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May 25, 2022

Justice Rendered: The final confiscation of properties and business enterprises of Gianfranco Becchina has been confirmed.

DIA Seizing Gianfranco Becchina assets in 2017

Italy's Direzione Investigativa Antimafia, the country's Anti-Mafia Investigation Department has issued a confirmation confiscation decree based upon a request from the Public Prosecutor's Office of Palermo.  As per this decree, this action finalises the confiscation of a significant portion of movable, real estate and corporate assets "attributable to a well-known international trader of works of art art and artefacts of historical-archaeological value" long suspected to have links with the Sicilian mafia, in and around the port town of Trapani. 

While the DIA's announcement didn't name the, now, 83 year old dealer living in Castelvetrano, the regional newspapers in Sicily did.   

For decades the Trapani branch of the Cosa Nostra is believed to have accumulated at least some portions of its wealth through the proceeds of illicit archaeological finds.  Some of which were procured through grave robbers working at the isolated Archaeological Park of Selinunte, one of Sicily's great ancient Greek cities, located near Castelvetrano.  This archaeological site covers some 40 hectares and includes Greek temples, ancient town walls, and the ruins of residential and commercial buildings from Italy's past.  Given its remote location, much of the site has not been formally excavated, and it has been prey to opportunistic looters for decades.

To further dismantle the mafia's operational funding in and around Trapani, in November 2017 Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate, through the Court of Trapani's penal and preventive measures section, filed an initial seizure order for all movable assets, including real estate and corporate enterprises attributable to Gianfranco Becchina on the basis of an order issued from the District Attorney of Palermo based upon investigations conducted by the DIA, under the coordination of the Palermo Public Prosecutor's Office on the basis that much of Becchina's accumulated wealth was generated through the proceeds of trafficked antiquities. 

Palazzo dei Principi Tagliavia-Aragona-Pignatelli

The preliminary 2017 order included the seizure of Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., Olio Verde srl., his signature olive oil production company, Demetra srl., Becchina & company srl.  Real estate holdings confiscated included some 38 buildings as well as Becchina's portions of Palazzo dei Principi Tagliavia-Aragona-Pignatelli, once the noble residence of the family Tagliavia-Aragona-Pignatelli, which is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider, (an additional part of this palazzo is owned by the city of Castelvetrano and houses the town hall).  Investigators also seized a total of 24 parcels of land belonging to Becchina, and four vehicles.  In total, the value of the seized assets is estimated to be worth more than 10 million euros. 

Giovanni Franco Becchina (b. 1939) was born in Sicily. In the 1970s, he established a business, Palladion Antike Kunst, in Basel, Switzerland, with his wife Ursula.  For almost forty years Becchina headed one of Italy's most notorious “cordata” (a trafficking cell) in a lucrative criminal enterprise that used gangs of tombaroli to loot carefully chosen and insufficiently guarded archaeological sites throughout southern Italy.

It is well-documented that Becchina and other traffickers like him, laundered their looted antiquities through exhibitions at museums and in private collections with manufactured provenance, providing a thin veneer of respectability to material removed from Italy and laundered through the ancient art market. 

In 2001, Becchina was arrested in Italy and charged with receiving stolen goods, illegally exporting goods, and conspiring to traffic goods. In May 2002, the Swiss and Italian authorities raided Palladion Antike Kunst and three of Becchina’s located storage facilities.  A fourth was raided in 2005. 

In 2011, Judge Rosalba Liso dismissed the charges of receiving stolen goods, illegally exporting goods, and conspiring to traffic goods, due to the running of the statute of limitations.  However, the Judge in the case confirmed the seizure order for the 5,919 antiquities Becchina had in stock at the time the 2002 and 2005 search warrants were executed.  Material evidence obtained during these seizures c confirmed that Becchina bought antiquities directly from tombaroli. Over 90% came from a single source: convicted tombarolo (and later capo squadra in his own right) Raffaele Monticelli.

May 3, 2022

Justice rendered in the attempted theft of Claude Monet's De Voorzaan en de Westerhem from the Zaans Museum


Forty-nine year old, repeat art napper, Henk Bieslijn has been sentenced to four years in prison in the Netherlands for the broad daylight failed theft of Oscar-Claude Monet's De Voorzaan en de Westerhem from the Zaans Museum in Zaandam.

Here is a timeline of how the events in that case developed. 

16 August 2021 - An attempted theft, occurs at around half-past ten at the Zaans Museum in Zaandam, Netherlands 

During the incident, one culprit, later determined to be Henk Bieslijn walked into the Zaans Museum during opening hours wearing a wig as a disguise.  After nonchalantly grabbing Claude Monet's De Voorzaan en de Westerhem, the law-breaking art aficionado exited the museum, only to be spotted by a bystander, who attempted to impede the thief's progress by grabbing hold of him.   

In the ensuing confusion, three shots were fired and the pilfering art thief dropped the Monet but successfully mounted the back of a black motorbike driven by the accomplice. 

Thankfully, no one is injured, and the artwork by the famous French impressionist was quickly returned to the museum. Albeit, slightly worse for the wear.   A short while later, law enforcement authorities recovered the get-away vehicle after it had been abandoned by Bieslijn and his accomplice on the Zuiderweg in nearby Wijdewormer. 

