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March 4, 2024

New developments in Spain's theft case of five artworks by Francis Bacon


In the summer of 2015 thieves entered a five-story building on the Plaza de la Encarnación —an affluent area in the center of Madrid near the Spanish Senate and the Royal Palace.  Once inside, the burglars broke into the residence of banker José Capelo Blanco. 

Entering his apartment without being seen by the doorman or other residents, the raiders quickly disabled the businessman's alarm system and set about stealing five visceral portraits, made by the Irish-born British figurative painter Francis Bacon. The paintings would later be estimated to be worth €30 million. In addition to the high value fine art, the thieves also accessed the homeowner's safe and stole jewellery and a collection of ancient coins valued at €400,000.  Newspapers would later report that the crime was exceedingly professional and left behind few clues.  

By the early autumn, an accomplice, with prior convictions for drug trafficking, began making the first of multiple efforts to try to sell the hot Bacons through market contacts in Spain. One of these involved trying to persuade a distant member of his extended family, who worked in the art world, that he could make a lot of money, if he could help find a buyer. 

Up until this point, images of the paintings had not been shared publicly, as the artworks were gifted by the artist directly to Capelo Blanco and had therefore never appeared in circulation prior.  The fact that images of the Bacons did not appear publically, perhaps emboldened the thieves to make their first mistake. 

In February 2016, the first major break in the case came in when an individual queried the Art Loss Register trying to establish if one of  Capelo Blanco's portraits had been flagged internationally as stolen.  Writing anonymously, the inquirer sent photographs of the painting which could only have been taken by individuals with access to the artworks after the theft in Madrid.

This exchange proved critical to the investigation and the ALR worked with the Spanish National Police turning over the communique which allowed investigators to draw a red circle around their first group of potential suspects. 

In early March 2016 the four individuals were taken into custody:

• Ricardo Barbastro Heras, the alleged organiser of the fencing network

• Antonio Losada de la Rosa 

• José Losada Manzano

• Rafael Heredia González

All were charged with crimes of concealment of robbery with force.

By May 28, 2016 Spanish news sites reported that agents working with the Central Specialized and Violent Crime Unit (UDEV) had arrested another six individuals in Madrid who were also believed to be connected to the 2015 theft in some way. This included:

• Alfredo Cristian Ferriz González, AKA Cristian Ferriz, who has a long police record, eight of them for robbery with force, three for vehicle theft, one for threats and another for drug traffic. 

• Art dealer Cristóbal García

• Agustín González Serrano

• Jorge de las Heras Escámez

• Juan Manuel Marce Gea

• Aquilino Jiménez Bermúdez

 With ten suspects named, two more, unnamed, were added to the list, bringing the total number of suspects to twelve. 

In July 2017 investigators announced the recovery of three of the five Bacon artworks.  By January 2021 Dutch private investigator Arthur Brand tweeted a series of "proof-of-life" images which showed the two portraits which remained missing.  One of these photos depicted one of the Bacon creations lying beside a copy of Spanish newspaper El País dated October 6, 2019.  Another showed the left bottom corner of the one of the painting's verso, which showed the Irish painter's handwriting and signature. 

In various articles Brand indicated that he had received word that underworld buyers were considering the two outstanding stolen paintings, telling journalists that he had been passed the video by an unnamed informant, which seemed to indicate that the two remaining artworks were being shopped by an individual using the name which appeared to be shopped by an individual using the nom de plum, "Jason".  

Accompanying the video was a piece of paper which implied perhaps that the remaining two paintings might still be in Spain, even if the thieves had widened their buyer's net internationally.  Handwritten on the piece of paper which accompanied the video was the contact's alleged name "Jason" noting it was signed at "Starbucks Madrid," on the date of "2020-5-11."

In touch with the Spanish authorities, Brand had announced the contact on his social media channel hoping the unwelcome publicity would serve to dissuade potential purchasers who might be considering the stolen Bacons. Meanwhile Spanish authorities continued to tighten the screws, arresting two more not publicly named individuals, which brought the total number of persons of interest (publicly announced) to twelve. 

Last month, on 29 February 2024 the Historical Heritage Brigade of Spain's National Police arrested two more people in the southern area of ​​Madrid.  The pair are believed to be the persons with physical control of the two outstanding artworks.

Aged 53 and 25, one of the arrestees is named as Rubén Sánchez Hernández.

Considered to be the mastermind behind this robbery, he is also believed to have been involved in the Pink Panther-styled robbery of Ángeles Farga jewelry store, on Ortega y Gasset Street in the capital.  According to Spanish news sites, Sánchez Hernández has connections to Roberto Anaut's gang, the 'Dragonems' and disciple of Ángel Suárez Flores, who was in charge of another outstanding paintings theft involving 17 paintings stolen from the residence of businesswoman and philanthropist Esther María Koplowitz y Romero de Juseu, the 7th Marchioness of Casa Peñalver in August 2001.

The artist Francis Bacon died on April 28, 1992 at the Ruber clinic in Madrid at 82 years of age.  Prior to his death he was reportedly in love with the young Spanish financier to whom gifted the paintings.

For now, the last two paintings remain listed on Interpol's stolen Works of Art database. 

March 1, 2024

Is art crime understudied? Not anymore. But why not study among the best.

ARCA's 2024 Postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection is accepting late applications. 

