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December 31, 2022

ARCA looks back on art and crime in the year 2022

Debris covering stairs inside the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre following a March 16, 2022, bombing in Mariupol, Ukraine.
Image Credit AP - Alexei Alexandrov

As the year comes to a close, it's time to highlight (some) of the losses, and a few of the successes from the year 2022 before we look ahead to what 2023 will bring.  

In 2022 we witnessed Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, taking thousands of lives and creating a tragic humanitarian crisis.  One symbol of both heritage and human loss was the airstrike upon the historic Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol, a cultural landmark where hundreds of people had been sheltering as a result of the city's siege.  The theatre strike serves as painful testimony to the cost of war and the painfully permanent scale of destruction to the Ukrainian port city and ints inhabitants, as Russia's primary target in Ukraine's southeastern region of Donbas.  

Evidence collected by the AP estimates that as many as 600 civilians may have died as a result of the theatre's March 16th double airstrike, which placed this cultural institution directly in the crosshairs of the conflict.  This despite the centre's obvious civilian character and the fact that the displaced individuals who sought refuge there had plainly marked the pavement, in front of each entrance to the structure, with the word дети (children), written in Cyrillic and could be seen cooking daily meals outside.  

Five days later and just a few blocks away, Russia's bombardment also heavily damaged the Kuindzhi Art Museum, dedicated to the life and work of local realist painter Arkhip Kuindzhi.  Kuindzhi’s works were not in the museum at that time,  however, the fate of other artworks in the museum remains difficult to ascertain. 

It total UNESCO has documented 64 damaged or destroyed sites of historical and/or artistic interest in the Donetsk Region alone

Elsewhere in the Ukraine, some 400 kilometres away, artworks from the Kherson Fine Arts Museum's collection were stolen between October 30 and November 3 just prior to Russia's forced withdrawal from the city. Photos shared later on Facebook showed dozens of paintings from the plundered museum stacked along a wall inside the  Tsentral'nyy Muzey Tavridy, the Crimean history museum in Simferopol, Crimea. 

As of December 23rd, throughout Ukraine, again according to UNESCO, the agency has verified damage at 102 religious sites, 18 museums, 81 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 19 monuments, and 11 libraries.

Outside Ukraine, two themes for 2022 are museums, and those in charge of them, behaving badly, and crime doesn't pay. 

In the US, investigators from the New York District Attorney's Office in Manhattan, issued three separate search warrants on the Metropolitan Museum of Art which resulted in the seizure and return of 27 antiquities to their countries of origin—21 to Italy and 6 to Egypt.  

On the West Coast, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles saw its hand forced by the same East Coast prosecutor, following an ongoing criminal investigation by DANY.  That investigation resulted in the California museum relinquishing, post-seizure, its looted group of life-size terracotta figures known as Orpheus and the Sirens back to Italy. 

Things were no quieter for museums over in Europe and the Middle East, where over the summer, France saw its former director of the Musée du Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez and archaeologist-curator Jean-Francois Charnier formally charged for “complicity“ in having facilitated $50 million in acquisitions of illicit material by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, connected to investigations of suspect antiquities dealers Roben Dib (currently in French custody) and Germany-based dealer Serop Simonian.

As legal investigations usually take several years to unfold in France, Martinez and Charnier have been released under judicial supervision while a ruling of the examining chamber is expected in the new year, which some say, may see these preliminary charges dropped.

Dealers who behaved badly include Inigo Philbrick who received an 84 month prison sentence in May in connection with a multi-year scheme to defraud various collectors and business entities in order to finance his art business.

Eighty year old Raffaele Monticelli, a man considered by various Italian prosecutors to be one of the biggest middle-tier traffickers of archaeological finds in Europe, died in October.  Still active in smuggling illicit material out of Italy, he had only recently returned home to Taranto following the conclusion of a short prison sentence involving a looted helmet in circulation in the Netherlands. 

Also in the Netherlands, the Dutch appeals court confirmed the 8 year prison sentence in July for 59 year old Nils Menara, a professional burglar known on the street as 'Gauwtje' for his role in the thefts of two paintings, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884), by Vincent van Gogh, and Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer by Frans Hals.  The two paintings, worth $20 million are still missing. 

In France, the 33rd criminal chamber of the Paris Judicial Tribunal held a decision in October in a case where Egypt requested the restitution of Egyptian antiquities within a criminal proceeding against Didier Wormser, who was accused of dealing stolen cultural property from the Saqqara necropolis. The director of the Star of Ishtar gallery, was given a three-year suspended prison sentence. 

In India, November saw disgraced antiques dealer Subhash Kapoor convicted of burglary and the illegal export of 19 antique idols during his first completed trial to date, held in the town of Kumbakonam in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.   With more court cases to follow, Kapoor was handed a 10-Year jail sentence for this first conviction.  The judge also imposed sentences on Kapoor's accomplices: Sanjivi Asokan, Marichamy, Packiya Kumar, Sri Ram alias Ulagu and Parthiban. 

In happier news, the last month of the 2022, marked the month where German police successfully recovered 31 of the priceless 18th-century jewellery pieces stolen from  the Royal Palace that houses the historic Green Vault (Gruenes Gewoelbe) in Dresden in 2019.   

Let's hope 2023 is a year of recoveries, more successful prosecutions and an end to conflicts. 

December 17, 2022

Recovered: (Some) of the Jewels Stolen in the November 25, 2019 Green Vault Burglary at Dresden's Residenzschloss.

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 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.  

Despite having torching the motor vehicle used in the getaway to any destroy evidence they may have theft behind in its interior, 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 which eventually resulted in the arrest of several members of the Remmo clan, one of the grandfamilies of Lebanese-Kurdish descent who immigrated to Germany during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. 

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. 

Today, during a press conference held by the Ministry of the Interior of Saxony, jointly with the Dresden Public Prosecutor's Office and Police, German officials announced that between December 16th and 17th, the Dresden public prosecutor, Soko Epaulette and the LKA Sachsen seized 31 of the stolen Green Vault jewels in Berlin  Several of the pieces appeared to be complete including the hat decoration (heron tail) and the breast star of the Polish Order of the White Eagle from the diamond set. 

The items recovered will now go before specialists from the Dresden State Art Collections to ensure their authenticity and completeness.  The epaulette with the "Saxon White" that was damaged during the theft and the large breast bow of Queen Amalie Auguste remain missing.

On September 2, 2021, six members of the Remmo family were formally indicted in Dresden for 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.

Wissam Remmo, Rabih Remmo, and Bashir Remmo, were arrested in 2020.  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. 

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

German authorities have stated that the jewellery was recovered following ongoing negotiations with defence counsel for members of the Remmo clan. While information pertaining to what plea deal, if any, has been agreed upon regarding the charges faced by the six defendants, a followup hearing  is scheduled for Tuesday, December 20th, 2022. 

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.