21 August 2021 - A former art burgler walked into a police station
Dutch newspapers announce that a man named "Henk B." reported to be one of two thieves involved in the Zaans Museum failed heist, had walked himself into the Noord-Holland police to answer questions regarding the attempted theft of the Claude Monet painting.  

It is almost immediately clear that this individual is Henk Bieslijn, who on 7 December 2002, was involved in the nighttime burglary of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In that incident, two works of art, Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and View of the Sea at Scheveningen by Vincent Van Gogh we stolen, and remained missing, in the hands of organised crime actors, until 2016.

January 2022
A second suspect in the Zaans Museum attempted theft, this one, a thirty-seven year old unnamed man from Purmerend, is taken into custody.  He is subsequently released after questioning.

19 April 2022 - Bieslijn confesses
Appearing before the Dutch court in Alkmaar, Henk Bieslijn admits to the court that he attempted to steal Claude Monet's De Voorzaan en de Westerhem from the Zaans Museum, purportedly under pressure from criminals.  Bieslijn, claimed that after serving his time for the 2002 Van Gogh Museum burglary, he had left behind his former life of crime and until recently had been working at festivals until the COVID pandemic resulted in him being underemployed.

To fill the gaps, Bieslijn stated that he had decided to begin selling marijuana, and claimed he had picked up a substantial quantity of cannabis for resale, passing it off to another individual in the front of a cafe, while he, in turn, walked out the back. Bueslijn then claimed that this person disappeared, which resulted in him being left with a debt of some €12,000 euros to the organisation he bought drugs from. 

Bieslijn also told the court that after the 2002 Van Gogh theft, he had been approached by criminals on more than one occasion, each time, as they purportedly looked for someone to conduct a similar heist.  During each of these prior incidents, the purportedly reluctant art thief claimed he turned the criminals down.   That is until 2021, when he was persuaded otherwise, with what he perceived to be threats towards his son. 

Bieslijn told the Dutch Court that on Saturday evening, 14 August 202, his telephone rang and he was ordered, not asked, to steal the Monet at the Zaans Museum in Zaandam, with the assistance of an accomplice.  The art thief stated he never thought the daylight theft would be successful, but had agreed to participate in hopes of showing that he was willing to cooperate, and in doing so, ensure the protection of his son. 

Bieslijn denied having fired a weapon on the day of the attempted robbery but  admitted that the pair had first escaped on the getaway scooter later found abandoned on the Zuiderweg.  The accomplices then took a car in the direction of Purmerend, where at some point on their journey, Bieslijn got out of the car at a bus stop and took a bus back to the city of Amsterdam.

Not believing Bieslijn's testimony as stated, and given his prior involvement in the Van Gogh Museum thefts, the Prosecutor asked that he be sentenced to four years in prison.  IN making this recommendation, the prosecutor noted that at no point had the former art thief come forward to report any of the purported earlier incidences of coercion or intimidation and had also failed to go to the authorities on the day if the Zaans Museum theft, even after shots had been fired. 

3 May 2022 - The court hands down its sentence.  
Citing the "particularly brutal theft in broad daylight" the Judge in Henk Bieslijn's case granted the public prosecutor's request and sentenced the two-time art thief to four years in jail.  In issuing their ruling the court concluded that the theft of the Monet painting was completed, not merely attempted, as at the time of the incident, the artwork had been taken from its mount inside the museum and carried outside.  The judge further stated that the court wouldn't take Bieslijn's purported criminal debt, or possible criminal coercion into consideration, as the incident involving the lost bag of weed could not be verified, nor did it diminish the seriousness of the crime.  

The sentence of four years is similar to the one Bieslijn received on 26 July 2004, along with his coconspirator Octave Durham, for their roles in the museum burglary which nabbed Vincent Van Gogh's Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and View of the Sea at Scheveningen.   One hopes that this time it may serve as a deterrent. 

April 22, 2022

Save the Date/Call for Presenters: August 5-7, 2022 ARCA's 11th Annual Art Crime Conference

Conference Date:  
August 5-7, 2022
Abstract Submittal Deadline:  
June 15, 2022
Location: Amelia, Italy

Celebrating a decade of academic conferences, after a two year hiatus due to the COVID Pandemic ARCA will host its 11th summer interdisciplinary art crime conference the weekend of August 5-7, 2022. 

Known as the Amelia Conference, the Association's weekend-long event aims to facilitate a critical appraisal of art crimes and the protection of art and cultural heritage and brings together researchers and academics, police, and individuals from many of the allied professions that interact with the art market, coming together to discuss issues of common concern. 

The Amelia Conference is an annual ARCA event, held in the historic city of Amelia, in the heart of Italy's Umbria region where ARCA also plays host to its Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.

Given this conference date has been shifted until late summer, ARCA has extended its call for presenters and welcomes speaking proposals from individuals in relevant fields, including law, criminal justice, security, art history, conservation, archaeology, or museum security and risk management on the topical sessions listed here. We invite individuals interested in presenting to submit their topic of choice along with a presentation title, a concise 400-word abstract, a brief professional biography and a recent CV to the conference organizers at:

italy.conference [at] artcrimeresearch.org

Accepted presenters will be asked to limit their presentations to a maximum of 15-20 minutes, and will be grouped together in thematically-organized panels in order to allow time for brief questions from the audience and fellow panelists.  

