November 19, 2020

Unpacking what has been made public in the investigation into the recently restituted Egyptian stela in the name of the Head of the Elders of the Portal of Hathor-Lady-of-Mefket, Pa-di-séna

Image Credit:  Facebook user "Art of Ancient"

This week a 2600-year-old looted stela in the name of the Head of the Elders of the Portal of Hathor-Lady-of-Mefket, Pa-di-Séna (French spelling) was formally restituted to the Arab Republic of Egypt.  The plundered Late Period antiquity had been seized in New York in route to the December 5 – 8, 2019 TEFAF art fair, which proudly holds up its vetting process as one of the main pillars of its success. Their process allows its buyers to acquire art with confidence, though this apparently wasn't the case in this instance, as this $180,000 dodgy Egyptian limestone carving somehow slipped through the nuanced hands of the vetting experts, not just in the United States but also in Europe in Maastricht.  

But let's start at the beginning. 

Somewhere around 600 BCE the Stela of Pa-di-Séna was crafted in Egypt during the Late Period, which began with the rule of Psamtek I of the 26th Dynasty. Psamtek I is credited with shaking off foreign control by the Assyrians in the north and the Kushites in the south, reuniting Upper and Lower Egypt following a long period of political fragmentation.


The artisan who carefully sculpted the 110 cm honorary stela so many centuries ago did so in painstaking sunk relief.  With careful strokes his design depicts the owner, Pa-Di-Séna, wearing only a kilt and standing expectantly on one side of a full table he has filled with offerings to three deities  On the opposite side, the most prominent god is Osiris, accompanied by the falcon-headed Horus, and the goddess Hathor, who wears her traditional headdress of cow horns and a sun disk. 

The Stela of Pa-di-Sena would remain where it belonged, at Padisena’s tomb, back in Egypt, as a monument to the tomb's deceased, until after Egypt's Arab Spring, when a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions spread across the country, and later to other parts of the Arab world.  During this period Egyptian authorities reported a significant uptick in heritage looting.

In 2012, the Manhattan D.A.’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit first got a whiff that the illicitly excavated Stela of Pa-di-Séna was being shopped by the same international smuggling network that had also trafficked the ancient gold mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh.  That spectacular trafficked antiquity was sold with fraudulent provenance documentation and export licenses to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was restituted to Egypt thanks to the work at the DA's office in October 2019.   

Shaaban Abdel-Gawad - Head of the Egyptian Department of Repatriation
Image Credit: Egyptian Department of Repatriation,
Ministry of Antiquities-Arab Republic of Egypt

Conversations between the smugglers involved in the trafficking network discussed the potential sale of a stela, but it was not until 2015 that the traffickers began exchanging photos.  In these, the artefact appears freshly looted, cracked and unrestored, with chip marks along the edge of the break, which strongly suggest that the looting was not only AFTER Egypt's antiquities laws, but that the break was intentional, perhaps to ease the transport from the looting site or when smuggling the piece abroad, dividing it into smaller sections that might be harder to detect. 

But in 2015, the Stela of Pa-di-Séna's location was outside the Manhattan office's jurisdiction. 

By 2016, far from its Egyptian tomb, the Stela of Pa-di-Séna surfaced on the antiquities market for the first time in the hands of Christophe Kunicki who published the stela on his website.  The stela then made its first appearance on the public stage in Paris, with La Gazette de l'Hôtel Drouot announcing the offering on May 25th with Pierre Bergé & Associés and Christophe Kunicki listing the estimated sale price at €50,000-60,000.  

Along with this relatively low figure for an ancient and rare Egyptian object, the provenance presented by the sellers was the same as that used for the looted Golden Coffin in the name of Nedjemankh:

"Old Habib Tawadros collection. German collection, acquired in 1970."  

Not to worry, despite the vague provenance, the Stela of Pa-di-Séna was snapped up anyway.  More importantly, it brought its middlemen almost three times the auctioneer's presale estimate.  This despite the fact that the object came with fabricated ownership records and falsified export documents attributed to the Egyptian authorities dating back to the 1970s.  Documents, it should be said, the seasoned purchaser who purchased the stela also readily accepted, despite marked incongruencies and factual errors which, as a purported expert, he should have easily recognized.

Screetshot: Sales results 25 May 2016
Pierre Bergé & Associés 

The 1970 provenance date on the falsified records is important as Egypt only enacted Law No. 117 "on the Protection of Antiquities" on 06 August 1983.  Article 1 defines an antiquity as "any movable or immovable property that is a product of any of the various civilizations...to a point one hundred years before the present and that has archaeological or historical value or significance as a relic of one of the various civilizations that have been established in the land of Egypt." Article 6 vests ownership of such property in the Egyptian state: "All antiquities...shall be deemed public property, and the ownership, possession and disposition of them shall be subject to the terms and conditions set forth in this law and regulations made thereunder." Article 7 states that "[a]ll trade in antiquities shall be prohibited as from the date of coming into force of this law." Finally, Article 9 prohibits the export of any antiquities: "no antiquity is to be taken outside the country."

So by 1970, had the paperwork been authentic, the new owner would have been in the clear.  

After its first purchase and by 2017, the Stela of Pa-di-Sena was being offered by C.E.C.O.A., I.A.D.A.A., and S.N.A member Galerie Cybèle in Paris, who apparently took the antiquity's made-up provenance, as supplied to Pierre Bergé by Christophe Kunicki, as the gospel truth.  All it would have taken for this gallery owner to have himself unmasked the deception, is to have done his due diligence. Had he inspected the export documents provided with any reasonable level of inquiry, he would have immediately understood the documentation accompanying the artifact was clearly and demonstrably fraudulent.  

But buyers looking to purchase the stela at TEFAF from Galerie Cybèle could rely on the calming statement provided by the president of one of the gallery's dealer associations, who says: the members of IADAA trade in ancient objects from private collections that have been on the market for decades, or even centuries.  Mr. Geerling also reassures potential collectors, saying: 

Our organisation, established in 1993, represents the top international dealers in Classical, Egyptian and Near Eastern ancient art. Our prime function is to facilitate good relations between the trade and museums, collectors, archaeologists and government agencies. We work with law enforcement and others to prevent crime and campaign vigorously for an open, legitimate trade operating under fair regulations. We firmly believe that the preservation of the relics of man’s ancient past is the responsibility of all.

Our members adhere to the highest professional standards as set out in our stringent code of ethics. They have therefore been well placed to understand and tackle issues of provenance that have become prevalent in recent years. Our members undertake due diligence as a matter of course and are obliged to check every object with a sales value over €5,000 with INTERPOL Database of Stolen Art or the the Art Loss Register. Your dealings with any member of the association can be made with the utmost confidence.

