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November 27, 2023

Marking the return of 12 pieces to Libya recovered from Spanish gallerist Jaume Bagot of J. Bagot Arqueología

Image Credit: Archaeology IN - Libya

Following the order of the Central Court of Investigation number 6 of Madrid on 24 November 2023, it was announced last week that Spain had provisionally delivered a grouping of antiquities including four marble sculptures and eight mosaics, recovered during Operación Harmakis to the Libyan authorities at the country's  embassy in Spain.  

Hardly covered in the English speaking press, the pieces were formally transferred at a ceremony held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Madrid, the pieces were delivered to Mohamed Alfaloos, the general director of Museums and Archeology of Libya, and representatives of the ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs.  Seized during investigations conducted by Spain's law enforcement authorities, each of the artefacts has been earmarked by the Court as having been looted in the North African country, coming from Balagrae (modern day al-Bayda), Apollonia (modern day Marsa-Susa), and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Cyrene (near modern day Shahhat).   They will remain at the Libyan embassy in Madrid, in the custody of the Libyan ambassador to Spain, Walid Abu Abdulla, as per the court's ruling, until the legal case surrounding them has concluded. 

The recovery of these artefacts dates back to late March 2018, when, after three years of investigations involving some fifty law enforcement officers, including the Spanish Policía Nacional, the UDEV Central de la Comisaría General de Policía Judicial and the UCIE de la Comisaría General de Información formal charges were brought against ancient art dealer Jaume Bagot and his partner Oriol Carreras Palomar.  During which, the pair were taken into custody under suspicion for their alleged participation in a crime of financing terrorism, belonging to a criminal organisation, concealment of contraband and use of forgery for their roles in facilitating the sale of illicit antiquities.

During the 2018 Harmakis action, five property searches were conducted, three in Barcelona and two in Argentona, with police inspecting a restoration studio, a deposit/warehouse where the artworks were stored, Bagot's residence and his Barcelona art gallery and the home of Oriol Carreras Palomar.  During the execution of these search warrants, artefacts from multiple countries and circulation documentation were retained by police as evidence in a criminal investigation. 

On March 28th of that same year, the Policía Nacional in Barcelona released a video which depicts part of the searches in which some of the objects sequestered during their investigation can be identified. In this opensource video, some of the mosaics handed over to the Libyan authorities can be seen beginning at 0.38 seconds into the video.  In addition, the marble head of Demeter is depicted from 0.58 until its boxing at 1.11 and the Roman togatus can be seen at 1.19. 

Answering to the charges in Spain, Jaume Bagot and Oriel Carreras appeared before Judicial Magistrate Diego de Egea of the Central Court of Instruction Number 6 of the National Court on March 26, 2018 where each were formally informed of the allegations and charges pending against them.  During the hearing the magistrate granted both men release pending trial, while imposing a financial surety (bond) of €12000 and a series of pretrial release conditions which include the forfeiture of their passports, a mandate to remain within the territory of Spain, and biweekly court appearances as conditions of their release while awaiting trial.

Standing by the all too familiar, I didn't know approach, which has, for so long, contributed to some of the challenges of prosecuting individuals for the illegal trafficking of cultural objects,  Bagot pleaded his innocence in handling blood antiquities in an March 30, 2018 interview with Crónica Global Media.  When asked the carefully-worded question --Do you claim not to have bought any objects from sellers in Iraq, Libya or Syria?  The Spanish dealer responds cleverly:

Never in life. What they intend in the Civil Guard report - to which I have not had access because it is confidential - is to make the judge see that I transported these objects or that I was in charge, through third parties, of moving them from a country. in a conflict zone to another country where there is legality to buy them legally in order to justify the operation.

The police say that I have expressly arranged to buy an object in Libya, take it to Dubai and sell it in Spain. But this is not the case, I don't know any people from Libya, nor do I have any contacts in Libya or anything.

