Showing posts with label Tawadros. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tawadros. Show all posts

October 8, 2019

Unpacking the investigation into Egypt's 2100 year old looted gold coffin

Shaaban Abdel-Gawad - Head of the Egyptian Department of Repatriation
Image Credit: Egyptian Department of Repatriation,
Ministry of Antiquities-Arab Republic of Egypt
Last week the controversially purchased, ancient gold mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh, was formally restituted to the Arab Republic of Egypt.  The plundered late Ptolemaic era antiquity had been purchased by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for €3.5m in 2017, following protracted negotiations with Paris-based art dealer Christophe Kunicki, and his partner Richard Semper.  The restitution was made after it came to light that the sellers had purportedly supplied their buyers with fabricated ownership records and falsified export documents attesting to the object's legitimacy.  Documents, it should be said, which the museum's buyers accepted, despite marked incongruencies and factual errors.

Last winter, with sufficient tangible evidence that the delicate cartonnage coffin had been smuggled out of Egypt recently, HSI New York and the D.A.’s Office sought, obtained, and executed a search warrant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where they seized the antiquity pending the outcome of their completed investigation.  The New York warrant was issued on the basis that under the State's criminal law, barring the expiration of the statute of limitations, or application of the laches doctrine, the Metropolitan Museum of Art could not have obtained clear title unless the present-day possessor's title could be traced to someone with whom the original owner, in this case Egypt, had voluntarily entrusted the art.

The seizure was executed at The Met on February 15, 2019, and concluded one chapter in a lengthy and ongoing investigation, conducted jointly with law enforcement and heritage partners in the United States, Egypt, Germany, and France.  On the US side, the investigation was coordinated via the New York District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., and overseen by New York Assistant D.A. Matthew Bogdanos, Senior Trial Counsel and Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit.  Working on the case for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (HSI) were Special Agents Brent Easter and Robert Mancene.  The Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt for its part, provided evidence in the case and petitioned for the antiquity's return.

Left: U.S. Homeland Security Investigations special-agent-in-charge Peter Fitzhugh. Center Left: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassan Shoukry. Center: Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Center Right: Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos. Right: Antiquities Trafficking Analyst, Apsara Iyer. Image Credit NYDA's Office
While the seizure of a prestigious golden coffin, purchased by the largest art museum in the United States, may have shocked the general public, it is not the first time that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has run afoul in its purchase of high-value tainted objects for their collection that were later determined to have been stolen or looted.  Presented with credible and demonstrable evidence that the Egyptian coffin had been recently smuggled out of Egypt, in contravention of the country's cultural heritage laws, the museum quickly moved to cooperate with law enforcement, cutting short its successful exhibition of the Egyptian mummiform coffin and relinquishing their centerpiece artifact to the authorities for restitution.  Daniel Weiss, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, apologized to Egypt and indicated the museum had been the victim of fraud and an unwitting participant in the illegal trade of antiquities.

At the hand-over ceremony, New York District Attorney Cyrus Roberts Vance Jr., issued a statement indicating that the gilded antiquity is "just one of of hundreds of antiquities stolen by the same multi-national trafficking ring."  As of now, prosecutors have not announced charges against any of the actors they have identified in the smuggling case and the investigation is still ongoing.

Yet the story of this grand jury investigation into antiquities traffickers began long before the prestigious golden coffin found its way into the Egyptian Collection at the largest art museum in the United States. 

Information now cleared for disclosure through officials at New York's DA's office demonstrates that their office's Antiquities Trafficking U\nit began conducting an exhaustive international investigation into an illicit trafficking ring as early as 2013, following up on leads tied to individuals known to be working in the Middle East and Europe.  The focus of the investigation in New York centered on the movement of stolen and looted artifacts which transited into or through its jurisdiction, i.e., specifically New York County.

Material seized or relinquished voluntarily to the authorities during the course of this operation came from a variety of known and undisclosed sources. As a result of this evidence and investigation the New York DA's office has been able to successfully illustrate critical connections to, and between several suspects who, it is alleged, willingly facilitated the smuggling of antiquities, from Middle Eastern source countries for a share of the illegal profits.  It should be noted that while antiquities are looted from archaeological sites across the world, incidences of theft in areas of armed conflict are frequently more prevalent due to the lack of security, as was the case with this antiquity in Egypt.

Evidence related to this investigation included digital records of email correspondence which served to establish connections between suspected looters trading freely with middlemen smugglers and corrupt art dealers transacting in illicit material.  As part of the cache of evidence the DA's office also obtained financial transaction records and export documents along with photographs and videos, some of which show dirty and damaged antiquities, shortly after their immediate discovery.