Registration:
To register for this event, please go to our Eventbrite page located here.



Conference Lodging:
To celebrate a decade of hosting the Amelia Conference, ARCA has decided to shake things up a bit.  This year we encourage conference attendees to consider booking with Country House Monastero le Grazie, an enchanting centuries-old Cistercian monastery adjacent to the Church and Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie, built in 1300.  This unique conference lodging venue is located in the hamlet of Foce, just a few kilometers outside the centro storico of Amelia.


Built for a Roman Catholic monastic order founded in 1098 by St. Bernard, those who joined the Cistercians sought to live a contemplative life in a protected oasis of peace and introspection, while offering refuge for pilgrims and weary travellers. This mindset fits perfectly with the tone of the conference ARCA hopes to establish each summer.  And today, this historic former monastery has been converted into an evocative boutique events residence which offers ARCA’s conference attendees a lodging experience in a spectacular setting unlike any other.

Lodgers at the Monastero le Grazie can choose rooms in one of 16 apartments spread out within the central body of the monastery and arranged on two floors, some with loft features overlooking common areas. Each of these once monastic apartments has been recently updated and contains from one to up to six comfortable bedrooms with adjacent communal living spaces. Many of the apartment bedrooms have private bathrooms (with bath or shower), hairdryer, courtesy kit and linen. Some second bedrooms are located on loft mezzanines overlooking common areas.   

On site the Monastary has a restaurant, a large swimming pool, breakout rooms, a small bar, a panoramic terrace and two hectares of garden where guests can sit or take a walk. 

Conference attendees making their lodging reservations at the Monastero not only support local Umbrian small business owners but will also have a chance to support and preserve (and experience) a unique residential experience from Italy’s past.  

Those staying at the monastery will also be just steps away from the conference's Friday Icebreaker Cocktail which will be held on the terrace of the monastery’s gardens.  The theme this year is the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. 

Likewise, a stay in a monastery invariably means great food, too as Italians have a saying: “Nobody eats better than a monk.”  With that in mind, this year's Saturday’s Gala Conference dinner will be catered at the Monastery's  slow food restaurant, “Il Ristoro del Priore”.



Attendees selecting lodging at the Monastero will be provided with transport to and from the conference hall venue in the centro storico of Amelia (7 minutes away by car) on the morning and evening of Saturday and Sunday so as to be able to attend all conference sessions.

We look forward to seeing you this August. If you have any questions about the call to presenters, want to book conference lodging at the Monastero or have any other conference related questions, please feel free to write to us at: italy.conference@artcrimeresearch.org

We hope to see many of you in Amelia in August!

April 11, 2022

Potential CITES violations and a seizure of specimens from one (of many) large hunted animals collections in Spain.

Image Credit:  Guardia Civil, Spain

It wasn't until an October 9,  2019 El Pais journalist Manual Ansede wrote an article about the hunting compulsion of Spain's Marcial Gómez Sequeira showing hundreds of animals mounted on taxidermy stands at his luxury chalet in La Moraleja (Alcobendas) in North Madrid.

In general though, over the years, the public hasn't taken much notice of country's wealthy gentlemen and their hunting obsessions.  But, as the result of that article, the Spanish national police opened an investigation, looking into potential violations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES, the international agreement between governments which aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species.

When interviewed for the El Pais article, collector Marcial Gómez Sequeira told journalist Ansede that he estimated, if he added all his hunting trips together, that he had been firing bullets into animals for 24 hours a day over the course of 11 years and three months of his life.   All the while hiding in plain sight while proudly  documenting his kills in multiple forums on film and in print. 

Sequeira's wealth cam from the company Sanitas, founded in 1954 by a group of Spanish doctors, including Marcial Gómez Gil, the father of Marcial Gómez Sequeira, who became the firms first CEO as majority shareholder. In the 1960s when his father left that position the role fell to his son, who remained the majority shareholder of the company until 1988.

Marcial Gómez Sequeira has stated that he went on his first hunting safari in 1971, in Mozambique where he claimed he paid 60,000 pesetas (€360) and was responsible for shooting some 35 species, including a zebra, a lion, a hippopotamus and an elephant. After that he starts hunting/collecting seriously and over the next 48 years has told reporters he went on hunting safaris three or four times per year.

Not the sole wealthy Spaniard with a passion for holding a gun, in 1973 Marcial Gómez Sequeira’s is known to have been on a hunting trip in Persia (Iran) at the invitation of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, at the Shah’s hunting reserve. There he met the future King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, who had also been invited by the Shah’s brother.  The pair would go on to hunt with one another on occasion afterwards. 

In 1988 as the majority shareholder of Sanitas, Marcial Gómez Sequeira sold his shares in the company to British multinational BUPA for almost 22 billion pesetas, the equivalent of €130 million.  In doing so, in doing so, he failed to declare in personal income tax, the capital gains from the sale of his shares, some 9,541 million pesetas, or the equivalent of 57 million euros.  In the later 2019 El Pais article, Gómez Sequeira reported that he had used the proceeds earned from his company's sale to further pursue his trophy hunting, stating:

“Three years ago I tried to calculate the time I have spent hunting,” ...“I worked out that I had been shooting for 24 hours a day over the course of 11 years and three months of my life. Firing bullets non-stop.”

