsible collecting practices, Bozhkov and collectors like him, have continued to  incentivize destructive or clandestine excavations, feeding the demand for illicit goods. 

How big a demand?

Bozhkov's thirst for antiquities was large.  His collection of Thracian gold is believed to be larger than that held by Bulgaria's National Museum of History.  His collection is known to include three gilded silver vases representing Orpheus, situlae, several gold wreaths from Thracian rulers, gold funeral masks, kylix, lekanes, epichysis, oinochoi, phialae, a silver kantharos with an image of Theseus, and at least ten silver rhytons.  And that is just representative of some of what we know from the exhibitions of his collection to date. 

For now, it remains unknown which, if any of his purchases will eventually be restituted to the state on the basis on illicit origin, or, in the case of licit purchases, might be lawfully returned to Bozhkov after the conclusion of the state's current assessment. His collection might also be subject to criminal forfeiture by means of confiscation should he be convicted of the charges he is facing and should it be proven that the art and antiquities were acquired through the proceeds of crime. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

February 2, 2020

Dick Drent returns to Amelia to teach "risk management and crime prevention in museum security” at ARCA's 2020 Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection

By Edgar Tijhuis

This year, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will be held from May 28 through August 12, 2020 in the beautiful heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy. In the months leading up to the start of the program, this year’s lecturers will be interviewed. This week I speak Dick Drent, the Van Gogh Museum's former security director and on of the worlds leading experts on museum security.

Dick Drent
Though Dick and I both located in Amsterdam, I have to this interview via Skype as Dick is constantly flying around the world to assist museums from the US to the Far East and in between. When I talk with him to discuss his return to Amelia in 2020, Dick is heading for Dubai and Abu Dhabi as the first two emirates to talk about bringing proactive security to the UAE. Soon to follow by the other emirates.

Can you tell us something about your background and work?

My background is based on law enforcement with the Dutch police, where I worked for 25 years, mainly involving international investigations hinging on organised crime. In that capacity I worked for 15 years in the Undercover and Sensitive Operations Unit on counter-terrorism projects and on setting up, running and managing (inter)national infiltration projects. I also worked as the Liaison Officer for the Dutch Police to the UN War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, a tribunal set up in 1992 for the prosecution of persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law set up following the war in what is the former Yugoslavia.

In 2005 I was approached by the Van Gogh Museum to serve as their Director of Security, responsible for dealing with their threat and risk issues as it relates to the museum’s complex physical security as well as it's the museum’s approach to organizational, construction and electronic risk management. Leading up to my hire, these were not sufficient for a museum of this calibre and had resulted in the 2002 burglary of the museum in which two Van Gogh paintings were stolen. So, I was mandated to change and overhaul the museum’s overall security which I did, developing and implementing a new proactive security strategy which effectively assessed risk and minimized the potential of future breaches. Next to that I was pinpointed as chief investigator with the goal of getting the museum's two stolen Van Gogh paintings back. In 2016 after many years of tracing and tracking tips, gathering information, connecting with informants and conducting investigations all over Europe we were ultimately successful. Fourteen years after the robbery, and in close cooperation with Italy’s Guardia Di Finanza of Naples, we were able to recover the paintings at a house connected to one of the bosses of the Camorra organized crime clans in Naples. There, the paintings were seized by law enforcement authorities and when authenticated, were returned to the Van Gogh Museum where they have been restored and are now once again a part of the museum’s collection.

Recovery of the Van Gogh's
In 2014 I left the Van Gogh Museum to further develop my own business enterprise where I continue to be successful in an advisory and consultancy capacity, a segment of which is specialized on providing security and risk training as it relates to protecting cultural heritage. I have also expanded my company Omnirisk through a merger with the International Preventive Security Unit (IPSU) where knowledge and expertise is combined. We will operate under the name International Security Expert Group. (ISEG). ISEG works with experts from law enforcement and special forces from the military and will cover the full range of training and courses in security and safety for any situation in the world. Next to this I’m still busy with assisting museums and cultural projects all over the world to improve their security. At the moment I’m in touch with Mark Collins, a law enforcement officer from Canada and an ARCA alumnus, to set up training programs on proactive security in Canada.

