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April 26, 2024

Georgia's Prosecutor Pursues Criminal Charges Against Four Nationals in Book Theft Investigation

Yesterday Bakur Abuladze, First Deputy Prosecutor General of Georgia announced the arrest of four individuals in the Eastern European country on charges of stealing rare 19th century books from national and university libraries in the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia , France, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Switzerland.    The arrests were born out of transnational crime group operation involving law enforcement officers from France, Germany, Lithuania and Switzerland, with coordination assistance via Europol and Eurojust.  Searching aparments and places of sale a large amount of cash and hundreds of books, many with their library watermarks evident,  were recovered, including a 19th-century French-language book allegedly stolen from the National Library of Paris

According to yesterday's announcements, between 2022 and 2023 this network of  accomplices visited libraries across Europe, gaining access to collections using fake IDs with fictitious names and surnames.  Having obtained access to collection material, they then exchanged rare book editions, primarily centring on Russian classics, in particular, books by Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol which they then substituted with makeshift counterfeits selling the books onward in Russia. 

Along with the financial motive for the crime,  journalists have speculated on a  political motive, where in the large-scale operation was incentivised by buyers seeking to return literary relics to Russia.  For now this theory is just that. 

April 23, 2024

When a money launderer's art collection comes up for auction

Photo Credit ANP

Once upon a time, the individual pictured above, Jan-Dirk Paarlberg had a prominent place in the Quote 500, with a fortune according to business publications that at its peak reached 280 million euros.  A buyer and seller of works of art, his collection is said to have included works on canvas and paper by Marc Chagall, Claude Monet, Kees van Dongen, Pierre Bonnard, Karel Appel, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, to name a few, as well a at least one sculpture, a statue by Feranando Botero. 

Forty-one objects from his collection have been consigned for auction and will be sold off today (and tomorrow) at Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary Art auction in Paris. 

To show the interesting way the legal art market documents artwork ownership, shielding potential buyers from distasteful facts in publicly available auction records, its worth looking at one Paarlberg-owned painting.  This hotly contested (for unrelated reasons) Portrait of Jeanne, c 1901, was painted by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Its sales advertisement makes no mention of Paarlberg in its provenance, only mentioning that the painting's last owner purchased the work from Kunsthandel Frans Jacobs in Amsterdam.  

Instead this oil on canvas artwork, with a presales estimate of 500,000 - 700,000 EUR, lists an innocuous phrase in the text of the sale's page, which discretely states:  Sale on behalf of the Dutch State.

But who is Jan-Dirk Paarlberg and why are his purchases and this upcoming sale interesting to ARCA?

Paarlberg was the man behind the Euromast in Rotterdam, the restaurants of the Oyster Group and the co-owner of the Merwede Group, which owns a large part of the retail properties in Amsterdam's PC Hooftstraat and on Rotterdam's Lijnbaan.  He also had homes scattered in New York (at the historic Dakota), as well as in London, Portugal, and France, in addition to historic real estate in the Netherlands.  

That is until the real estate magnate's empire collapsed. 

Dutch authorities implicated Paarlberg in a money laundering scheme involving 17 million euros tied to the notorious Dutch penose underworld figure, Willem Frederik Holleeder.  That legal entanglement marked a stark contrast to Paarlberg's previous stature, and underscores the intricate intersections of wealth, power, and criminal influence, and the art that we see in circulation in the art world.  In this instance,  it is not the art itself which is criminal, but the laundered money possibly used for its purchase. 

Money, in part, it was determined by the courts, which had been extorted by Willem Holleeder from Willem Endstra.  Another prominent Dutch real estate developer, known as the "banker of the underworld," Endstra was assassinated by hitmen in 2004.  His death underscored the ruthlessness of Holleeder's organisation and its reign of terror, as well as Paarlberg's role in the perilous consequences of money laundering when it crosses paths with organised crime.

In testimony given on 19 April 2010, Jan-Dirk Paarlberg described some of his more suspicious art transactions.  Speaking under oath, in the the Haarlem court, the former wealthy resident of the Maarssen castle Ridderhofstad Bolenstein described how he rounded up eight important artworks from his home, including the statue by Feranando Botero, a painting by Marc Chagall, a canvas by Claude Monet and five works by painter Kees van Dongen, and placed them all in his jeep before driving them to a Belgian dealer where he exchanged the objects for large denomination bills totalling of 8.5 million guilders (roughly 4.5 million euros). 

