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September 7, 2022

5+1+9+1= 16 plundered Egyptian artefacts restituted to their rightful owners in New York

Six of these pieces were seized while on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  And like the restitutions returned to Italy yesterday, these pieces have likewise been linked to extensive criminal investigations into international antiquities-trafficking networks which have impacted multiple museum collections. Though in this case, the Egyptian artefats were handled by contemporary traffickers and looters, those whose networks have resulted in high level arrests in both France and Germany.  

Five of these antiquities, worth more than $3 million in total, were confiscated from the Metropolitan under a May 19 court order as having been looted from archaeological sites in Egypt, then eventually smuggled through Germany or the Netherlands before moving on to France.  These were sold by traffickers through the Paris-based Pierre Bergé & Associés to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  

It should be noted that information gathered in this investigation has also resulted in the arrest of nine individuals in France including most strikingly, Jean-Luc Martinez, the former Chairman and CEO of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. 

The six artefacts from the Met's collection that were seized and are now going home are:

1 of 6 - A Monumental Stela of Kemes, ca. 1750–1720 BCE

Before the Met took down its accession page for this artefact, the provenance listed for this stela as listed in 2019 stated the following:

Purchased February 1969 by Uwe Schnell, Germany, from Heinz Herzer Gallery in Munich. Purchased in the 1970s by a private collector (probably Serop Simonian, Hamburg, Germany). Published fully in 1994, exhibited in Bonn University Art Museum 2006 through at least 2008 and published in the catalog. Acquired by the Museum at auction Pierre Bergé, 2014.

A check of open source records using the names Ewe Schnell, Heinz Herzer and Pierre Bergé & Associés combined only turns up one other antiquity, a Fayum panel painting of a woman in a blue mantle, which was also acquired by the Metropolitan Museum and one we will speak about later in this article.

Heinz Herzer, as many followers of ARCA's blog know, has his own interesting history in dealing with ancient objects with fabricated provenance.

Serop Simonian is an art dealer of Armenian origin at the fulcrum of the Met's gold-sheathed mummiform coffin of Nedjemankh restitution case as well as other pieces already seized and returned by the DANY or identified in other jurisdictions. His name comes up repeatedly in relation to suspect artefacts identified during police, and public prosecutor investigations, as well as academic forensic research.  Simonian has also been tied to numerous suspect acquisitions approved for purchase at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and is quite famous for having stirred up quite a bit of controversy in Italy regarding the sale of the disputed Artemidorus papyrus in 2004 for €2.75 million to the Compagnia San Paolo Art Foundation.  

But back to the Stela of Kemes.  On April 25, 2016, the Metropolitan's accession page for this Egyptian artefact stated the provenance quite differently.  Listing its collecting history as:

Believed to have been in the Todrous Collection, Luxor. Purchased February 1969 by Uwe Schnell, Germany, from Heinz Herzer Gallery in Munich. Purchased in the 1970s by the owner of the Tamerit Collection, Germany. Acquired by the Museum at auction Pierre Bergé, 2014.

This earlier collection history mentions a "Todrous Collection" of which there is nothing documented in open source records anywhere on the web for any other ancient objects.  A late antique textile fragment of a tunic with the inventory number T 34, from "the Tamerit collection" is on record at the at the Papyrussammlung der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek at the Austrian National Library, though not much else.

Note that this Met record spells the collection's name Todrous, while the recently restituted golden coffin spelled the name Tawadrus, and trade journals have spelled the name Tawadros.  Later in this article you will also see the name spelled Tadross. All refer to the deceased Luxor dealer Habib Tawadros.

Christophe Kunicki's own website listed the provenance for this stela as:

Ancient european private collection, 1969.
With Tadross, Luxor, 1960’s

But stepping back even farther, outside of the Met Museum's and the seller's respective websites, the Monumental Stela of Kemes was published in the 2014 Volume 25 Number 5 issue of the journal Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology.

This trade magazine listed the provenance for the stela as:

A rare Egyptian limestone chapel-stele of Kemes, superior of musicians (3), from the 13th Dynasty, circa 1770 BC (H. 73cm), in the form of a quadrangular naos resting upon a base carved with façades, was purchased from the Luxor dealer Tawadros during the 1960s. The cover-piece of the sale, it was estimated at €300,000-€400,000, but brought in a hammer price of just €200,00 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The expert for both sales was Christophe Kunicki.

