Showing posts with label illicit trade in antiquities. Show all posts
Showing posts with label illicit trade in antiquities. Show all posts

March 26, 2019

Court dismisses Hicham Aboutaam complaint against Dow Jones & Company's for Benoit Faucon and Georgi Kantchev's Wall Street Journal article discussing the family's ancient art business



In July 2017 antiquities dealer Hicham Aboutaam sued the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal’s corporate parent Dow Jones & Co., in New York County Supreme Court over an article titled “Prominent Art Family Entangled in ISIS Antiquities-Looting Investigations” which was published in the Wall Street Journal on May 31, 2017 claiming his family's business and reputation had been damaged by the article written by WSJ reporters Benoit Faucon and Georgi Kantchev .  The journalists, who shared a byline on the article, were not named as defendants in the lawsuit.

In the filed 30 page complaint, Hicham Aboutaam as Plaintiff requested unspecified damages based on claims of libel and defamation.

In a ruling before the New York State Supreme Court, New York County, dated March 22, 2019 and filed today, Honorable Robert D. Kalish J.S.C granted the Motion of the Defendant, Dow Jones & Company, dismissing the complaint in its entirety.  The Court ruled that "the thrust of the article was that Plaintiff's family –"one of the most storied families in the international antiquities business"– is being investigated and scrutinized about the selling of looted antiquities and whether the family business is dealing in items looted by ISIS and then sold through dealers like Plaintiff and his brother Ali."  

In making his ruling, Kalish added:

"By no means does this Court's decision seek to undermine the serious consequences that sometimes follow a news organization's decision to publish details of an ongoing investigation by law enforcement.  However, the decision to truthfully report on an ongoing law enforcement investigation is ultimately a question of journalistic judgement.  Unless the reporting on such an investigation is materially false or affirmatively creates false suggestions, it is not for the courts to question an editorial judgement to report on an ongoing investigation." 

As the Court dismissed the plaintiff's causes of action for libel and defamation by implication, the Court did not address the Defendant's, Dow Jones & Co., argument that the Plaintiff failed to plead actual malice with regard to both causes of action.

In an email exchange regarding the Court's decision, Steve Severinghaus, Senior Director of Communications with Dow Jones stated "We are gratified by the court's decision to dismiss Mr. Aboutaam’s lawsuit against Dow Jones."

Suspect antiquities, traceable to ancient art sales through Hicham and Ali Aboutaam's companies have been written about with recurring frequency on the Association's blog.

It should be remembered that Hicham Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 for smuggling a looted ceremonial drinking vessel from Iran into the US, claiming that it had come from Syria.  Hicham pled guilty to the charges in 2004, paid a fine, and the vessel was returned to the Iranian authorities. As a result of that incident, Hicham Aboutaam stated that his conviction stemmed from a "lapse in judgment."

In the past, the Egyptian authorities accused Ali Aboutaam of involvement with Tarek El-Suesy (al-Seweissi), who was arrested in 2003 under Egypt’s patrimony law for illegal export of antiquities. Ali Aboutaam was tried in absentia, pronounced guilty and was fined, and sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Egyptian court in April 2004 after he was accused of smuggling artefacts from Egypt to Switzerland.  To date, Ali Aboutaam has not served any of the Egyptian sentence. 

The Aboutaams voluntarily repatriated 251 Antiquities valued at $2.7 Million to the State of Italy in May 2009 when the objects were tied to one of Italy's most notorious smuggling rings.


By Lynda Albertson

October 24, 2018

Court of Palermo dismisses charges of mafia association against Gianfranco Becchina.


Following a formal request by the Deputy Prosecutor for the District Anti-Mafia Directorate  Carlo Marzella, preliminary reexamination judge of of the Court of Palermo, Antonella Consiglio, has dismissed the charge of mafia association against the Castelvetrano antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina.  In her decision, the judge cited that the accusations used for the basis of the charge, made via testimonies given by Vincenzo Calcara, an exMafia soldier and pentito (collaborator of justice), have been deemed "unreliable". 