In 2009, when ARCA started the first of its kind, interdisciplinary, approach to the scholarly study of art crime, no one was being trained to look closely at the  underbelly of the art world.   Noticing that gap, represented a unique opportunity for the association, to provide  individuals interested in intensive training in a structured and academically diverse format, a summer-long postgraduate program developed  around the study of the dynamics, strategies, objectives and modus operandi of criminals and criminal organisations who commit a variety of art crimes.    

Turn on the news (or followARCA's art crime blog) and you will see over and over again examples of suspect acquisitions, museum thefts, forgeries, antiquities looting and illicit trafficking of cultural goods.  Intentional heritage destruction during armed conflict, once a modern-day rarity, now affects multiple countries and adds to regional instability in many areas of the globe.  

Looted art, both ancient and Holocaust-related, continues to find its way into the prestigious galleries of respected institutions, while auction houses and dealers continue to be less than adept at distinguishing smuggled and stolen art, from art with a clean provenance. Thus making dealing with art crime an unrelenting problem and one without any easy solution.

Taken incident by incident, it is difficult to see the impact and implications of art crime as a global concern, but when studied across disciplines, looking at the gaps of legal instruments, country to country, one begins to have a clearer picture of the significance of the problem and its impact on the world's collective patrimony.

The world's cultural heritage is an invaluable legacy and its protection is integral to our future. 

Since 2009, other short and long programs have come and gone, and yet, ARCA remains, the longest running, and most comprehensive programming of its kind. 

Here are 11 reasons why you should consider joining us this summer in Amelia, Italy for ARCA's 13th edition of our professional development program. 

At its foundation, ARCA's summer-long program in Italy draws upon the overlapping and complementary expertise of international thought-leaders on the topic of art crime – all practitioners and leading scholars who actively work in the sector. 

In 2023, participants of the program will receive 220+ hours of instruction from a range of experts actively committed to combatting art crime from a variety of different angles.

One summer, eleven courses.

For more information please see ARCA's website here.

To request further information or to receive a 2024 prospectus and application materials, please email:

education (at)

February 14, 2024

A stolen painting by Ivan Aivazovsky? This work is set to be auctioned in Russia in four days.

Full Moon Night, 1878 by Ivan Aivazovsky

There are 32 stolen paintings listed in the INTERPOL Works of Art database by the Romantic painter Ivan Aivaszovsky (1817-1900), when searching under the spelling "Ivan Constatinowitsch Aivazoffski" but not, apparently this one.  This one is scheduled to be auctioned in Moscow on February 18th. 

Aivazovsky, born Hovhannes Aivazian in 1817, was a prolific marinist artist of Armenian descent who left an indelible mark on the art world with his mesmerising seascapes. Born in 1817 in the Crimean city of Feodosia, Aivazovsky studied painting at the Fine Art Academy in Saint Petersburg, but it was his deep connection to the Black Sea coast which profoundly influenced his work, and earned him the title "the painter of the sea." 

Considered a master of light and shadow, Aivazovsky's oeuvre comprises over 6,000 paintings, ranging from serene moonlit scenes, tempestuous maritime battles, and shipwrecks often capturing the irresistible and ever-changing moods of the sea, as well as the men who navigated upon it, with unparalleled realism and drama. 

His works have been sold for a wide range of prices, with some of his most renowned and iconic works fetching millions. His eponymous painting, The Ninth Wave, 1850 depicts an unlucky group of castaways trying to survive a shipwreck.  The artwork was a hat tip to the nautical phenomenon in which waves are said to grow larger and larger, in a continuing series, up until the largest wave, the ninth, at which point the sequence starts again.  This painting has been part of the collection of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg since 1897, having originally been acquired for the Imperial Hermitage of Emperor Alexander III.  

According to ArtPrice, as one of the most sought-after 19th century painters, Aivazovsky's works have gone up for sale at public auction at least 1,296 times some at modest prices and others tipping the top of the chart.  In 2006, two London auctions of his paintings, View of Constantinople (1852) and The Varangians on the Dnieper (1876) hammered in at € 2,142,810 at Christie's and € 2,262,535  at Sotheby's. In 2020, the artist's painting The Bay of Naples, 1878 was sold at Sotheby’s for $2.9 million.

But let's talk about the origins of one of Aivazovsky's seascapes coming up for sale in Russia just four days. 

Painted by Aivazovsky in 1878, Full Moon Night, 1878, the 63.4 X 84.2 cm aoil on canvas painting is set to be auctioned at the Moscow Auction House, with a starting bid listed at 100 million (€1,022,677).

The painting's accompanying documentation says very little about the painting's provenance.  Instead, the auction house provides a 2009 letter, signed by three individuals working at the Russian Museum for Scientific Work attesting to the artworks authenticity. 

Yesterday,  Günduze Aydynovych, an Azerbaijani-born Ukrainian lawyer and human rights activist who has served as Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea reported on the Social Media website "X" that this artwork was one of some fifty canvases illegally transferred to the Simferopol Art Museum at the beginning of the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, and its theft was registered with INTERPOL in 2017.

But how did this painting get to Russia? 

According to Ukrainian authorities, on 18 February 2014, the Simferopol Art Museum and the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore signed an exhibition agreement to jointly exhibit paintings as part of the exhibition Russian and Ukrainian Art of the 18th - Early 20th Centuries.  The offering was designed to give audiences a rare opportunity to explore the diverse artistic expressions of Russian and Ukrainian artists side by side from these periods. 

