Showing posts with label HSI. Show all posts
Showing posts with label HSI. Show all posts

July 7, 2020

Ashraf Omar Eldarir, A US Citizen, indicted for smuggling Egyptian antiquities


The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (HSI) - Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquities (CPAA) unit within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has formally released information related to an antiquities trafficking investigation underway in the Eastern District of New York.  The case involves Ashraf Omar Eldarir, a US Citizen residing in Brooklyn who has been charged with smuggling Egyptian antiquities into the United States.

Stopped on 22 January 2020 upon arrival to John F. Kennedy International Airport from overseas, Eldarir provided US Customs and Border Protection authorities at the U.S. port of entry with a CBP declaration form, the double-sided slip of paper everyone entering the US must complete and hand over to  U.S. Customs and Border Protection upon arrival declaring the value of the goods they are bringing in from overseas.  On this form, Eldarir declared that he was only carrying merchandise and agricultural products valued at $300.  Instead, upon inspection of his belonging by CBP personnel, Eldarir was found to be transporting three suitcases full of bubble and foam-wrapped packages.

When unwrapped for further inspection by border patrol agents, the packages were found to contain 590 ancient artifacts, some of which still had adhering sand and soil, a signal which betrays their having been recently excavated.  Questioned by the authorities about the contents of his luggage, Eldarir was unable to produce any documentation which would show that he had obtained authorization from the Egyptian authorities for the exportation of the objects he was transporting.

As a result, Eldarir was subsequently arrested on 28 February 2020 and charged in the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, on two counts of smuggling, under Title 18 U.S. Code § 545, 2 and 3551 et seq. According to the U.S. Department of Justice indictment, the first charge of smuggling is related to the aforementioned January 2020 seizure.   The second charge us related to an earlier trip, on 18 April 2019, where the defendant is alleged to have smuggled a single artefact from Egypt.

If convicted of one, or both charges, Eldarir will face a penalty of up to 20 years in prison for each count.   The United States will also seek forfeiture of the following antiquities in accordance with: (a) Title 18, United States Code, Section 982(a)(2)(B):

  • forty-one (41) ancient Egyptian gold artifacts;
  • nineteen (19) ancient coins;
  • two (2) Greco-Roman rings;
  • thirty-one (31) ancient Egyptian talismans (Ptolemaic period);
  • fourteen (14) ancient beads;
  • twenty-six (26) ancient Egyptian wooden figures;
  • four hundred (400) ancient Egyptian faience ushabtis;
  • three (3) ancient Egyptian wooden panels with painted figures;
  • one ( I ) ancient Egyptian large stone face;
  • two (2) Egyptian wooden masks;
  • two (2) Egyptian stone panels with hieroglyphics; 
  • three (3) ancient Egyptian canopic jar lids;
  • two (2) ancient Greco-Roman stela;
  • one (1) ancient Greco-Roman terracotta headless torso with robes;
  • seven (7) ancient Greco-Roman terracotta statues; 
  • three (3) ancient Egyptian large terracotta vases; 
  • two (2) Egyptian smalIterracotta vases;
  • two (2) Egyptian alabaster artifacts;
  • two (2) ancient Egyptian Osiris headpieces/crowns; 
  • twenty-six (26) ancient Greco-Roman oil lamps; 
  • one (1) Greco-Roman terracotta pilgrim's flask;
  • one (1) ancient Egyptian polychrome relief.
How long Mr. Eldarir has been at this remains to be disclosed. But these pieces are just the tip of a growing iceberg.  


On 1 May 2013 it seems that Eldarir sold four Egyptian limestone relief fragments for Wahibrenebahet through Bonhams in London for €31,766 claiming they were from his personal collection, inherited through his grandfather who was a friend of Prince of Egypt Omar Tosson.  Curious as to what proof of export he showed then. 


He also sold a Limestone Relief Fragment for £28,750 via Alexander Biesbroek.  Same provenance, same question as to what proof of export Mr. Biesbroek or his buyer reviewed. 





And that's not all, there's more to come.  

Caveat Emptor

My suggestion is for every ancient art dealer or collector who has a piece with Eldarir provenance (and likely nothing to prove its legitimacy aside from its laundering) should really consider contacting HSI's Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquities (CPAA) unit.  They know how to google things as well as I do, and contacting them first might save you from embarrassing seizures, and no one wants that now. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

June 29, 2020

Object Alert: An Illicit antiquity breezes through the windy city

Hindman Auction Catalogue - 16 June 2020
Lot 157
Most of the time, when one thinks of illicit antiquities one imagines them transiting their way through lofty auction showrooms in London, New York, or more recently, as was in the news last week, Paris.  One doesn't usually suspect a homegrown auction house, from the windy city of Chicago, as a place to spot hot art that once passed through the hands of one of Italy's most notorious bad boys, art dealer Giacomo Medici.  But the market for looted or unprovenanced cultural property in America is still going strong and plundered artefacts have the tendency to scatter farther than you think.  Sometimes, when they do, they turn up in places that we don't expect, well, at least until we do.