Paarlberg was extremely vague on details, claiming he couldn't recall exactly which artworks he had sold, nor could he produce evidence of the pieces having ever been in his collection. He claimed he handed everything over to the dealer in Belgium for the new owner, having not saving purchase receipts, shipping documents, or even a single photograph which depicted the works which had once graced his properties. 

Fourteen years ago, at the time of this testimony, Paarlberg's statements were met with skepticism.  Art professionals argued about the feasibility of transporting a heavy Botero sculpture in his jeep, how Paarlberg had failed to use an art shipper, and even questioned the overly large cash sum he claimed to have been received as being excessive relative the value of the artworks and the two intermediaries.  But given what we know about the underworld, and as “traditional” money laundering vehicles, such as real estate, became less attractive to criminals, (given their immovability) one has to wonder if this event could have gone down as the property baron described?

Fast forward to today.  We now know and accept that art money laundering – often at inflated prices – to disguise the origins of illegally-obtained funds in order to reintroduce them into the legitimate economy, is in fact a thing.  So much so that the FATF includes “cultural objects” in its sector-specific guidance as a potential vehicle to launder funds, or to finance organised crime, terrorist groups, or their related activities. 

But none of this seems to be getting much coverage in Modern and Contemporary art market publications, nor with regards to today's sale, which, by the way, involves some 41 artworks seized by the Dutch authorities from Paarlberg's estate. 

Who are the Penose?

While most of us have heard of Italy's 'Ndrangheta from Calabria, the Cosa Nostra from Sicily, and the Camorra based in Campania, few people outside of the Netherlands have heard of the Penose. Coming from Bargoens, a form of Dutch slang, the name is traditionally used to describe networks predominantly headed by ethnic Dutch crime lords, mostly known to operate in the underworld of Amsterdam, but also in other big cities in the Netherlands such as The Hague, Rotterdam or Eindhoven.  

In addition to money laundering, members of the Penose have been associated with and convicted of activities such as drug trafficking, armed robbery, chop shops, illegal gambling, illegal slot machine vending, and, lest we forget, even contract killing. 

To be clear, having been seized by the Dutch state, the proceeds from these upcoming auctions of Paarlberg's paintings won't support organised crime. But let them serve as an illustration that it is just as important to know who the names and backgrounds of former artwork owners are, as it is to know the names and backgrounds of the individuals who have sold work of art you are interested in.

Happy shopping, don't let the tricksters get ya. 

By Lynda Albertson

April 20, 2024

Christ Church Picture Gallery painting by Baroque painter Salvator Rosa recovered in Romania

On 19 April 2024 Christ Church, a constituent college of the University of Oxford in England, announced the recovery of one of three stolen paintings, A Rocky Coast, with Soldiers Studying a Plan by the Italian Baroque painter Salvator Rosa.  This painting, along with two other Baroque Period artworks, had been stolen, by three masked accomplices, from the Christ Church Picture Gallery at around 11pm on Saturday, 14 March 2020

This first painting has been recovered outside of the United Kingdom, in Romania after law enforcement officers in the country were contacted by a man who was said to be in possession of Rosa's historic landscape.  When questioned by police, he admitted to having sold the other two stolen artworks onward, both of which had been on display at Christ Church since 1768.  

According to Romanian news sites, the restituted painting was handed over to the judicial authorities in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the end of March this year. 

The two remaining stolen art works are:

Oil on Canvas, circa 1616
H 91 x W 55 cm
Accession number: JBS 246

Oil on Canvas, circa 1580
H 75.5 x W 64 cm
Accession number: JBS 180

Both of these paintings are believed to be in circulation still. 

For now the unnamed man is being treated as a witness by Romanian authorities and has not been arrested.   The case continues in the United Kingdom with Thames Valley Police as well as with Romanian investigators working closely with the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust), the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) and Romanian judiciary. 