Some of these photographs depict antiquities scattered on the ground. Other showed objects wrapped in newspapers, or lying on the floor in dimly lit rooms or hiding places.  Six of these images, attached to emails exchanged between suspects involved in the smuggling conspiracy, would prove integral to the coffin's restitution and were already evidence in the case long before the mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh arrived at the Met.

These photos were exchanged directly or indirectly between an initial looting suspect, a suspect in Germany and the Paris dealer the gilded coffin was shopped to.  Four of the images showed the priceless object in a newly looted state, still dirt-encrusted and laid out on top of a blanket.

Why do looters take incriminating photographs of freshly looted antiquities? 

In the underbelly of the illicit art market, authenticity brings a higher premium  than legitimacy.   Antiquities dating back a thousand years, broken into pieces, or still encrusted in soil, demonstrating the tell-tale signs of having been freshly unearthed, can be golden to a looter and enticing to the would-be unscrupulous buyer.  Antiquities depicted in such a sullied state demonstrate graphically that the object being flogged won't (usually) have an incriminating photo elsewhere, tucked away in some national ministry or museum archive.

Nor will a photo of a freshly looted antiquity raise any eyebrows during the standard sale vetting procedures which require stolen property checks with art loss databases which will have no record of the previously unknown object.  This allows those who trade in illicit antiquities to fabricate a back story that an object has been tucked away for decades in a private collection, effectively whitening the object's collection history so that it can more easily be sold on the ancient art market, at least in countries with less restrictive laws regarding the timeline of the and the rights of the unknowing good faith purchaser.

Most importantly photographic imagery of looted objects serves as visual proof to the buyer that what the seller is trying to peddle is likely to be (but not always) authentic.   And in the age of data plans and cell phones, looters are now known to snap videos of objects, even while they still rest in situ.  Passing recordings between one another, videos such as the one ARCA has archived below, serve as a record of the early stages of a looter's discovery.  Images such as these can demonstrate an  antiquity's authenticity and first steps of passage, even before it is extracted from a find site.


Start dirty but end clean (at least in appearance)...

In reconstructing the events surrounding the illegal exportation of the Egyptian mummiform coffin, researchers first had to try and trace a likely find spot for the object.  The elaborately decorated surface of the mummiform coffin depicts scenes and inscriptions, painted in thick gesso relief, to guide Nedjemankh on his journey from death to eternal life as a transfigured spirit.  Nedjemankh, was a high-ranking priest of an ancient ram-god Heryshaf, or Hershef, (Egyptian Ḥry-š=f) whose ancient cult was centered in Herakleopolis Magna, now Ihnasiyyah al-Madinah.  This location sits on the west bank of the Nile near Beni Suef, approximately 115 km south of Cairo and 120 km north of the Minya region.

In accordance with Egyptian funerary tradition of the period, the gold coffin and its now lost mummified occupant would have likely been placed in a sealed tomb, either within a burial niche or an outer sarcophagus.  Burial places for the elite that served Herakleopolis Magna during the period from the Old to Middle Kingdoms tended to be large rock-cut tombs created in the distant east bank sites of Sheikh Said and Deir el-Bersha, in the Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt.

Both of these areas have been subject to antiquities plunder, sometimes even by violent means.  As late as 2016 two guards, A'srāwy Kāmel Jād and Ali Khalaf Shāker, patrolling the tombs of Deir el-Bersha were killed when unknown assailants opened fire at them while at the site to loot archaeological material.  But in the case of the mummiform coffin, the looting seems to have taken place earlier, likely during the Arab Spring of 2011, in the midst of Egypt's political upheaval and the revolutionary period which toppled former president Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak.

Analysis of digital evidence: an increasingly important tool for solving crimes and preparing court cases

Looking to solidifying the object's illicit origin,s and the time frame for its theft, investigators worked to reconstruct the initial passage of the object's timeline with evidence obtained from the suspects' correspondence. Using the six photographs taken of the mummiform coffin and later shared between the suspected tomb pillagers, middlemen and dealers, forensic analysis of the image files allowed the DA's office to establish a timetable for when each of the photos were taken, purportedly by the freelance graverobbers or their associates.  That research concluded that each of the six photographs were snapped in either October or November 2011.  That same photo analysis geolocated where the the photographs were taken, inside Egypt. 

This evidence serves to contradict the manufactured export documentation produced by the coffin's launderers.  Works of fiction in their own right, and with striking inaccuracies and contradictions that should have been identified during the museum's due diligence process, the white-washed export documents fraudulently claimed that the sarcophagus once belonged to the Cairo merchant Habib Tawadros who purportedly sold the gilded coffin to a "Mme. Chatz" in Switzerland.

