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January 21, 2024

Spanish Police Recover 71 Historical Artefacts and Arrest 6 of 10 members of an Art Trafficking Ring

This week the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on an important victory by the Brigada de Patrimonio Histórico de la Policía Judicial in the recovery of 71 artefacts from the Nasrid, Caliphal, Visigoth, and Renaissance periods and the arrest of a group of individuals now facing varying charges for their individual roles in the circulation of illicit artefacts. The historic pieces recovered, many of which were architectural elements, include stone capitals and columns, plasterwork arches, Islamic beams, an Arab funerary stele, and a partial arrocabe, (an ornament in the form of a frieze at the top border of walls), as well as several sculptures and four Visigoth belt brooches.

The genesis of this Spanish investigation can be traced back to a routine documentation check conducted at a booth during the 2021 Feriarte art fair in Madrid. During this examination, law enforcement officers engaged with the seller, raising inquiries about the provenance and collecting history of a particularly suspicious stone capital.

This object dated to the Emirate of Granada, also known as the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada, the medieval Islamic state that ruled the southern Iberian Peninsula from the 13th to the 15th century.  Established in 1238 after the fall of the Almohad Caliphate, the Nasrid dynasty successfully maintained its independence amidst the Christian Reconquista and is renowned for having fostered a vibrant society characterised by intricate architecture, advanced scholarship, and a rich blend of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish influences, the most important of which is the iconic Alhambra palace complex. 

A review of the capital's paperwork shed important light on a series of irregularities, which, upon further investigation.  The invoice showed that it had been acquired, along with two other capitals, in an antiques establishment in Granada, but had no invoice number and the VAT amount had not been broken down.  This turned out to be the first lead that allowed officers to identify the group of individuals responsible for the circulation and laundering of similar pedigreed artefacts into the ancient art market via Granada, to Barcelona, as well as on to Valencia and Madrid.

Many of these pieces utilised similar false attestations of ownership claiming that the object on offer had  originated from a family collection which could be traced back to an important restorer who worked on the Alhambra two centuries ago.  The paperwork provided also claimed that the cultural property in question had been part of the family's private collection prior to 1985, the year that Law 16/1985 established a new legal framework for the protection, enhancement and transmission to future generations of the Spanish Historical Heritage.  

Following this investigative period, concrete evidence leads to the filing of charges against ten individuals who are alleged to have been involved in this criminal network. Notably, law enforcement have now apprehended five individuals in Granada as well as one antiquities dealer operating in the city of Barcelona.  Four additional implicated members of the same Granada-based family remain at large as some of them are believed to hold Brazilian nationality and were outside the country at the time arrest warrants were executed. 

According to the police, the leaders of the operation were three siblings from Granada, who, operating an antiques business in the city, facilitated the fabrication of documentary evidence which then allowed the network to introduce the illicit pieces into the legal market via their contact in Barcelona, before circulating onward.