October 2011 
Between 2011 and 2014 Marcial Gómez Sequeira’s authored three books on his hunts: 
Últimas cruzadas (The Last Crusades), with a prologue by Norbert Ullmann and Jesús Caballero.  His 190-page memoir, with numerous color photographs, maps and sketches, collects, as its name suggests, the author's last hunts in the former Soviet Union, with an epilogue of five other mountain hunts.

Aventuras de ahora y siempre describing his hunting in places like Cameroon,  Canada, Gredos, los Puertos de Tortosa-Beceite and Batuecas.

2014 Facebook Photo of Stiliyan Kadrev
"Un año increíble" which catalogues kills in Africa, the Caucasus, Central Europe and the Philippines.

In 2016 Buglarian big game journalist and sometimes hunting companion Stiliyan Kadrev filmed the draw of the Big Game market in Spain and the animals killed by Marcial Gómez Sequeira inside his Madrid home.  He also documented the Spanish millionaire's November 2015 trip to Tallinn, Estonia for guided trophy Elk hunting as well as a trip to the taiga forests in Russia hunting for Eurasian lynx.  By this point, Kadrev documents that Gómez Sequeira has already accumulated specimens from 370 species. 


Continuing on with the latest trend in the big game industry which entices wealthy hunters into killing animals of unusual colours for sport, Marcial Gómez Sequeira travelled to South Africa on a game hunting trip with his 15-year-old grandson.  There, the owners of ranches auction off uniquely coloured members of any one species after raising them in captivity. During this safari he admits to having killed a golden wildebeest, a black impala, a golden oryx and a copper-coloured Springbok.  

By March 2019 Guillermo Fernández Vara and the mayor of Olivenza, Manuel González Andrade (PSOE) had established a preliminary agreement to set up the Marcial Gómez Sequeira Collection Hunting Museum, which had aims of displaying some 1,250 trophy kills by the collector inside an 18th-century building known as the Cavalry Barracks in the village of Olivenza, in one of Spain’s poorest regions, Extremadura.  

The preliminary agreement signed by Gómez Sequeira and Fernández Vara was to involve handing the collection over to a new semi-public foundation and calculating its financial value so that Extremadura authorities can invest half of that again. 

Talking with the reporter, Gómez Sequeira strolled through his home explaining where each animal was hunted and killed. There, the reporter noted a leopard from Zimbabwe, a tiger from Thailand, a lion from South Africa, an ocelot wildcat from Mexico, a cheetah from Namibia, a white rhinoceros from Angola, a wolf from Alaska, a monkey from Cameroon, an armadillo from the US, an African golden cat from Liberia, a spotted hyena from Mozambique, a crocodile from Tanzania and even a polar bear from Canada.

Each of the stuffed animals documented represented just some of the animals Marcial Gómez Sequeira has killed in his world travels for big and small game hunting. In total the collector himself estimated that he has thousands of taxidermied animals, including more than 420 species.

After the article's publication, the mayor of Olivenza, Manuel González Andrade withdrew his support for the collector's proposed hunting museum, writing on Facebook saying: 

"This project does not represent us, it does not represent the men and women of this town, nor does it represent the future of progress in Olivenza, which is why it will not be given space in any public municipal building."

By November 2021 and as public outcry increased with the attention the El Pais article drew, Spanish police opened an investigation into Gómez Sequeira's hunting/collecting practices to determine if the collector has been involved in the alleged trafficking of protected species. 

As a result of this investigation, Gómez Sequeira is unable to produce the import and handling paperwork documenting 49 animal specimens on taxidermy mounts, four elephant tusks, four hippopotamus canines, two rhinoceros horns and 132 carved ivory pieces.  Each of these was seized and taken to the National Museum of Natural Science in Madrid.

In a follow-up newspaper article, Gómez Sequeira claimed that some of the animals in question were acquired before the CITES global convention on the trade of endangered species went into effect in 1975. 

Likewise, the Valencia police's Nature Protection Team, begin looking into another Spanish hunter's collection. 

Image Credit:  Guardia Civil


Inside the storage facility officers working  operación “VALCITES” located the preserved remains of cheetahs, leopards, lions, lynxes, polar bears, white rhinos and a total of 198 elephant tusks, not to mention the cut off feet of elephants, the bounty of a lifetime of serial killing for gratification. 

In total the officers documented 405 specimens representing species considered protected by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  Those included a scimitar oryx, declared extinct in the wild by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2000 and specimens representing the severely threatened addax or white antelope and the Bengal tiger.

While the name of the owner of the specimens involved in this seizure was not mentioned in the Guardia Civil's announcement,  Marcial Gómez Sequeira is not the only Spaniard with an insatiable desire for blood sport.  Tony Sanches-Arino, another of the country's major sports hunters, has logged some 4,044 kills (1,317 being elephants).  And this week's seizure is believed to be the inherited property of one of the sons of well-known Valencian businessman Francisco Ros Casares, the steel entrepreneur and former president of Valencia CF, who died in 2014. 

ARCA wishes wealthy people would simply take up golf. It has a lower carbon footprint than rampant blood sport, and white men, chasing little white balls are less likely to upset the delicate balance the world's wildlife. 

April 8, 2022

What about the well known looted vases in the Altes Museum in Berlin?

