Showing posts with label Galerie Cybèle conflict antiquities. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Galerie Cybèle conflict antiquities. Show all posts

November 19, 2020

Unpacking what has been made public in the investigation into the recently restituted Egyptian stela in the name of the Head of the Elders of the Portal of Hathor-Lady-of-Mefket, Pa-di-séna

Image Credit:  Facebook user "Art of Ancient"

This week a 2600-year-old looted stela in the name of the Head of the Elders of the Portal of Hathor-Lady-of-Mefket, Pa-di-Séna (French spelling) was formally restituted to the Arab Republic of Egypt.  The plundered Late Period antiquity had been seized in New York in route to the December 5 – 8, 2019 TEFAF art fair, which proudly holds up its vetting process as one of the main pillars of its success. Their process allows its buyers to acquire art with confidence, though this apparently wasn't the case in this instance, as this $180,000 dodgy Egyptian limestone carving somehow slipped through the nuanced hands of the vetting experts, not just in the United States but also in Europe in Maastricht.  

But let's start at the beginning. 

Somewhere around 600 BCE the Stela of Pa-di-Séna was crafted in Egypt during the Late Period, which began with the rule of Psamtek I of the 26th Dynasty. Psamtek I is credited with shaking off foreign control by the Assyrians in the north and the Kushites in the south, reuniting Upper and Lower Egypt following a long period of political fragmentation.


The artisan who carefully sculpted the 110 cm honorary stela so many centuries ago did so in painstaking sunk relief.  With careful strokes his design depicts the owner, Pa-Di-Séna, wearing only a kilt and standing expectantly on one side of a full table he has filled with offerings to three deities  On the opposite side, the most prominent god is Osiris, accompanied by the falcon-headed Horus, and the goddess Hathor, who wears her traditional headdress of cow horns and a sun disk. 

The Stela of Pa-di-Sena would remain where it belonged, at Padisena’s tomb, back in Egypt, as a monument to the tomb's deceased, until after Egypt's Arab Spring, when a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions spread across the country, and later to other parts of the Arab world.  During this period Egyptian authorities reported a significant uptick in heritage looting.

In 2012, the Manhattan D.A.’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit first got a whiff that the illicitly excavated Stela of Pa-di-Séna was being shopped by the same international smuggling network that had also trafficked the ancient gold mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh.  That spectacular trafficked antiquity was sold with fraudulent provenance documentation and export licenses to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was restituted to Egypt thanks to the work at the DA's office in October 2019.   

Shaaban Abdel-Gawad - Head of the Egyptian Department of Repatriation
Image Credit: Egyptian Department of Repatriation,
Ministry of Antiquities-Arab Republic of Egypt

Conversations between the smugglers involved in the trafficking network discussed the potential sale of a stela, but it was not until 2015 that the traffickers began exchanging photos.  In these, the artefact appears freshly looted, cracked and unrestored, with chip marks along the edge of the break, which strongly suggest that the looting was not only AFTER Egypt's antiquities laws, but that the break was intentional, perhaps to ease the transport from the looting site or when smuggling the piece abroad, dividing it into smaller sections that might be harder to detect. 

But in 2015, the Stela of Pa-di-Séna's location was outside the Manhattan office's jurisdiction. 

By 2016, far from its Egyptian tomb, the Stela of Pa-di-Séna surfaced on the antiquities market for the first time in the hands of Christophe Kunicki who published the stela on his website.  The stela then made its first appearance on the public stage in Paris, with La Gazette de l'Hôtel Drouot announcing the offering on May 25th with Pierre Bergé & Associés and Christophe Kunicki listing the estimated sale price at €50,000-60,000.  

Along with this relatively low figure for an ancient and rare Egyptian object, the provenance presented by the sellers was the same as that used for the looted Golden Coffin in the name of Nedjemankh:

"Old Habib Tawadros collection. German collection, acquired in 1970."  

Not to worry, despite the vague provenance, the Stela of Pa-di-Séna was snapped up anyway.  More importantly, it brought its middlemen almost three times the auctioneer's presale estimate.  This despite the fact that the object came with fabricated ownership records and falsified export documents attributed to the Egyptian authorities dating back to the 1970s.  Documents, it should be said, the seasoned purchaser who purchased the stela also readily accepted, despite marked incongruencies and factual errors which, as a purported expert, he should have easily recognized.

Screetshot: Sales results 25 May 2016
Pierre Bergé & Associés 

The 1970 provenance date on the falsified records is important as Egypt only enacted Law No. 117 "on the Protection of Antiquities" on 06 August 1983.  Article 1 defines an antiquity as "any movable or immovable property that is a product of any of the various civilizations...to a point one hundred years before the present and that has archaeological or historical value or significance as a relic of one of the various civilizations that have been established in the land of Egypt." Article 6 vests ownership of such property in the Egyptian state: "All antiquities...shall be deemed public property, and the ownership, possession and disposition of them shall be subject to the terms and conditions set forth in this law and regulations made thereunder." Article 7 states that "[a]ll trade in antiquities shall be prohibited as from the date of coming into force of this law." Finally, Article 9 prohibits the export of any antiquities: "no antiquity is to be taken outside the country."

