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February 23, 2023

77 looted artefacts to the Republic of Yemen and a well known Brooklyn dealer

On February 21, 2023 the United States restituted 77 looted artefacts to the Republic of Yemen via its Embassy in Washington DC.  This marks the first time in nineteen years that the US has restituted material to that country, the last being a single funerary stela in 2004.  

This week's handover included 11 ancient Quranic manuscripts and 64 South Arabian stelae, many carved in relief, depicting male faces with oval eye-sockets (originally containing inlays) and eyebrows in low relief, some of which have Sabaean or Qatabian inscriptions dating them to c.4th-1st century BCE.  

Participating in the ceremonial handover were Yemeni Ambassador Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, Steve Francis, Acting Executive Associate Director, HSI at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Department of State, and representatives from the Smithsonian Institution. 

The roots of this handover date back to an investigation started a decade ago. 

In May 2011, a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of New York issued a sealed multiple-count indictment charging four individuals as having together with others, engaged in a scheme to smuggle illicit cultural property into the United States. 

The four charged in U.S. v. Khouli et al. CR.11-340, (E.D.N.Y) were: 

• Brooklyn-based antiquities dealer Mousa Khouli (aka Morris Khouli) of Windsor Antiquities, 
• Then-Michigan-based coin dealer Salem Alshdaifat of Holyland Numismatics, 
• UAE-based dealer Ayman Ramadan of Nefertiti Eastern Sculptures Trading, and,
• a collector, Joseph A. Lewis, II, president and CEO of Pharma Management Corp. 

According to the indictment, between October 2008 and November 2009 Khouli had arranged for the purchase and smuggling of a series of Egyptian antiquities into the United States from Dubai, specifically a set of Egyptian funerary boats, a Greco-Roman style Egyptian coffin, a three-part nesting coffin that once contained an ancient Egyptian named Shesepamuntayesher, and some Egyptian limestone figurines.

All of the aforementioned Egyptian artefacts mentioned in this article were recovered during a joint investigation conducted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  Some of the artefacts had been seized at the Port of Newark, New Jersey, the garage of Khouli's Brooklyn, New York, residence, his New York gallery, and during the search of co-defendant Joseph A. Lewis II’s residence. 

During the Egyptian materials investigation, agents also found artefacts from other countries whose correspondence and invoices also contained inconsistencies or irregularities.  This resulted in a separate civil complaint, filed on July 13, 2011, seeking forfeiture of not only the Egyptian material, but Iraqi artefacts, cash, and the artefacts we have seen returned to the Republic of Yemen this week. 

On 18 April 2012, Khouli pled guilty to the charges of smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the United States, and making a false statement to law enforcement authorities.  As part of his guilty plea, Khouli also entered into a stipulation of settlement, resolving a civil complaint seeking forfeiture of the Egyptian antiquities, Iraqi artefacts, cash and other pieces of cultural property seized in connection with the government’s investigation.  

On November 20, 2012 Khouli was sentenced to six months home confinement, with up to 200 hours of community service, plus one year of probation and a $200 fine.  

Due to the ongoing eight-year conflict between the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) and the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency, by agreement, these artefacts will remain in the United States, housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, for the next two years, but will eventually be returned home. 

Mousa Khouli is a dealer ARCA has written about on this blog in the past.  He continues to do business in New York, though now under the business name of Palmyra Heritage Gallery.  In 2016, we wrote about another suspect artefact handled by this Brooklyn dealer, a c. 3rd-5th century CE Palmyrene funerary head of a woman.  Despite being Syrian in origin, it was sold with questionable Israeli paperwork and remains in circulation. 

February 21, 2023

Tuesday, February 21, 2023 - ,, No comments

Penelope Jackson The Art of Copying Art

Author: Penelope Jackson
Title:  The Art of Copying Art 
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland, 2022

Penelope Jackson has done it again with The Art of Copying Art. This is a hard book to put down.  She makes a strong case for the better appreciation of copies. She points out that copies tell their own stories, and add to our appreciation of the rich complexity and knowledge of art.  

Her style of writing is appealing to non-art aficionados.  She clearly states propositions and then relentlessly pursues the subject, presenting detailed evidence, allowing the material to speak for itself. Consequently, the reader has time to reflect on the permutations, and make up their mind.  Typical of Jackson’s writing, she extensively footnotes her material, creating a rich resource for further investigation. Where questions remain, she frankly admits to this. 