Left: Medici Archive Polaroid with fragments of the Crater of Persephone,
attributed to the Painter of the Underworld,
Right: 4th century BCE crater as seen at the Altes Museum, Berlin

Tonight there was an interesting plot twist to this year's formal demand by the Public Prosecutor's Offices of Rome and Foggia, who in late January 2022 issued two confiscation decrees, the first from the Gip of Foggia, and the second from the Gip of Rome, Alessandro Arturi, at the request of the Procura del Tribunale Capitolino. These European confiscation orders were sent with an international rogatory request through the Directorate General for International Affairs and Judicial Cooperation of the Ministry of Justice asking for the return of 21 ornate South Italian artefacts currently on exhibition in Germany.   Tonight, at 20:30 CET, on RAI tg24  Spotlight, journalists, archaeologists, curators, and carabinieri officers discuss these artefacts' murky origins.  All the while the viewing audience got to see the overly simplified foot-dragging reticence of the management at the Altes Museum in Berlin towards Italy's determination to prove the illicit nature of these pieces, and to get these objects back.  

Many of the spectacular contested artefacts, date to the 4th century BCE and fall into distinct workshop groups, giving us a rich opportunity to examine how the peoples native to southern Italy used Greek myth to comprehend death and the afterlife in their funerary customs.  Some of the Apulian vessels share stylistic markings which demonstrate that they likely were created by the same attributed "hands", leading Italian experts to strongly believe that the artefacts may have been derived from a singular burial grouping.  

The artisans represented include the Group of Copenhagen 4223, the Varrese painter, the Darius painter, and the Underworld painter.  All of the artefacts had at one point been broken into fragments before being carefully restored and sold on to Wolf Dieter Heilmayer between 1983 and 1984, then at the Berlin archaeological museum located in West Germany.  The German museum director purchased these artefacts via Christoph Leon for 3 million German marks, under the pretext that they had been purportedly part of a historic collection belonging to a Basel family named the Cramers. 

In reality, the red figure vases are believed by the Italian authorities to have been looted, having once adorned a large chamber tomb, likely near Taranto, the coastal city and production centre in southern Italy from c. 430 - c. 300 BCE where many of these vases originate.  The single tomb grouping is something that Martin Maischberger, Deputy Director of the Collection of Classical Antiquities of the National Museums in Berlin contested during his interview, saying that most massive volute-kraters are found in pairs, not in groupings of seven, (three alone attributed to the Darius painter) like those purchased with the fictitious Cramer provenance bought by the museum director's predecessors.  

Strikingly, the German director doesn't take into consideration the wealth of material found at other sites in the Southern half of Italy, sites like Ruvo and the richness of its own tomb-groups or other impressive object groupings from the tombs at Gravina and Rutigliano in Peucetia, where contacts with both Greece and Etruscan painters clearly demonstrate tombs proportionately rich in burial goods. 

While not all the artefacts in the Berlin Tomb group appear in photographs in the now famous Medici Archive, four of them are, and point clearly towards the illicit nature of these finds.  

In this case, in three different groupings of Polaroids, specifically:
  • one grouping of fifteen photographs, 
  • one grouping of six photographs,
  • and one grouping of two photographs. 
All three sets of images depict artefacts now in the Altes Museum in various stages of restoration, the most important of which is the exceptional krater by the Darius Painter.

Giacomo Medici archive photos of looted artefacts
presently on display at the Altes Museum

While not all of the Apulian artefacts have a "smoking gun" looter photo, the names attached to this transaction are the same, and have been problematic in the past. 

The former head of archaeology at Geneva Museum, Jacques Chamay had previously announced that his research had begun after he had examined a fragment of one of the vases in the Cramer family’s old library, though in tonight's program, reached by phone, he had nothing to say. 

Discounting the judicially soft, but diplomatically polite, cultural diplomacy negotiations as "informal", which up until January had been the preferred approach of the Carabinieri and the Procura of Foggia,  Dr. Maischberger at the Altes Museum remarked that the European confiscation request was the first time the museum had been formally asked to give back the vases.  In this instance, it seems the museum decided the Italian's less stick, more carrot approach meant they weren't serious or that a decision could be avoided?  In either case, asking nicely didn't incentivise or compel the museum's management towards restitution because only 4 of the disputed artefacts have definitive proof of looting photos seized from Giacomo Medici's storage facility on the fourth floor of the Ports Francs & Entrepôts de Genève, specifically Corridor 17, Room 23, on the 13th of September 1995.   

Giacomo Medici at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

During the Italian Spotlight news broadcast, Italians also heard from someone at the heart of Italy's illicit art market and the original holder of the Medici Polaroids, Giacomo Medici himself. 

Interviewed on camera for the first time, by investigative journalist Raffaella Cosentino, the former antiquities dealer seemed both soundly arrogant and at times cagy, admitting little even under direct questioning.  He avoided answering tough questions and instead preferred to underscore that he had served his time and paid his fines.  He also reminded his interviewer that in some instances the judicial process did not prove conclusively he had committed certain crimes.  

