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April 26, 2023

The Amelia Conference - June 23-25, 2023 - Registration is now open

Conference Date:
June 23-25, 2023
Location: Amelia, Italy

Celebrating more than a decade of academic conferences addressing art and antiquities crimes, ARCA will host its 12th summer interdisciplinary art crime conference the weekend of June 23-25, 2023.

Known as the Amelia Conference, the Association's weekend-long event aims to facilitate a critical appraisal of art crimes and the protection of art and cultural heritage and brings together researchers and academics, police, and individuals from many of the allied professions that interact with the art market, coming together to discuss issues of common concern. 

The Amelia Conference is an annual ARCA event, held in the historic city of Amelia, in the heart of Italy's Umbria region where ARCA also plays host to its Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.

The conference includes a weekend full of multidisciplinary panel sessions, and plenty of time to meet others who are working towards the protection and recovery of cultural heritage.

Confirmed Presentations (additional names will be added as speakers confirm)

Dutch Perspectives on Police Specialisation in Art Theft
Richard Bronswijk,
Head, Dutch Politie Art Crime Unit

"Proactive Protective Training – A Crime Reduction Strategy for All"
Frank Andrew Davis, MSc., CSyP, FSyI, CPP.
Managing Director, Trident Manor Limited

"Cultural Heritage:  The Canary in the Coal Mine"
Colonel Andrew Scott Dejesse
US Army CENTCOM CCJ5, Program Director, Strategic Initiatives Group 
Gabriella Corey
Restitution Researcher, Christie's New York

"The Mitigation of Protests and Activism in our Museums"
Wesley De Smet
Ghent Museum of Fine Arts
Kim Covent
Ghent Police

"Non-Fungible Tokens: Art and Crime in a Virtual World"
Saskia Hufnagel, Ph.D.
Reader in Criminal Law, School of Law, Queen Mary University of London
Colin King, Ph.D.
Professor, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, London

"The Fate of the Adolphe Schloss Collection – Lessons learned from provenance research during the Pandemic"
Marc J. Masurovsky, MA 
Co-founder, Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), Washington DC, USA 
Claudia Hofstee, MA 
Independent Art Historian and Provenance Researcher, Amsterdam, Netherlands 
Saida S. Hasanagic, MA / Postgraduate Certificate in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection (ARCA)
Independent Art Historian and Provenance Researcher, London, United Kingdom

"The destruction, laundry and sale of Egypt’s cultural heritage"
Marcel Marée, Ph.D.
Assistant Keeper, Egypt and Sudan, The British Museum

"Papyrus and Provenance, solving more than an ancient puzzle: The case of the Artemidorus papyrus and its controversial seller, Serop Simonian"
Roberta Mazza, Ph.D.
Papyrologist and ancient historian, University of Bologna, Cultural Heritage Department - Ravenna 

"Investigation and Prosecution of Museum Thefts from a Half-Century Ago"
K.T. Newton, J.D.
Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

"Title Forthcoming"
Loes Schouten
Senior Publishing Director, Brill

"Presumed Guilty: Is it still possible to create a private collection of archeology?"
Massimo Sterpi, J.D.
Partner and Head of the IP and Art Law at Gianni & Origoni, Rome

"Museums: Accountability?"
Yasmine Zahir
Barrister-at-Law, Liberty Chambers, Hong Kong 

To register for this event, please go to our Eventbrite page located here.

Conference Networking Events

Saturday and Sunday's conference sessions include complimentary morning and afternoon coffee breaks, with coffee, juices and light pastries or afternoon hors d'oeuvres to allow time for networking. 

Friday, June 23rd - James Bond themed Icebreaker Cocktail "Cena" at the Country House Monastero le Grazie  
NB: To attend this event, please select the correct registration payment option during your conference registration.

ARCA will open its conference weekend with this relaxing icebreaker cocktail at the Country House Monastero le Grazie, an enchanting centuries-old Cistercian monastery adjacent to the Church and Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie, built in 1300.  This unique conference venue is located in the hamlet of Foce, just a few kilometers outside the centro storico of Amelia and will also play host to Saturday's Gala Dinner. 