So by 1970, had the paperwork been authentic, the new owner would have been in the clear.  

After its first purchase and by 2017, the Stela of Pa-di-Sena was being offered by C.E.C.O.A., I.A.D.A.A., and S.N.A member Galerie Cybèle in Paris, who apparently took the antiquity's made-up provenance, as supplied to Pierre Bergé by Christophe Kunicki, as the gospel truth.  All it would have taken for this gallery owner to have himself unmasked the deception, is to have done his due diligence. Had he inspected the export documents provided with any reasonable level of inquiry, he would have immediately understood the documentation accompanying the artifact was clearly and demonstrably fraudulent.  

But buyers looking to purchase the stela at TEFAF from Galerie Cybèle could rely on the calming statement provided by the president of one of the gallery's dealer associations, who says: the members of IADAA trade in ancient objects from private collections that have been on the market for decades, or even centuries.  Mr. Geerling also reassures potential collectors, saying: 

Our organisation, established in 1993, represents the top international dealers in Classical, Egyptian and Near Eastern ancient art. Our prime function is to facilitate good relations between the trade and museums, collectors, archaeologists and government agencies. We work with law enforcement and others to prevent crime and campaign vigorously for an open, legitimate trade operating under fair regulations. We firmly believe that the preservation of the relics of man’s ancient past is the responsibility of all.

Our members adhere to the highest professional standards as set out in our stringent code of ethics. They have therefore been well placed to understand and tackle issues of provenance that have become prevalent in recent years. Our members undertake due diligence as a matter of course and are obliged to check every object with a sales value over €5,000 with INTERPOL Database of Stolen Art or the the Art Loss Register. Your dealings with any member of the association can be made with the utmost confidence.

By utmost confidence, I assume President Geerling meant plausible deniability. One really doesn't have to dig very deeply to determine the stela's documentation was fraudulent, something the Manhattan D.A.'s office, with the help of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities easily substantiated.

Despite all this, the owner of Galerie Cybèle took the stela to New York twice.  The first time in 2018 when it was highlighted by TEFAF in their "meet the expert" video complete, it seems, with small amounts of dirt incrustations left from recent excavation still visible in this close-up video of the artefact. 

It also was exhibited at TEFAF Maastricht in 2019 when forensic antiquities researchers noted again that the he suspect provenance, mentioned the same suspicious Luxor dealer, Tawadros (sometimes spelled Todrous and Tadross)associated with the Manhattan D.A.'s office's earlier seizure of the golden coffin. 

Despite this, the antiquity still didn't seem to arouse the suspicions of either its vendor or the vetters at Europe's premier art fair, both of whom are supposed to have their client's interests at heart, and both of whom appeared to be more focused on the object's authenticity, than the fact that it was ripped out of the ground at some point following the civil unrest in Egypt.  

Image Credit:
MasterArt Directory
2017

Flash forward to Autumn 2019, when the stela was scheduled to come back to Manhattan for the last time. On 19 October 2019 the Manhattan District Attorney's Office formally initiated a grand-jury investigation into this specific artefact and asked the Honorable Althea Drysdale to issue a seizure order providing her with evidence based upon their exhaustive multi-year investigation.  It was once this seizure order was signed that the process of returning the ancient object to its lawful owner, the Arab Republic of Egypt could truly begin.  

As a result of the identification of the Stela of Pa-di-Séna, as well as the identification of the ancient gold mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh, two important artefacts, both handled by the same chain of coinvolved, go home to Egypt. 

But who, if anyone has been charged? 

In relation to this case, law enforcement authorities in France detained five individuals in June 2020, based on investigative evidence related to both the Stela of Pa-di-Séna and the golden coffin of Nedjemankh.  All were brought in for questioning in relation to the network law enforcement in France and New York had identified as having trafficked in antiquities from conflict, and post-conflict, countries which were then laundered through the French ancient art market.  In August, a sixth individual, Roben Dib, who is connected to both sales, was also arrested in Hamburg, Germany.

Back in France, Galerie Cybèle, who has cooperated with the Manhattan D.A.'s office, has filed a lawsuit in the Paris courts to recoup the losses incurred in the purchase of the Stela of Pa-di-Sena. In it, they name the consignor, Nassifa el-Khoury, the mother of Roben Dib.  Dib is a manager of Dyonisos Gallery in Hamburg, Germany, an ancient art gallery owned by Serop Simonian. Both Dib and Serop Simonian have previously been the subject of criminal investigations in multiple countries, resulting in the seizure of hundreds of pieces of stolen cultural property

In light of all that, on 18 November the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. and his team lead by Matthew Bogdanos, formally handed over Stela of Pa-di-Séna to the people of Egypt during a repatriation ceremony attended by Ambassador Dr. Hesham Al-Naqib, Egyptian Consul General in New York and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Erik Rosenblatt.  Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, Director General of the Department of Repatriated Antiquities at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that the stela is scheduled to return to Egypt soon.

Unfortunately, we may never know where the plundered tomb of Pa-di-Séna was.  But at least the Egyptians and its Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities can take comfort that investigations into the objects moved by this trafficking ring continue, in Manhattan, in Egypt, and elsewhere.

By:  Lynda Albertson