What do you feel is the most relevant part of your course?


Dick Drent on a field trip during the
2019 program
As it relates to my course with ARCA, aside from creating security awareness in the broadest sense of the word, especially for those participants who have no security experience in their backgrounds, the most relevant part of my course involves a change of mindset. This is done by literally letting them climb into the skin of the criminal or terrorist, where they are asked to assume an adversarial role or point of view in order to understand how easy it is to commit an art-related crime. By considering, how they themselves would set about attacking a museum or an archaeological site or infiltrating a private institution with the intent and goal of stealing or destroying something, they are better able to see and understand the site's security vulnerabilities, by simulating a real-world attack to evaluate the effectiveness of a site’s security defenses and policies.

What do you hope participants will get out of your course? 

I want them to understand that the protection of cultural heritage doesn’t begin with chasing stolen, falsified, counterfeited, looted, plundered or destroyed art or heritage. I want them to learn that it starts with thinking about threats and actors, and risk in advance of an incident and exploring how we can prevent incidents before they happen. By changing from a reactive method of security as we know it, ergo, reacting to incidents after they occur, where, per definition, you are already too late to have prevented it), to a proactive strategy is what is needed for comprehensive security strategies. Pro-activity involves identifying the hazardous conditions that can give rise to all manner of risk, which we address in a variety of methods, including predictive profiling, red teaming, utilizing security intelligence and other proactive approaches which lead to the actual protection of cultural heritage.

A second thing I know for sure the participants come away with from my course is that when finished they will have a strong understanding of how security should, or more correctly, has to be an intrinsic part of any organisation. It’s not unusual for those who study under me, to say afterwards that they will never be able to walk into museum again without looking for the security issues at hand and in their head making a survey how easy it would be too…… For them, the days of solely enjoying a museum or art will be over. Forever.

In anticipation of your courses, what book, article, or movie would you recommend to participants? 

Next to reading everything that is mentioned on the advanced reading lists we provide to participants, I would highly recommend reading the book: Managing the Unexpected (2007) by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. This book discusses the ideas behind the High Reliability Organization (HRO) and it's principles. In my opinion every organization that is involved in the protection of cultural heritage, should be managed as an HRO. Read it and you will find out why.

Is there anything you can recommend about the program or about it being in Amelia or Umbria? 

Coffee break during the conference
An added value to your investment in following this program in Amelia is the opportunity to develop one’s network with other participants and with all the professors and lectures who come to Umbria because of ARCA and the ARCA conference. This sometimes isn’t obvious in the beginning, but I am still in contact with a lot of the participants and presenters from the previous year’s courses and conferences and have also been able to connect them to other people in my network long after the summer is over. So, for a future career, even it is not clear yet what or how that career will look, this program offers opportunities too good not to make use of! Tip: Print business cards to give to the people you contact and ask for theirs. Make them notice you, by your questions and drive to learn

Regarding Amelia, Umbria and of course Italy as a whole, there are not enough words even to begin to explain why someone should travel around in this big playground where every stone represents a part of history. Not to mention the beautiful food, wines and various dishes they serve in all the different regions and the friendship you can experience if you are really interested in the people and the country. It’s worth soaking up and living it!

What is your experience with the yearly ARCA conference in June?

Throughout the years that the Amelia Conference has taken place, I have watched it become more and more focused and specialized. The number of attendees has also grown from 40-50 at its start to well over 150 attendees, even without using publishing or marketing tools. That is what a conference should be about, interesting topics, good speakers, interesting discussions and the opportunity to network and get to know people. Due to my work, I am not always able to attend every year and feel this as a missed opportunity to grow and to extend my knowledge and network. For the participants it is very important to be there and to connect with the people that could be interesting for their line of work or career or just because it is good to meet interesting people. This applies also the other way around. I’m looking forward to meeting all of the participants during this coming 2020 program!