By utmost confidence, I assume President Geerling meant plausible deniability. One really doesn't have to dig very deeply to determine the stela's documentation was fraudulent, something the Manhattan D.A.'s office, with the help of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities easily substantiated.

Despite all this, the owner of Galerie Cybèle took the stela to New York twice.  The first time in 2018 when it was highlighted by TEFAF in their "meet the expert" video complete, it seems, with small amounts of dirt incrustations left from recent excavation still visible in this close-up video of the artefact. 

It also was exhibited at TEFAF Maastricht in 2019 when forensic antiquities researchers noted again that the he suspect provenance, mentioned the same suspicious Luxor dealer, Tawadros (sometimes spelled Todrous and Tadross)associated with the Manhattan D.A.'s office's earlier seizure of the golden coffin. 

Despite this, the antiquity still didn't seem to arouse the suspicions of either its vendor or the vetters at Europe's premier art fair, both of whom are supposed to have their client's interests at heart, and both of whom appeared to be more focused on the object's authenticity, than the fact that it was ripped out of the ground at some point following the civil unrest in Egypt.  

Image Credit:
MasterArt Directory
2017

Flash forward to Autumn 2019, when the stela was scheduled to come back to Manhattan for the last time. On 19 October 2019 the Manhattan District Attorney's Office formally initiated a grand-jury investigation into this specific artefact and asked the Honorable Althea Drysdale to issue a seizure order providing her with evidence based upon their exhaustive multi-year investigation.  It was once this seizure order was signed that the process of returning the ancient object to its lawful owner, the Arab Republic of Egypt could truly begin.  

As a result of the identification of the Stela of Pa-di-Séna, as well as the identification of the ancient gold mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh, two important artefacts, both handled by the same chain of coinvolved, go home to Egypt. 

But who, if anyone has been charged? 

In relation to this case, law enforcement authorities in France detained five individuals in June 2020, based on investigative evidence related to both the Stela of Pa-di-Séna and the golden coffin of Nedjemankh.  All were brought in for questioning in relation to the network law enforcement in France and New York had identified as having trafficked in antiquities from conflict, and post-conflict, countries which were then laundered through the French ancient art market.  In August, a sixth individual, Roben Dib, who is connected to both sales, was also arrested in Hamburg, Germany.

Back in France, Galerie Cybèle, who has cooperated with the Manhattan D.A.'s office, has filed a lawsuit in the Paris courts to recoup the losses incurred in the purchase of the Stela of Pa-di-Sena. In it, they name the consignor, Nassifa el-Khoury, the mother of Roben Dib.  Dib is a manager of Dyonisos Gallery in Hamburg, Germany, an ancient art gallery owned by Serop Simonian. Both Dib and Serop Simonian have previously been the subject of criminal investigations in multiple countries, resulting in the seizure of hundreds of pieces of stolen cultural property

In light of all that, on 18 November the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. and his team lead by Matthew Bogdanos, formally handed over Stela of Pa-di-Séna to the people of Egypt during a repatriation ceremony attended by Ambassador Dr. Hesham Al-Naqib, Egyptian Consul General in New York and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Erik Rosenblatt.  Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, Director General of the Department of Repatriated Antiquities at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that the stela is scheduled to return to Egypt soon.

Unfortunately, we may never know where the plundered tomb of Pa-di-Séna was.  But at least the Egyptians and its Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities can take comfort that investigations into the objects moved by this trafficking ring continue, in Manhattan, in Egypt, and elsewhere.

By:  Lynda Albertson

"Provenance Research Today" book release to debut at the International Catalogue Raisonné Association conference


On December 3rd a new book called Provenance Research Today: Principles, Practice, Problems is being released by Lund Humphries, an independent imprint which publishes books on art, architecture, and design.  The book is divided into five sections with articles written by 20 contributors including book editor Judge Arthur Tompkins.  Judge Tompkins is a District Court Judge based in Wellington, New Zealand.  This is the third book he has worked on with Lund Humphries, the first being Art Crime and Its Prevention: A Handbook for Collectors which he also edited, and his own book, Plundering Beauty all of which deal with the subjects of art, crime, and plunder.  

Judge Tompkins was nice enough to talk with us about this upcoming book, giving us some further insight into the topic of provenance research.  We first asked what brought about the desire to develop a book on the topic of provenance; he stated that the idea first began during the process of writing his book Plundering Beauty saying that his research “triggered a realisation that the 'social life' of an artwork - where it had been, who had had it, how it got to where it now is, and all the twists and turns along the way - is always an unavoidably intrinsic part of a work of art, and cannot properly be ignored or overlooked when looking at or discussing or researching a work.”  

The first two sections of the book will delve into the ‘History, Purpose, and Challenges of Provenance Research’ and ‘Best Practices in Provenance Research’.  One of the challenges of provenance research today is that in the past it was often unnecessary, or even undesired, to ask for provenance details in the art world, and as such large institutions and collectors have many pieces with no known history.  

Building a provenance from nothing is a daunting prospect and the advice Judge Tompkins gives to institutions wishing to fill in the blanks in their collections is simply to “do the work!  Go down into the basements and the storage rooms and the off-site warehouses and blow the dust off and open the files, open the cupboards, pull out the drawers to see what's there, and then sit down and work out how it got there ... But I understand entirely that limited and stretched budgets, and limited time, conspire to make that difficult. Good provenance work is careful, detailed, painstaking, and time-consuming, and diverts resources of all kinds from other compelling demands on those same scarce resources.”  The difficulties of solving the mystery behind long-held pieces of art often fall secondary to the more pressing concerns of new acquisitions.   

The third section of the book discusses ‘Provenance Research, Museums, and the Art Market’.  The topic of proper provenance research and the art market is still a controversial issue.  Many auction houses do not require provenance history for their pieces.  We asked Judge Tompkins what he felt could be done to encourage better practice from institutions in this field.  His advice was directed towards buyers and collectors as he asks them to “ignore pieces offered for sale without a full and proper provenance.  If such offerings are publicly highlighted and appropriately criticized, and then remain unsold (if not pulled from sale before being offered), then gradually vendors will be compelled both to research their own holdings and to make provenances public.”  At the end of the day, the disapproval of the academic community will not mean as much to them as the loss of income from suspect pieces with no previous collection history, that buyers walk away from. 

The final two sections deal with two of the areas which are most complex to deal with in the world of provenance research today: ‘Nazi-era Provenance Research’ and ‘Provenance Research and the Illicit Antiquities Trade’.  We asked Judge Tompkins to elaborate on the issues faced with provenance research in these areas.  He explained that “with respect to Nazi-era issues, the relentless march of times inevitably obscures or conceals a lot of evidence, and institutional inertia (or an unwillingness substantively to confront and acknowledge a tragic past, although that is slowly changing) often compounds the problems.”  

