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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.