The Christ Church Picture Gallery is known for its impressive collection of Old Masters paintings and drawings, with an emphasis on Italian art from the 14th to the 18th century. Works in the museum also include paintings and drawings by Titian, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and Tintoretto, many of which were donated by General John Guise (1682/1683–1765) in the eighteenth century. Guise is known to have donated some 200 artworks to the college in furtherance of its art education programming. 

Thames Valley Police are appealing for witnesses who may have seen or heard anything suspicious in the immediate area of the Christ Church Picture Gallery or elsewhere on St. Aldates or High Street on the night of the theft or who might have leads regarding the artworks' handlers.  Officers can be contacted by calling the non-emergency number 101, or making a report online using the reference 43200087031.  Individuals who wish to remain anonymous can also contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

April 19, 2024

Spain's antiquities dealer arrest and the importance of facts-based reporting

TEFAF Maastricht 2022
Image Credit: ARCA

Earlier this week, ARCA published an article building on an announcement made by Spain's Ministry of the Interior which involved the identification of a looted Egyptian object.  This investigation involved the Policía Nacional in collaboration with the Dutch Politie, and the expertise of forensic scholars, as well as the assistance of cooperating dealers and the support of art fair personnel.  These combined efforts resulted in the voluntary handover of the trafficked artefact in the Netherlands, and later, the reported arrest of a Barcelona-based ancient art dealer who, although unnamed by the authorities, was stated to have been charged with money laundering, smuggling, and document falsification.  

ARCA's article touched on its own research into the circulation of this suspect antiquity and to the object's identified Spanish handler.  In it, I named the dealer whom I (too) had ascertained as having been in possession of this piece after it arrived to Spain from Bangkok before being sold onward to other ancient art dealers in Germany and Switzerland.  

Shortly following the Spanish announcement, the bulk of the reporting by mainstream media covered this investigation by simply regurgitating the Spanish  government's official press release.  ARCA, being a research-based organisation which specifically examines (and sometimes reports on) forensic crimes that impact art and artefacts, opted to provide more detail.  To do so we discussed both the object itself and named its first seller, while also ensuring that in doing so we haven't compromised the work of international police forces.

Too frequently, trafficked artefact reporting becomes routinely formulaic, giving readers cursory information on an object's country of origin, value, age, and the names of involved agencies responsible for that object's recovery.  In this type of reportage, the artefacts themselves take second stage, often reduced to photo opportunities, where they are frequently overshadowed by fancy diplomatic handshakes. Whereas the story of the piece itself, its trafficking journey, its good faith and bad faith handlers and its place in history are often unconsidered, or left to vague statements and assumptions, much in the same way, archaeologists and art historians lament the loss of context when an artefact is extracted from its find spot and the object's history is lost during a clandestine excavation.  

Basic shapes of block statues

Likewise, when describing this partial 18th Dynasty Egyptian block statue most of the published news articles reduced the artefact to its period of creation, i.e., "a stolen Egyptian sculpture dated from 1450 BCE" or spoke to its rudimentary aesthetic characteristic, referring to the piece as simply as "an Egyptian head".  Smuggled clandestinely, often over great distances and hidden in shipments through multiple transit countries, by the time such looted antiquities appear on the ancient art market, where they are displayed in glittering European art galleries and art fairs, the pieces are no longer intact.  

In this case, the less informed buyer, might appreciate this sculpture's beautiful depiction of the head of an Egyptian male.  I, on the other hand, see its decapitated form as evidence of a crime scene.  I question whether or not this anonymous severed head, had likely been hacked off its body, or deliberately broken at the shoulders for ease of transport and smuggling, knowing that unfortunately this once complete representation of a man, is now absent the rest of his body.  

During Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty, the artisan who sculpted this black-granite representation of a once-living human would have worked the hard stone with care and precision.  The focus of his efforts would have been to respectfully express the belief that the deceased person's Ka, his eternal life force, when separated from his earthly body at death, would be travelling between the worlds of the living and the dead and would need to find his eternal home inside this single memorial block statue, created expressly for this purpose.  Carved to represent the likeness of the deceased and placed inside a sanctuary, had this head remained with the rest of its body, we might also have learned, through inscriptions, the name of the esteemed person the sculptor sought to portray when he had creating this memorial artwork.  