The issues faced with the illicit antiquities trade are very different, he explained that “with respect to antiquities, any form of provenance is often completely missing, especially for plundered and smuggled antiquities deriving from looted archaeological sites, including graves, in war zones or areas of conflict.”  The end goal of provenance research in these two scenarios is often the restitution of the items to their proper owners, heirs, or country of origin.  

Because of Judge Tompkins’ legal expertise, we asked him what he felt was the biggest legal gap needed to overcome with regards to restitution.  He responded that “the irreconcilable inconsistency between how (to adopt a very broad generalisation) the common law and civil law worlds treat prior ownership and/or possession of a stolen work.  The common law world (including the USA, the UK, and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) generally rule that a thief cannot convey good title, no matter what happens after the theft, whereas the civil law world (most of Europe and other Napoleonic Code countries) say that a genuine and honest subsequent buyer can get good title, despite an original theft.  Given that most legal issues involving an artwork have to be resolved in the national courts of the place where that artwork ends up, that can often be an insurmountable legal hurdle for a claimant to overcome - even if they know an artwork has ended up there, in the first place, which is often down to sheer luck.”  The process of restitution of artworks is long and complicated and continues to be an important topic of discussion in the art world.  

This book release coincides with the International Catalogue Raisonné Association’s annual conference on the 3rd of December which will feature a series of lectures on the topic of Provenance and the Catalogue Raisonné.  Given the current pandemic, the conference will be held virtually this year and includes presentations from twenty-one leading scholars and experts from around the world.  


The program will run from 10:30 AM to 6:30 PM CET with sessions on various topics including: A How-to Guide to Research Techniques, Restitution: Research Questions and Perspectives, the Legal, Moral and Ethical Implications of Provenance Research, Provenance in Museums, Artists’ Estates and their Approach to Provenance, and the Future of Provenance and the Catalogue Raisonné.  Tickets for the event are available through Eventbrite for £100, this fee is waived for ICRA members, students, and the unemployed.


Link to purchase book: Provenance Research Today.
 

Link to the book's Table of Contents.

Link to the ICRA Event info for: Provenance and the Catalogue Raisonné.

By: Lynette Turnblom

November 17, 2020

Three suspects in the burglary theft at the Green Vault have been arrested in Berlin.

Image Credit: Saxony Police

One year ago, on 25 November 2019, burglars entered the Green Vault (Grünes Gewölbe in German) museum within Dresden Castle in Saxony, Germany and smashed open exhibition cases using an axe. In only a few minutes, the precision coordinated team of thieves slipped away, having made off with an outstanding cache of jewellery, including the 49-carat Dresden White Diamond, the diamond-laden breast star of the Polish Order of the White Eagle, a 16-carat diamond hat clasp, a diamond epaulet, and a diamond-studded hilt containing nine large and 770 smaller diamonds, as well as its jewel-encrusted scabbard.  The thieves then fled by car, torching the motor vehicle used in the getaway to any destroy evidence they may have theft behind in its interior. 

Nine months after the burglary, clues surrounding the spectacular art theft, lead German authorities to investigate the purchase of SIM cards by members of a clan known to have been involved in a series of criminal offenses.  This week, authorities announced the arrest of three individuals from the Remmo clan, as law enforcement from  Saxony, as well as special forces from the federal government and the states of Baden-Württemberg, Berlin, Brandenburg, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia spread out to search some 18 properties in several districts. Officers focused much of their search in and around Neukölln, Kreuzberg and Gesundbrunnen, areas which are home to the fourth-largest ethnic minority group in Berlin. 

The Remmo Clan is made up of members of one of the grandfamilies of Lebanese-Kurdish descent who immigrated to Germany during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Many moved to immigrant neighborhoods in Kreuzberg, Wedding, and Neukölln where this week's raids took place.  Some of these families originate with the Mhallami community, a cultural community with origins in the Mardin Province of Southeastern Turkey which had previously lived in Beirut, Tripoli, and the Beqaa Valley.

Members of this clan have been criminally conspicuous, gaining reputations for trafficking, racketeering and robbery, some of which have been spectacular in their execution. Their complicated family ties and property ownership structures, have made it possible for the tightly knit groups to launder money - and sometimes, but not in this case, have made it considerably more difficult for investigators to entangle who is involved and in what capacity. 

Previously, members of the Remmo clan were charged and sentenced in another audacious heist, which took place at the Bode Museum.  In that theft, the thieves made off with a 100 kilo gold coin on 27 March 2017 which has never been recovered and is believed to have been melted down

In July 2018 the Berlin public prosecutor's office and the state criminal police provisionally seized 77 properties, including apartments, houses and land belonging to members of the "Lebanese" Kurdish extended family "Remmo" worth an estimated 9.3 million euros.  These seizures were based on evidence that the properties was likely purchased with proceeds from crime using new rules under the German Criminal Code (StGB) and Criminal Procedural Order (StPO) enacted 1 July 2017.  Modelled after Italy's own organised crime laws on property seizure,  where the state may order the seizure of property that a person of interest is able to dispose of when the value of the property is disproportionate to the person’s declared income or economic activity, Germany's new law regulates the recovery of criminal proceeds and serves to effectively confiscate illegal proceeds from offenders or third beneficiaries who can be tied to proceeds from criminal transactions. 

According to an earlier article by Der Spiegel it is estimated 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 city's well-known clan groups.  The trio arrested this week have been charged with serious gang theft and arson.  

To learn more about the structure of the Berlin clan 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. 

For the moment Saxony police have not named the individuals arrested, nor indicated that any of the stolen jewelry, pictured below, has been recovered.  


Update: 

Newspaper Bild has named 23-year-old Wissam Remmo as one of the arrestees in  connection to the Green Vault burglary.  Well known to the authorities, he has already been convicted of robbery twice. Most recently in February 2020 in relation to the Bode Museum theft.  In that offense Wissam Remmo and his brother Ahmad were sentenced to four and a half years in prison for theft.  In that investigation, a search of Wissam Remmo's smart phone 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. 

Der Spiegal lists the other arrestees as Rabih Remmo and Bashir Remmo.






By:  Lynda Albertson

November 13, 2020

Exhibiting Absence: Introducing Samsung’s Missing Masterpieces

Bringing the wider public's attention to works of art that have been stolen or lost has been a long-standing goal of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.  But when Samsung reached out to us earlier this Autumn to curate a group of missing masterpieces, to be exhibited on The Frame TV, we combed through more than a hundred of the world’s most iconic and intriguing lost and stolen artworks before narrowing our selection down to a choice and meaningful handful.  

