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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.