What the Barcelona dealer failed to acknowledge in his interview was that he has bought artefacts coming from conflict and post conflict countries, via intermediary sellers, in multiple countries, who are known for brokering the sales of ancient objects from countries plagued with political and civil upheaval including, in this case, funerary sculptures of Cyrene in Libya.  This demonstartes, once again, that the routes laundered "blood antiquities" travel can be circuitous and that the international flow patterns conflict, and post conflict, antiquities travel often involve intermediary countries with willing middlemen.  This allows bad acting dealers in market country galleries to profess their purchases to these third-parties were made in good faith.  That is, until officers leading investigations gather evidence which proves definitively otherwise. 

Let's not forget that the 10th section of the Rome court in Italy sentenced Jaume Peix Bagot to 4.5 years of incarceration for his handling & laundering of the second-century headless Roman sculpture depicting the Muse Calliope which had been stolen from actor Roberto Benigni's villa in 2010.  That sculpture was identified in Spain with the dealer in April 2019 and was identified as part of a multinational investigation conducted by the Spanish authorities and Italy's Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale who also recovered another sculpture in  the posession of another Spanish dealer that had been stolen from Villa Borghese.

ARCA would like to close this blog post with a reminder to its collecting readers that the market for illicit antiquities operates within the framework of basic economic principles, where the scarcity of authentic material and supply and demand dynamics play a pivotal role in incentivising the clandestine trade in ancient artefacts.  As the demand for antiquities by collectors, private investors, and museums increases, this buying power in turn stimulates profiteering individuals to acquire more and more material, sometimes sourcing artefacts through individuals who engage in, or turn a blind eye to, where, or who, a sellable object comes from.

Collectors of ancient art who acquire archaeological material without conducting thorough scrutiny of the sellers, especially when encountering seemingly too-good-to-be-true items like a Hellenistic Greek marble head from a war torn country, inadvertently fuel a perpetuating cycle of illegal activities. Unchecked acquisitions also contribute to the ongoing destruction of archaeological sites, posing a threat to the preservation of our historical record. 

A more conscientious approach involves diligent research into the provenance and legal status of what a collector or museum are purchasing, accompanied by a proactive "Know Your Seller" strategy. This not only shields the purchaser from potential legal complications but also plays a pivotal role in disrupting the demand side of the illicit supply chain for cultural goods, particularly antiquities from conflict-ridden regions. 

Responsible acquisition practices can and does empower collectors to contribute actively to the protection of global cultural heritage. By prioritising the preservation of our shared human history over profit, collectors wield significant influence in fostering an art market characterized by ethical values and a genuine commitment to cultural preservation.

By:  Lynda Albertson

November 16, 2023

The Ephebes of Pedro Abad are on exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

After a complex period of study and years of delicate restoration to repair their fragile bodies, the Ephebes of Pedro Abad went on display this week at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. There, for the first time, the statues can be viewed as they were meant to be seen, standing on their own two feet, vertically.  Each of the recovered bronzes constitute a milestone in the study of ancient art originating during the Early Roman Empire from ancient Hispania.

Beautiful, as well as extremely rare, the journey of their recovery began in January 2012, when rumours began to circulate regarding the extraordinary discovery of two bronze statues representing pubescent male atheletes.  The sore spot being, the finders of the bronzes apparently had no intention of turning the ancient artefacts over to Spain's cultural authorities, as is required by law.  Instead, their handlers  were shopping the statues around, looking for potential buyers, preferably someone with deep pockets. 

Over the following months, officers in Spain assigned to the Jaén Provincial Judicial Police Brigade, the Policía Nacional, and the Guardia Civil, worked to trace the statues' handlers.  In an operation investigators code named Operación Bronce, law enforcement agents sifted through dead ends and leads, and were eventually able to trace the handler's occupation to that of a transporter.  That in turn lead to finding where he lived in the country.