Some of these paintings, despite wide press coverage, have been missing for years, others were stolen in extraordinary heists. Sometimes the works were stolen in more banal circumstances and the fact that they may never be seen again makes their loss all the more poignant.   One painting was the art world's first victim of the Covid Pandemic, stolen on the artist’s birthday.   Others are artworks we selected because we know they are cherished locally, but lessor known to communities outside the artists' home countries.  In whittling down our selection, we knew our list would not have been complete, had we not addressed the subject of precious works of art which are lost to the world's eyes forever, artistic casualties lost to mankind's wars. 


Harnessing Samsung's power of technology to connect people in the search to find lost art from the comfort of their living rooms was a key goal of the Missing Masterpieces exhibition.  Scheduled to run from 12 November until 10 February, during the holiday season, our combined objective is to keep the global community searching for these missing masterpieces while scrolling through films and programs.  It only takes one valid clue to change the course of an investigation and return a fabulous work of art to its rightful owner placing it back on the wall, in its proper setting. 

Museums normally tell stories through the objects they have in their collections.  Samsung's initiative will allow everyone to step into ARCA's empty museum, to engage and reflect, to see and to learn, not looking at the art we have, but rather, exploring the precious art we haven’t, in the hopes that they might be found.

To learn more about The Frame TV which functions both as a TV and a multi-media art platform blending into home décor please visit the Missing Masterpieces website here.

If you have tips on where any of these artworks might be you can share them on social media using #MissingMasterpieces, or please write to us at: 

missingmasterpieces@artcrimeresearch.org

All leads will be forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement authority.

November 9, 2020

Monday, November 09, 2020 - ,, No comments

Biggest Theft in Hong Kong History from Stamp Collector

Homes in Hong Kong, sitting empty this year as a result of the pandemic, have become a target for opportunistic thieves. According to statistics household thefts rose from 786 cases in 2019 to 1,156 cases in the first half of 2020 with unoccupied homes in the Chinese territory being particularly at risk.  In early September an apartment on Nathan Road in Yau Ma Te belonging to Fu Chunxiao was one of those targeted.   

The theft in the Yau Tsim Mong District in the south of the Kowloon Peninsula in Hong Kong was reported on September 10th when the building security guard observed that an iron gate to the residence had been pried open and the wood door to Fu's apartment left ajar.  Inside there were signs of ransacking.  Police found evidence of a forced break-in and security video footage of three men who appeared in their 30’s leaving the building.  According to police the theft did not seem to be the work of professionals and could possibly have been a crime of chance by someone who knew that the owner was out of town and that there were valuables inside the apartment.   

Fu mainly used the flat for storage of his vast collection of stamps and revolutionary art and was at his home in mainland China at the time his home in Hong Kong was hit.  The full extent of the items stolen and their value didn’t come to light until after Fu sent his daughter to assist in the investigation and provided documentation relating to the objects stolen.  

Fu is a well-known stamp collector as well as a member of the Hong Kong Philatelic Society.  In 2018 he loaned more than 200 of his collection to an exhibition of Mao related stamps held in Hong Kong.  In total, it is estimated that the thieves took 24,000 vintage stamps, 10 bronze coins, and 30 to 50 artworks including works of calligraphy, paintings and even seven scrolls attributed to the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong.  

The estimated loss of these items is between HK4-5 billion (€440-550 million), which would make this the biggest theft in Hong Kong history.  One of the most valuable of the stolen stamps is a 1968 Chinese postage stamp known as “the whole country is red”.  It is a very rare stamp and is one of only nine believed to remain today.  Another was auctioned off in 2018 for KH$15.8 million (€1.7 million).  It is one of the most expensive stamps in the world.  The stamp represents the political revolution of communism in China and shows a crowd of smiling citizens carrying ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung’, known also as Mao’s “Little Red Book”.  The stamp also shows the entirety of mainland China filled with red, while Taiwan is only bordered with red and filled with white; this created a controversy at the time as China claims Taiwan as territory.  The stamp was immediately recalled from use and production, leaving only a few of them in existence. 

Image Credit: South China Morning Post

The first lead in the case came on September 22nd when an individual with the surname of Lin (Lam in Cantonese) surrendered himself to the police after learning of the theft and was arrested for the handling of stolen goods.  After searching his apartment Hong Kong police recovered two bronze coins and a calligraphy scroll, which had been cut into two pieces.  The scroll is said to contain poetry by Mao Zedong and was estimated to be worth HK$2.3 billion (€253 million) prior to the theft.  

Image Credit: Hong Kong Police Force

According to the investigation Lin had thought the scroll was a fake at the time he purchased it for HK$500 (€55).  The scroll was originally about 2 meters tall but had been cut in half in order to be better displayed. Fu commented that “It was heartbreaking to see it torn into two pieces,” and that “it will definitely affect its value, but the impact remains to be seen.”  

The recovered scroll was one of seven in Fu’s collection credited to Mao Zedong who was known to be a poet as well as a calligrapher.  Mao’s extensive calligraphic works inspired a new style of calligraphy known as “Mao style” which has gained popularity since his death in 1976.  The first work by Mao to appear in an international auction was a letter from Mao to the journalist Yang Yi which was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2019 and sold for £519,000 (€574,000).  

On October 6th two further arrests were made in relation to the case based upon information given to the police by the taxi driver who picked the thieves up from the crime scene.  Two suspects were arrested in Yau Ma Tei, one known as Wu, age 44, has been charged with burglary and another known as Tan, age 47, has been arrested for harboring an offender.  It was only after these arrests were made that the police made the announcement about the recovery of the scroll, although the police are still looking for two further suspects.   No other items from the theft have been recovered.  

By: Lynette Turnblom


November 2, 2020

The Holocaust Art Restitution Project files an amicus brief with the US Supreme Court in the Guelph Treasure case opposing the DOJ's position that Holocaust takings do not qualify as expropriation under federal law

Press Contacts:  

In Washington, DC: Marc Masurovsky, (00) 1 202 255 1602 , plunderedart@gmail.com

In New York, NY: Pierre Ciric (00) 1 212 260 6090, pciric@ciriclawfirm.com

New York, NY USA – October 29, 2020

On October 28, 2020, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, a not-for-profit group dedicated to the identification and restitution of artworks looted by the Nazi, filed, through its counsel, Pierre Ciric, Esq., an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in the so-called “Guelph Treasure” case currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

This case involves the Welfenschatz, or Guelph trove, currently in the possession of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (“the Foundation”) and has been claimed by successors of art dealers who were fleeing the Holocaust. These objects were originally housed in the cathedral in Braunschweig, owned by the House of Guelph. In the 1920s, the pieces were sold to a consortium of Frankfurt art dealers. Later in 1935, the Prussian state, led by Hermann Goering, “bought” the treasure from those art dealers. Following a 2014 rejection of the dealers’ heirs claims by the German so-called “Limbach Commission,” suit was brought against the Foundation and Germany in the U.S. 