While Medici matter of factly talked about the seven boxes of photographs returned to him at the closure of his court case, he skipped over the fact that these images  represent the massive corpus of some 4000 artefacts that he handled during his years as an antiquities dealer.  He also failed to mention that he cultivated contacts among Italy's impoverished tombaroli, other wealthy corrupt dealers, Museum directors and conservators, who all turned a blind eye to the less than pristine origins of his wares.  Instead he preferred to mention loopholes or that he sold his antiquities of Switzerland, because Italy had rules against selling objects illicitly excavated. 

For what it is worth, and as a reminder, on 13 December 2004 Giacomo Medici was charged with receiving stolen goods, illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic via the Tribunal of Rome. The judge found that more than 95% of Medici’s antiquities—both those found in his Geneva warehouse as well as those depicted in the 4,000 seized photographs— were looted from Italy. Therefore, concerning the 3,800 antiquities recovered from the Geneva warehouse, the judge ordered the confiscation of approximately 3,400. Of the 400 that were not confiscated, 258 were returned to Switzerland: 179 because they had been looted in Greece, from sites on Paros, Crete, and the mainland (and, therefore, not subject to Italian law), and 79 because they were not authentic (and, therefore, were not the subject of the criminal investigation). For fewer than 150 of the 3,800 hundred antiquities—3.9% of his collection—did Medici provide any prior provenance.

On 15 July 2009 the Italian Appellate Court affirmed Medici's convictions for receiving stolen goods and conspiracy relating to the illicit trafficking of antiquities.  The affirmed a sentence of eight years of imprisonment alongside a €10 million fine, while the final count, for trafficking, was eliminated due to the expiry of the statute of limitations. 

Despite appealing the Appellate Court's ruling via Italy's Court of Cassation, on 7 December 2011 Giacomo Medici's final appeal was rejected.   Born in 1938 and already a senior citizen by that point, he was allowed to serve his judicial punishment primarily on house arrest at his villa in Santa Marinella, shortened by time off for good behaviour. 

By:  Lynda Albertson


April 4, 2022

The sometimes slow and sometimes fast return of historical artefacts pillaged from Libya


Cyrene, Northern Necropolis.
The Sculptured Tomb/Cassels from Pacho 1827

Parallel with the start of the First Libyan Civil War, the Security Directorate of Shahat, in the eastern coastal region of Libya, implemented a series of works in an attempt to address the looting and destruction of moveable and immovable heritage from the tangle of ruins known as the seventh century BCE  city of Cyrene.  Faced with rising civil unrest, the outbreak of wars, and unchecked and destructive urban encroachment, Ismail Dakhil, an official at the museums department of eastern Libya, estimated that as much as 30 percent of the ancient city may have been encroached upon due to urban expansion.

Despite Libyan archaeologists, officials, and academics doing all they can to protect and maintain their country’s heritage, often with only very limited resources, and sometimes at great personal risk, the extent of recent destruction of the rock-cut tombs and ancient structures at Cyrene is vividly illustrated in this July 2013 photograph.  The heartbreaking image clearly shows an operator's Hyundai Robex 250 LC-7 crawler excavator clearing land for development inside a stretch of the city's ancient necropolis. 


There, in abject disregard for the ancient burial vaults and sarcophagi below the treads of the construction vehicle, makeshift developers rashly transformed a swath of the archaeological site into a modern construction zone.  Before they could be stopped, these individuals crushed, destroyed, or dumped into waterways what Greek, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Cyrenaica remains they came across, some of which dated as far back as 600 BCE.

Along with urban encroachment, insufficient security and a complicated political terrain has made Libya's rich archaeological heritage a vulnerable target for looting.  During the last two decades, according to the research of prominent forensic archaeologists, many of the territory's majestic Hellenistic sculptures have been plundered, only to turn up for sale on the ancient art market with little or fabricated provenance.  Many of the most beautiful of these pieces have turned up with, or have been sold through well known gallerists in London, Paris, Switzerland, Barcelona, and the United States. 

To illustrate the seriousness of the problem, the remainder of this article will be dedicated to four artefacts that have just gone home, identified in four separate US investigations of varying lengths and complexities.  Each of these artefacts made the long journey back home to Libya last week, and each were seized and relinquished as the price sometimes paid for trading in illicit material, and in one case, from wantonly collecting material with an absolute and total disregard for an object's legitimacy. 

Artefact #1

Cyrene Deity Head - Belzic Dt.54 *

The first, and oldest, is a fourth-to-third-century BCE Head of a Veiled Woman, (Cyrene Deity Head - Belzic Dt.54) which was recovered as part of an 11-year Federal investigation code named “Operation Lost Treasure,” led by HSI-ICE in New York, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This 13 inch tall by 10 inches wide marble head was seized by US authorities while monitoring the shipments and way bills of a known problematic Sharjah-based antiquities dealer.  The artefact was being shipped to a sometimes collector, sometimes dealer operating in New York.  Unfortunately, this was not the only plundered artefact from Cyrene the UAE dealer knowingly handled, nor was America the only country where buyers for Libya's plundered material could easily be found.  

Freshly looted, this severed head of a divinity had been shipped out of Libya and made her way into the United States unwashed by her handlers.  As a specimen of the wonders of Cyrenaica's past, her expressive face still retains some of the underdrawing pigment used by her creator to outline and define her eyes.   