Jackson has a knack for choosing art related subjects that are little considered, bringing out fresh reflections and new perspectives.  This is her third, general art “themed” book. The first, Art Thieves, Fakers and Fraudsters the New Zealand Story (Awa Press, 2016) was something of a trailblazer. She revealed largely unknown (even to New Zealanders) accounts of New Zealand art theft, reflective of international stories and trends. Her second book Females in the Frame Women, Art, and Crime (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) looked at the role of female actors in art crime, focusing on their often different intentions from male perpetrators. To my knowledge, this topic had not previously been explored.  Indeed, I am aware that it has opened up fresh perspectives for study of female criminological behaviour.

How then, does her latest book add to this field? The Art of Copying Art again, is written for general consumption. Divided into nine chapters, each one is thematic. Chapter 1, “A Case for Copies”, makes the argument for studying copies.  The following chapters then develop themes. Chapter 2 “Apprentice Artists”; chapter 3 “Copies for the Colonies”; chapter 4 “Paintings-Within-Paintings”; chapter 5 “Education and Entertainment”; chapter 6 “Copies in Public Collections”; chapter 7 “Protecting the Past”; chapter 8 “Cash for Copies”; and then a summation in the last chapter, “Afterword: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff”. The substantive part of the book is some 220 pages and amply illustrated. 

Originals and copies of Adele Younghusband’s Floral Still Life (1958 and 2016) and
Ida H Carey’s Interior (1946 and 2016)
in ‘An Empty Frame: Art Crime in New Zealand’ exhibition (2016–7).
Image Credit: Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

We tend to forget, that prior to photography, scanning, and photocopies, the only way art could be known was through copies. Throughout history, many artists have only had access to signature artworks this way, lacking the visceral advantage of being exposed to the “real thing” in terms of context, quality, and scale. Thus, subsequent developments in art have been sometimes been affected by access to only inferior, or incomplete copies of signature works.  I found chapter 3 particularly instructive.  It explores the role played copies of artworks in the colonies, in terms of educating localised population to key works of art. Obviously some copies were better than others, and this led to the various developments discussed in the book. Chapter 4 is equally thought provoking.  It discusses the extent to which lost masterpieces are only now known through copies, sometimes by being referenced in other artists’ paintings. A rich resource for art historians looking to scope, study, locate, and better appreciate those lost works!

Front and Verso of William Dargie's The Wattle Portrait (1954).
Collection of National Museum of Australia, Canberra
Image Credit: National Museum of Australia, Canberra

Jackson makes the point that our current fixation with autograph, unique works, is a modern phenomenon (chapter 9). Painters sometimes operated workshops, reproducing their signature works for further distribution to collectors. Such copies were prized, often as equals to autograph works. It is only in more recent times that our mania for unique expression, and proved authenticity, has made copies seem somehow uninteresting, and second rate. Jackson points out even though this view prevails, the retention of copies remains important. What is a fake, forgery, or a mere copy, often rests on expert opinion. Whilst an institutional collector may recategorise a collected work as a copy, further study and science can reverse this judgment. Also, as Jackson argues that fakes and frauds also have a legitimate place. They remain a source of fascination and are necessary for historical context. An illustration of this this are van Meegeren’s fake Vermeers, that are now collectable in their own right  Thus the destruction of fakes and forgeries (as presently dictated by the French State) comes at a cost.  It not only risks destroying unproven authentic works, but damages our sense of art history. This is perhaps a point that requires more emphasis when we ponder on policing art crime.

It is a strength of this book that the content suggests further fields for consideration. With our present preoccupation fixation with authenticity, we tend to forget that masters’ copies of earlier artists’ masterpieces were often more valued (and valuable) than the historic original.  This was under the belief that the later copy enabled the “genius” inherent in the earlier work to be further developed and interpreted. Especially, when it came to issues of developing original concept, or designo (entails fidelity to an original concept). Think Rubens’ copies of Titian, and (perhaps) Van Gogh’s copies of Delacroix and Millet.  I would have welcomed such a more in depth discussion surrounding this issue. However, this is not a criticism.  As Jackson herself would no doubt point out, she has had to contain her subject matter to some 220 pages.  

I would strongly recommend this book for those interested in art, as well as those with a general interest in cultural history. The work is equally, if not more important, than her Females in the Frame.  It makes a robust argument for the better appreciation of copies as a field of study, collection, and educated enjoyment. 

Book Review by:

Rod Thomas
Associate Professor, Auckland University of Technology 

February 13, 2023

Burglars strike the Princessehof Ceramics Museum in Leeuwarden

According to the Dutch Politie, in today's early morning hours, around 3:45 am an alarm sounded which alerted them that, a burglar or burglars robbed the The Princessehof Ceramics Museum in the city of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands.