On the same day, 52 paintings belonging to the Museum Fund of Ukraine, including Aivazovsky's Full Moon Night, 1878 arrived in Mariupol from Crimea. 

Expected to last until 31 May 2014, the exhibition was forced to close earlier when the management of the Simferopol Art Museum recalled the paintings to the territory of the then-occupied Crimea due to the increasingly tense socio-political situation in Ukraine.  On 19 March 2014, the Mariupol museum workers received a letter from the director of the Simferopol Art Museum.  Thereafter, Olga Chaplinska, the then-head of the Mariupol Museum of Local History terminated the exhibition agreement and on 20 March 2014 Nataliya Kuryonysheva, also from the Mariupol Museum oversaw the handover of 52 paintings to an envoy for transfer to the Simferopol Museum.  According to later reports in Russian media, the museum's staff had “saved” these paintings from damage by Ukrainian fighters.

In March 2018 both women were criminally charged for their actions pursuant to Part 2 of Article 367 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, which consists in official negligence, i.e. failure to perform or improper performance of official duties by an official, which caused significant damage to Ukraine's state interests.

By December 2016 and up through March 2017, Full Moon Night, 1878 by Aivazovsky was in St Petersburg, circulating along with 53 other works of art by the artist during a special exhibition.  This 200 year anniversary event occupied the entire first floor of the Benois building of the State Russian Museum. 

The basis of this exhibition was said to be well-known and unfamiliar works completed by Aivazovsky from public and private collections.  A special section of the exhibition was dedicated to the theme “Aivazovsky - battle painter” - paintings depicting naval episodes of the Crimean War of 1853–1856. 

By 19 August 2017 Tetyana Tikhonchyk, the press secretary of the Prosecutor's Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea temporarily stationed in Kyiv had published a copy of a letter to her Facebook page.

This document, protocolled as: 
Identification code 40108756
19 08.2017 № 4584/100/01-2017

From the National Police of Ukraine - Main Department of the National Police in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol received by the Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to the Senior Advisor of Justice Mamedov G.A reads as follows:

Dear Günduze Aydynovych,

We inform you that according to the response of the Department of Interpol and Europol of the National Police of Ukraine, the works of art mentioned in the letter dated August 15, 2017 No. 4369/100/01-2017 were entered into the records of the General Secretariat of Interpol as "stolen".

Best regards

Head, Police General of the third rank

A.K. Bakhchivanzhi

Unfortunately, due to insufficient resources and the ongoing war in Ukraine, images and documentation for the 52 works of art, identified in this single 2014 misappropriation, have not yet been uploaded to the Interpol Works of Art database and made accessible to the public and other country law enforcement agencies. 

ARCA hopes that by highlighting Günduze Aydynovych's concerns and Ukraine's supporting documentation on their artworks' removal, will serve as a cautionary reminder that this painting's auction, (and potentially others) is being questioned by  Ukraine as has been removed from the confines of the territory of Ukraine in contravention of the laws of Ukraine. 

For now, ARCA recommends that responsible and ethical collectors refrain from bidding on this artwork unless its full provenance documentation is provided.  

UPDATE: 19:00 GMT+1

Moscow Auction House has told Russian journalists with RBC that the painting  Full Moon Night, 1878 by Aivazovsky was purchased at Stockholm's Auktionsverk in Sweden in 2008.  They also state that it is this second Moonlit Night, a view of the Black Sea off the Crimean coast in the Feodosia region dating to 1882 which is the subject of the Interpol notice as having been once been part of the Simferopol Art Museum collection. 


ARCA has confirmed there was a 2008 sale in Stockholm which matches the depiction of the disputed Aivazovsky painting, now up for auction in Moscow. This painting, under the title of A corner of Constantinople from the sea by moonlight, was painted in 1878 and uses a different phonetical spelling for the artist, referring to him as Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.  According to the ArtPrice database, this painting sold for a hammer price of € 338,910. 

What remains a question is why, and for what the motive if any, did the auction house and the authenticators at the Russian Museum for Scientific Work, who attested to the artworks authenticity, change the name of the artwork.

By Lynda Albertson

February 8, 2024

Reclaimed Heritage: A Cambodian Buddha Goes Home

Seized by Swiss authorities in the Canton of Basel 10 years ago, this 18th or19th century (Khmer empire) Buddha, seated in vajraparyankasana, with the proper right hand touching the earth in bhumisparsha mudra, at the moment of his enlightenment, is finally on his way home.  

Originally Swiss experts believe the sculpture dated back to the pre-Angkor or early Angkor Periods and is was assumed to be over 1,000 years old. However, according to a first-step assessment by experts from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA), based on form and style, the sculpture is believed to be of the later period. 

Representing Cambodia ata ceremony held on 6 February 2024, His Excellency Mr. H.E. Dara, Cambodia's Ambassador to Switzerland and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and International Organizations in Geneva received the enlightened Buddha in a handover between both countries coordinated by Fabienne Baraga, Head of the Specialist Department for International Cultural Heritage Transfer, at the Federal Office of Culture and Anna Mattei Russo, Head of Southeast Asia and Pacific Regional Coordinators of the Swiss Foreign Ministry. 