In siding with the German defendants, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) argued that Germany was immune from suit because “domestic takings” by foreign governments do not fall under the expropriation exception to the immunity rules.

HARP’s amicus brief argues that the DOJ’s defense is baseless because of legal precedents, is contrary to multiple U.S. statutes promulgated by the U.S. Congress and to the long-standing U.S. policy regarding restitution of Nazi-looted artworks claimed by Holocaust survivors.  Finally, the brief argues that the DOJ’s position would raise significant due process concerns by distinguishing heirs of German Jews from heirs of Jews stripped of their citizenship during the Holocaust.

According to Ori Z. Soltes, HARP’s chairman, “it is simply disheartening to see our own government arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that the Holocaust does not qualify as a genocidal enterprise worthy of being recognized as a ‘violation of international law.’  If the Holocaust does not fall squarely in this definition, then nothing else does!  The Court should reject this baseless argument and ensure that the U.S. remains a proper forum for claimants to seek redress from the genocidal enterprise of looting cultural assets from Jews during World War II.”

The Ciric Law Firm, PLLC is a New York law firm specialized in cultural heritage law and in commercial litigation services for businesses, nonprofit organizations and individuals.

HARP is a not-for-profit group dedicated to the identification and restitution of looted artworks requiring detailed research and analysis of public and private archives in North America. HARP has worked for 22 years on the restitution of artworks looted by the Nazi regime. 

The case is Philipp v. Fed. Republic of Germany, 894 F.3d 406 (D.C. Cir. 2018), cert. granted, No. 19-351 (U.S. July 2, 2020).

October 22, 2020

Thursday, October 22, 2020 - No comments

The sentencing of Congolese Activists Reignites the Sensitive Conversation of Colonial-Era Art Restitution

On June 13th Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza and a group of activists from the group Unité, dignité et courage (UDC) entered the Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in Paris and after a brief stroll through the museum's galleries began a demonstration in the African art section where Diyabanza began by making a live-streamed speech denouncing colonial-era injustice and cultural theft. 

The demonstration then crossed the lines of legality when the Congo-born activist and another member of the group forcefully removed a 19th-century Chadian funerary pole from its display, which the activists have argued was originally stolen from Africa by French colonisers.  They then proceeded to carry the artefact through the museum while Diyabanza continued his speech on plundered African art. 

The activists were stopped before they could leave the museum, but charges were pressed for attempted theft of a registered artwork and the activists risked potential penalties of up to10 years in prison and a maximum of €150,000 in fines.

Screen Capture from a video of the activist Diyabanza, who has carried out similar actions in the museums of Marseille and Berg en Dal in the Netherlands. 
Image Credit: Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza-Facebook

The charges filed for the Paris incident did not stop the group from conducting other protests in other museums known to contain colonial works.  On July 30th the group entered the Musée Colonial de Marseille founded by Dr. Édouard Marie Heckel and removed an ivory artifact, repeating their march through the museum while live recording on Facebook, resulting in the group being arrested outside the museum.  

The third demonstration occurred in Holland at the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal on September 10th during which Diyabanza took a Congolese funerary statue from its’ stand and marched the statue out of the museum. The museum staff did not interfere with the demonstration in order to prevent any possible damage to the statue and allowed the group to leave the museum knowing that the police were waiting outside to apprehend the protestors.  The statue was subsequently safely returned to the museum.  

Screen Captures from the video of the demonstration
at the Afrika Museum In Holland
Image Credit: Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza-Facebook

The director of the Dutch museum spoke out against the group's claims for restitution saying, "these people claim the statue is theirs, but who are they themselves?"  The director went on to say that the museum has received and accepted formal requests for art to be returned in the past and stated "that is the normal way. Or through a government, but at the moment we have no claim whatsoever from the governments of Congo, Angola, or other African countries."  

The group faced trial in Paris early in October with tension high in the air and activist groups denied entry to the courthouse.  Diyabanza has defended his unorthodox form of protest, speaking of the artifacts,it is part of our history and of the inheritance our forefathers left us. This was not supposed to be on display here. We are not thieves who came to steal something. You don’t ask permission to take back what was taken from you, now do you?”  

Accused of “attempted theft” Diyabanza was fined €1,000 in the French Court for attempting to seize a funeral pole from the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. Initially accused of attempted theft, he was convicted of aggravated theft, after describing his actions as a protest against colonial looting, not a theft, knowing he would be stopped.

Three other activists involved the French museum protest were given suspended fines of between €250-€1000 euro while a fifth activist was acquitted.   In meting out the sentences the judge hoped the fines would discourage similar actions informing the group that "you have other ways of drawing the attention of politicians and the public".  The group will also face trial in Marseille, France in November as well as in the Netherlands.

Authors of the 2018 report: Felwine Sarr (left) and Bénédicte Savoy (right)
Image Credit Alain Jocard

The topic of restitution of artwork acquired through colonialism has been discussed in France prior to these dramatic demonstrations.  In 2018 a report was commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in order to assess and propose solutions for the restitution of pieces of African cultural heritage.  The report, entitled “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage.  Toward a New Relational Ethics”, details a three-step process on how best to move forward with restitution of objects obtained in an unethical manner.  Listed below is the report's recommendation for how to assess an objects’ eligibility for restitution:

Criteria for Restitutability 

The massive and continuous integration—over the past 150 years—of cultural heritage material from Africa into French collections leads us to a response in terms of the following schema in regard to the demands for restitutions coming from Africa: 

1. Restitution in a swift and thorough manner without any supplementary research regarding their provenance or origins, of any objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions: 
     A. through military aggressions (spoils, trophies), whether these pieces went on directly to France or whether passed through the international art market before then finding their way to being integrated into collections. 
     B. by way of military personnel or active administrators on the continent during the colonial period (1885-1960) or by their descendants. 
     C. through scientific expeditions prior to 1960. D. certain museums continue to house pieces of African origin which were initially loaned out to them by African institutions for exhibits or campaigns of restoration, but which were never given back. These objects should be swiftly returned to their institutions of origin. 

2. Complementary Research for pieces that entered into the museums after 1960 and those received as gifts or donations to the museum where we have a good reason to believe the pieces left African soil before 1960 (but which remained within families for several generations). In cases where research is not able to ascertain the initial circumstances around their acquisition during the colonial period, the pieces requested can be restituted based on justification of their interest by the country making the request. 

3. Preservation within the French collections of pieces of African art objects and cultural heritage where the following has been established:
     A. After confirmation that a freely consented to and documented transaction took place that was agreed upon and equitable. 
     B. That the pieces acquired conformed to the necessary rigor and careful monitoring of the apparatus in place on the art market after the application of the UNESCO Convention of 1970, in other words, without “taking any ethical risks”. Gifts from foreign Heads of State to French governments remain as acquisitions for France except in cases where the heads of state concerned have been ruled against for the misuse of public funds.”

