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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