Ambassador In Dara expressed gratitude to the Swiss government and emphasised Cambodia's ongoing efforts to repatriate other significant cultural properties. He called upon museums, institutions, and curators holding Khmer antiquities to voluntarily return them to Cambodia, framing such actions as gestures of generosity and respect for cultural values.

Fabienne Baraga, Head of Specialist Division on International Cultural Property Transfer of the Federal Office of Culture of the Ministry of the Interior of Switzerland, also reiterated the commitment of the Swiss government to prevent illegal trade and trade of cultural assets and for the preservation of human cultural heritage told the individuals on hand that this return is not just the return of valuables to their birthplace, but also serve as a symbol of the spirit of unity and respect between the two states. 

As a source country, Cambodia's cultural heritage has suffered significant losses due to looting, particularlyas an outcome of periods of civil conflict, political instability, and poverty. The widespread looting of archaeological sites and temples, such as those at Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear, and Banteay Chhmar has resulted in the illicit trafficking of countless artefacts out of the country. 

These artifacts, ranging from ancient sculptures to intricate carvings, represent key aspects of Cambodia's history, religion, and artistic achievement. The illegal trade in Cambodia's cultural heritage not only deprives its people of its rightful treasures but also erases vital connections to its past for future generations. 

Efforts to combat looting and repatriate stolen artefacts from the country are ongoing, but the scale of the problem underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and collective action to safeguard Cambodia's cultural legacy.

February 5, 2024

The Ongoing Struggle Against Illicit Cultural Item Smuggling from Ukraine

As stated on the official Facebook page of the State Customs Service of Ukraine,  customs officers in Chernivtsi foiled an attempt to smuggle archaeological artefacts out of the country last week. 

On February 3rd, a Ukrainian citizen's vehicle, entering the customs control zone at the Porubne-Siret checkpoint exiting the country for Romania opted for the "green corridor," lane.  This exit point is reserved for individuals who are not transporting items which require declaration.

However, during the routine customs inspection, officers collaborated with the State Border Guard Service personnel in the Chernivtsi region and uncovered various archaeological items, including fragments of horse armor, pieces of jewelry, crosses, household items, and Byzantine glass elements. These items fall under the purview of Ukraine's law on "the export, import, and return of cultural values" dated September 21, 1999, making their removal from the customs territory illegal.

Customs authorities documented a breach of customs regulations in accordance with Article 483, Part 1, of the Customs Code of Ukraine. They then forwarded a notification outlining the unlawful activity, which displayed indications of a criminal offense, to the appropriate law enforcement agency.  A total of 124 archaeological objects were confiscated during the interception.


In November 2023, another stop customs officers in Chernivtsi, again with a driver choosing the "green corridor" lane to pass the customs control, resulted in the seizure of 100 books and one religious icon that likewise were not declared and not presented to customs control, in contravention of the law on export, import and return of cultural values.

That same month, Kyiv customs officers also seized heritage items, exiting the country via mail shipments.  These included an icon of "The Lord Almighty" (XIX-XX centuries) from the famous Borisov icon-painting school, a Bronze Cross-Encolpion (XII-XIII centuries) with relief images of Christ, Virgin and scenes of Crucifixion, used to hold the relics of saints in the times of Kyivan Rus and another grouping of small historic finds. They were heading from Kyiv Oblast and Ternopil Oblast to the United States. 

January 27, 2024

Italy Takes Action: Preventive Seizure Decree Targets Stolen Books from Girolamini Library and a list of Hot Texts

Italy's Ministry of Culture, in collaboration with the Public Prosecutor's Office at the Court of Naples, has announced a significant move in the pursuit of justice for its stolen textual treasures. A preventive seizure decree has been issued in early 2024 highlighting 361 important texts, carefully selected from those known to have been pilfered from the Biblioteca e Complesso monumentale dei Girolamini and which have not (yet) been recovered. 

Objective of the Seizure:

The decree, the execution of which is left to the Naples unit of the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, aims to locate and seize rare Girolamini texts wherever they may be. This effort also extends to encouraging the spontaneous restitution of stolen editions by current holders who might be unaware of the illicit origin of specific titles they may have inadvertently purchased but known to have been stolen from the library.

Background of the Library:

The extraordinary Girolamini Library of Naples is home to almost 160,000 ancient manuscripts and books and opened its doors to the public in 1586.  Built alongside the Church and Convent of the Girolamini, the library served as the convent’s Oratory and is believed to be one of the richest libraries in Southern Italy.

The collection, which includes many rare editions dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is centred on Christian theology, philosophy, sacred music, and the history of Europe and the Catholic Church.  After the massive Irpinia earthquake, which struck Campania in 1980 the Biblioteca e Complesso monumentale dei Girolamini was closed for an extended period.  The library's collection, off limit to anyone except specific scholars with collection permissions, suffered from a lengthy period of neglect, only to be plundered by a network of individuals tasked with its very protection.

Details on the thefts:

In April 2012 it was discovered that as many as 1500 important texts were missing from the Biblioteca dei Girolamini. At the epicenter of the scandal was the library's appointed director, Marino Massimo de Caro, who was swiftly suspended and subsequently prosecuted for embezzlement.  Alongside him, other accomplices from Italy, Argentina, and the Ukraine would also be implicated and later prosecuted as a result of the scandal.