The report identifies over 90,000 known pieces of African art in France, with 70,000 of them in the Quai Branly museum.  The report also gives a list of items that were recommended for an expedited restitution which should have occurred during the first phase of their recommended plan, which they state should have happened between November 2018-2019.  While 27 restitutions have been announced only one object has been returned, a saber once owned by Omar Saidou Tall, a 19th-century spiritual leader, and military commander was returned to Senegal on 17 November 2019. 

President Macky Sall of Senegal (right) received the sword of Omar Saidou Tall during a ceremony in Dakar
Image Credit: Seyllou/Agence France-Presse

The slow action of the French government regarding these restitutions has frustrated the authors of the report, with an estimate of 90-95% of African art being held in museums and institutions across the world Ms. Savoy has called it a “scandalous imbalance”.  The report ended with a poem by African poet Niyi Osundare, Africa’s Memory, stating that “It is at the heart of the subject that concerns us: the unequal distribution of African cultural heritage around the world, of its beautiful presence in Western museums, the gaps in memory as a result of its absence in Africa, and the responsibility of each and every one of us to assure the establishment of equity.”

I ask for Oluyenyetuye bronze of Ife
The moon says it is in Bonn
I ask for Ogidigbonyingbonyin mask of Benin
The moon says it is in London
I ask for Dinkowawa stool of Ashanti
The moon says it is in Paris
I ask for Togongorewa bust of Zimbabwe
The moon says it is in New York
I ask
I ask
I ask for the memory of Africa
The seasons say it is blowing in the wind
The hunchback cannot hide his burden


By: Lynette Turnblom

Bibliography

“Activists Released after Taking Statue from Museum in Colonialism Protest.” 2020. NL Times. September 14, 2020. https://nltimes.nl/2020/09/14/activists-released-taking-statue-museum-colonialism-protest. 

BBC News. 2020. “France Fines Congo Activist for Seizing Paris Museum Artefact,” October 14, 2020, sec. Europe. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54544437. Diyabanza, Mwazulu. 2020a. 

“Urgent Urgent en Direct de Paris Musée de Quai Brably Opération Récupération de Notre Patrimoine.” Facebook. June 12, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/103327681334851/videos/302822231119345. ———. 

_____2020b. “En Direct du Musée Colobial de Marseille MAAOA, Récupération de Notre Patrimoine Culturel.” Facebook. August 1, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/103327681334851/videos/2735423260067050. ———. 

_____2020c. “Mwazulu Recupere le Patrimoine Africain en Hollande.” Facebook. September 10, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=352889419241323&ref=watch_permalink. 

Haynes, Suyin. 2020. “A French Court Fined Activists for Attempted Theft of a Museum Artifact. They Say It Belongs to Africans.” Time. October 14, 2020. https://time.com/5899808/african-artifact-paris-museum-stolen-case/?fbclid=IwAR3PaLU_DUxWGBxEc7IJaadLcxbsnZaqmPgOA3ccXqS_xMFVt_C8GAI14M. 

Hokstam, Marvin. 2020. “Activist Who Removed Statue from Dutch Museum in Tireless Pursuit of Stolen African Art.” NL Times. September 28, 2020. https://nltimes.nl/2020/09/28/activist-removed-statue-dutch-museum-tireless-pursuit-stolen-african-art. 

Méheut, Constant, and Antonella Francini. 2020. “France’s Colonial Legacy Is Being Judged in Trial Over African Art.” The New York Times, September 30, 2020, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/30/arts/design/france-african-art-trial.html. 

Nayeri, Farah. 2018. “Museums in France Should Return African Treasures, Report Says (Published 2018).” The New York Times, November 21, 2018, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/21/arts/design/france-museums-africa-savoy-sarr-report.html. 
_____. 2019. “France Vowed to Return Looted Treasures. But Few Are Heading Back.” The New York Times, November 22, 2019, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/arts/design/restitution-france-africa.html. _____. 2020. “To Protest Colonialism, He Takes Artifacts From Museums.” The New York Times, September 30, 2020, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/21/arts/design/france-museum-quai-branly.html. 

Niyi Osundare. 1998. “Africa’s Memory.” In Horses of Memory, Pg. 43. Ibadan Heinemann Educational Books. 

Reucher, Gabby. 2020. “Congolese Activist on Trial for Trying to Take Artworks from European Museums | DW | 02.10.2020.” Deutsche Welle. October 2, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/congolese-activist-on-trial-for-trying-to-take-artworks-from-european-museums/a-55131924. 

Savor, Benedicte, and Felwine Sarr. 2018. “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.” November 2018. http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf.

October 19, 2020

5 looters have been arrested in Pella, Greece for conducting a clandestine excavation

Image Credit:  Greek Ministry of Culture

Five looters, aged 43 to 50, were arrested by law enforcement officers of the Department of Heritage and Antiquities Protection of the Thessaloniki Security Directorate after having been caught digging an eight-meter deep hole at an archeological site located within the prefecture of Pella.  Ancient Pella was the capital of the Macedonian state from the end of the 5th to the early 4th century BCE.

At the scene of the clandestine excavation, officers found tools which could be indicative of nighttime exploration as the team of looters were found to have in their possession, gloves, flashlights, batteries, disposable masks, and a variety of tools used to carry out their campaign. 

Later, during a search carried out at by law enforcement at the residence of one of the perpetrators, officers seized 28 ancient bronze coins from the Roman and Middle Byzantine periods, a bronze bead, and a ring, all items that fall under the country's laws on the protection of antiquities and cultural heritage.

Greece was the first nation to vest ownership of all of its antiquities within the state. In doing so, all cultural property, defined by its Antiquities Law is regulated by the government and must be registered on an official inventory that comprises objects of the Hellenistic, Early Christianity, and Medieval eras.  All cultural property, including objects in private collections or those belonging to a religious organisation are also the property of the State.  Lastly, the State maintains the rights to exhibit and exploit this cultural property, and thus any objects discovered, by accident or otherwise must be reported within 15 days to the nearest archaeological authority.

October 18, 2020

Regulatory Comparison: How is the 19th century merchant shipping scene similar to today's ancient art market.

East Indiamen Madagascar by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton (fl 1840)
National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London

A lesson from our regulatory past. 

The more ship you can see, the higher the vessel sits in the water.

The less ship you can see, the lower the vessel sits in the water.

If you own a ship, you make more money by transporting more goods. 

Logistically, ships sitting high in the water carry less cargo.  Those seen sitting low in the water carry more cargo. 

Either is ok when the ship is moored safely within a harbor and in most cases when the weather is calm. 

