Blog Subscription via

September 27, 2021

Three convictions and one acquittal, the number of museum thefts Nils Menara, AKA Nils M., has been charged with.

Nils Menara, AKA Nils M., has been sentenced to 8 years in prison by the Lelystad court in the Netherlands for the theft of two artworks:

Vincent Van Gogh's 1882  painting Parish garden in Nuenen stolen from the Singer Laren Museum on 30 March 2020

Dutch Golden Age master Frans Hals' 1626 painting  Two Laughing Boys taken from the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum in Leerdam on 26 August 2020.

Neither painting has been recovered.  

Menara was also convicted for possession of a firearm and a large amount of hard drugs and was described by the court as an "incorrigible, calculating criminal".  In making their case, prosecutors had noted Menara's DNA presence at both crime scenes, and one the basis that the modus operandi from both thefts, as well as others in the past. 

The fact that Menara was tripped up by his own DNA is either ironic or just plain stupid, given that in 2009 Dutch police tracked the thief and an accomplice through DNA traces left on a crowbar and bolt cutters, at the scene of a 2009 museum burglary at the Stadsmuseum IJsselstein in the Netherlands.  There, burglars stole six landscape paintings from the 17th and 19th centuries, including works by Jan van Goyen and Willem Roelofs.  In that case Menara was acquitted.  Despite the DNA traces, the judge cited that this evidence alone was insufficient because the tools could also have been touched elsewhere.

Perhaps emboldened by shaking the charges relating to the Stadsmuseum IJsselstein, three years later in 2012 Menara violently entered the Gouda museum using semtex explosives blasting through the museum's front door.   In less than five minutes, he made off with a gilded silver monstrance created in 1662 by Johannes Boogeart which had been on loan to the museum from the parish of St. Anthony of Padua, fleeing the scene on a motorbike.  Adding insult to injury, debris from the explosion pierced a painting by Ferdinand Bol and another work of art.

This time though, Menara's luck didn't hold.  A short while after, Dutch Police tied him to the blowing up an ATM with explosives, which helped them in obtaining a warrant to tap his phone, which gave the police the much-needed evidence which tied him directly to the Gouda Museum burglary.   

In June 2013 the investigation department of the Central Netherlands police, working on the Eiffel investigation into a series of explosions and ram raids at jewellers caught suspects Nils Menara and Erik P., on tape relating to two criminal events, one of which was a conversation about explosives and the other the 2012 Gouda museum theft.  The pair also talked about the Schiphol Airport diamond robbery in 2005, to the great frustration of the police and judicial authorities as the suspects had been previously arrested for this, but then released due to lack of evidence.

Upon his arrest for the Gouda Museum burglary, Menara was found to have heavy weapons, ammunition, money and drugs in his house. 

Thankfully, this time, his charges stick and on 5 February 2016 Menara was sentenced by the court in Utrecht to six years in prison for the robbery at the Gouda museum, two years less than the sentence requested by the Public Prosecution Service. 

In January 2017 seven more suspects were arrested in Amsterdam and Valencia, Spain with the help of a lucky break involving the Nils Menara wiretap.

Despite all this, it appears that Menara's stint in prison hasn't deterred him from a life of crime and remains mum as to who he handed the artworks over to. 

September 22, 2021

How many bags of cocaine could a Monet buy?

Back this summer shots were fired by one of two suspects fleeing the scene of an attempted theft of Claude Monet's painting De Voorzaan en de Westerhem at the Zaans Museum in the Netherlands.   Yesterday, in an unexpected turn of events, one of the two suspects turned himself over to the Noord-Holland police.

More surprising still, this suspect, listed as Henk B in Dutch news services, appears to be Henk Bieslijn, the Dutch national who was previously sentenced on 26 July 2004 to four years in jail, along with his coconspirator Octave Durham, for their roles in an earlier museum burglary which nabbed Vincent Van Gogh's Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and View of the Sea at Scheveningen. 

While both culprits were convicted and served out their prison sentences, the two Van Gogh's, stolen from the Van Gogh Museum on 7 December  2002 remained in the hands of the Italian underworld.  Both paintings were eventually recovered in 2016 in Castellammare di Stabia, in the Bay of Naples, where they had been stored by their purchaser, Raffaele Imperiale.  Imperiale is the Camorra affiliated crime boss of the international drug trafficking Amato-Pagano clan who was arrested in August in Dubai and is awaiting extradition.