Saturday, August 6 - Cloister Buffet Luncheon in the centro storico of Amelia**
Saturday, August 6 - Italian Slow Food Conference Dinner at Il Ristoro del Priore, Country House Monastero le Grazie  (Please RSVP by 20 June 2023). **
Sunday, August 7 - Cloister Buffet Luncheon - in the centro storico of Amelia**

** Ticketing to the optional Gala Dinner and Conference Lunches can be paid for directly at the conference venues:

Please note: The Amelia Conference has sold out in 2019 and 2022.  We recommend that those interested in attending reserve their tickets in advance to ensure availability.   Seating is limited and fire-safety and COVID prevention rules prevent us from overbooking.

If you have any questions regarding this conference, please contact the ARCA conference organisation team at:

italy.conference [at]

April 21, 2023

Summer Course in Provenance Research, Theory and Practice

Photo taken by Nazi authorities during World War II
showing a room filled with stolen art
at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris

Recognizing that reclaiming looted cultural assets can feel like a Sisyphean task, and that restitution cannot be accomplished without the practical knowledge of how to conduct critical research, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) and the US-based Holocaust Art Restitution Project, [Inc.] (HARP), have teamed up to offer its 4th annual stand-alone provenance course which tackles the complex issues of cultural plunder.

Course Title: “Provenance and the Challenges of Recovering Looted Assets,”
Course Dates: June 26 - 30, 2023
Course Location: Amelia, Italy

Exhibition in the library of the Collecting Point, summer 1947
© Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Open to applicants interested in exploring the ownership history of looted cultural objects, their trafficking and their restitution/repatriation, this 5-day course will provide participants with exposure to research methodologies used to clarify and unlock the past history of objects likely to have been displaced in periods of crisis. It will also examine the complex nuances of post war and post conflict restitution and repatriation, as well as its ethical underpinnings.

This course is taught by Marc Masurovsky, who cofounded HARP in September 1997 and currently serves as its Director of Research. 

Since 1980 Marc has examined the general question of assets looted during the Nazi era and has worked as an expert historian on a class-action lawsuit filed by Jewish claimants against three leading Swiss banks, accusing them of having expropriated the property that their families had deposited in their safes and bank accounts. 

As a consultant and historian for the Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations, Masurovsky, has investigated alleged Nazi war criminals living in the U.S. and post-war relations between former Nazi officials and Allied intelligence agencies. Mr. Masurovsky earned his M.A. in Modern European History from American University in Washington, D.C. For his Master's thesis, he researched "Operation Safehaven: the Allied response to Nazi post-defeat planning, 1944-1948". He is also the co-author with Fabrizio Calvi of Le Festin du Reich (Editions Fayard, 2006).

This course will provide participants with the opportunity to engage in an intensive, guided, dynamic exchange of ideas on research methods while highlighting the multiple diplomatic, political and financial challenges raised by restitution and repatriation claims. Special emphasis will also be placed on the contextual framework of provenance research in an era increasingly reliant on digital tools.

With an emphasis on an interdisciplinary and comparative approach, this provenance course will benefit anyone with an interest in art, art history, art collecting, the global art market writ large, museum and curatorial studies, art and international law, national and international cultural heritage policies.

As an added bonus participants accepted into this 5-day course will automatically registered be registered to attend ARCA’s Amelia Conference, the weekend of June 23-25, 2023.  This weekend-long forum of intellectual and professional exchange which explores the indispensable role of research, detection, crime prevention and criminal justice responses in combating all forms of art crime and the illicit trafficking in cultural property. 

For more information on the course, course fees and how to apply, please see this link.