On 19 April 2012 the Biblioteca de Girolamini was formally impounded by the judicial authorities as Naples prosecutor, Giovanni Melillo oversaw an investigation into the library's thefts.  As part of this investigation, the prosecutor authorised the tapping of De Caro's phone, through which Melillo and investigators learned that the library's former director had been stashing looted books in his home, in a storage unit in Verona, and in the basement of an accomplice’s aunt as well as arranging to sell many others onward.   

Some stolen volumes were fenced through major Italian dealers as well as private collectors. An additional 543 books travelled on to Germany where they were to be auctioned on May 9, 2012 at the Bavarian auction house Zisska & Schauer in Munich after accomplices to the Girolamini library thefts stripped the institution's markings from the titles to be auctioned. 

While under questioning, De Caro would claim that the books sent to Munich were from his own personal collection.  Despite this, investigations determined that many of the consigned texts in fact came from both the Girolamini Library and the priests’ convent library and that the auction house Zisska & Schauer had paid an emissary of De Caro’s nine hundred thousand euros in advance of the texts' auction date, with De Caro expecting to receive a million euros more after the bidding closed.

With requests for assistance in hand, the German authorities halted the sale at Zisska & Schauer, and later arrested the company’s executive director, Herbert Schauer.

Ultimately, De Caro was sentenced to seven years in prison, coupled with a lifetime ban from holding public office. His expedited trial focused on the embezzlement of hundreds of volumes from the Girolamini Library, although De Caro has been connected to thefts from additional targeted institutions. 

Other defendants, including Viktoriya Pavlovsky, Alejandro Cabello, Mirko Camuri, Lorena Paola Weigandt, Federico Roncoletti, and Herbert Schauer also faced legal consequences, with varying prison terms and exclusions from public office. Viktoriya Pavlovsky, De Caro's young assistant, received a sixty-four-month prison term and permanent exclusion from public office, Alejandro Cabello and Mirko Camuri, described in the press as bodyguards, were both sentenced to fifty-six months in prison.  Lorena Paola Weigandt, who loaded stolen books from the library into the car and took them to Verona and another Verona resident, Federico Roncoletti each received sentences of thirty-two months in prison. 

Herbert Schauer was arrested by German authorities on 2 August 2013, following the execution of a European arrest warrant. He was subsequently sentenced in the first degree by the Court of Naples to 5 years of imprisonment for his involvement in receiving stolen property,  however his sentence was overturned by the Italian Court of Cassation.

Call for Collaboration:

ARCA would like to remind book and manuscript collectors that the market for archival literary heritage might be a niche market but it is a flourishing one that often overlaps with fine art crimes, driven by the high prices some collectors are willing to pay for the rarest of publications.  

Acknowledging that some good faith purchases may be in possession of these stolen items without knowledge of their illicit origin, the Italian authorities are now stressing the need for help from the general public, as well as antiquarian book dealers, and professionals worldwide who are more likely to come in contact with the library's rare material. 

In furtherance to this, the Italian Ministry of Culture has released a 31-page list of the most important stolen texts documented as having been stolen which are known to have been circulated at some point after their theft in Naples.  This list can be reviewed here.

Please note that this newly released listing does not appear to be uploaded to ILAB's stolen book database which is often the first place most book collectors turn to when checking the legal status of books, manuscripts, and maps that have been the subject of thefts which have occurred from June 15, 2010 onward.  

Given these items have not been uploaded to this database, the linked list should be downloaded so that buyers can check for themselves to see if a text they have been offered or purchased has been documented as stolen from the Naples library.  

January 25, 2024

New Convictions and Sentences in the Geneva Museum Heist Saga

May 31, 2019: Prelude to the Heist

The account of the Geneva Museum Heist begins on May 31, 2019, when British national Stewart Ahearne takes a British Airways flight from London City Airport to Geneva, setting the stage for the subsequent burglary the following night at Fondation Baur's Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient.  The museum contains more than 9,000 Chinese and Japanese works amassed by Swiss collector Alfred Baur (1865-1951).  Records indicate that he also rented a Renault SUV, which matched the description of the vehicle captured outside the museum at the time of the burglary. 

June 1, 2019 - The Heist Unfolds:

On the evening of June 1, 2019, brothers Stewart and Louis Ahearne, alongside a later publically identified third individual executed a planned break-in at the late-19th-century townhouse. Wearing masks and gloves, they employed a saw and crowbar to breach the Fondation Baur's Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient's glass-panelled front door.

Once inside, the burglars, performing with the speed of professional thieves, shattered one of the protective display cases and made off with a grouping of Chinese imperial ceramics, valued at 3,6 million francs.  

In and out in less than five minutes, the burglars exited the way they entered and in haste, Stewart Ahearne left behind traces of his DNA.  His brother, Louis Ahearne,  was clearly captured on CCTV footage as was the Renault SUV. 

At the time of the burglary, the Foundation elected, as is often the custom in the prestigious and discreet circles of art collections, to not publicly communicate the theft to allow law enforcement to work the investigation. 

The three stolen artefacts were recorded as:

  • A bowl valued at 80,000 GBP.
  • An rare “Sweet White” 甜白 glazed Pomegranate bottle vase dating to the Yongle period (1400 – 1425), Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), 
  • A “doucai-style” wine cup with chicken decorations.