After passing from Egypt the investigation revealed that the coffin spent some time under the control of a known middleman operating in the United Arab Emirates, where the coffin was shipped after leaving Egypt and spent some time before moving on to Germany.  The coffin was then shipped from the UAE to Germany where it underwent restoration before ultimately passing on to Paris where it was viewed in person on December 2016 for consideration by Diana Craig Patch, the Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge of the Department of Egyptian Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image Credit: Ministry of Antiquities-Arab Republic of Egypt
Despite a thorough paper trail which details precisely whose hands the object passed through, there is little information, that can been revealed to the public at this time, which identifies the specific shipment methodology the smugglers used to enable the object's the illegal transboundary movements and to circumvent the objects identification when crossing various borders on its journey from the source country of Egypt through to its final European 'destination, the upscale ancient art market of Paris.

The UAE-based suspect alleged to have been involved in this transaction was already well known to illicit trafficking researchers, as the gilded coffin was not the first plundered antiquity with fraudulent documentation the middleman dealer has been connected with.  In 2008 the Iranian trader, based in Sharjah, exported a limestone head of the Assyrian king Sargon II, declaring that the object was originally from Turkey. In 2010, US Customs inspected a package transiting through Newark International Airport which the dealer had shipped sent via FedEx. That package contained five ancient Egyptian objects dating from 343 B.C., or the Late Period, to 2081 B.C., during the Middle Kingdom on route to Holyland Numismatics in the US.   Again, in this case, the dealer had listed the country of manufacture as Turkey.  In 2011, 1\\\he also exported a statue thought to represent either the goddess Demeter or her daughter Persephone, of the type only produced in Cyrenaica, ancient Libya. As with each of the previous cases, each time the dealer fraudulently issued misdeclarations, he listed the country of origin as Turkey, for objects originating from war torn countries in the Middle East though it remains unclear as to why he chose to do.

This Sharjah suspect in turn shipped the coffin on to two suspects in Germany who facilitated details of the transaction with Paris-based art dealer Christophe Kunicki, and his partner Richard Semper while the object underwent cleaning and restoration.

Thoughts on the museum's level of due diligence

In examining the provenance of the coffin, it is discouraging to note that the export documentation alone, should have given everyone who handled the object and its subsequent purchase pause, that is if they were acting in good faith and are innocent of any level of collusion.  At no point did anyone, the Sharjah dealer, the Germany-based conservator and intermediaries, Christophe Kunicki, Richard Semper, Curator Diana Patch or anyone else in the administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art seriously question why the variously supplied export certificates, and their French and German translations, listed the issuing authority as "the Arab Republic of Egypt" and not as the "United Arab Republic".

From February 21, 1958 until the September 28, 1961 coup d’état, Egypt and Syria were a sovereign, if short lived, union known officially as the "United Arab Republic". All license applications, shipper's export declarations or export permissions would have referred to the country during this time period as the United Arab Republic (the U.A.R.) and would likely also have specified the regional territory referred to, ergo, the United Arab Republic, (Egypt Region) or the United Arab Republic (Syria Region), whichever would have been applicable to the article being shipped.  Furthermore Egypt retained the name "United Arab Republic" even after Syria's departure from the union, using it as its official name through 1971.

While I don't fault the museum's staff for their innate lack of knowledge of geography and Middle Eastern political alliances, I do fault them for not having even tried to inform themselves given the enormous price tag of this purchase, let alone the possibility that they might (again) be facilitating looting by accepting fabricated documents so readily.  A simple, proactive cross check of history books, at any point during their due diligence process, would have alerted any of the non-colluding parties that something might be afoul with the coffin's exportation documents.  That one single cross-check could have prompted appropriate law enforcement authorities to act more quickly, and would have saved the Met considerable embarrassment, as well as acquisition cash. 

Likewise, as a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), one of the museum world’s most influential professional organizations, the Met is required to abide by AAMD acquisition guidelines.  These guidelines set standards by which member museums should go about conducting due diligence when acquiring archaeological material and ancient art.

Section III A of these guidelines specifically state:

A. Member museums should thoroughly research the ownership history of a Work prior to its acquisition, including making a rigorous effort to obtain accurate written documentation with respect to its history, including import and export documents. 