March 1, 2023

2023 ARCA Amelia Conference - Save the Date & Call for Presenters

Conference Dates: June 23-25, 2023

Collegio Boccarini, 
adjacent to the Museo Civico Archeologico e Pinacoteca Edilberto Rosa, 
Piazza Vera
Amelia, Italy

Held in the beautiful town of Amelia, Italy, the seat of ARCA’s summer-long Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, the Association’s 12th annual Amelia Conference will be held the weekend of June 23-25, 2023 with a networking cocktail opening the event for all Amelia Conference attendees and speakers. 

At the heart of the conference will be two days of panel sessions, on Saturday and Sunday, June 24-25, 2023, devoted to presentations selected through this call.

ARCA’s annual Amelia Conference serves as an arena for intellectual and professional exchange and highlights the nonprofit’s mission to facilitate a critical appraisal of the need for protection of art and heritage worldwide. Over the course of one weekend each summer, this art crime-focused event serves as a forum to explore the indispensable role of detection, crime prevention, and scholarly and criminal justice responses, at both the international and domestic level, in combatting all forms of crime related to art and the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

Geared towards international organizations, national enforcement agencies, academics, cultural institutions, and private sector professionals in the art and antiquities fields, the Amelia Conference follows a long-established commitment by the Association to examine contemporary issues of common concern in an open, non-combative, multi-disciplinary format in order to promote greater awareness and understanding of the need for better protection of the world’s cultural patrimony.

2023 Call for Presenters: Session Formats and Topics

Given the success of the Amelia Conference over the past decade, it is important to recognise the growing interdisciplinary and international nature of this emerging field, the growing complexity of art and heritage crime, and the disciplines and subject matter experts who follow along and contribute within their areas of speciality.  With that in mind, this year’s conference will build upon topic-specific sessions designed to stimulate discussion and share learning on a series of topics of common concern. Some conference panels may feature more active panel debate about a session topic, or present various and/or contrasting perspectives about a topic. Each panel session will last approximately 75 or 90 minutes and will include a number of oral presentations with some time dedicated for interactive discussion.

ARCA welcomes presentation proposals related to the conference’s art and antiquities crime theme from individuals in relevant fields, including law, policing, security, art history, art authentication, archaeology, or the allied art market.  Presenters with topics related to the following areas are particularly encouraged to submit a speaking proposal this year highlighting the following issues of common concern:

Strengthening international cooperation in the fight against illicit trafficking, Do MLATs and ILORS work? And is this formality always useful?

Organised crime and illicit trafficking.

Recent successes in the field and what we can learn from them collectively.

The Elephant in the Room: How museums can proactively address problematic art in their collections.

Consciousness raising vandalism as a form of protest in museums. 

Digital and technology-facilitated approaches to combatting illicit trafficking: Do automated web-scraping tools work for combatting art crime?

Solving societal issues using Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) – 

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) continues to grow in acceptance and use beyond the traditional military and law enforcement sectors. How has it been applied to combatting art and antiquities crimes.

Recent convictions: Art crime’s bad boys (and girls) and what we can learn from their prosecutions. 

Each selected presenter will represent a coherent and clearly focused presentation of 15 to 20 minutes maximum on a topic of common concern, that combined with presentations given by co-panelists, are designed to provide significant insights into the topic or theme and to stimulate thoughtful, not combative or antagonistic, discourse.

We very much look forward to receiving presentation proposals on the aforementioned or alternative art and antiquities crime topics, noting that panels may change or be altered based on speaker availability.

Abstract and CV Submission Deadline: March 30, 2023

Abstract Word Limit: 400 words, excluding abstract title, presenter/co-presenter names and affiliations

Abstract Selection Process

Each submitted abstract must be accompanied by a CV. The abstract review process will be conducted blind, i.e. all author names will be removed before the abstract before being sent out for peer review. The abstract itself will be reviewed and scored by independent reviewers who have expertise in the specific session’s identified subject area.

Peer Reviewers apply the following criteria to judge abstract submissions 

I. Quality and Originality (1 to 5)

Abstracts containing significant new findings or presenting concretised information or new approaches will be given higher scores than those that merely serve as a chronology of, or modifications to, older findings or routine topics of dischord.