But why the need for a second article? 

Over the past several days there has been scattered chatter via various social media sites where the veracity of my statements regarding who the arrested Spanish dealer was have been the subject of discussion.  

Art News journalist Karen Ho, doing her best to report the news and remain impartial to the contentious subject, wrote: 

...the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, has claimed in a blog post that the individual in question is Jaume Bagot Peix, operator of the J. Bagot Arqueología gallery in Barcelona, Spain.

Art lawyer Justine Philippart, when pointed to ARCA's original blog article, stated on LinkedIn:

This article is fake news. Nothing is true. Thus, for example, Mr. Bagot was not arrested.

Art and cultural property lawyer Yves-Bernard Debie, who states his Brussels firm represented Bagot and his gallery, wrote in the Art News article: “We can confirm that our client has not been arrested. The information that is being disclosed is false.”

So let's start with things that we can assume are indisputable.
Spain's Ministry of the Interior stated that agents of the National Police have arrested an antiques seller in Barcelona for the head of the Block statue, which they indicated had been on display with a Swiss dealer at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) although they did not specify in what year.  The ministry also stated that the investigations made it possible to prove that this artefact had been acquired in July 2015 by the person in charge of a (unnamed) Barcelona establishment after transiting through an international company based in Bangkok and that this gallery owner "knew of the illicit origin of the Egyptian piece" and had "justified the origin of the piece by providing a document that collected information on several archaeological pieces belonging to a Spanish collection." 

Now on to what I assessed before naming Jaume Bagot in my last article, and whether or not that information is false or fake news as claimed by the two lawyers.

To trace this artefact's progression through the art market I started by looking for, and analysing, any photographic evidence I could find that depicted this object in circulation.  Its passage with the Swiss dealer being the easiest part. I was able to  review photos taken by ARCA researchers while this piece had been on display at the dealer's TEFAF stand during events held at the Maastricht Exhibition & Conference Centre in March 2020, and again in June 2022.  Both of these photos were included in my previous blog post, one of which even had the date/time/street location for the MECC watermarked on the front. 

Both photos clearly demonstrate that this artefact was on display during the fair's operational hours and had not been "removed before its opening" in 2022 as was incorrectly stated in the Art News article.  Today, TEFAF provided me with clarification that the artefact had been removed, from sale, while the Dutch portion of the investigation was underway, but that the object had been allowed to remain on display to the public for the duration of the fair with the consent of the Dutch police while their investigation got underway. 

In addition to ARCA's own photos, I also scanned open source records looking for other depictions this object, finding photographic evidence which placed the artefact with the Swiss art gallery at least as early as 3 October 2018.  I then repeated similar exercises of date range-search-find-analyse in order to find photographic evidence which might confirm the identities of the German and Spanish dealers.  This process of elimination, helped to further narrow down the range of dates when this object was in the possession of the named Barcelona dealer. 

Narrowing down my search to whose photos to review first, to limit the number of photos I needed to sift through was easy.  I started with the only Barcelona-based ancient art dealer who had been publicly-mentioned as having connections to smuggled conflict and post-conflict country artefacts from the MENA region, some of which transited through intermediaries in Thailand. That person being Jaume Bagot Peix.  

Given that Bagot also had a standing conviction in Italy, related to a stolen antiquity and is currently alleged to have sold a stolen Egyptian artefact ushabti from Sudan with falsified provenance documentation to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in the Netherlands, I felt that reviewing the Egyptian material he may have sold after the July 2015 arrival date mentioned in the Ministry of the Interior's announcement might help to confirm whether or not he was the unnamed Barcelona dealer. 

Working with that hypothosis, I was able to locate and document this object in Bagot's possession through a series of photographs, as well as one video.  All depict the Egyptian head on display and for sale with J. Bagot Arqueología during the 37th edition of the Feriarte.  This art fair was held from November 21 to 29, 2015 in Madrid, roughly four months after law enforcement officers defined the object's entry into the EU from Bangkok.  To be fair, I have not added proof of these evidentiary images to this article, but simply forwarded each of my findings to the Spanish and Dutch Law enforcement officers working on this case.   