But when a large vessel sets out to sea, the heavier ship, sitting lower in the water, suffers from increasing drag as it moves. It is generally less responsive to steering making a heavily laden ship more difficult to manage in rough seas.  If an overly-laden vessel gets caught in a storm, it's easier for it to take on water and also to sink.

When ships sink, sailors and passengers drown and cargo is lost to the murky depths.  But the insurance fees paid out to the voyage's financers and ship owners were designed to cover such financial losses, so for the shipping industry, more cargo (still) equalled = more money.

That’s how it was in nineteenth-century Britain. 

A ship's crew and passengers might die, but the ship's backers and owners were still compensated financially through marine insurance.  Likewise, due to the booming trade market of the period, the demand for marine insurance created opportunities for profit for both the marine merchants and their voyage underwriters, who in turn profited from high premia which more than compensated the underwriters for the losses incurred when an insured merchant's vessel sunk. 

In 1871 alone 856 ships sank off the coast of Britain. Nearly 2000 sailors and an unknown number of passengers drowned at sea.  

Profit-driven, many shipping barons were unpulsed, more interested in how and when the merchandise got from point "A" to point "B".  More so, with the death of all hands on deck, it was sometimes impossible to verify or disprove events which had occurred in distant ports or on the rough open sea.  To them, the risk to human lives was not a particularly motivating factor to change the status quo of overloading.  Humans may have been drowning, but merchants and many of their underwriters were still making fortunes. 

Sailors often referred to these overly-laden vessels as coffin ships, a way to describe a ship that was overinsured and worth more to its owners sunk than afloat. To them, merchants turning a blind eye to the coffin ships represented the depths to which the merchants operating in the market could stoop.  

But despite their worries, it was an offense for a sailor to refuse to sail, and to do so could mean many months, or even years, in the gaols.  Such were the state of affairs that in 1871 alone, 1628 sailors, including two complete crews, were jailed for refusing to work on overladen merchant vessels.  For many, despite their reluctance and awareness of the awful toll on human life aboard such ships, desperation drove their decisions, forcing them to agree to work as the crew, making them part of an equation that valued commerce and merchandise over humanity. 

Despite the sometimes strident calls for help from worried seamen and the families of those lost at sea, the general consuming public seemed blindly unaware or disinterested in the problem.  That is apart from one man, Samuel Plimsoll, an English social reformer.

Plimsoll fought for a safe loading line on all ships to be passed into law on all English ships and asked for regulation to prevent the overloading of cargo encouraged by the ships' greedy owners.  Plimsoll's principle was based on one already known by seamen as far back as the Middle Ages.  Back then, ships from Genoa, Italy in the Venetian Republic, and the Hanseatic League, required ships to show a load line indicating how heavy the vessel was weighed down with merchandise. 

Yet Plimsoll's reasonable proposal met with powerful opposition and earned him the hatred of many shipowners.

Many of the most vocal members of parliament against reforms were these self-same shipowners and underwriters; men more intent on maximizing their profit than bowing to the expense of morally and ethical moderation.  From their point of view, shipping was a lucrative business couched in the notion of free trade. Their profits should not be bogged down under the weight of moral and ethical considerations.  

Fortunately, in 1876, after years of fighting, Plimsoll's calls for reforms succeeded and Britain's Parliament passed the Unseaworthy Ships Bill into law.  But while this Act required a series of 'lines' to be painted on the ship to show the maximum loading point it didn't specify where.  As a result, some unscrupulous shipowners chose to paint the load line in areas of the ship more convenient and continued this ruse, to disguise their overloaded vessels. 

It was not until 1890 that the country's Board of Trade officials finally applied the regulation that every ship must have a clearly visible Plimsoll linea line on a ship's hull, in a very specific place, which indicates the maximum safe draught, and therefore the minimum freeboard for the vessel in various operating conditions when loaded with cargo.

I suppose one could draw a few parallels between this maritime story and today’s art merchant climate, where the art market's focus seems to discourage regulatory oversight in favor of self-regulation, ensuring the free movement of merchandise. Likewise, many collectors seem oblivious to, or disinterested in, the problem of illicit trafficking. 

Despite cultural Plimsoll lines, like local legislation and international conventions such as the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, disreputable commercial actors in the art market continue to conduct commerce outside calculated ethical lines. 

And like the sailors on ships, desperation sometimes drives the decisions of subsistence looters in source countries who facilitate the supply chain, and remain as actors to the commerce equation, despite whatever harsh penalties they might face. 

It’s hard to envisage a non-legislative solution that will protect commerce and protect culture at risk.  For now, the foxes in charge of the art market hen house are woefully incapable of self-regulating, and are resistant to the idea that there is even a problem worthy of being addressed. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

h/t to Dave Trott for his details on shipping regulations and statistics. 

October 6, 2020

Rare Books in an Even Rarer Recovery

On 29 January 2017 an organized crime group from Romania targeted and robbed over 200 rare books from a warehouse in Feltham, West London.  The collection consisted of 15th and 16th-century books and included works by well-known historical figures Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Dante Alighieri, and Nicolas Copernicus.  The most valuable of these was the 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus but another lessor well known, and equally rare, texts, including a Muraqqa - album with Persian and Mughal miniatures were also taken in the heist

The books were owned by three collectors, two Italian and one based in Germany, and had been flown into the UK and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse while awaiting export to the United States for a scheduled book fair.  As the books were only intended to be at the warehouse for a short time period it is likely that the group involved in the theft had inside knowledge of the schedule of the books’ travel.  

When the theft was initially made public, many newspapers were more focused on the burglars' “mission-impossible" or "Ocean's Eleven-style" theatrics rather than on the cultural value of the rare books which were stolen, completely missing the value of Sir Isaac Newton’s 17th-century work “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” or fantastic etchings of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

To achieve their goal, the thieve's drilled through the building's skylight and rappelled down into the warehouse in order to avoid security measures.  Once inside they set about placing the rare books in large bags that could be hoisted back onto the roof, allowing the suspects to leave the way they came.  While it was expected that the books were either pre-sold to a collector or bound for the black market, nothing was seen of the books for nearly 3 years.   

The investigation of the theft was a multi-national collaboration involving the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation and multiple law enforcement groups.   In a coordinated joint action day, in 2019 the Romanian, UK, and Italian authorities arrested 15 suspects, following 45 searches, in Romania and the UK, arresting a group of individuals believed to be responsible for a string of 12 highly-organised burglaries carried out across between December 2016 and April 2019.

Some of those taken into custody were linked to a number of prominent Romanian crime families who form part of the Clămparu crime group. This group has been known to be responsible for major heists, prostitution, and human trafficking offenses.   