The link from Matteo Messina Denaro to Gianfranco Becchina is said to begin with Denaro's father, Francesco Messina Denaro, who was the capo mandamento in Castelvetrano and the head of the mafia commission of the Trapani region. Francesco Messina Denaro was believed to have been behind the theft of the famous Efebo of Selinunte, a 5th century BCE statue of Dionysius Iachos, stolen on October 30, 1962 and recovered in 1968 through the help of Rodolfo Siviero,

Image Credit: Accademia degli incerti
The informant Calcara, who gave testimony against the art dealer, is a former protege of Francesco Messina Denaro of the Castelvetrano family and has faced his own legal dramas related to his involvement in international drug trafficking and money laundering, some underworld activities which purportedly also implicated the Vatican bank.  Verbose mafia defector Calcara's claims of self importance, and connections to the upper echelons of the mafia, have lethal overtones.  In the passed he has said he was originally tasked with killing antimafia Judge Paolo Borsellino in September 1991 with a sniper rifle but was arrested before he could carry out the plot.


Involved in the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and political corruption Calcara was once offered a place in the government's witness protection program but refused.  Later the Cosa Nostra determined his whereabouts and threatened his wife if she didn't get him to stop talking to authorities.  

Back in 1992, Calcara and now deceased former drug dealer Rosario Spatola incriminated Becchina for alleged association with the Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano clans implying that there was a gang affiliate active in Switzerland whose role was to excavate and sell ancient artefacts on the black market.  At the time of Spatola's testimony, much of his information was also discounted as many were skeptical that he had actual knowledge or whether he invented things for his own benefit.

To dismantle Denaro's operational funding, which authorities believe has helped him remain at large as a fugitive from justice, Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA), through the Court of Trapani's penal and preventive measures section, seized all movable assets related to Becchina in November 2017 including real estate and corporate enterprises on the basis of an order issued from the District Attorney of Palermo.  This included Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., Olio Verde srl., his olive oil production company, Demetra srl., Becchina & company srl., and Palazzo Pignatelli, once the noble residence of the family Tagliavia-Aragona-Pignatelli, which is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider (the public part is owned by the city and houses the town hall).  Investigators also seized Becchina's land, vehicles and bank accounts.

What will happen with the seized properties and businesses remains a manner for the Preventive Measures Section of the Trapani court to decide but given his close ties with other incarcerated mafia affiliates, Becchina's story is not yet finished. 

In 1991 Sicilian building magnate Rosario Cascio became connected with Becchina's Atlas Cements Ltd., and took over as reference shareholder and director.  Before his incarceration, Cascio was a Mafia Associate to several bosses in multiple families including fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro with strong ties to the Castelvetrano family.   Known as the "cashier of Cosa Nostra." Cascio once had a hit put out on him by mobster Angelo Siino only to have Matteo Messina Denaro intervene on his behalf.  Cascio managed the family's economic activities and sub-contracts, and monopolized the concrete market and the sale of and construction equipment.  He also steered public contracts towards mafia businesses and managed an extortion racket which imposed sub contracts and labor.  

So, while there are no (longer) "reliable" statements proving Becchina is formally "affiliated" with the Castelvetrano organized crime family, his connections to other individuals who are or were, and the properties connected to joint operations with mafia collaborators, are still subject to judicial consideration.  

October 10, 2018

Trial dates tentatively set for December 2018 for 19 "Operation Demetra" defendants


Judges from the Tribunale del Riesame di Caltanissetta, the court of first instance with general jurisdiction in criminal matters within the territory of Caltanissetta, Sicily, have set a tentative date for trial of December 2018 for 19 of the individuals connected to Italy's Operation Demetra. 