Through tapped phones detectives were next able to identify and geolocate several other Spanish intermediaries, men who resided in Jaén and Lora del Rio, who spoke with the possessors and who had the contacts necessary to fence material farther up the ancient art supply chain.  Officers learned of a plot to sell the statues for €3million a piece, to an Italian buyer who was believed to have the money, the means, and the black market network necessary to launder illicit antiquities, both big and small, through upscale channels within the lucrative ancient art market.  

When the Italian began preparing to come to Spain, the police knew they needed to act quickly.  When enough evidence of a crime had been established, agents made a requests to the ruling judge to search three properties, two, a home in Cordoba and a home in Pedro Abad for evidence, and a third, where they suspected the bronze statues were likely stored.  

On March 21, 2012 agents from the Specialised and Violent Crime Unit ( UDEV ) of the Jaén Provincial Judicial Police Brigade conducted  a strategically arranged raid on a property located on the El Palancar farm, located in the municipality of Pedro Abad (Córdoba).  There, the Apollonian and the Dionysian ephebes were located, stored in a bodega, carelessly wrapped, like Egyptian mummies in simple white paper.  

But the two ancient boys had seen much better days.  Unwrapped by police, the ephebe were a torturous mess of mangled and missing body parts.  One had his head and genitals lopped off, and both had violently suffered amputated arms and broken hands.  Like victims of some terrible accident, in addition to the decapitation, when spread out on the ground, officers could see a gaping gash on one of the statue's legs and a deep and penetrating wound to one of the boy's abdomen.  

But even in their wreaked and plundered state, still caked in soil and encrustations, it was easy to see that the bronzes were important, depicting beautiful sculpted nudes which reflected idealised body proportions and athleticism.  Based on their decorative characteristics and postures, the bronzes appeared to be "silent servants," or what Homer and Lucretius called golden boys, decorative statues designed by their creators to be a representation of an actual servant, whose primary purpose was to carry lamps or trays on their outstretched arms.  Symbolic as well as decorative, statues such as these have been found in triclinium, the banquet rooms of important Roman villas.  

Functional as well as beautiful, these types of bronzes are thought to have provided ancient diners with fanciful attendants who tended to their needs, but who never tired.  For Spain, the recovered pair have incalculable historical, archaeological and artistic value.  Aside from these two, there is only one other known ephebe recorded as having been found in Spain.  All three originate in Andalusia in the southernmost tip of the country.  And all three come from sites located within a radius of about 100 kilometres" from one another (he third being found in Antequera).  Each ephebe comes from archaeological sites which dot the Roman Bética route in ancient Hispania. 

How rare is rare?

In total, the number of bronze statues representing ephebe which have survived through history, can be counted on less than ten fingers. To understand their rarity, it's enough to consider were some of the other bronze "servants" are housed.  The Apollo of Lillebonne is located in the Musée du Louvre, while the Young Man of Magdalensberg resides in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Statue of an ephebe from the Bay of Marathon is at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.  

The Idolino is on display at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze and farther south in Italy, another bronze of this type was recovered during excavations at the House of the Citharist in Pompeii.  That one became part of the collection of the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Naples and seventy-five years after his discovery, in 1925, Amedeo Maiuri excavated another, less than two blocks away on the Via dell’Abbondanza.

But what happened to the would-be smugglers?

On 19 September 2018 at the Juzgado de Primera Instancia nº 1, the Court of First Instance, in Córdoba, the defence and the prosecution reached an agreement resulting in the two brothers from Pedro Abad first charged with the alleged commission of an attempted smuggling, pleading guilty to the misappropriation of historical heritage assets.  The pair received a a lighter prison sentence of six months, instead of the potential two years and two months requested earlier by the prosecutors, had their case gone to trial.  By pleading out to the lessor charge, the pair also avoided potentially high fines, in the millions. 

And the statues?

After their recovery, the Apolíneo and Dionisíaco ephebes were carefully studied. Archaeologists determined that the Roman bronze sculptures were ascribable to the High Imperial era (1st-2nd century CE), and were copies of Greek originals from the 5th century BC or works inspired by these.  In May 2019 the ephebes were each approved to register in the General Catalog of Andalusian Historical Heritage (CGPHA) as an Asset of Cultural Interest (BIC), declared BIC by the Governing Council.  Humorously, they are listed in the category of Furniture. 