This is the second of two attempted break-ins in 2023, the first being unsuccessful, two weeks ago, on February 1 before 6 am. 

The perpetrator or perpetrators is today's theft are believed to have accessed the galleries inside the museum after entering via the roof of the building.

The Princessehof Ceramics Museum is known for its extraordinary ceramics, with objects representative of European, Middle Eastern and Asian ceramics making up parts of the collection. 

According to the museum a total of eleven objects from a Chinese ceramics installation were stolen during the burglary, seven of which were destroyed with abandoned or droped during the escape.  Dutch news sites are reporting that the  abandoned material, presumed to have been removed from the museum, was found in the Doelestraat, close to the museum. 

This is not the first incident of Chinese material being brazenly stolen from museums across Europe and the UK. The first recorded incident in a spate of thefts occurred in Stockholm at the Chinese Pavilion on the grounds of Drottningholm Palace in 2010.  Despite police arriving on the scene in just 14 minutes, thieves still managed a quick smash and grab, escaping with Chinese imperial seals and vases.   

Next, that same year, thieves hit in Bergen, Norway, where, like in today's theft, the burglars entered the building from the roof, with the intruders rappelling down from a glass ceiling into the KODE Museum.  In that theft, the burglars made off with 56 objects from the museum's China Collection. 

Crossing over the pond, another incident occurred at the Oriental Museum at Durham University, in 2012 when an 18th-century jade bowl and a Dehua porcelain figurine, worth an estimated £2m were stolen in a well-planned heist that investigators believe to have been a theft to order.   That same month burglars struck again, stealing a dozen objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum worth an estimated £15m, including artefacts from the Ming and Qing dynasties, a jade 16th century carved buffalo, a carved horse from the 17th century, a green and brown jade carved elephant.

Then the KODE Museum was struck again in 2013, where despite a heightened awareness to the recurring thefts of Chinese material, thieves still managed to grab another 22 objects in porcelain, jade, bronze and paper from the Norwegian museum, adding further insult to injury.  In 2015, this time striking in France, in a lightening raid that lasted just seven minutes,  thieves stole 22 objects from the Chinese Museum that houses works once belonging to Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III at the Château de Fontainebleau.  In that theft, thieves made off with a Chimera in cloisonné enamel, a mandala made of coral, gold, and turquoise, porcelain vases, and other rare items.  In 2018 another 40 Chinese artefacts, including ceramics, jade, and gold pieces, were stolen from the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, in southwest England.

For now, the Princessehof Ceramics Museum in the Netherlands will remain closed until February 21st to allow the police to conduct their investigation.  Eye witnesses or those with camera footage from the area of ​​the Grote Kerkstraat are asked to contact the local law enforcement authorities. 

February 10, 2023

A 2,500-year-old sculpture from the monumental ruins of Chavín de Huantar is returned to the Peruvian ambassador

The site of Chavín de Huantar

What we know about the monumental ruins of Chavín de Huantar, thousands of feet up in the Cordillera Blanca, the Andean highlands of Peru, is spartan.  Here, members of a pre-Inca culture, left us with what archaeologists believe to be a temple complex, consisting of a maze of ruined granite and sandstone structures – or step pyramids, cyclopean walls, and wonderful carved sculptures which date from around 1000 BCE. 

Already mentioned in the sixteenth-century chronicles of Pedro Cieza de León, the site of Chavín de Huantar, is located kilometers north of Lima.  It's unique architecture resulted in it being declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1985.  

Distinct, not only for its massive flat-topped pyramid temple, but also for what archaeologists call its "cabezas clavas," more commonly called temple nail heads.  These front-facing, pumpkin sized heads, were architectural elements, and were usually carved from volcanic tuff and made to resemble zoomorphic faces.   Used as decoration, they were positioned horizontally and equidistant from each other along the temple walls. 

Usually, these nail heads, carved with open eyes, closed mouths, crushed noses, and contracted muscles. When found intact, they also have an elongated stone extension bracket on the back.  This wedge was used to insert the sculptural element, like a nail, into the structure's wall, hence the name they were given.  Many of the Chavín de Huantar nail heads were originally positioned along the south, east, and west façade of the Chavín temple, garnishing the building in a horizontal row and positioned evenly under the temple's carved stone cornices.   

Some 42 nail heads were originally recorded and identified between 1919 and 1941 by Julio C. Tello, America's first indigenous archaeologist.  Most of which were lost in the aftermath of a 1945 flood that covered the archaeological site.  Others have been lost to looters. 