II. Importance (1 to 5 pts)

This criterion addresses the importance of the presentation or research in terms of covering new ground and in advancing knowledge in the art crime and cultural heritage protection field.

III. Presentation (1 to 5 pts)                                                                              This criterion addresses how well the specific research question(s) and objectives, methods used, primary results, facts ascertained, etc., are explained, rather than simply titling the topical subject itself. A clearly written abstract follows a logical order (e.g. aims, methods, outcome of investigation or analysis).


All accepted participants are responsible for their own travel and accommodation expenses, however, accepted conference presenters will have their attendance fee waived and will be invited to be ARCA’s guest for the Amelia Conference icebreaker cocktail on 23 June 2023.

February 23, 2023

77 looted artefacts to the Republic of Yemen and a well known Brooklyn dealer

On February 21, 2023 the United States restituted 77 looted artefacts to the Republic of Yemen via its Embassy in Washington DC.  This marks the first time in nineteen years that the US has restituted material to that country, the last being a single funerary stela in 2004.  

This week's handover included 11 ancient Quranic manuscripts and 64 South Arabian stelae, many carved in relief, depicting male faces with oval eye-sockets (originally containing inlays) and eyebrows in low relief, some of which have Sabaean or Qatabian inscriptions dating them to c.4th-1st century BCE.  

Participating in the ceremonial handover were Yemeni Ambassador Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, Steve Francis, Acting Executive Associate Director, HSI at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Department of State, and representatives from the Smithsonian Institution. 

The roots of this handover date back to an investigation started a decade ago. 

In May 2011, a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of New York issued a sealed multiple-count indictment charging four individuals as having together with others, engaged in a scheme to smuggle illicit cultural property into the United States. 

The four charged in U.S. v. Khouli et al. CR.11-340, (E.D.N.Y) were: 

• Brooklyn-based antiquities dealer Mousa Khouli (aka Morris Khouli) of Windsor Antiquities, 
• Then-Michigan-based coin dealer Salem Alshdaifat of Holyland Numismatics, 
• UAE-based dealer Ayman Ramadan of Nefertiti Eastern Sculptures Trading, and,
• a collector, Joseph A. Lewis, II, president and CEO of Pharma Management Corp. 

According to the indictment, between October 2008 and November 2009 Khouli had arranged for the purchase and smuggling of a series of Egyptian antiquities into the United States from Dubai, specifically a set of Egyptian funerary boats, a Greco-Roman style Egyptian coffin, a three-part nesting coffin that once contained an ancient Egyptian named Shesepamuntayesher, and some Egyptian limestone figurines.

All of the aforementioned Egyptian artefacts mentioned in this article were recovered during a joint investigation conducted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  Some of the artefacts had been seized at the Port of Newark, New Jersey, the garage of Khouli's Brooklyn, New York, residence, his New York gallery, and during the search of co-defendant Joseph A. Lewis II’s residence. 

During the Egyptian materials investigation, agents also found artefacts from other countries whose correspondence and invoices also contained inconsistencies or irregularities.  This resulted in a separate civil complaint, filed on July 13, 2011, seeking forfeiture of not only the Egyptian material, but Iraqi artefacts, cash, and the artefacts we have seen returned to the Republic of Yemen this week. 

On 18 April 2012, Khouli pled guilty to the charges of smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the United States, and making a false statement to law enforcement authorities.  As part of his guilty plea, Khouli also entered into a stipulation of settlement, resolving a civil complaint seeking forfeiture of the Egyptian antiquities, Iraqi artefacts, cash and other pieces of cultural property seized in connection with the government’s investigation.  

On November 20, 2012 Khouli was sentenced to six months home confinement, with up to 200 hours of community service, plus one year of probation and a $200 fine.  

Due to the ongoing eight-year conflict between the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) and the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency, by agreement, these artefacts will remain in the United States, housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, for the next two years, but will eventually be returned home. 