Screen Shot: Volume 25 Number 5, Page 53
Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology

It is important to recognise that the involvement of the French dealer Christophe Kunicki via Pierre Bergé & Associés does not appear in any of the Metropolitan Museum's provenance records for the 13th Dynasty Egyptian limestone chapel-stele of Kemes, despite what this trade journal says and despite the Met's curators in the Egypt department having direct and frequent contact with him as he brokered pieces to the museum directly.

Purchased on 21 May 2014, the Met's record also left out the "Luxor dealer Tawadros" connection on this object.  That name, if you will recall, is also the name associated on the  now restituted 1st century B.C.E mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh.

Painted Fayum panel portraits of Egypt are among the few preserved examples of ancient Greek-style paintings on panel and canvas.  Prior to its seizure, this one was on view at The Met's Gallery 137.  The woman in the blue mantle was purchased in 2013 via Pierre Bergé auction house in Paris, with Christophe Kunicki, working as expert. 

When the Metropolitan's accession page was still live, the museum first listed its provenance as:

Purchased 1968 by Uwe Schnell from Heinz Herzer Gallery, Munich. Purchased 1972 by the owner of the Tamerit Collection. Purchased by the Museum from Pierre Bergé & Associés, Paris, 2013.

This was later changed to:

Purchased 1968 by Uwe Schnell from Heinz Herzer Gallery, Munich. Purchased 1972 by Serop Simonian, Hamburg Germany, who owned it until 2013. Published 1997 and 2003, exhibited in Frankfurt in 1999 and Vienna in 2003 and published in exhibition catalogs. Consigned to Pierre Bergé & Associés by a private collector; purchased by the Museum from Pierre Bergé at auction, Paris, 2013.

In trade catalogues for this artefact Kunicki listed only “a European collection“ as the Fayum portrait's sole provenance. 

3 of 6 - Stela Dedicated to the Goddess Hathor by the Temple Singer in the Interior of Amun

Prior to its seizure, this Third Intermediate Period (Kushite) to Late Period stela was on view at The Met's Gallery 137.  This Egyptian artefact was purchased in December 
2015 (accessioned in 2016) via Pierre Bergé auction house in Paris, with Christophe Kunicki, working as expert. 

Just before the Met took down this object's accession page, the museum listed the stela's provenance as:

In the Khashaba Collection, Assyut, by 1910. Permission granted to heirs to export through the Egyptian Museum Cairo for sale abroad by 1969. Exported abroad with license in 1972. Purchased by Adolf Smith (Schmidt), Germany, 1975, and descended in the family. Collection of Serop Simonian, Hamburg, Germany, 2015. Consigned to Pierre Berge & Associates by a private collector; auctioned at Pierre Bergé, Paris, December 2015, where it was purchased by the Museum. 

The 2015 Pierre Berge catalogue listed the provenance as:

Ancienne collection Sayed Pasha Khashaba, années 1910. Ancienne collection Smith, Allemagne, 1975.
Collection européenne.

Between 1910 and 1914, Sayed Bey Khashaba, AKA Sayed Pasha Khashaba, AKA Saiyid Khashaba Pasha, with other various subtle misspellings obtained from the Antiquities Service concessions to excavate at Assiut, Meir, Deir el-Gabrawi, Tihna and at Soknopaiou Nesos, in the Fayum.  I will leave whether or not this steal came from any of these places to the Egyptologists. 

4 of 6 - A face from a painted wooden Egyptian coffin

Before being sundered in two, this Egyptian face once belonged to an anthropoid wood coffin decorated with plaster and then delicately painted in polychromy.  

This artefact was purchased by the Metropolitan during the same December 2015 sale as the previous stela, (accessioned in 2016) via Pierre Bergé auction house in Paris, with Christophe Kunicki, working as expert. 

Just before the Met took down this object's accession page, the museum listed the stela's provenance as:

Collection of Robert Boyd, originally from Scotland and living in Indonesia, from about 1890, possibly acquired through Eugene Dubois. Brought to the Netherlands by Boyd's descendants about 1950. Sold in 1968 by Galerie - 2000 annex Curiosa, Rotterdam, to Mr. Jan Veneman, Oegstgeest, the Netherlands. Subsequently sold again on the art market in The Netherlands. Placed by a Dutch dealer at auction, Pierre Bergé & Associés, Paris, December 16, 2015, where it was purchased by the Museum.

5 of 6 - Exodus Painting, five elements from a painted hanging depicting the Crossing of the Red Sea

The first appearance of the Exodus Painting in five fragments, depicting the Crossing of the Red Sea, occured in a 1998 publication, Alexandria: Die erste Königsstadt der hellenistischen Welt : Bilder aus der Nilmetropole von Alexander dem Grossen bis Kleopatra VII, written by Günter Grimm.   Grimm, who died 17 September 2010, is the same egyptologist who had a working relationship with Serop Simonian regarding the authentication of the suspect “Artemidorus” and other papyri while at the Archaeologisches Institut at the  Universität Trier.