Over time, as many as 100 complete or almost complete nail heads, discovered after 1950, have been found and preserved from the Chavín culture, with almost all of those accounted for coming from official excavations.  These, are now part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Chavín.  Sadly, only a single original nail head remains in situ. 

Yesterday, in a ceremony conducted at the Swiss customs office, Basel/Weil am Rhein-Autobahn, the president of the Office fédéral de la culture (OFC), Carine Bachmann, returned a smuggled nail head to Peru's Ambassador HE Luis Alberto Castro Joo.  According to the OFC, this ancient architectural element, which weighs in at nearly 200 kilograms, was discovered by Swiss customs officials during a routine customs control check conducted in 2016 of a courier transporting the object from Germany into Switzerland.

Suspicious of the statements declared by the freight forwarder, who had tried to introduce the artefact into Switzerland as a "non-cultural good," and therefore not subject to specific heritage laws, employees of the Federal Office for Customs and Border Security - BAZG,  stopped the object's entry to examine it more closely.  Over time, and with the assistance of heritage experts, the Swiss authorities came to the conclusion that the artefact was, in fact, unregistered cultural property and moved for the artefact's seizure in accordance with the Cultural Property Transfer Act.

Shortly thereafter,  during a cantonal criminal proceeding, an order of confiscation was entered by the Basel public prosecutor in 2017.  This in turn allowed the artefact to be eventually restituted to the Government of Peru in the formal ceremony held yesterday.  

February 3, 2023

The Paris Court of Appeal has ruled not to drop the antiquities trafficking indictment against former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez and curator Jean-François Charnier

In the French courts today, the investigative chamber of the Paris Court of Appeal ruled on the request to cancel the indictments against Jean-Luc Martinez and Jean-François Charnier requested by the Advocate General. 

Last summer, the country saw Martinez, its former director of the Musée du Louvre from 2013 to 2021, and the former scientific director of the Agence France Museums charged with "complicity" in money laundering, "by facilitating the false justification of the origin of the property of the author of a crime or an offense".  Charnier, for his part, is suspected of having intentionally favoured the sale of €50 million in acquisitions of illicit material to the Emirati museum, in spite of warnings about their problematic.  

The heart of the accusations has been the costly purchases of several Egyptian artefacts between 2014 and 2018, including:
  • a pink granite stele of Tutankhamun, acquired for 8.5 million euros
  • a bust of Cleopatra, acquired for 35 million euros, 
  • a golden funeral coffin ensemble for Princess Henouttaouy, acquired 5 million euros 
  • a bronze sculpture of Isis
  • a blue earthenware hippopotamus 

The alleged primary brokers and handlers of these artefacts include France-based art broker Christophe Kunicki, Hamburg-based art dealer Roben Dib, and Dib's business partner Serop Simonian, an art dealer of Armenian origin, born in Egypt, who also resides in Germany. 

Suspected of playing a central role in the sale of illegally excavated antiquities, Christophe Kunicki and Richard Semper were taken into custody on June 22, 2020 and charged with with gang fraud and money laundering. Both were released from French custody on June 26, 2020, with judicial supervision orders pending their trial outcome.  

Suspected by US and French authorities of playing a central role in the sale of suspect antiquities to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Roben Dib, a director at Dionysos Ancient Coins & Antiquities was taken into French custody in March 2022, shortly after posting a €600,000 bail in Germany. 

Held in pretrial detention for seven months at the Centre pénitentiaire de Fresnes, Val-de-Marne, south of Paris, Dibs is released from French custody in October 2022 with an order of judicial supervision pending trial, alongside an additional €350,000 French bail condition.  Dibs was rearrested on January 10, 2023, and brought before a judge, who released him the same day with a stern advisory, that if the outstanding balance of his French bail requirement was not paid in full, he would again be subject to pre-trial detention. 

Today, the Investigating Chamber of the Paris Court of Appeal rejected both Martinez and Charnier's defence counsels requests to lift the “mise en examen” (the indictment by the investigating judge in the context of a judicial investigation) and confirmed that both the former president of the Louvre and the former scientific director remain under indictment.  Martinez has been indicted for laundering and complicity in organised fraud.  Charnier has been indicted for laundering by facilitating the false justification of the origin of the property of the author of a crime, or a misdemeanour, and placed under judicial control." 

Through their lawyers, both Martinez and Charnier have indicated they will appeal today's court decision.  Both remain free on judicial supervision while their case proceeds through the French court.