Post-Heist Activities (2019):

Shortly after the raid, the Ahearne brothers traveled to Hong Kong, where Louis Ahearne consigned the stolen bowl through China Guardian (HK) Auctions Co., Ltd. where it sold for for HK$236,000 (£23,800).  Later that same year, having been identified, this bowl will be returned to the Museum.

Parallel Criminal Activities (2019-2020):

Louis Ahearne is sentenced to a five-year prison sentence on 26 May 2020 for a different burglary, carried out on 9 July 2019 just one month after the Geneva museum heist.  In this event,  Ahearne and two accomplices, Daniel Bowen and Daniel Kelly, broke into a Grade II-listed housing complex in Westerham, Kent posing as police officers to get into the gated communit off Emmetts Lane and using a blue flashing light mounted on the roof of their car

In that case, forensics teams detected bloodstains which provided a DNA match to Bowen.   Officers had recognised Ahearne and Kelly as two of the culprits after viewing CCTV at the time of the crime. 

Late July 2020 and the Tip from Hong Kong:

The Metropolitan Police in London received a pivotal tip in late July from China Guardian auction in Hong Kong in late July 2020. An individual known as "Mr. Steel" had emailed the same auction house where the first object had been sold, with knowledge of the whereabouts of the 5th-century CE  “Sweet White” Yongle period, Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase. 

Following confirmation from Interpol and the museum that the vase offered to the Hong Kong auction house was the one stolen from the museum, a Joint Investigation Team is formed in the UK in parallel with their Swiss counterparts.

Undercover Operation

To recover the stolen vase, Officers in  the UK trace the IP address for the email account which communicated with the Hong Kong auction house to an address in Belmont Park Close, Lewisham which is determined to be the home of an individual named David Lamming with connections to the Ahearne brothers.   Meanwhile Swiss authorities, having checked on the car hire company at Geneva Airport rented by Stewart Ahearne determine that the distance the Renault clocked while rented matches with the bidirectional distance from Geneva Airport to the museum, to a French ferry port and on to the brothers' London addresses.

To work towards the recovery of the remaining stolen pieces, an undercover operation is developed via the Trident Operational Command Unit, within the Metropolitan Police Specialist Crime Directorate.  Contacted by an undercover officer posing as an intermediary named "Paul," the police as Lamming for a "proof of life" photo, one that shows the stolen vase he hopes to sell, on top of a recent Metro newspaper as proof the vase is actually in his possession.

Rareness of this Vase, and a Plan to Recover

Preserved tianbai, or “sweet white” 甜白 specimens of the Yongle reign (1403-1424) are rarer than contemporary blue-and-white Imperial porcelains and are known for their thin and translucent white glaze, which is said to mimic white jade.  Less opaque than earlier shufu wares, to achieve this look tianbai vase production required a combination of a kaolin-rich paste, which when fired at a high fusion temperature, produces a naturally bright white color with very low iron and titanium content.  Matched with a glaze containing mainly glaze stone and no glaze ash it gives objects a similar appearance to that of white jade.   

The name for this type of Chinese porcelain was coined by Huang Yizheng, a writer from the Wanli period (1573-1620) in his Shiwu ganzhu, which was written in 1591. In that missive, he refers to this unique type of glaze that was produced only from the Royal Kiln of Yongle, and attributed to the Emperor’s personal fondness for white vessels.  

To ensure the safe recovery of the rare stolen vase, officers elected to not arrest Lamming immediately, and instead worked to set up an undercover sting operation where they would pose as would-be buyers.  To not appear too eager, and to recover the vase, they negotiate downward from the asked £1 million purchase price settling at £450,000 over a series of meetings in London.

Key Meetings and Arrests (2021):

On September 30, 2021, David Lamming met with undercover officers "Paul" and a second officer purporting to be a buyer named "Richard." The three meet at Scott's seafood restaurant in Mayfair where they discuss the purchase price of the Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase. 

On October 7, 2021, Lamming again meets their undercover buyer "Richard", this time in the company of Stewart Ahearne at another Mayfair eatery, Delfino's trattoria.  There the officers finalise the deal, telling the pair they will buy the vase for £450,000. The exchange and purchase is then scheduled for October 15, 2021, at the Marriott Hotel in Grosvenor Square.

Marriott Hotel Encounter and Arrests (October 15, 2021):

On the day of the scheduled meeting, undercover officers entered the Marriott rendezvous room ahead of the transfer, with additional officers stationed at the hotel as backup. 

Image of Mbaki "Leslie" Nkhwa from his Facebook Profile

Outside the London hotel, surveillance teams spot co-conspirator, Mbaki Nkhwa, of The Heights, Charlton. He is observed manoeuvring a sizeable black suitcase into and through the Marriott's lobby, where he eventually connects with Stewart Ahearne before the pair proceed to the agreed-upon meeting point.

Once inside the room, the pilfered "Sweet White" Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase is removed from a yellow JD Sports bag from inside the suitcase and offered to the undercover officer, who give the "go" signal for agents to move in and apprehend Nkhwa and Ahearne.

Meanwhile, outside the Marriott, David Lamming and a driver named Kaine Wright, a once-promising footballer associated with West Ham and Brentford, who were waiting for Nkhwa and Ahearne, leave the scene but are apprehended later. 

Nkhwa and Lamming will be detained briefly on suspicion of handling stolen goods and released on bail while their court cases progressed.   Stewart Ahearne is held in custody. 