Head of the University Institute in the mid-1980s, Grimm opened a small Late Period gallery in the Institute with objects from Serop Simonian’s stock.

On 26 November 2013 these five fragments came up for auction at Hôtel Drouot via Pierre Bergé & Associés with Christophe Kunicki listed as expert. At that Paris sale, Simonian's footprint was omitted and the only provenance given was: 

6 of 6 - An 8th century BCE Egyptian bronze statuette of a Kneeling Ruler or Priest

This sixth Egyptian artefact was seized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year when linked to 81-year-old fugitive Georges Lotfi who split his time between New York,  Paris and Tripli, Lebanon. Lotfi was charged by the New York authorities in August 2022 with criminal possession of stolen property and remains at large.   

Before its seizure in February 2022, 2006, Lotfi sold the small bronze statue to the Metropolitan with a provenance history which read:

Ex Collection Joseph Shitrit, Israel, from the 1960s. Purchased from him by Biblical Antiquities, Jerusalem, Israel, 2005. Purchased by the Museum from Georges Lotfi, Tripoli and Paris, 2006.

In actuality the Egyptian antiquity had passed first through the hands of a source country looter in 2005, then on to a part-time looter/part-time dealer in Israel named Gil Chaya, a formerly licensed antiquities dealer from Jerusalem and the purported nephew of Shlomo Moussaieff. 

In 2011, as if to brag that pieces he handled had made it into a prestigious gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chaya published a series of photos showing the bronze in his home, both before and after its restoration, posting a comment with the photo which read, "2 days after i clean it it was already in the amarna room at the MET."  This solidifies without a doubt that the provenance for this piece,as having come from the collection of Joseph Shitrit in the 1960s, is pure fabrication. 

Nine of the other Egyptian artefacts restituted in New York today are detailed in the Michael Steinhardt (Statement of Facts) document and are as follows:

1 of 9 - Vase from the Pan-Athenian Games

2 of 9 - Tel El-Yahudiyeh Beer Strainer


3 of 9 - Statue of a Winged Human;

4 of 9 - A carved piece of ivory depicting 12 highly-engaged figures on musical instruments

5,6,7,8,& 9 of 9 - A set of five gold and silver ornaments and plaques;

In 2017 the New York District Attorney initiated a criminal investigation into Michael Steinhardt’s acquisition, possession, and sale of antiquities.  That office's "Statement of Facts" document is the evidentiary basis for the conclusion that 180 antiquities possessed by Steinhardt constituted stolen property under New York law. 

The final object in today's restitution is a Ptolemaic gold coin.

This ancient coin was recovered as part of an ongoing investigation, which for now remains under the discretion of the prosecutor's office. 

In closing I would like to say that due diligence of looted antiquities, especially those that could be from conflict-based, or post-conflict source countries, must be meaningful and not simply and superficially plausible, in the furtherance of a purchase.  This holds true for lofty universal museums, as well as private buyers.  

Partially-documented histories in an object's collection background, do not necessarily always point to fresh loot or illegal export, but when an antiquity's background looks murky, as was obviously the case with several of these artefacts, museums and wealthy collectors need to step up their game, so they no longer perpetuate and incentivise plunder.  

Likewise, museums like the Metropolitan should not remove their accession pages, no matter how embarrassing they find them.  They should leave them up with notations that these pieces have gone home and who handled them. In doing so, they allow researchers and collectors to be more aware of the problem actors circulating material from past sales.  This also saves folks like me from having to store things away that only a few people can access. 

To conclude, ARCA would like to thank DA Bragg, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit; Assistant District Attorneys James Edwards-Lebair and Taylor Holland, Supervising Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer, Investigative Analysts Giuditta Giardini, Alyssa Thiel, Daniel Healey, and Hilary Chassé; who alongside Special Agents John Paul Labbat and Robert Mancene of Homeland Security Investigations for the work put into these investigations.  

We would also like to thank Stephane Blumel, Major de Gendarmerie, of France’s Office central de lutte contre le trafic des biens culturels (OCBC) and Silvelie Karfeld and Nicole Pogantke of the Arts and Antiquities Crimes Unit of Germany’s Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) Kunst und Kulturgutkriminalität for their forensic investigative support in other jurisdictions.  Working collaboratively, we now know more about when, and where, and with whom, some of these recovered artefacts have circulated. 

By Lynda Albertson