Mousa Khouli is a dealer ARCA has written about on this blog in the past.  He continues to do business in New York, though now under the business name of Palmyra Heritage Gallery.  In 2016, we wrote about another suspect artefact handled by this Brooklyn dealer, a c. 3rd-5th century CE Palmyrene funerary head of a woman.  Despite being Syrian in origin, it was sold with questionable Israeli paperwork and remains in circulation. 

February 21, 2023

Tuesday, February 21, 2023 - ,, No comments

Penelope Jackson The Art of Copying Art

Author: Penelope Jackson
Title:  The Art of Copying Art 
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland, 2022

Penelope Jackson has done it again with The Art of Copying Art. This is a hard book to put down.  She makes a strong case for the better appreciation of copies. She points out that copies tell their own stories, and add to our appreciation of the rich complexity and knowledge of art.  

Her style of writing is appealing to non-art aficionados.  She clearly states propositions and then relentlessly pursues the subject, presenting detailed evidence, allowing the material to speak for itself. Consequently, the reader has time to reflect on the permutations, and make up their mind.  Typical of Jackson’s writing, she extensively footnotes her material, creating a rich resource for further investigation. Where questions remain, she frankly admits to this. 

Jackson has a knack for choosing art related subjects that are little considered, bringing out fresh reflections and new perspectives.  This is her third, general art “themed” book. The first, Art Thieves, Fakers and Fraudsters the New Zealand Story (Awa Press, 2016) was something of a trailblazer. She revealed largely unknown (even to New Zealanders) accounts of New Zealand art theft, reflective of international stories and trends. Her second book Females in the Frame Women, Art, and Crime (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) looked at the role of female actors in art crime, focusing on their often different intentions from male perpetrators. To my knowledge, this topic had not previously been explored.  Indeed, I am aware that it has opened up fresh perspectives for study of female criminological behaviour.

How then, does her latest book add to this field? The Art of Copying Art again, is written for general consumption. Divided into nine chapters, each one is thematic. Chapter 1, “A Case for Copies”, makes the argument for studying copies.  The following chapters then develop themes. Chapter 2 “Apprentice Artists”; chapter 3 “Copies for the Colonies”; chapter 4 “Paintings-Within-Paintings”; chapter 5 “Education and Entertainment”; chapter 6 “Copies in Public Collections”; chapter 7 “Protecting the Past”; chapter 8 “Cash for Copies”; and then a summation in the last chapter, “Afterword: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff”. The substantive part of the book is some 220 pages and amply illustrated. 

Originals and copies of Adele Younghusband’s Floral Still Life (1958 and 2016) and
Ida H Carey’s Interior (1946 and 2016)
in ‘An Empty Frame: Art Crime in New Zealand’ exhibition (2016–7).
Image Credit: Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

We tend to forget, that prior to photography, scanning, and photocopies, the only way art could be known was through copies. Throughout history, many artists have only had access to signature artworks this way, lacking the visceral advantage of being exposed to the “real thing” in terms of context, quality, and scale. Thus, subsequent developments in art have been sometimes been affected by access to only inferior, or incomplete copies of signature works.  I found chapter 3 particularly instructive.  It explores the role played copies of artworks in the colonies, in terms of educating localised population to key works of art. Obviously some copies were better than others, and this led to the various developments discussed in the book. Chapter 4 is equally thought provoking.  It discusses the extent to which lost masterpieces are only now known through copies, sometimes by being referenced in other artists’ paintings. A rich resource for art historians looking to scope, study, locate, and better appreciate those lost works!