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For a detailed prospectus and application materials or for general questions about this postgraduate program please contact us at education@artcrimeresearch.org 

Edgar Tijhuis is Academic Director at ARCA and visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection. Since 2009, Edgar Tijhuis has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program.

Supreme Court Asked to Consider Legal Status of Famous Picasso Painting

A petition for writ of certiorari has been filed asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a ruling dismissing a case against New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the return of a Pablo Picasso masterwork, “The Actor,” created around 1904-05.

Jewish refugee Paul Leffmann sold the painting under duress in 1938, because of Nazi and Fascist persecution, when he and his wife Alice, having already escaped Germany, sought to flee a fast-Nazifying Italy. The purchasers were art dealer Hugo Perls and Pablo Picasso’s own dealer Paul Rosenberg, a French art dealer who represented Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse.

Not satisfied with an appellate court decision affirming the dismissal of the family’s claim to the painting as having been filed too late, Laurel Zuckerman, Paul Leffmann's great grand-niece, through her attorneys, has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case.  The Supreme Court grants around 100 of the 7,000+ petitions it gets each year, focusing on cases of national significance,or  those which might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal Circuit courts. 

According to Zuckerman’s petition, her case raises an issue of nationwide importance concerning the HEAR Act: whether, “despite the introduction of a nationwide statute of limitations designed to revive Holocaust-era restitution claims,” the Act still allows the laws of each of the 50 states to declare a claim untimely, and to thereby put up additional roadblocks to the very Holocaust era claims Congress encouraged under the HEAR Act. 

Zuckerman, representing the estate of Alice Leffmann, had sued the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016, asserting in court papers that the museum does not hold good title to the painting because the businessman was forced to sell this artwork at a low price, under pressure, in order to finance their flight from Italy given the actions of the Nazi-allied Mussolini-led government and anti-jewish climate at the time in Western Europe.  The Nazis had already stripped the Leffmans of their home and business. Having lost in the district court, the case was then brought up on appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

The appellate court agreed that the case was properly dismissed. 

The appellate court's ruling noted that the federal Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 (known as the HEAR Act), designed to help facilitate the recovery of art and other prized possessions unlawfully lost because of Nazi persecution, needs to provide “some measure of justice, even if incomplete,” to the victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs.  However, the court sided with the New York museum stating that it would be unfair for the Metropolitan to relinquish the Picasso, given the "unreasonable" delay in demanding its return.  The appellate court noted: "This is not a case where the identity of the buyer was unknown to the seller or the lost property was difficult to locate." 

The cert petition to the U.S. Supreme Court raises two challenges to the appellate court ruling. First, “whether the nonstatutory defense of laches may bar an action to recover artwork lost because of Nazi persecution, where that action has been brought within the statute of limitations prescribed by Congress” in the HEAR Act. And second, whether a case can be dismissed so early without a factual exploration of the laches defense urging undue delay raised by the Museum. 

Zuckerman is represented by Mary- Christine SUNGAILA, Will Feldman, and Marco Pulido at Haynes and Boone, LLP, in the case before the Supreme Court.  Zuckerman was represented in the trial court and continues to be represented on appeal by Lawrence Kaye, Howard Spiegler, Ross Hirsch, and Yael Weitz of Herrick, Feinstein LLP.

January 31, 2020

Vasil Bozhkov's antiquities collection ordered to be seized by Bulgarian authorities


The National Museum of History (NIM) has received a prosecutorial decree and a letter from the Ministry of Culture to seize and accept the art and antiquities collection of Bulgarian gaming czar Vasil Bozhkov.  This court order, along with seizure orders pertaining to his business assets, accompanies charges stemming from an investigation into allegations of serious financial violations within the gambling industry.  Filed on 29 January 2020 by the country's Prosecutor General, Ivan Geshev, the post-communist era mogul has been indicted in absentia for a series of offenses ranging from leading an organized crime group, incitement to commit criminal offenses, extortion, coercion, blackmail, and attempted bribery of an official. 