Imperiale is alleged to have given up the Van Gogh paintings to the Italian authorities in exchange for a lower prison sentence.  Given Henk B's connections to organised crime, it seems reasonable to speculate that had this attempted theft of the Monet been successful, the French artist's painting too would likely have been brokered to members of the underworld. 

For now, it remains to be seen what Henk Bieslijn knows, what his motives were and if he will cooperate with the Dutch police.

September 3, 2021

Norwegian police seize artefacts from the Martin Schøyen collection

Weekly Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet has reported that members of the Norwegian Economic Crimes Unit, working in coordination with the Økokrim police, confiscated approximately 100 antiquities from the extensive collection of Martin Schøyen which Iraqi authorities believe were illicitly removed from their country.  

This seizure comes following a request for assistance by the Republic of Iraq in October 2019 asking both the Ministry of Culture and the Økokrim authorities for assistance regarding 762 artefacts, including 654 incantation bowls with inscriptions written in Jewish Aramaic, the language of late antique Mesopotamia’s Jews, known to be part of the Martin Schøyen collection and which were purportedly exported from Jordan in 1988.

Among other artefacts, Schøyen's manuscripts collection in Oslo, which also warrants attention, has been reported to consist of "7597 items, of which 1052 papyri and ostraka from Ptolemaic to Arabic age"  as well as hundreds of controversial cuneiform tablets from Iraq which were in circulation in London during the 1990s. 

Many of the objects in the Schøyen collection were purchased through the now-deceased Jordanian dealer Ghassan Tamim Al-Rihani.  Commenting on why not all of the 762 contested artefacts objects were confiscated,  Maria Bache Dahl, acting public prosecutor at Økokrim stated:

"We have information that indicates that a number of the wanted objects are outside Norway."

In the past, suspect Iraqi objects in circulation in the ancient art market attributed to sales conducted by the Al Rihani family frequently made their way into the Martin Schøyen collection.  These objects were purportedly all exported from Jordan to the United Kingdom on the basis of a single Jordanian export license, dated 19 September 1988.  Research conducted by some provenance researchers believe this document to possibly be inauthentic.  

Even if the export document is legitimate, as has been attested, even by some Jordanian authorities, it only serves to authorize the export of material from Jordan.  The 1988 document does not serve as the original legal authority for the licit export of material originating in other countries, including Iraq.  It should be noted that other artefacts, purportedly as vaguely attributed to this invoice, also ended up with the Green Collection and the family's sponsored Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.  These were also subject of restitution claims by the Republic of Iraq in the United States. 

A certified translation of the Jordanian export document, made by an obscure copy shop and dated 12 October 1992, four years after the Arabic document was issued states as follows:

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Ministry of Culture & Natural Heritage
Department of Antiquities
Amman- Jordan

No. 12/1/2034
Date: 19/9/1988

Mr. Ghassan Tameem Al Rihani
An ex-authorized Antiquity Merchant
P.O. Box 9763

I would like to inform you about the approval of the Public Department of Antiquities to transfer the ownership of 2000 (Two thousand) various pottery utensils and 50 (fifty) various stone pieces as shown in the attached pictures, to your daughter May Ghassan Rihani currently residing in London and hereby giving you an exit permit to take them out of the country. 
Truly Yours

Director General
Public Department of Antiquities.

In a previous UK inquiry, when questioned about the legitimacy of a grouping of his incantation bowls loaned to UCL in London, Schøyen noted that he had not kept any of the importation papers or a series of poor quality photos associated with his sales purchase.  This “plausible denial” is a technique ARCA frequently records with regularity among dealers and or collectors of ancient art without substantiative legitimate provenance.  The individual in question affirms that they had the documentation or they saw the documentation at one time in the past, but in the subsequent years, said documents, were they to be export licenses, bills of sale, ownership letters or shipping documents failed to be retained with the object in question. 

In the transcript of an Al Jazeera documentary,  Iraqi authorities, via a confidential informant, believe Al Rihani received Iraqi artefacts smuggled out of North Iraq sometime around 1991, shipped through intermediaries from Amman Airport to Al Rihani in London.

