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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