According to released court records, forensic evidence and CCTV footage were both key to the investigation of the thefts and to the arrests of the co-conspirators.  Two days prior to the book theft CCTV footage captured images of three individuals involved in the heist:  Daniel David, Victor Opariuc, and Narcis Popescu, all three of whom are seen on footage arriving in the UK and driving to the warehouse in a blue Renault Megane. CCTV footage then shows David and Opariuc exit the van, leaving Popescu as a lookout while they cut through the warehouse's perimeter fencing.  

On the night of the theft itself, footage confirms that both Daniel David and Victor Opariuc returned, drilling through the skylight and entering the storage repository from above.  Once inside they are able to work undetected for five hours.  At 2:15 AM the pair exited back through the roof of the warehouse carrying large carryall bags, then loading up their cache into the Megane before driving away.  

To cover their tracks, the thieves quickly abandoned their get-away vehicle after wiping down the interior with cleaning products.  The stolen books were then transported to a house in Balham, rented temporarily to Narcis Popescu, where they remained for two days before being secreted out of the country.

Through examining cell phone records, the investigative teams were able to determine that the books were transported by a fourth accomplice, Marian Mamaliga to Romania, who left the UK through the Eurotunnel starting at Folkestone, Kent, and exited on the European mainland at Coquelles in Northern France. 

But even with that foresight to wipe down the car, forensic investigators were able to find a single hair on the drivers’ headrest which had escaped the burglar's clean-up.  This hair was later confirmed to be a match with Narcis Popescu.  DNA evidence inside the warehouse found on an escape ladder would also confirm the presence of Daniel David at the scene of the crime.   At other crime scenes, the members of the ring left drinks behind with traces of their DNA.

Perhaps the biggest break in the case though came from the evidence of a different theft conducted by the same group.  Some six months after the theft of the books, in July 2017, the group had moved on to target an electronics company, stealing some £150,000 worth of Lenovo laptops from another storage facility.   Similar to the book theft incident, the culprits of this later theft entered through the roof, this time using ladders both to scale and enter the building. This time transporting the hot merchandise proved their undoing.  Stopped by Romanian police Marian Mamalig could not provide proper proof of ownership for the laptops, and was arrested.   

Following resulting leads in 45 different locations in 3 separate countries, the books were recovered on Wednesday 16 September 16 2020 bringing the three-year joint investigation to an end.  Still wrapped in their original transport packaging, the rare books had been buried in a cement crawlspace under the floor tiles of a house in rural Romania in the historic region of Moldavia.  Once in law enforcement custody, the books were examined by conservators to assess for any moisture or mold damage and to carefully dehumidify the pages to prevent further damage. 

When speaking to the success of the investigation, Detective Inspector Andy Durham, from the Metropolitan Police's Specialist Crime South said: “These books are extremely valuable, but more importantly they are irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage.”  Twelve of those involved in the thefts have pled guilty and received sentences  They are:  

  • Marian Albu received 4 years imprisonment  
  • Daniel David received 3 years 7 months imprisonment  
  • Liviu Leahu received 3 years 8 month' imprisonment  
  • Marian Mamaliga received 4 years and 1 month imprisonment.  
  • Traian Mihulca received 4 years imprisonment  
  • Victor Petrut Opariuc received 3 years 7 months imprisonment  
  • Vasille Ionel Paragina received 3 years 8 months imprisonment  
  • Paul Popeanu received 3 years 3 months imprisonment  
  • Gavril Popinciuc received 5 years 8 months imprisonment  
  • Narcis Popsecu received 4 years 2 months imprisonment  
  • Ilie Ungureanu received 3 years 8 month' imprisonment  
  • Christian Unrgureanu received 5 years and 1 month imprisonment   

A thirteenth is set to go to trial in March 2021. 

By: Lynette Turnblom and Lynda Albertson

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Albertson, Lynda. ‘Theft: Antiquarian Booksellers Association’s reports dramatic book thief heist of 160 texts, some from the 15th and 16th centuries’. ARCA Art Crime Blog (blog), 13 February 2017. https://art-crime.blogspot.com/2017/02/theft-antiquarian-booksellers.html.
Bland, Archie. ‘Rare Books Stolen in London Heist Found under Floor in Romania’. The Guardian, 18 September 2020, sec. UK news. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/sep/18/rare-books-stolen-london-heist-found-floor-romania.
Brunt, Martin. ‘Romanian Crime Gang Members Jailed After String of High-Value Burglaries’. Sky News, 5 October 2020. https://news.sky.com/story/romanian-crime-gang-members-jailed-after-string-of-high-value-burglaries-12090902.
Chesters, Laura. ‘Stolen Collection of Antiquarian Books Worth £2.5m Recovered from Underground Store in Romania’. Antiques Trade Gazette, 19 September 2020. https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2020/stolen-collection-of-antiquarian-books-worth-25m-recovered-from-underground-store-in-romania/.
Eurojust. ‘15 Arrests in Theft of Galileo and Newton Original Books’. Eurojust, 19 June 2019. https://www.eurojust.europa.eu/15-arrests-theft-galileo-and-newton-original-books.
Hamilton, Fiona. ‘Ladder Blunder Led Detectives to Gang Behind Heist of Rare Books’. The Times, 2 October 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ladder-blunder-led-detectives-to-gang-behind-heist-of-rare-books-xdpmsstqv.
ILAB. ‘Warehouse Theft London 2017 - Stolen Books’. International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, 12 January 2018. https://web.archive.org/web/20180112012437/http://www.stolen-book.org:80/eng/presentation/Warehouse_Theft_London_2017.html.
Krishna, Swampa. ‘Thieves Rappelled Into a London Warehouse in Rare Book Heist | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine’. The Smithsonian, 14 February 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/thieves-rappelled-london-warehouse-in-heist-180962176/.
‘Romanian Nationals “Stored 170 Stolen Books Worth More than £1.3 Million in a Tooting Warehouse”’. Wandsworth Times, 24 February 2020. https://www.wandsworthguardian.co.uk/news/18256463.romanian-nationals-stored-170-stolen-books-worth-1-3-million-tooting-warehouse/.
The Crown Prosecution Service. ‘Romanian Gang Jailed for Burglary Spree Including 200-plus Stolen Ancient Books’. The Crown Prosecution Service, 2 October 2020. https://www.cps.gov.uk/london-south/news/romanian-gang-jailed-burglary-spree-including-200-plus-stolen-ancient-books.
The Metropolitan Police. ‘Officers Recover “Irreplaceable” Books Stolen in Feltham Burglary’. The Metropolitan Police, 18 September 2020. http://news.met.police.uk/news/officers-recover-irreplaceable-books-stolen-in-feltham-burglary-410891.
———. ‘Organised Crime Group Jailed for Book Thefts’. The Metropolitan Police, 2 October 2020. http://news.met.police.uk/news/organised-crime-group-jailed-for-book-thefts-411930.