Exhibit MS 2340 - The Schoyen collection. This cuneiform tablet is the oldest Sumerian record of musical writing and dates to 2600 BCE. 
The tablet is the description of 23 types of harps

Due to the broad wording of the original 1988 invoice, Ghassan Al Rihani may have simply reused the export document repeatedly, to substantiate additional illicit material in circulation in London and elsewhere.  Hundreds of artefacts that passed through this family's hands were then purchased by Martin Schøyen directly, some of which have been sold onward and were not retained by Schøyen in the long term. 

For those that want to learn more about the controversies of this collection, I suggest reading scholars Christopher Prescott and Josephine Munch Rasmussen 2020 article ‘Exploring the “Cozy Cabal of Academics, Dealers and Collectors.”  Another excellent reference is the Biography of P.Oxy. 15.1780 by Roberta Mazza of the University of Manchester from Volume 52 of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists. 

In the meanwhile, one might want to look more cautiously at the provenance of eighty pieces Schøyen consigned to Bloomsbury Auctions for their July 2020 auction "The History of Western Script: A Selection from The Schøyen Collection" and to two earlier sales including the 60 manuscripts, among them papyri sold via Sotheby's Western Manuscripts S/O auction on 10 July 2012, & Christie's, The History of Western Script: Important Antiquities and Manuscripts from the Schøyen Collection, auction on 10 July 2019.

By:  Lynda Albertson

Al-Dustour, Mahmoud Krishan. 2017. ‘تجار التحف الشرقية يلوحون بإغلاق متاجرهم’., 23 October 2017.

Balter, Michael. 2007a. ‘University Suppresses Report on Provenance of Iraqi Antiquities’. Science 318 (5850): 554–55.

———. 2007b. ‘University Suppresses Report on Provenance of Iraqi Antiquities’. SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone (blog). 4 November 2007.

George, Andrew R. 2007. ‘The civilizing of Ea-Enkidu : an unusual tablet of the Babylonian Gilgameš epic’. Revue d’assyriologie et d’archeologie orientale Vol. 101 (1): 59–80.

George, Andrew R., and Miguel Civil. 2011. Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schøyen Collection. Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology, v. 17. Bethesda, Md: CDL Press.

Hall, Richard. 2019. ‘Inside the Hunt for Iraq’s Looted Treasures’. The Independent. 10 July 2019.

Helle, Birk Tjeldflaat. ‘Norsk Mangemillionær Nekter å Gi Oldtidsskatter Til Irak’., 28 October 2019.

Henze, Matthias, ed. 2011. Hazon Gabriel: New Readings of the Gabriel Revelation. Society of Biblical Literature. Early Judaism and Its Literature, no. 29. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Klawans, Jonathan. 2019. Heresy, Forgery, Novelty: Condemning, Denying, and Asserting Innovation in Ancient Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mazza, Roberta. ‘Papyri, Ethics, and Economics: A Biography of P.Oxy. 15.1780 (P 39)’. The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 52 (2015): 113–42.

Mellgren, Doug. 2002. ‘Manuscript Collector Thrills to Discoveries’. Los Angeles Times, 22 September 2002.

‘Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis | Comprehensive Research & Reference for U.S. Coinage’. n.d. Accessed 23 May 2020a.

‘Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis | Comprehensive Research & Reference for U.S. Coinage’. ———. n.d. Accessed 23 May 2020b.

Morgenbladet. ‘Økokrim med stor aksjon mot norsk samler’. Accessed 3 September 2021.

Prescott, Christopher, and Josephine Munch Rasmussen. 2020. ‘Exploring the “Cozy Cabal of Academics, Dealers and Collectors” through the Schøyen Collection’. Heritage, Special Issue: Art and Antiquities Crime, 2020 (February): 68–97.

Rutz, Matthew, and Morag M. Kersel, eds. 2014. Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology and Ethics. Joukowsky Institute Publication 6. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

‘The Schoyen Collection’. n.d. The Schoyen Collection. Accessed 25 May 2020.

Thrope, Samuel. ‘What Should Be Done with the Magic Bowls of Jewish Babylonia?’ Aeon Essays, 24 May 2016.

jouserjo. n.d. ‘خبير الآثار الأردني تميم الريحاني ل”جلنار”: والدي كان أهم خبير آثار في العالم وشهاداته معتمدة في أمريكا وبريطانيا وسويسرا | | جلنار الإخباري’. Accessed 26 May 2020.