Investigations at Nkhwa's residence in southeast London yield significant findings. Ahearne's passport is discovered along with a Geneva museum leaflet, where pictures of the stolen Ming Dynasty items are circled. Telephone data analysis reveals regular contact between Nkhwa, Lamming, and Wright, the driver who conveyed them to the hotel for the intended purchase.

Legal Proceedings and Extradition (2022-2023):

In early May 2022 the Office Fédéral de la Justice in Bern sends two  extradition requests to the British government for brothers Stewart Ahearne (21.07.78) and Louis Ahearne (02.12.88) who have been charged in Switzerland with theft, damage to property and trespassing for their alleged role in the 1 June 2019 theft from the Baur Foundation, Museum of Far Eastern Art. 

Subsequent to a Swiss request for extradition, District judge Nina Tempia, sitting at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court, rules on 17 May 2022 that the extradition of Stewart and Louis Ahearne is not barred and that their extradition case should be forwarded onward for the consideration of the UK's Home Secretary.

Around this same period, the prosecutor's office in Geneva releases the first-ever details about the theft committed in 2019 at the Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient, publicising the names of the Ahearnes for the first time and listing them as their primary suspects. 

Also facing another extradition request from Japan for the two brothers, the UK's Home Secretary approves their extradition to the European country to appear for trial.

From left to right: David Lamming, Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright
Image Credit: Metropolitan Police

Lamming's Plea and Convictions (2023):

On March 23, 2023, David Lamming plead guilty to conspiracy to convert criminal property. Almost five months later, on August 18, 2023, Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright were found guilty of one count of conspiracy to convert criminal property in relation to the thefts of the Chinese objects from the Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva.

Sentenced in October 2023, Wright and Nkhwa are given sentences of three years and 30 months imprisonment respectively.  David Lamming is sentenced to three years and two months in prison. In adjudicating the three accomplices at their sentencing at Southwark Crown Court, Judge Martin Griffiths said each would serve six months less because of conditions inside HMP Wandsworth.

The Ahernes Trial in Geneva (January 15, 2024):

Following their extradition to Switzerland, and facing charges of theft, trespass, and property damage, Louis and Stewart Ahearne admitted to their involvement in the Geneva museum heist during their trial at the Palais de Justice in Geneva on January 15, 2024. 

Louis Ahearne claimed that he became involved in the theft because he had to "clear a debt" and broke down when answering questions about his life in Champ-Dollon prison, saying he spends his time in a cell by himself for 23 hours a day.  Stewart Ahearne went on the record saying he became involved in the plot to protect his younger brother. 

Prosecutor Marco Rossier argued that the brothers and a third man named during the trial as Kaine Wright's biological father, Daniel Kelly, were "equally involved" in the orchestrations of the burglary, noting Kelly is also the subject of extradition proceedings relating to an incident in Japan.

Both Ahearnes apologised for their actions, and were sentenced by the Swiss courts to three-and-a-half years in custody with a subsequent ban from reentering Switzerland for a period of five years once their sentences are complete.

Louis Ahearne is known to have had a relationship with Daniel Kelly through his burglary carried out with Daniel Bowen and Daniel Kelly on 9 July 2019 one month after the museum break-in. 

Judge Patrick Monney said the damage they had caused was "considerable and may be irreparable" because one of the rare objects, known as a chicken cup has never been recovered.

This leaves just one unrecovered object from the 2019 theft.  

Authorities continue to appeal for the public’s help in locating the third and final item stolen from the Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient in 2019, the Ming Dynasty, "chicken" cup.

This porcelain wine-cup, made in the Ch’eng-hua Reign of the Great Ming, is decorated in doucai style with an underglaze of blue washes with two blue bands at the top and one at the bottom. The cup depicts a rooster, hen and chicks with lilies and peony shrubs behind. 

Anyone with information about its whereabouts can contact police referencing Operation Funsea or to remain anonymous contact the independent charity Crimestoppers.

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. 

January 18, 2024

Thursday, January 18, 2024 - ,,,, No comments

Breakthrough in Decade-Long Art Heist: Stolen Chagall and Picasso Paintings Recovered in Antwerp Raid

In a stunning turn of events, two valuable paintings, L’homme en prière by Marc Chagall and a version of Tête by Pablo Picasso, stolen from a Tel Aviv villa in February 2010, have been recovered after a decade-long investigation. The breakthrough came on January 10, 2024, when police in Namur, Belgium, executed searches at the residence of a 68-year-old Israeli luxury watch dealer, known only as "Daniel Z."

The heist, which took place in February 2010 at a villa owned by the Herzikovich family of art collectors, saw the thieves make off with the Chagall and Picasso masterpieces valued at $900,000 (£710,000). In addition to the paintings, jewelry worth $680,000 was stolen from a safe, with the burglars showing a selective focus by bypassing other artworks displayed in the home.

The stolen paintings eventually made their way to Europe, specifically an Antwerp neighborhood, where they remained hidden for several years.

The breakthrough in the investigation occurred at the end of 2022 when law enforcement officers in Namur received a tip-off about an individual attempting to sell the stolen Chagall and Picasso works. A thorough investigation led to the identification of a suspect, prompting months of surveillance and intelligence gathering.