Following information obtained from the investigation, it was determined that the statues were found together, which is unique in and of itself, near a bend in the Guadalquivir river (the ancient Baetis).  There they would have been part of the decoration of a Roman villa located near the ancient Roman city of Sacili Martialium, identified within the zone of Alcurrucén near the Via Augusta in the municipality of Pedro Abad. 

Due to their extensive damage, the Ephebes of Pedro Abad underwent two and a half years of delicate and lengthy conservation at the Andalusian Institute of Historical Heritage (IAPH) to ensure their formal integrity.  

Gammographic studies were carried out which provided information about the condition of the statues allowing conservators to understand and observe key aspects that are not visible in direct observation, without the need to manipulate or take samples. This played an important role in pre-intervention studies as it made it  possible to detect cracks, fissures, welds, and reinforcement plates.  Afterwards, the bronzes were fitted with internal structures and the bases needed to allow them to be displayed as they were always meant to be seen, vertically. 

Given the amount of work involved ARCA would like to congratulate everyone who have made this reality possible: from the detectives, to the conservators, to the archaeologists, to the curators, and the careful transporters.  Without them, these pieces might never have been returned to the people of Spain.  

The Ephebes of Pedro Abad will remain on exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía through March 4, 2024 within the framework of the official program of the Picasso Celebration 1973-2023.   Go see them for yourself if you get the chance.   

November 14, 2023

Remembering the Destruction of the Old Bridge at Mostar 30 Years On

Before ISIS and the attack on Palmyra, before the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, came what was the greatest deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in Europe since World War Two during the 1992–1995 Bosnian War, a war whose reverberations were felt around the world. 

Far more than any other any other structure, the demolition of Mostar’s graceful sixteenth-century Ottoman Old Bridge, or Stari Most, became emblematic of the attacks on cultural heritage during the conflict. The intensive shelling of the bridge by the HVO  and the collapse of the bridge into the river Neretva on 9 November 1993 was a seminal moment in the intentional destruction of cultural heritage during conflict that provoked outrage around the world. 

A symposium marking the 30th anniversary of the Old Bridge’s destruction was held at the Society of Antiquaries of London on 9 November 2023. Among the speakers were Helen Walasek, author of Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage (the event’s organiser), who gave an overview of the history of the Old Bridge, its destruction and reconstruction, while Professor Luke Moffett of Queen’s University Belfast spoke on legal protections for cultural heritage during armed conflicts using the case of the prosecution of the Herceg-Bosna leaders (Prlić et al) at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), looking at the original guilty verdict for the destruction of the bridge and how that verdict was overturned on appeal.

Heritage expert Robert Bevan, author of The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War and Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth About the Past spoke on authenticity in the restoration and rebuilding of historic monuments and the 'new' Old Bridge, while art provenance researcher Saida Hasanagic described what the destruction of the Stari Most and its rebuilding meant to her and her family, incorporating as well her recent interviews with local residents and international visitors to Mostar alike.

The event ended with Architectural Association lecturer architect Nerma Cridge speaking on Mostar’s vandalised and neglected Partisan Memorial Cemetery which lies a short distance from the Stari Most, whose huge and spectacular design was by famed architect and former mayor of Belgrade, Bogdan Bogdanović who died in exile in Vienna.

Films of the destruction of the Stari Most were screened, including from SENSE Center for Transitional Justice’s website Targeting History and Memory recording excerpts from the ICTY war crimes prosecution relating to the destruction of the Old Bridge, as well as recently released footage showing the Croatian Army’s (HV) active participation in the attack on the bridge. The event ended with The Forgotten a 2012 film by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) introduced by IWPR’s Managing Editor Daniella Pelled.

You can watch the proceedings published on the Society of Antiquaries’ YouTube channel below. 

By: Helen Walasek