Six members of the Remmo family are formally indicted in Dresden for connection to the 2019 Grünes Gewölbe burglary

Yesterday an indictment was filed at the state court in Dresden, Germany formally charging six individuals, aged 22-27 with serious gang theft and arson for their alleged involvement in the 25 November 2019 burglary of the Green Vault (Grünes Gewölbe in German) museum within Dresden Castle in Saxony. In that dramatic incident, a precision coordinated team of thieves pried open iron bars to access the museum through a window and smashed open exhibition cases using an axe to make off with an outstanding cache of historic jewellery.  Objects taken during the theft  include 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 epaulette, and a diamond-studded hilt containing nine large and 770 smaller diamonds, as well as its jewel-encrusted scabbard.  The historic pieces have been valued at almost 113.8 million euros.

Three suspects, from the Remmo Arabische Großfamilie clan, Wissam Remmo, Rabih Remmo, and Bashir Remmo, were arrested during a raid last Autumn which proved almost as sensational as the theft itself.   Carried out on 17 November 2020, 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, arresting the three suspects and hoping to recover all or part of the stolen jewels.  Wassim was arrested in his car in Berlin while Rabih and Bashir were picked up when police stormed apartments in the densely populated suburbs of Neukölln and Berlin-Kreuzberg. While cell phones, computers, clothing and some drugs were seized during the massive manhunt, none of the stolen museum's stolen jewellery was recovered.

On 14 December 2020 and 18 May 2021 twin cousins Mohamed Remmo and Abdul Majed Remmo were also placed in handcuffs.  By summer, law enforcement officers in Saxony also arrested a sixth suspect, Ahmed Remmo on 19 August 2021 at an apartment in Berlin-Treptow.  

Two of the six men accused in the break-in into the Green Vault, Wissam Remmo and Ahmed Remmo, are the same perpetrators who had already been convicted for their roles in the 27 March 2017 Bode Museum theft.  In that incident, members of the same crime family and an unrelated accomplice orchestrated and carried out the theft of a 100-kilogram gold coin called the "Big Maple Leaf" valued at 3.75 million euros.  Despite having been sentenced to 54 months and fined €3.3 million for that theft, Wissam Remmo and Ahmed Remmo had remained at liberty in the German capital while they appealed their sentences.

Ironically, two days following the breaking at the Green Vault, Wassim Remmo had been stopped while driving to the Erlangen district court.  Inside the vehicle, inspection officers noted balaclavas, gloves, a crowbar and a hammer drill.  For now, four other suspects are still wanted for questioning related to aiding and abetting, as CCTV footage seems to indicate that the individuals may have been spying on the museum in the lead-up to the November 2019 break-in.

If convicted in the Dresden Regional Court, the six suspects face prison sentences ranging from 10 or 15 years, given that two of the suspects were 22 years old at the time of their alleged involvement in the museum burglary. 

Meanwhile, another court case also got underway for another member of the Remmo clan. Muhamed Remo (31), father of three and nephew of clan boss Issa Remmo (55) was in court yesterday answering to charges related to the February 2021 armed robbery and assault on a money transport vehicle.  In that case, four men posing as garbage workers made off with 648,500 euros.  Muhamed was arrested when his DNA was matched to evidence left on a witness's sweater.  Since his arrest, he has confessed to his role in the heist admitting that his cut for the robbery was 70,000 euros and that his drippy nose, which proved his undoing, stemmed from his cocaine consumption. 

September 1, 2021

New York Exhibition Review - Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art

by Aubrey Catrone, Proper Provenance, LLC

The Jewish Museum’s current exhibition Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art is dedicated to the art objects coveted by some of history’s greatest villains: the Nazi regime. Walking into the museum lobby on a cloudy Saturday afternoon (admission is free on the Jewish Sabbath), I found myself at the end of a long line awaiting entry into the exhibition space.  Surrounded by groups of all ages and backgrounds, we waited in an orderly fashion, taunted by the glimpse of a large Franz Marc canvas hanging just beyond the glass doors.