An art dealer who post-sentence resides in an expansive seaside villa west of Rome, Giacomo Medici was convicted 13 December 2004 of participation in an organized criminal group as its principal promoter and organizer.  Men in his network plundered large swaths of Italy's territory, with the network's loot making its way into some of the world's most prestigious museums and lining the shelves of extravagant private collections.  But despite the sixteen years that have past since his conviction, Medici's ill-gotten wares continue to bubble to the surface, not unlike Italian gnocchi, one object at a time, in slow dribs and drabs and usually not even mentioning his name as was the case with this recent artefact.

This time, in late June, an investigation lead by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in collaboration with the New York District Attorney's Office and the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage turned up another one of Giacomino's antiquities, this time at Chicago's very own, Hindman Auctioneers, a firm which merged in 2019 with Ohio-based Cowan's and shortened its name from Leslie Hindman to just plain Hindman

Photographed on pages 116 and 117 of Hindman's 16 June 2020 Antiquities and Islamic Art catalogue, Lot 15, A Roman Marble Torso of a Faun with a Goose lists the artefact's provenance succinctly: 

Private Collection. London, acquired in New York in the early 1990s 
Oliver Forge & Brendan Lynch. London, 2013

What was provided to back up this claim, or what import, export, or shipping documents were submitted to demonstrate that this Italian antiquity's passages into the United States previously, then back across the sea to the UK, then back into Chicago were legitimate, leaves me curious. 

With no difficulty, and without auction consignment profits to incentivise (or disincentivise) my due diligence, I was quickly, and without too much trouble, able to find and cross-reference the 2013 sale via the Forge & Lynch Antiquities - Including the Collection of Ernst Langlotz (1895-1978) catalogue.   This sales PDF documented the previous sale of the mythological half-human, half-goat, creature with a discreet tail in a two-page spread.

Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd.,
Antiquities - Including the Collection of Ernst Langlotz (1895-1978) Catalogue - 2013

Joint proprietors of the art dealership Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd., Forge and Lynch left Sotheby’s in London in 1997 when the auction house began winding down its London antiquities sales, and continued working together for their own ancient art gallery formed in UK in July 2000.  Both art dealers are familiar with the problem children antiquities dealers of yesteryear from their Sotheby's days, and both have continued to get their reputations scorched brokering suspect art via more recent problematic dealers like Subhash Kapoor. 

So even without Medici's name clearly printed on anything provenance-y provided by the Faun's consignor to Hindman, one has to question first where Forge & Lynch themselves got the piece, and secondly, their own provenance entry for the earlier sale of this artefact, which reads: 

Probably acquired in New York, early 1990s  
Private collection, London, early 1990s-2013

This entry leads me to ask why Hindman changed the "probably acquired in New York" to definitely acquired in New York.  It is also curious why Hindman left off the non-specific "Private collection" in London which at first shakes, might appear less problematic than Robin Symes, whose name appears elsewhere in the June catalogue for LOT 83 from this sale. 

Did someone at Hindman find paperwork that changed the Faun's purported New York acquisition from probable into definite?  And what about that private collection in London from the 1990s until 2013.  Wasn't that one line, even vaguely written, not naming names worth mentioning on the big empty space of the full-page advertisement for the sculpture?  So why did Hindman elect to omit this detail?  

My hunch is that Hindman, who voluntarily relinquished the sculpture of the Faun to the authorities once evidence was presented by law enforcement, operates under the assumption that the occasional confiscation of a found-to-be-looted antiquity identified in their sales catalogues is a reasonable cost of doing business in the murky world of ancient art.  

Risks Hindman has already proved willing to take in the past and that illicit antiquities researcher Christos Tsirogiannis, cooperating with HSI-ICE, pointed out in an earlier Hindman auction, published in the auction house's Worldly Pursuits: An Adventurer’s Collection. The Estate of Steve and Peggy Fossett cataloug. In that sale Tsirogiannis identified three antiquities which matched archival photos in the Medici and Symes archives which proved that the objects had once passed through, or been shared with the networks of Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes, and Christo Michaelides.