Officers involved in the U.S. investigation would go on to provide assistance to London investigators when this same dealer, continuing to ply his illegal trade in the lucrative London market, shipped yet another plundered funerary statue from Cyrene to the United Kingdom just three years after this New York seizure.  In the US case, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) International Operations Division Chief Leo Lin formally handed over this sculpture to the safekeeping of the Libyan Embassy in Washington DC,  where it has remained until its journey home was finalised last week. 

Artefact #2

Cyrene Deity- Steinhardt-Albertson Dt.76*

The second artefact, the Veiled Head of a Female, as named in the Michael Steinhardt Agreement, was formally surrendered by the New York collector in early December 2021.  It is thought to be the head of a 2.5 meter tall 3rd - 2nd century BCE funerary monument representing a half-figure goddess.  One of just ten known to archaeologists from the Necropolis of Cyrene, before its plunder, this strikingly rare sculpture once adorned one of only six or seven monumental tombs located in the ancient city.   

The sculpture had been seized during the lengthy investigation into the highly questionable collecting practices of billionaire Michael Steinhardt, begun in New York in February 2017.  Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's team, lead by Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit and Senior Trial Counsel Matthew Bogdanos, along with Supervising Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer and Investigative Analysts Alyssa Thiel and Daniel Healey gathered evidence which demonstrated that the Veiled Head of a Female first surfaced on the international art market on 20 November 2000 when Michael Steinhardt purchased Dt.76 from Michael L. Ward, a dealer in New York with three business entities: 
  • Michael Ward & Co.
  • Michael Ward Inc.,
  • Ward & Company Works of Art LLC.
On his invoice, Ward noted the Veiled Head of a Female was “possibly from North Africa” and “a light brown earthy deposit uniformly covering the head imparts to its surfaces an attractive, warm patina.” This “earthy deposit” is thought by some experts to have been applied after the object was looted as it serves to lessen the noticeability of small chips and breakage on the surface of the artefact, a likely sign of rough handling by its looters.  

The ancient sculpture was sold to Steinhardt with no prior provenance for $1,200,000. 

Discussing the seized sculpture with Morgan Belzic, a PhD researcher at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études specialising in Cyrenaican Funerary Sculptures, under the direction of François Queyrel, he concurred with my preliminary observation that this head of a deity, with its telltale coloration and diadem, had to originate from Cyrene.  Belzic has made a name for himself, having noted a correlation between the increasing destruction of funerary monuments in Libya and the uptick in the appearance of ancient pieces from Cyrene on the market statistically out of range with those appearing in the market prior to the country's destabilisation.

As an expert on the sculptural remains of Libya's Greek cities, Belzic cooperates with national and international law enforcement authorities, including the Manhattan DA's office and the Libyan Department of Antiquities and has identified plundered and suspect objects originating from the Libyan cities of Shahat (Cyrene), Susa (Apollonia), Tocra (Taucheira), Tulmaytha (Ptolemais), and Benghazi (Euesperides/Berenike).  

Working closely with a multinational coalition of archaeological missions in Libya under the coordination of the French Archaeological Mission, lead by Vincent Michel, this group of allied researchers has provided critical evidence in law enforcement investigations identifying sculptures of high concern originating from Cyrenaica. 

The Manhattan District Attorney's office concluded its multi-year, multi-national criminal investigation into Steinhardt's ancient art collection in 2021.  In total, their work resulted in the seizure and forfeiture of 180 plundered antiquities valuing an estimated total of $70 million and imposing the first-of-its-kind lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities ever handed down to a collector. But this investigation is important for the history books not only for that reason but also because the case underscores and exemplifies the successes prosecutors can have when a) focusing almost exclusively on art and antiquities cases, b) working collaboratively with other law enforcement agencies and c) exercising the willingness to work with a group of forensic researchers who specialise in looted and stolen antiquities from specific regions or cultures. 

Handover Ceremony in Manhattan

Through the collaborative work of the DA's team, with the coordinated help of Special Agents Robert Mancene, Robert Fromkin, and John Labatt of Homeland Security Investigations, in this one case alone, the DA's office successfully identified 169 of the 180 seized antiquities as having been trafficked by a total of 12 different criminal smuggling networks.  The remaining eleven forfeited antiquities, including this one, first appeared on the international art market in the hands of dealers more concerned with the artefact's sales value than with closely examining the provenance of objects that come from countries plagued by civil unrest, war, and/or rampant looting. 


Artefact #3
Cyrene Deity Head - Belzic Dt.22*

While the exact dates of when the 3rd to 2nd century BCE, Belzic Dt.22, was looted from Cyrene is unknown, it is believed that this sculpture may have been stolen in the 1980s and then smuggled into Egypt by antiquities traffickers.  Investigators in New York have proven that it was eventually shipped onward to the United States, where it appeared on the US ancient art market in 1997.  According to investigators, the artefact demonstrated the “telltale signs of looting such as earth on the surface and new chips at the base and in the veil.”

By 1998, and now referred to as the Veiled Head of a Lady, and head had been valued at nearly half a million dollars and was placed on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by an anonymous donor, where it was catalogued simply as a Greek Hellenistic funerary head and mislabelled as being from the 4th century BCE. 

The veiled head remained on display at the Met for more than twenty years.  After being identified as having come from Cyrene, the sculpture was seized during an investigation conducted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's team, lead by Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit and Senior Trial Counsel Matthew Bogdanos, along with Supervising Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer and Investigative Analysts Alyssa Thiel and Daniel Healey in February 2022.  Note that the Met and DANY have declined to identify the lender at this time, given the sensitivity of ongoing investigations.