As a provenance researcher by trade, my intrigue was piqued long before I walked through the museum doors: in their review for The Guardian, Jordan Hoffman wrote, “rarely does one walk away from a gallery with a spinning head, thinking of the life led by the paintings, drawings and objects themselves.” And, Ariella Burdick’s Financial Times review argued, “this is not a show about how art is made but about how it’s kept and passed from hand to hand. Material things are haunted by their accumulated history, acquiring emotional freight along the way.”

Image Credit: Jewish Museum

Once granted entry into the exhibition space, the dramatically lit gallery introduces viewers to the idea of an artwork’s biography, not just its creator, but the journey the physical item takes throughout its existence from creation to owners, to looters, to restitution. Following the trajectory of curation, visitors are given a preliminary introduction to the destruction and sacrifice that arose from the Nazi’s systematic plunder of cultural objects. The wall texts and audio guide address topics ranging from the experiences of “degenerate” artist’s to Rose Valland’s valiant efforts working for the Nazis at the Jeu de Paume to the Jewish Museum’s own role in safeguarding the orphaned Judaica of the Danzig Collection. 

In support of this narrative, many of the artworks on display are presented with wall texts that offer a paragraph of art historical analysis followed by a brief description of how the artwork was looted and restituted. Other items on display, such as August Sander’s photographic portraits of his Jewish neighbors seeking to escape persecution, and a concentration camp ledger recording the names of thousands who perished at the hands of the Nazis.  This sobering reminder of the context of this exhibition adds an extra layer of gravitas to the exhibited art objects.  Of the 3478 human beings recorded in this single ledger, only 11 survived. Viewers are not just reading fantastical stories or art historical analyses. They are witnessing the afterlife of the attempted annihilation of Jewish culture and faith. 

For some paintings, such as Henri Matisse’s Girl in Yellow and Blue with Guitar (1939) and Daisies (1939), the journey was short and bitter. Both paintings were stolen by Nazis from famed French-Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg’s Bordeaux bank vault and were earmarked for Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s personal collection. The wall text indicates that the saga concluded “following the war, both were returned to Rosenberg and were later sold.” Other paintings, such as Max Pechstein’s Landscape (Nudes in a Landscape) (1912), were lost for decades, forgotten amidst dusty basements before resurfacing in institutional collections. Pechstein’s Landscape was restituted to the heirs of Hugo Simon, a German-Jewish banker, this year (2021!), evidencing the ongoing battle against Nazi plunder.

Max Pechstein’s Landscape (Nudes in a Landscape), 1912

The exhibition culminates with a display of contemporary works by artists Maria Eichhorn, Hadar Gad, Dor Guex, and Lisa Oppenheim. Each of the aforementioned artists seeks to shed light on the enduring legacy and ramifications of Nazi plundering while simultaneously shedding light on restitution efforts. Maria Eichhorn even put together a dossier of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s field reports, memoranda, and other primary documents from her time as an emissary for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR). This dossier offers a documented view into the restitution efforts that took place in the wake of the Second World War. Visitors are encouraged to take a copy of the dossier with them. The unassuming booklet serves as a tangible record of plunder to take with them back into the real world.  

Image Credit: Aubrey Catrone

 Overall, the Jewish Museum exhibition offers a broad overview of an issue that is often sensationalized by the mainstream media. Afterlives draws viewers into a world of beautiful and sacred objects that were pulled from their owners and subsequently destroyed or traded by those in power. I had hoped that the exhibition would shed more light on the arduousness of restitution cases or even provenance research itself.  An untold number of art objects remain missing. The laws governing clean title vary from country to country (i.e., rightful ownership). And, there is no universal standard in place for conducting provenance research or due diligence. It can be a long and tedious process to follow the path of an artwork that someone has disrupted or tried to erase. However, I hope that each individual who visits this exhibition is left with a greater understanding of the work that has been done in this field and the work that is left to be completed.

* Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York until 9 January 2022

Additional Image Credits: 
Image 1: Installation view of Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art, August 20, 2021-January 9, 2022, the Jewish Museum, NY. Photo by Steven Paneccasio 

Image 2: Max Pechstein, Landscape (Nudes in a Landscape), 1912, oil on canvas, 71 x 80 cm, Photo by Philippe Migeat.

Image 3: A dossier in the city. Photo of Maria Eichhorn’s Hannah Arendt: Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Field Reports, Memoranda, Etc., 2021.