But let's go back to this month's Hindman, June 16th auction catalogue.  In this summer's sale 127 objects out of 273 are listed without any provenance dates whatsoever.  Of the 146 remaining objects included in the catalogue which do list some date references:

15 show collection history dates which predate the UNESCO 1970s convention;
12 show collection history dates only to the 1970s;
85 show collection history dates only to the 1980s;
32 show collection history dates only to the 1990s;
and 2 only go back as far as the 2000s.

Knowing that illicit trafficking eyes cannot monitor every single sale, or inquire about every single object consigned to every auction house around the world, leaving out provenance details creates an environment conducive for a game of risk, with dealers more than willing to play, chalking up any losses from the occasional identified object after it has been illegally exported, as inventory shrinkage.

By limiting the details of what is written in provenance descriptions for objects being sold, dealers and auction houses create intentional impediments to those who try to research an object's legitimacy, making it more difficult to discern when an antiquity has passed through the hands of suspect dealers and when a legitimate object has simply been badly documented by a previous owner careless with their receipts.  And that's just speaking to those interested enough, and with the time to dedicate to actually monitor the previous sales of ancient artefacts.

According to a new report published to the LiveAuctioneers website, this inaugural Hindman ancient art auction brought in nearly $1M in sales, proving once again, that despite all the academics screaming about the necessity for clean provenance, buyers of ancient art, for the most part, are not unduly curious about the collection histories of their potential ancient art purchases.  Likewise, more collectors continue to be oblivious or disengaged as to whether or not the antiquities market is problematic and whether or not their lack of curiosity, and lack of due diligence before buying, acts as a catalyst for the destruction of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean world.

Should Hindman have known better with this artefact and should they have been more forthcoming with all of the collection histories listed for this $1M sale's catalogue? Yes and yes.

Hindman Auctioneers was founded by Leslie Hindman in Chicago in 1982.  The firm was not born yesterday, therefore they should be aware of the problems of illicit material infiltrating the ancient art market.  Thomas Galbraith who took over from Leslie Hindman as CEO of the company she founded, (she remains on the board) previously worked as Artnet’s director of global strategy and as interim CEO for Google Venture's start-up Twyla, an online sales platform for art, meaning they both are experienced in art world sales. Given the people at Hindman's helm, and the company's sales presence on the Live Auctioneers sales portal, it also stands to reason that the Chicago auction house has employees with sufficient technical abilities and talent to Google the legitimacy of the objects they accept on consignment and the names of dealers which are problematic.  Given that neither Galbraith nor Hindman are new to the problems of the world, one can assume that their lack of transparency when it comes to collection publishing collection histories for the objects they auction is a conscious choice.

But despite all this, the windy city seems to be gaining ground in the art market. Phillips and Bonhams, both based in London, having opened there, alongside already existing Christie's, and Sotheby's, to keep Hindman company. And browsing through the names of important London and New York ancient art dealers like Charles Ede Ltd., and Royal Athena Galleries whose's pieces were selling in this June's Hindman catalogue, it seems apropos to remind collectors of ancient art (once again) of the need to open their eyes and ask for proof of legitimacy, before simply forking over cash for what might turn out to be tomorrow's new seizure. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

May 19, 2020

Prosecutors file a civil forfeiture complaint for the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet which they say was looted from Iraq.

The Gilgamesh dream tablet, Iraq, c. 1600 BCE
while on display at Museum of the Bible

“Strange things have been spoken, why does your heart speak strangely? The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror.”  ― The Epic of Gilgamesh, N.K. Sanders translation. 
Authorities in the United States have filed a civil forfeiture complaint for a 1600 BCE cuneiform tablet featuring a dream sequence from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Acting as the Plaintiff in the case, the US authorities brought an action in rem for the tablet pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c)(1)(A).  Under this section, US law authorizes the forfeiture of any "merchandise" that is "introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States contrary to law." In this case, that's when it is believed that the property was stolen in a foreign country and imported into the United States illegally.  

In the complaint, Special Agent John Paul Labbat with the United States Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, cited that the object was stolen Iraqi property introduced into the United States contrary to 18 U.S.C. § 2314, the stolen property act.  This act serves as an independent basis for the forfeiture of any stolen property that moves in interstate or foreign commerce and which is utilized whether the object in question was stolen overseas or inside the United States.

The ancient clay object, originally part of a larger six-column tablet, contains seventy-four lines of Middle Babylonian cuneiform text, and is known to be one of only thirty known surviving fragments from the Epic of Gilgamesh created during the old and middle Babylonian periods.  Written almost 4,000 years ago, the Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known literary works in the world. The earliest parts of the poem were first discovered in the ruins of the library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, in Nineveh, Iraq in 1853. 