Left: Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Center: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Hassan Shoukry. Right: U.S. Homeland Security Investigations special-agent-in-charge Peter Fitzhugh. Image Credit NYDA's Office
Lessons learned and food for future purchasing thought

A statement from the ICOM International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods states:

“It is important that museums, libraries, archives and art dealers continue to be able to develop their collections. Nevertheless, they should ensure that their collections are built up in accordance with universally recognised moral principles. They must take precautions to ensure that they acquire or borrow only ethically acceptable items and reject items that might have been looted or illegally exported.”

Failure to have engaged in serious due diligence of this artifact caused the Metropolitan Museum of Art to suffer by their own hands.  Likewise, the eye-popping prices the museum continues to pay for suspect artifacts exacerbates the difficulties already faced by customs and law enforcement agencies in deterring the illegal trade of ancient art.

Going forward, it might be worthwhile for the Met to consider enforcing a standard which requires its staff to sign off on a document testifying that they have strongly adhered to the AAMD guidelines and ICOM's suggestions before signing any million dollar checks for acquisitions.  Failing to carry out their required duties, the museum would then have sufficient recourse for termination.

This lack of sympathy was echoed by Peter C. Fitzhugh, Special Agent in Charge of HSI New York during the coffin's restitution ceremony, who said: 

“The high profit business of smuggling and trafficking antiquities has been around for centuries....but it is the responsibility of a buyer to confirm the proper provenance of a piece of art or antiquity."

In conclusion, prosecutors have not (yet) announced charges against any antiquities traffickers. After seven years of investigation the coffin is at last on public display at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC) in the suburbs of Cairo until it shifts to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which is expected to open in 2020.  When it does, the GEM will be the largest museum dedicated to a single civilization.  I can't think of a better place for Egyptians to learn about Nedjemankh, his life in ancient Egypt.

By:  Lynda Albertson

February 17, 2019

The Metropolitan Museum, Christophe Kunicki and a Luxor dealer names Tawadros: More questions than answers on recent Egyptian acquisitions

In researching details related to the acquisition and current restitution of the 1st century Egyptian B.C.E mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh, I came across two other objects which show Christophe Kunicki's relationship as an advisor of ancient art purchases to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  

One of those objects is:

A Monumental Stela of Kemes , ca. 1750–1720 BCE



The provenance currently listed on the Metropolitan's website for the Monumental Stela of Kemes states:


A check of open source records using the names Ewe Schnell, Heinz Herzer and Pierre Bergé & Associés combined only turns up one other antiquity,  a panel painting of a woman in a blue mantle, which is also an acquisition within the Metropolitan Museum's collection. 


Serop Simonian is an art dealer of Armenian origin, born in Egypt and a resident in Germany.  He's interesting in that he has stirred up quite a bit of controversy regarding his involvement with the disputed Artemidorus papyrus, which he managed to sell in 2004 for €2.75 million to the Compagnia San Paolo Art Foundation notwithstanding that some experts have ascertained that it is a fake.  As the statute of limitations on that piece ran out, Simonian was never charged. 

On April 25, 2016 the Metropolitan's website for the Monumental Stela of Kemes stated the provenance as something quite different:


This earlier collection history mentions a "Todrous Collection" of which there is nothing documented in open source records anywhere on the web for any other ancient objects.  A late antique textile fragment of a tunic with the inventory number T 34, from "the Tamerit collection" is on record at the at the Papyrussammlung der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek at the Austrian National Library though not much else.

Note this Metropolitan Museum record spells the name Todrous, while the recently restituted mummy spells the name Tawadrus, and trade journals spell the name Tawadros.  Later in this post you will also see the name spelled Tadross

Christophe Kunicki's own dealer website listed the provenance as:

Ancient european private collection, 1969.
With Tadross, Luxor, 1960’s

Stepping back even farther, outside of the museum's website, the Monumental Stela of Kemes was published in Volume 25 Number 5 of the journal Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology.

This trade magazine listed the provenance as follows:

A rare Egyptian limestone chapel-stele of Kemes, superior of musicians (3), from the 13th Dynasty, circa 1770 BC (H. 73cm), in the form of a quadrangular naos resting upon a base carved with façades, was purchased from the Luxor dealer Tawadros during the 1960s. The cover-piece of the sale, it was estimated at €300,000-€400,000, but brought in a hammer price of just €200,00 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The expert for both sales was Christophe Kunicki.

Screen Shot: Volume 25 Number 5, Page 53
Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology
Notice that the involvement of the French dealer Christophe Kunicki via Pierre Bergé & Associés in furthering this acquisition transaction does not appear in any of the Metropolitan Museum's provenance records for the 13th Dynasty Egyptian limestone chapel-stele of Kemes.  It only appears in the bimonthly trade rag for antiquities dealers.  Purchased on 21 May 2014 the Met's record also leaves out the "Luxor dealer Tawadros" connection on this object.  The name of that person is also the name associated on the  now restituted 1st century B.C.E mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh.