Believed to be the country’s richest man, Bozhkov has been referred to as Bulgaria's most infamous gangster, and as being reportedly active in money laundering, privatization fraud, intimidation, extortion, racketeering, and illegal antiqueè [sic] dealing as attested in a diplomatic cable of the US Embassy in Sofia, as far back as 11 September 2009 and released publically via WikiLeaks.  As owner of the country's biggest lottery,  Bozhkov has often been linked in the Bulgarian press to the Bulgarian mafia, but up until now, he has never been convicted of any crime. 

Bozhkov's ancient art collection consists of more than 3,000 antiquities and dates from 4,000 BCE though the 6th century CE.  With questionable provenance and transparency in their acquisition, the assembled objects, some of which can be viewed in the film below, include ancient treasures left by the Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgars, and Thracians, one of the most powerful Indo-European tribes of the ancient world, and one who played an important, creative, and key role in the shaping of European civilization as a whole and Bulgaria's culture in particular. 


Bozhkov also founded the Thrace Foundation in 2004, perhaps to lend credibility to his seemingly controversial collection and began holding exhibitions at various locations throughout Europe thereafter.  Marking Bulgaria's entry to the EU in 2007, his Brussels exhibition, "The Grandeur of Bulgaria" was abruptly terminated at the European Parliament following outraged complaints about the collections origins. One of the most vocal critics was Vassil Nikolov, then director of the National Archaeological Institute with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and president of the state committee responsible archaeological surveys throughout the country. He signaled out the Bozhkov exhibition as "the fruit of grave-robbing." 

Private collections such as this one in Bulgaria, are often deemed unacceptable, given they are established without concerns for the the provenance of the objects  accumulated and against the backdrop of rampant treasure hunting which is actively eviscerating Bulgaria’s tremendous historical and cultural heritage.

Trying to get ahead of this week's growing scandal, the Thrace Foundation issued an interesting one page press release while their founder remained missing.  Via email, the press release, sent to ARCA and others in the heritage protection community, stated that the authorities had stormed into the laboratory and museum of Thrace Foundation. Their press release read in part:
"At the moment, the Bulgarian authorities are blatantly violating the law by seizing priceless objects from the Vasil Bojkov Collection without any legal justification. The authorities made the decision to export fragile and unique works of art in plastic bags during the unregulated raid that took place in the building of Nove AD Holding, which has the status of a museum."
The Prosecutor’s Office has denied the accusations that Bozhkov’s collection was being mishandled, with the National Museum of History (NIM) reporting that nine museum staff members are involved in the process of packing and transporting the items.

Charged in absentia, Bozhkov's current whereabouts were unknown at the time of this articles writing.  The last flight of his private jet was from Sofia to Dubai.

UPDATE 2 February 2020: Bulgarian Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev, confirms that Vasil Bozhkov, who is the subject of a European arrest warrant, has been detained in the United Arab Emirates.  Bulgaria will now prepare a formal extradition request for his return to Bulgaria to face charges, but given that the U.A.E. and Bulgaria do not have a bilateral extradition agreement, the wait for his return, may stretch indefinitely.

With at least nine people wanted by the Italian judiciary in the UAE, on charges including mafia association, money laundering, drug trafficking, and tax fraud,  the country has become a well-known refuge and money laundering paradise for criminals with big bucks.  Avoiding extradition when its own bilateral agreement was not signed, Raffaele Imperiale, who hid two stolen Van Gogh paintings in one of his family's homes, has avoided his own convictions in absentia for more than ten years.  

Imperiale supplied weapons for a clan feud in the drug ravaged Scampia neighborhood of Naples, working within the drug trade with criminal Rick van der Bunt, who was liquidated in Spain in 2008. Imperiale has been spotted at the seven-star Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai with others who are believed to control the European cocaine trade.

By:  Lynda Albertson