Based upon the facts as set out in the Verified Complaint in Rem, on July 30, 2014, Hobby Lobby wired $1,674,000 to an unnamed auction house as payment for the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, having purchased the artifact for donation or display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.  This was the same year that the company's fundamentalist president, Steve Green, persuaded the United States Supreme Court that it deserved a religious exemption from a federal requirement under which employers in the country are made to provide their workers with access to contraceptives.  It is also the same month that the Egyptian Exploration Society gave Dirk Obbink an ultimatum: cut ties with the Green family or lose his editorship of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, several fragments of which are now part of a separate ongoing investigation into another illegal sale in the United Kingdom.

Three months earlier, in April 2014 Manchester-based papyrologist Roberta Mazza had already published a blog post after visiting the Green's exhibition Verbum Domini II in Rome, Italy.  There, Professor Mazza recognized that another ill-advised Green purchase, a papyrus fragment of the Coptic codex of Galatians 2:2-4, 5-6, was one which had earlier been identified by Brice Jones and Dorothy L. King as having passed through the hands of a middleman trafficker on eBay, a gentleman going by the pseudonym Ebuyerrrrr, Yasasgroup, and later Mixantik.  As the investigations into the Green's buying habits progressed, Mazza, would be integral in determining that the Turkish middleman was Yakup Ekşioğlu, a name kept discreetly amongst researchers while investigations were undergoing.

Not long after the payment for the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was finalized, the firm affiliated with the sale shipped the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to their New York branch and then arranged for one of their representatives to hand-carry the tablet to Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma City, in order to avoid incurring a New York sales tax. The cuneiform tablet was subsequently transferred to the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, where it drew concerns with one of the Museum's curators, in the lead up to the museum's grand opening. This unnamed curator queried the parties involved in the object's history post-sale, looking for evidence that would establish the artifact's legitimacy; an act of due diligence that should have been done by the prospective buyer before the tablet was purchased, and not after.  Those involved were anything but helpful.

This likely explains one of the reasons why the cuneiform tablet, once on display on the 4th floor of the DC museum in the History of the Bibles Galleries, was displayed with no provenance information whatsoever.

On 24 September 2019, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was seized as part of this civil investigation.  As the complaint released demonstrates, the importance of export documentation, for potential owners and dealers, or the lack thereof is a useful tool for researchers, law enforcement, and customs agents who monitor and prevent the trafficking of cultural property, none of which was remotely in keeping with this particular object.

But where was the Dream Tablet before? 

As background to the case, the US document cites that the tablet was first seen by an unnamed antiquities dealer in 2001 on the floor of a London apartment belonging to antiquities dealer Ghassan Rihani originally from Irbid in northern Jordan.

Prior to Rihani's death as well as after, a substantial portion of his "collection" of Iraqi objects began appearing on the London ancient art market. Many were believed to have been illicitly exported out of Iraq during the Gulf War following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then recycled as being part of the not well documented Rihani family collection, something his son has denied in an interview with the New York Times.

By March/April 2003 the same dealer returned to London with a cuneiform expert and again viewed the tablet, this time with members of Rihani's family.  It is at this visit, where the dealer agreed to purchase the cuneiform table along with other items for a total of $50,530.  These items were subsequently mailed back to the United States and sold onward to two other dealers in ancient art for $50,000 along with a preliminary translation of the inscription.

By March 2007, false provenance documents had been created which omitted any mention of Rihani or the United Kingdom transaction.  Instead, the would-be provenance documentation proclaimed that the tablet had been purchased at a 1981 Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco, listed as LOT 1503.  All of which was blatantly untrue, as was the claim that the tablet had been deaccessioned from a small museum.

The cuneiform table would eventually make its way into the hands of Michael Sharpe, who published the object in his Rare & Antiquated Books catalog, where the object's constructed pedigree took a back seat to it's highlighted importance.



Like many cases before it, the multiple transactions surrounding the sales of the stolen Gilgamesh Dream Tablet reflects the inadequacy of the due diligence performed by intermediary dealers, the auction house, and the Green family themselves.  A simple check of the Butterfield & Butterfield auction records would have noted that LOT 1503 does not match the description of a terracotta cuneiform tablet from Iraq.  That alone should have given someone reason to pause.

At best, all of these dealers' behavior, the auction house's behavior and the collector's continued nonchalant attitude towards the object agreed to he purchase should be characterized as negligent. At worst, it shows the complicity of market actors, including those anonymously helping law enforcement post-facto, in prioritizing profits and plausible deniability as a masquerade for stewardship and collecting ethics.