Front and Verso of William Dargie's The Wattle Portrait (1954).
Collection of National Museum of Australia, Canberra
Image Credit: National Museum of Australia, Canberra

Jackson makes the point that our current fixation with autograph, unique works, is a modern phenomenon (chapter 9). Painters sometimes operated workshops, reproducing their signature works for further distribution to collectors. Such copies were prized, often as equals to autograph works. It is only in more recent times that our mania for unique expression, and proved authenticity, has made copies seem somehow uninteresting, and second rate. Jackson points out even though this view prevails, the retention of copies remains important. What is a fake, forgery, or a mere copy, often rests on expert opinion. Whilst an institutional collector may recategorise a collected work as a copy, further study and science can reverse this judgment. Also, as Jackson argues that fakes and frauds also have a legitimate place. They remain a source of fascination and are necessary for historical context. An illustration of this this are van Meegeren’s fake Vermeers, that are now collectable in their own right  Thus the destruction of fakes and forgeries (as presently dictated by the French State) comes at a cost.  It not only risks destroying unproven authentic works, but damages our sense of art history. This is perhaps a point that requires more emphasis when we ponder on policing art crime.

It is a strength of this book that the content suggests further fields for consideration. With our present preoccupation fixation with authenticity, we tend to forget that masters’ copies of earlier artists’ masterpieces were often more valued (and valuable) than the historic original.  This was under the belief that the later copy enabled the “genius” inherent in the earlier work to be further developed and interpreted. Especially, when it came to issues of developing original concept, or designo (entails fidelity to an original concept). Think Rubens’ copies of Titian, and (perhaps) Van Gogh’s copies of Delacroix and Millet.  I would have welcomed such a more in depth discussion surrounding this issue. However, this is not a criticism.  As Jackson herself would no doubt point out, she has had to contain her subject matter to some 220 pages.  

I would strongly recommend this book for those interested in art, as well as those with a general interest in cultural history. The work is equally, if not more important, than her Females in the Frame.  It makes a robust argument for the better appreciation of copies as a field of study, collection, and educated enjoyment. 

Book Review by:

Rod Thomas
Associate Professor, Auckland University of Technology 

February 13, 2023

Burglars strike the Princessehof Ceramics Museum in Leeuwarden

According to the Dutch Politie, in today's early morning hours, around 3:45 am an alarm sounded which alerted them that, a burglar or burglars robbed the The Princessehof Ceramics Museum in the city of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands.

This is the second of two attempted break-ins in 2023, the first being unsuccessful, two weeks ago, on February 1 before 6 am. 

The perpetrator or perpetrators is today's theft are believed to have accessed the galleries inside the museum after entering via the roof of the building.

The Princessehof Ceramics Museum is known for its extraordinary ceramics, with objects representative of European, Middle Eastern and Asian ceramics making up parts of the collection. 

According to the museum a total of eleven objects from a Chinese ceramics installation were stolen during the burglary, seven of which were destroyed with abandoned or droped during the escape.  Dutch news sites are reporting that the  abandoned material, presumed to have been removed from the museum, was found in the Doelestraat, close to the museum. 

This is not the first incident of Chinese material being brazenly stolen from museums across Europe and the UK. The first recorded incident in a spate of thefts occurred in Stockholm at the Chinese Pavilion on the grounds of Drottningholm Palace in 2010.  Despite police arriving on the scene in just 14 minutes, thieves still managed a quick smash and grab, escaping with Chinese imperial seals and vases.   

Next, that same year, thieves hit in Bergen, Norway, where, like in today's theft, the burglars entered the building from the roof, with the intruders rappelling down from a glass ceiling into the KODE Museum.  In that theft, the burglars made off with 56 objects from the museum's China Collection. 

Crossing over the pond, another incident occurred at the Oriental Museum at Durham University, in 2012 when an 18th-century jade bowl and a Dehua porcelain figurine, worth an estimated £2m were stolen in a well-planned heist that investigators believe to have been a theft to order.   That same month burglars struck again, stealing a dozen objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum worth an estimated £15m, including artefacts from the Ming and Qing dynasties, a jade 16th century carved buffalo, a carved horse from the 17th century, a green and brown jade carved elephant.