The OCBC's investigation built upon collaborative investigations with the New York County - Manhattan's Antiquities Trafficking Unit, who first unravelled the network of traffickers during their investigation into the illicit trafficking of the ancient gold mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh.  Like in the New York case, the French case centers on artefacts which were laundered by means of falsified documents, in particular false invoices and export licenses.

February 1, 2023

Ukraine very own, "Arsène Lupin" is sentenced to five years in French prison

In 2018 a painting Le Port de La Rochelle by French Neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac was stolen from the Musée de Beaux-Arts in the city of Nancy, in north-east France.  The theft, which took place in broad daylight, involved at least three accomplices, one of whom removed the painting from the wall and then sliced the canvas away from its frame using a box-cutter.  The culprits then rolled the painting up, and walked out of the museum, deftly hiding the stolen painting under a raincoat one of the thieves were wearing.

At the time of the theft, the artwork was estimated to be worth more than one and a half million euros.

Flash forward to April 2019 when Kyiv police raided the home of a suspect allegedly linked to the murder of a jeweller named Serhii Kiselyov, shot dead in his car on March 5, 2019 in Kyiv in a daytime assassination-style killing.

As they searched the residence in the Ukrainian capital, this suspect informed them that there was a valuable painting hidden in a cupboard in the home, advising them to handle it carefully.  The painting turned out to be the stolen 1915 oil painting by Paul Signac.

Interrogated by officers, this suspect implicated Vadym Huzhva, a Ukrainian  collector and sometime art thief from Kharkiv, who at the time was already serving a prison sentence in Austria for art theft.  In that case, Huzhva was one of three well-dressed men in jackets and coats who, working in tandem, waltzed into the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna and stole Golfe, mer, falaises vertes by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in November 2018.  This stolen painting was worth some €120,000 and €160,000 at the time of its consignment. 

At the conclusion of his Austrian prison sentence, Huzhva was extradited to stand trial in France in June 2020, where he was held in pre-trial detention until his court case began on January 30th.  But not just for the stolen Signac artwork, but also the theft of several art works, including a second Renoir, Portrait d'une Jeune Fille Blonde.  This painting was taken on September 30, 2017 from the wall of a gallery in the Parisian auction l'Hôtel des Ventes de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Yvelines) operated by SGL Enchères/F. Laurent de Rummel where the artwork had been on display just prior to its auction.  

CCTV Image captures three thieves in the Dorotheum theft

Meanwhile, Le Port de La Rochelle was restituted by the Ukrainian authorities to the Musée de Beaux-Arts in September 2021. 

By the time Vadym Huzhva finally appeared for trial in France before the Specialized Interregional Court (Jirs) this week, an investigation entrusted to the SRPJ of Nancy and France's Office central de lutte contre le trafic de biens culturels (OCBC) had documented that this Ukrainian "Arsène Lupin" was responsible for a total of at least five thefts in France.  In addition to the Signac, and the second Renoir, Huzhva was also implicated in the thefts of a rare book with 12 gouaches by Russian artists stolen from the Hôtel Drouot auction house, the theft of another painting "Composition with Self-Portrait" by Giorgio De Chirico stolen on November 16, 2017 from the Fabrégat Museum in Béziers, and two stolen artworks by Eugène Boudin and Eugène Gallien-Laloux, taken from the Chateau de Versailles auction house in Versailles in 2018. 

A quick search of Ukrainian news outlets shows that Guzhva has also been implicated other art thefts in his home country, one of which involved a painting  stolen from the Odessa Art Museum on 21 June 2005, which was discovered by police rolled up and sealed in a bag, and stuffed under the seat of his Opel-Astra car in 2006.  And just like in this case, while appearing before the court, the defendant railed angrily against his prosecutors and his charges, claiming he was falsely accused and citing far-fetched conspiracies.  

Yet, despite being held in pretrial custody in Ukraine for several years, the Odessa Museum theft charges failed to stick, despite suspicions that Guzhva that he might be responsible for as many as two dozen museum thefts.

Back in France, prosecutors pointed to the fact that Guzhva's flights into the country coincided with the periods of each of the theft incidences occurred, as did his hotel reservations near each of the intended targets.  CCTV footage also revealed the same, or quite similar, modus operandi, and illustrated that the targets were often quite similar.  Artworks found on his phone, as well as the contact details for accomplices which matched descriptions in CCTV footage, also provided further evidence in the prosecution's favour. 

So, after just two days before the court, Vadym Huzhva was sentenced by the French judge to 5 years in prison.  The court also sentenced two of his known accomplices, tried in absentia, to three years each.  A fourth suspect, a woman, has not been publicly identified.