As a result of this case, never shy Hobby Lobby has deflected its own ethical responsibilities towards due diligence by filing suit against Christie's, alleging fraud and breach of warranty in connection with the private treaty sale allegedly after the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet's provenance failed to stack up. This move confirms the auction powerhouse as the intermediary auction house, unnamed in the civil forfeiture complaint. That case has been listed as Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Christie's Inc. (1:20-cv-02239) to be heard in the Eastern District of New York and names Georgie Aitken, Head of the Antiquities Department at Christie's in London from 2009-2016 and Margaret Ford, the Senior Director, International Head of Group, Books and Science at Christie's.

In closing, it is interesting to note that in the past Christie's has voiced a willingness to work closely with law enforcement agencies and ministries of culture to resolve issues when suspect antiquities passing through their organization, but reading the emails detailed in the civil forfeiture complaint for this cuneiform tablet show acting employees of the firm being anything but that. Instead, Christie's appears to have been trying to extract itself from the difficult situation it found itself in, having failed to so their advance homework prior to accepting the object for consignment or at any point up to the final sale.

Yet guarding our past for the future, is also going to be a tough sell for the Oklahoma-based retailer/donor.  In 2017 Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million after federal authorities alleged that the firm bought thousands of historical artifacts that were smuggled out of Iraq.  In 2019 the Museum of the Bible deaccessioned and restituted a number of stolen EES papyrus fragments removed illegally from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri housed at the Sackler Library in Oxford and in 2020 the museum relinquished 11,500 antiquities to the Iraqi and Egyptian governments, which had been acquired with a lack reliable provenance, or ownership histories.

Then there is that Galatians fragment Dr. Mazza has been asking about for years now, as well as many other pieces, have been tied back to Dr. Dirk Obbink and his private antiquities enterprises. 

At the time of the last restitution Mr. Green stated:

“One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased.” 

One would question just how many legal entanglements it will take before Mr. Green starts to acknowledge that he is a significant contributor to the problem and not merely an innocent victim.  His failure to have engaged in serious due diligence of the artifacts he has purchased has already caused the Museum of the Bible to suffer by their own hands.  Likewise, due diligence of looted antiquities, especially those that could be from conflict-based countries, must be meaningful and not superficially plausible, in the furtherance of a sale's commission.  Partially-documented histories in an object's collection background, do not necessarily always point to fresh looting or illegal export but when an antiquity's background looks murky, as is the case with this important cuneiform tablet, the art market and wealthy donor collectors need to step up their game, by no longer participating in the laundering and by allowing researchers access to past sales details so that wrongs can be righted.

By:  Lynda Albertson

November 7, 2016

Repatriation: 14th century illuminated manuscript


After reviewing photographic documentation provided by Italian authorities, the Cleveland Museum of Art has voluntarily transferred a 14th-century manuscript folio (leaf) from an Italian Antiphonary to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division for its eventual return to Tuscany. 

An antiphonary is a book intended for use by a liturgical choir.  This particular looted page was sliced out of a seven-page songbook that originally belonged to the Church of Saints Ippolito and Biagio of Castelfiorentino.  Its sister pages are preserved at the Museum of Santa Verdiana south west of Florence. The page is believed to have been removed from the antiphonary sometime between 1933 and 1952 when the work was purchased by the museum. 

The antifonary, measures 44.3 x 35.2 cm and is believed to have been created by an artist known as the Master of Dominican Effigies, an important illuminator whose exact name, until now, is unknown.  The illuminated parchment hymnal was produced sometime between 1335 and 1345.  The foglio page being returned has illustrations in ink and tempera and is embellished with gold leafing. 

According to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the foglio was attributed to another illustrator at the time of its purchase.  Curators at the museum became suspicious when a second attributable page from the same antiphonary came up for sale on the Swiss art market. US and Italian law enforcement authorities were notified and an investigation was initiated which has led to this eventual return. 

Collecting single leaves from Medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts while quite in vogue, are activities collectors should approach with a lot of caution and healthy doses of due diligence.  While there has been a historic tradition of biblioclasts, or book breakers — someone who breaks up books and manuscripts for the illustrations or illuminations, there are also way too many instances of more recent thefts commited by individuals with access to little used historic texts who have helped themselves to more than a page or two, creating collection histories to cover their tracks.  

Pier Luigi Cimma and Franca Gatto, two professors who participated in a 1990 inventory of Italian church archives were known to have cut pages from several manuscripts, most of which they sold to a bookseller in Turin, Italy. Thanks to the city of Monza's squad from the Nucleo dei Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, several of these were recovered from Sotheby’s in London.