Then the KODE Museum was struck again in 2013, where despite a heightened awareness to the recurring thefts of Chinese material, thieves still managed to grab another 22 objects in porcelain, jade, bronze and paper from the Norwegian museum, adding further insult to injury.  In 2015, this time striking in France, in a lightening raid that lasted just seven minutes,  thieves stole 22 objects from the Chinese Museum that houses works once belonging to Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III at the Château de Fontainebleau.  In that theft, thieves made off with a Chimera in cloisonné enamel, a mandala made of coral, gold, and turquoise, porcelain vases, and other rare items.  In 2018 another 40 Chinese artefacts, including ceramics, jade, and gold pieces, were stolen from the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, in southwest England.

For now, the Princessehof Ceramics Museum in the Netherlands will remain closed until February 21st to allow the police to conduct their investigation.  Eye witnesses or those with camera footage from the area of ​​the Grote Kerkstraat are asked to contact the local law enforcement authorities. 

February 10, 2023

A 2,500-year-old sculpture from the monumental ruins of Chavín de Huantar is returned to the Peruvian ambassador

The site of Chavín de Huantar

What we know about the monumental ruins of Chavín de Huantar, thousands of feet up in the Cordillera Blanca, the Andean highlands of Peru, is spartan.  Here, members of a pre-Inca culture, left us with what archaeologists believe to be a temple complex, consisting of a maze of ruined granite and sandstone structures – or step pyramids, cyclopean walls, and wonderful carved sculptures which date from around 1000 BCE. 

Already mentioned in the sixteenth-century chronicles of Pedro Cieza de León, the site of Chavín de Huantar, is located kilometers north of Lima.  It's unique architecture resulted in it being declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1985.  

Distinct, not only for its massive flat-topped pyramid temple, but also for what archaeologists call its "cabezas clavas," more commonly called temple nail heads.  These front-facing, pumpkin sized heads, were architectural elements, and were usually carved from volcanic tuff and made to resemble zoomorphic faces.   Used as decoration, they were positioned horizontally and equidistant from each other along the temple walls. 

Usually, these nail heads, carved with open eyes, closed mouths, crushed noses, and contracted muscles. When found intact, they also have an elongated stone extension bracket on the back.  This wedge was used to insert the sculptural element, like a nail, into the structure's wall, hence the name they were given.  Many of the Chavín de Huantar nail heads were originally positioned along the south, east, and west façade of the Chavín temple, garnishing the building in a horizontal row and positioned evenly under the temple's carved stone cornices.   

Some 42 nail heads were originally recorded and identified between 1919 and 1941 by Julio C. Tello, America's first indigenous archaeologist.  Most of which were lost in the aftermath of a 1945 flood that covered the archaeological site.  Others have been lost to looters. 

Over time, as many as 100 complete or almost complete nail heads, discovered after 1950, have been found and preserved from the Chavín culture, with almost all of those accounted for coming from official excavations.  These, are now part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Chavín.  Sadly, only a single original nail head remains in situ. 

Yesterday, in a ceremony conducted at the Swiss customs office, Basel/Weil am Rhein-Autobahn, the president of the Office fédéral de la culture (OFC), Carine Bachmann, returned a smuggled nail head to Peru's Ambassador HE Luis Alberto Castro Joo.  According to the OFC, this ancient architectural element, which weighs in at nearly 200 kilograms, was discovered by Swiss customs officials during a routine customs control check conducted in 2016 of a courier transporting the object from Germany into Switzerland.

Suspicious of the statements declared by the freight forwarder, who had tried to introduce the artefact into Switzerland as a "non-cultural good," and therefore not subject to specific heritage laws, employees of the Federal Office for Customs and Border Security - BAZG,  stopped the object's entry to examine it more closely.  Over time, and with the assistance of heritage experts, the Swiss authorities came to the conclusion that the artefact was, in fact, unregistered cultural property and moved for the artefact's seizure in accordance with the Cultural Property Transfer Act.

Shortly thereafter,  during a cantonal criminal proceeding, an order of confiscation was entered by the Basel public prosecutor in 2017.  This in turn allowed the artefact to be eventually restituted to the Government of Peru in the formal ceremony held yesterday.