In closing I will state that as a routine act of due diligence, ARCA makes every effort to identify the circulation specifics of illicit artefacts discovered in circulation, in order to ensure their proper documentation.  This holds true for artefacts which have been seized by law enforcement agencies as the result of court orders, as well as those which have been voluntarily relinquished. Doing so helps us to map less-than-careful art market actors, as well as culpable ones.  

ARCA does not condone "fake news". Nor do we contribute to it.  Cultural property crimes are insidiously complex and as the old adage goes, when dealing with suspect material and the naming of problematic actors who handle said material, the devil is in the details which can be proven beyond dispute, even more so when that evidence is considered probative at trial.

By: Lynda Albertson

April 15, 2024

Arrest made in Spain on Egyptian antiquities smuggling case.

TEFAF Maastricht 2020
Image Credit: ARCA

According to Spain's Ministry of the Interior, following an investigation begun in 2023, the Policía Nacional have arrested a Barcelona gallery owner (Jaume Bagot Peix, operator of J. Bagot Arqueología) for allegedly committing the crimes of money laundering, smuggling, and document falsification in relation to this black granite head of a funerary monument for a high ranking official from the reign of Hatshepsut or Tuthmosis III in Egypt. 

TEFAF Maastricht 2022
Image Credit: ARCA

Valued at 190,000 euros, the circa 1504-1450 BCE artefact had been acquired by the Barcelona ancient art dealer in July 2015 via an intermediary in Bangkok, Thailand.  ARCA notes that this partial statue was documented on social media sites and up for sale through a Swiss-based art dealer during the short-lived European Fine Art Fair in 2020 and again with this same dealer when the fair reopened post-Covid in 2022.  

Having been the subject of a joint-European policing initiative which resulted in law enforcement authorities with the Dutch Politie in the Netherlands sharing evidence with their Spanish counterparts, police in Spain were able to concretised that this Egyptian artefact was illicit, despite it having been in free circulation for seven years through several sales passages occurring via dealers in Spain, Germany, and Switzerland.  Prior to these transactions, the object had traveled though the transit county of Thailand via an intermediary in Bangkok. 

The 18th Dynasty head depicts its patron wearing a short wig revealing the ears as well as defined almond-shaped eyes and prominent eyebrows.  In its complete and original form, the head would have once been attached at the shoulders to the rest of its memorial block statue representing a seated non-royal person.  

These types of statues would have depicted the individual's head, hands, and feet emerging from a cloak drawn tightly around the subject's body, similar to the one depicted at the left, which is on display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.  During the period of the trafficked head's creation, it was likely crafted to resemble a guardian seated in the gateway of a temple as Egyptians believed that after a person's death, their soul could inhabit a statue in a general context of solar beliefs. 

The Swiss gallery that had purchased the artwork via another ancient art dealer in Germany, freely relinquished the artefact to the Dutch authorities once it was determined that the piece was suspect and had been acquired via the Spanish gallery owner, who had already been linked to the illicit trade in antiquities in conflict zones such as North Africa and the Middle East. 

To circulate this illicit artefact, the Spanish gallerist provided his trusting buyer, with a document that substituted collected information relating to several archaeological pieces belonging to a Spanish collection from the 70s making it appear as though the head had been part of a legitimate and documented collection prior to Egypt's antiquities laws tightening in 1983.  A not uncommon technique, suspect dealers have often attempted to "whiten" freshly looted material, by substituting, reusing, or outright fabricating documents of ownership, which, if not carefully explored, cosmetically appear to provide a legitimate "pedigree" to an antiquity which in reality is more recent plunder from an illicit excavation.  

It is for this reason, that the dealer who has been arrested has been charged not only with smuggling and money laundering, but also with document falsification of the object's provenance record. 

Point of reference in 2018, Frédéric Loore revealed in Paris Match that Jaume Bagot's network used various smuggling routes, notably via Egypt and Jordan to the United Arab Emirates, before returning to Catalonia after transiting through Germany or Thailand.

By:  Lynda Albertson

NB: For now, the Spanish authorities have elected to publish their arrest announcement withholding the name of the charged ancient art dealer.