By 2023, Belgian law enforcement confirmed that the suspect was indeed in possession of the stolen paintings and likely stored them at his residence or with an associate. Subsequent checks and resources implemented in 2023 pointed to the suspect's potential possession of the artworks.

On January 10, 2024, police executed a search at the home of "Daniel Z" at the public prosecutor's request. While a significant amount of money was discovered, the two stolen paintings were not found. The suspect confessed to possessing the artworks but refused to disclose their location.

Continuing with leads in the investigation, authorities in Antwerp, conducted a search of a building purportedly linked to past cases of stolen paintings which resulted in the recovery of the Chagall and Picasso masterpieces. Stored in wooden boxes with screwed lids, the artworks were found undamaged and still in their original frames.

According to The Times, Alexander Besedin, the building's caretaker, revealed, "Those wooden boxes were untouched for four or five years, without me really paying attention to them. It was a favor to someone I considered a friend. When I asked him at the time what was in it, he said it was family paintings. They were nailed shut, so I couldn’t see into them."

The main suspect, described as a 68-year-old Israeli luxury watch dealer, has been charged with receiving the two stolen paintings and has been placed under arrest. 

January 12, 2024

Three houses of Vittorio Sgarbi searched and the painting attributed to Rutilio Manetti seized.

Image Credit Vittorio Sgarbi
via Facebook

This week, the Public Prosecutor's Office at the Court of Macerata initiated an investigation to determine whether Vittorio Sgarbi, Undersecretary of Culture, should face formal charges for the offense of Self-Laundering of Cultural Assets (as specified in Article 1(1)(b) of Law No. 22 of the Criminal Code, C.C. art. 518-septies). As an outcome of this inquiry, today, Italy's Carabinieri del Nucleo Tutela Patrimonio Culturale carried out searches at three residences linked to the art critic in Rome and Le Marche.  Simultaneously to these searches, Sgarbi was informed of his status as a suspect, while according to the Carabinieri's press release officers executing the search warrants seized "telematic, IT, and documentary devices" relevant to their law enforcement investigation requiring further examination.

As part of the prosecutor's inquiry, and in order to conduct the necessary scientific examinations for authentication and attribution of an artwork owned by Sgarbi, officers conducted an evidentiary seizure of the art critic's painting titled The Capture of Saint Peter (Italian: Cattura di San Pietro).  This artwork, attributed by Sgarbi as a previously "unpublished" painting by the artist Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti (c. 1571 – 22 July 1639), was confiscated from facilities associated with the Cavallini-Sgarbi Foundation in Ro Ferrarese in Emilia-Romagna, Italy.  The order for seizure also called for the seizure of one of the cloned copies of the painting produced by GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co.

Since mid December, in addition to hurling insults at investigative journalists, Sgarbi has angrily and adamantly asserted, on video and in print, that he is the victim of politically-minded journalists and that his painting is not the painting from the Castello di Buriasco (Pinerolo) reported stolen by its owner Margherita Buzio on 14 February 2013.  Instead, he defends his ownership by claiming that the painting in his possession was discovered in the abandoned Villa Maidalchina in the Viterbo area and is a much earlier original, and that the stolen painting was merely a poor copy, completed at a later date. 

As discussed in our earlier blog post, to the naked eye, viewing only digital imagery of the two artworks, both paintings appearto be remarkably similar, with the painted characters depicted matching proportionately and in placement, something ARCA does not believe would have been possible for the original 17th century artist himself, let alone a later copiest recreating the image of his predecessor.

The primary difference, aside from the cut down size of Sgarbi's painting, which might be attributed to the fact that the stolen painting was cut from its frame, is the placement of an illuminated torch, which some allege was added to the top left quadrant of Sgarbi's painting at some later date.  Meanwhile, while ignoring these improbable similarities, or the fact that a painting cut from its frame, would be, by its resulting damage, now smaller, Sgarbi took to the airwaves as soon as the searches and seizure of his painting was announced, stating:

"I spontaneously handed over the work so that all the necessary checks could be carried out, starting from the measurements of the painting compared to the frame of the stolen one. I am absolutely at peace. The seizure is a necessary act. I have nothing to fear. I will defend myself by all means against those who speculate on the matter and those who become complicit in it."

ARCA would like to remind its readers that when questioned by reporters last December about the The Capture of Saint Peter and its added torch, Sgarbi deflected the reporters line of questioning stating that he had sold the artwork in question.  The Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation, where the artwork was recovered was founded in 2008 by Caterina “Rina” Sgarbi and Giuseppe “Nino” Sgarbi and their children, Elisabetta and Vittorio Sgarbi.  This foundation is located in Ro Ferrarese, in the family's home, which is now owned by the Elisabetta Sgarbi Foundation and houses hundreds of works of art – paintings and sculptures from the 13th to the 20th century – that have been acquired over many decades. 

It will be interesting to see what paperwork investigators uncover and whether or not said paperwork substantiates an actual sales transaction to the Cavallini-Sgarbi Foundation, and if this transfer of ownership is of evidentiary interest in the investigation of Self-Laundering of Cultural Assets.

For now, it is up to the investigators to determine if this artwork is one and the same as the stolen painting from Castello di Buriasco, and if it is, whether or not the torch modification was introduced by the art critic himself, or in collaboration with persons currently unknown, as a means of subterfuge, designed to hide the artwork's theft by adding a detail to make the painting appear different from the original.