Note: Kunicki's website lists another egyptian object with the name "Habib Tawadros" giving us a another artefact linked to this mysterious Luxor dealer.

ARCA has notified the Egyptian authorities that this piece too may require closer examination. 

By Lynda Albertson

February 16, 2019

Restitution: Met Museum agrees to return its 1st century B.C.E mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh, to Egypt

The Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return its 1st century B.C.E gold-sheathed mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of the high-ranking priest Nedjemankh.  The late Ptolemaic (or Hellenistic) antiquity was purchased via art dealer Christophe Kunicki, who lists himself on his website as a member of the Syndicat Français des Experts Professionnels en Oeuvres d’Art and the Chambre Européenne des Experts d’Art.  

Purchased for €3.5m in 2017, Nedjemankh’s coffin had reportedly been on consignment with the Paris dealer via an unidentified private collector.  Created out of cartonnage in the last century of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, a material used in Ancient Egyptian funerary objects from the First Intermediate Period to the Roman era, the object is made up of layers of linen stiffened with animal glue and layers of gesso. Evidence presented to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and confirmed by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture indicate that the antiquity may have been looted from Egypt in 2011 and exported utilizing fraudulent documents.

Note that the timeframe of the possible plunder, listed by the New York Times, and the Egyptian authorities coincides with the fall of Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak, Egypt's former military and political leader, who served as president of Egypt from 1981 to 2011.  After the so called Arab Spring, Egyptian authorities reported a significant uptick in heritage looting, exacerbated in part by the country's revolution and subsequent political upheaval.

The spartan collecting history information listed for the artifact on the Metropolitan Museum's website states that the antiquity was "officially exported from Egypt in 1971, the coffin has since resided in a private collection."  A second page on the museum's website, which has since been removed, listed the artifact's provenance as follows:

"The coffin was exported in 1971 from Egypt with an export license granted by the Antiquities Organization / Egyptian Museum, Cairo. It belonged to the stock of Habib Tawadrus, a dealer active since at least 1936, with a shop Habib & Company in Cairo opposite Shepheard’s Hotel, and was exported by the representative of the Tawadrus’ heirs to Switzerland. An official translation of the export license was provided by the German embassy in Cairo in February 1977 for the use of the representative and now owner in Europe. The coffin has remained in the family of that owner until its acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum in 2017."

This spartan amount of information, on an ancient object of this significance, drew the attention of blogger Paul Barford in September 2017 shortly after the purchase was announced.


Christophe Kunicki's relationship as an advisor of ancient art purchases to the Metropolitan Museum in New York goes back at least as far as September/October 2014, when his involvement in two purchases was highlighted in Volume 25 Number 5 of the journal Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology as having advised the museum on two other purchases. 

Screen Shot: Volume 25 Number 5, Page 53
Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology
Those objects, memorialized in the screenshot above, were a 26th Dynasty granodiorite head of the Pharaoh Apries, purportedly from the collection of Olivier Cacoub and the 13th Dynasty Egyptian limestone chapel-stele of Kemes in the form of a quadrangular naos resting on a base carved with façades.  The later of these was purportedly from the same "Luxor dealer Tawadros," in the 1960s, whose name is attached to the golden mummiform coffin that has just been repatriated.  It is not known at present if these objects are being given closer examination.

The Met’s management has formally apologized to Dr. Khaled El-Enany, Egypt’s minister of antiquities.

In it's press release the museum added:

 "All of the Museum’s acquisitions of ancient art undergo a rigorous vetting process in recognition of the 1970 UNESCO treaty, in adherence to the Association of Art Museum Director’s Guidelines on the Acquisition of Ancient Art and Archaeological Materials, and in compliance with federal and state laws."

Given that the Met developed a substantial exhibition around this golden-sheathed coffin, one would think that the museum's "rigorous vetting process" would have also included a close analysis of export documentation to check for fabrication and forgery.

A video from the Met Presents series featuring Curator Janice Kamrin and Conservator Anna Serotta talking about the coffin of Nedjemankh can be viewed here.

Upon the artefact's return to Egypt, it has been decided that the repatriated burial coffin will be displayed in the Egyptian Museum of Liberation until the Grand Egyptian Museum opens in 2020.

Notation:  Note this Metropolitan Museum record the name of the Luxor dealer as Tawadrus, while elsewhere in its records it records other objects using the name Todrous.  The trade journal above spelled the name Tawadros.  Another dealer spells the name as Tadross.




By:  Lynda Albertson