Prior to its formal transfer back home to Libya, the Veiled Head of a Female was handed over to the Libyan authorities on 30 March 2022 along with Artefact 4 during a repatriation ceremony attended by the Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of Libya in DC Khaled Daief, and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Acting Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Mike Alfonso.

Artefact #4

Cyrene Portrait Head - Belzic P.97*

After being smuggled from Libya to Geneva, Switzerland, Morgan Belzic first identified this 2nd century CE marble Cyrenaican Funerary portrait of a bearded man on the ancient art market in November 2018.  When documented, it was being offered for an estimated sales price of $19,000.  

Originally placed in a tomb rich with small niches, there are more than 250 Cyrene portraits of this category recorded by scholars studying the ancient remains of Libya.  The iconographic styling of this type of portrait head is so unique to Cyrenaican funerary imagery that this category of sculpture is referred to in scientific literature as a ‘Romano-Libyan’ portrait. 

The marble head of a man was next offered for sale two years later, in June of 2020, this time in Manhattan and with an asking price of $25,000 - $35,000.  But it is the third sale which turns out to be the charm, resulting in the fastest seizure to restitution of an artefact in history.  

Belzic P-97 was spotted for the third time on 28 March 2022, this time by art historian Camille Blancher, just shy of its next intended sale date through another USA antiquities dealer.  Through the responsive and collaborative efforts of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's antiquities unit, working in close coordination with Special Agents Robert Mancene and Robert Fromkin of Homeland Security Investigations the bearded head of a man was seized on Tuesday, March 29th, back in the Manhattan DA's office where it was handed over to the Libyan authorities on Wednesday, March 30th, along with Artefact 3 during a repatriation ceremony attended by the Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of Libya in DC Khaled Daief, and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Acting Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Mike Alfonso.

Support for this case came from members of a coalition of archaeological missions working in Libya under the coordination of the French Archaeological Mission as well as from ARCA, all of whom are deeply committed in assisting Libyan institutions and authorities in enforcing the protection of cultural heritage in Libya and who voiced their collective concerns to the DANY regarding the artefact's potential sale. 

To put a nice bow on this story, all four marble funerary sculptures, along with a small grouping of terracotta urns and fragments, were flown via private jet, paid for by a philanthropist, to Mitiga International Airport in Libya.  Arriving to Tripoli on Thursday, April 1st, the repatriation of these antiquities is a “peace dividend” as described by Director-General of the United Nations Regional Institute for Crime and Justice Research (UNICRI) Antonia Marie de Meo, who led a delegation to Libya alongside James Shaw, Chief of that agency's Asset Recovery and Illicit Financial Flows programme.  Also on board was forensic archaeologist Morgan Belzic, who more than anyone, truly understood the efforts, coordination and cooperation, these four recoveries required. 

The handover ceremony took place at the Museum of Libya inside the former royal palace of Qasr al-Khild in Tripoli. Like other museums in Libya, it has remained closed to the public since the 2011 Libyan uprising.  Speeches at the event included statements made by Omar Kati, Deputy Minister for International Cooperation and Organizations Affairs, Libyan government antiquities chief Muhammad Faraj al-Falous, the envoy for Libya in the United States, representatives from the Libyan Ministry of the Interior and LARMO. Many of whom present for the celebration expressed gratitude for the efforts made by the US law enforcement and public prosecutors in bringing Libya's heritage home. 

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland personally thanked the staff at the Manhattan DA's office and HSI- ICE.  

The spectacular ruins of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene have, for better or worse, survived Libya's 2011 revolution.  Looking at these beautiful artefacts and admiring the Met recovered piece in particular, I feel compelled to admire the learned skill that฀went into the creation of this veiled woman. For all our modern capabilities, I doubt we could turn such solid stone into the modesty of a semi transparent fold of material in quite the way that this unknown ancient Cyrene artisan did.  

Filled฀with admiration, but also a healthy does of cynicism, I understand that Libya's loses don't stop with the return of one woman behind one transparent veil to the place she was formed.  The rape of historic Cyrene for profit has and likely will continue, and there are other veiled faces of other victims still out there.  

Some of the forensic archaeologists involved in this fight were already back at work on Saturday, prepared to help law enforcement authorities in any way they can to bring Libya's sculptures back to a country that has already lost so much. 

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO

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Addendum:

In July 2016 UNESCO placed all five of Libya's World Heritage sites on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list.  Equally concerned, and in response to a long history of threats, the United States and Libya signed its 17th cultural property agreement with Libya on 23 February 2018 to solidify the two countries' joint collaboration in combatting the looting and trafficking of cultural objects originating from the plagued North African country.  

Signed by Irwin Stephen Goldstein for the United States and by Lutfi Almughrabi, Libyan Under Secretary for Political Affairs, this agreement formalised a collaboration to protect Libya heritage for a period of five (5) years. And while this agreement was opposed by many in the antiquities trade, the restitutions discussed in this article demonstrate repeatedly that poverty, civil unrest and war create the perfect storm for the trafficking of illicit antiquities.

* Image Credit French Archaeological Mission to Libya