Resident of Belpasso, Italy
Palmino Pietro Signorello, 66

Residents of Campobello di Licata, Italy
Francesco Giordano, 71 
Luigi Giuseppe Grisafi, 64

Residents of Gela, Italy
Giuseppe Cassarà, 58
Simone Di Simone, (also known as "Ucca aperta"), 46
Rocco Mondello, 61
Orazio Pellegrino, (also known as "nacagliacani"), 54

Resident of Mazzè, Italy
Salvatore Pappalardo, 55

Residents of Paternò, Italy
Luigi Signorello, 34

Residents of Ravanusa, Italy
Matteo Bello, 53
Calogero Ninotta, (also known as "Lilli"), 39
Gaetano Romano, (also known as "Mimmo"), 58

Residents of Riesi, Italy
Angelo Chiantia, (also known as "Faccia pulita") 59  
Francesco Lucerna, (also known as "U zu Ginu") 76
Gaetano Patermo, (also known as "Tano"), 63

Resident of Strongoli, Italy
Luigi La Croce, 62

Residents of Torino, Italy
Giovanni Lucerna, 49
Maria Debora Lucerna, 55

Resident in Stanmore (London), UK
William Veres, (also known as “il professore"), 64

Lawyers for the accused are:

Ivan Bellanti
Angelo Cafà
Paolo Di Caro
Davide Limoncello
Ignazio Valenza

The gup of the Court of Caltanissetta, also has decided to revoke the precautionary measures, of three defendants who had previously been released pending trial to their homes with permission to go to leave to go to and from work.  Those individuals are Francesco Giordano, Luigi Giuseppe Grisafi, and Calogero Ninotta.

Previously the Italian courts rejected an appeal made through attorney, Davide Limoncello, presented in relation to a European arrest warrant (EAW) issued for William Veres. The London-based Hungarian antiquities dealer is one of the strategic names in Operation Demetra, an Italian-led illicit trafficking blitz carried out by law enforcement authorities in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom in July 2018. 

Veres has been released on bail with supervised release conditions while he awaits the UK's ruling at London’s Westminster Magistrates Court as to whether or not he should be extradited to Italy to face the charges against him. Extradition to Italy is regulated by law as well as by international conventions and agreements. In general, extradition, is this case between Britain and Italy, means that Italy has asked the UK to surrender Veres as a suspected criminal in order to stand trial for an alleged violation of the Italian law. But before doing so, the antiquities dealer is entitled to an extradition hearing. For more on this procedure, please see our previous article here. 

Should the UK judge, at the extradition hearing, decide it would be both proportionate and compatible, Veres' extradition to Italy would subsequently be ordered and Veres would then, if he so chose, ask the UK High Court for permission to appeal this decision, provided that request is made within seven days of the previous order. If the High Court does not grant his appeal, in that situation and later affirms the lower court's ruling that extradition is both proportionate and compatible, Veres would become subject to extradition within 10 days of the final court order, and would then be transferred to Italy either in time for the December court hearing, or to be rescheduled at a later date. 

September 11, 2018

Restitution: An Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele returned to Greece


On June 9, 2017 forensic archaeologist Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, wrote to ARCA and to the Art and Antiques Unit of London's Metropolitan Police (New Scotland Yard), INTERPOL and the Greek police Art Squad reporting that he had identified an Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele coming up for auction in Sotheby's June 12, 2017 London auction which he had traced to the archive of convicted Italian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina. 

This accumulation of records was seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland.  The Becchina Archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer's business.  

These dealer records include shipping manifests, antiquarian dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images.  Many of which are not the slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, point and shoot Polaroids taken by looters and middlemen.  This latter type of image often depicts looted antiquities in their recently plundered state, some of which still bear soil and salt encrustations. 

Two of the identifying Polaroid images of the object
located in the Becchina archive. 
In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade and while he later appealed this conviction, he is currently under investigation by Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) who moved to seize his cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., his olive oil company, Olio Verde srl., Demetra srl., Becchina & Company srl., bank accounts, land, and real estate properties including Palazzo Pignatelli in November 2017. 

Looted antiquities traced to Becchina's trafficking network, like this attic marble anthemion, continue to surface in private collections, museums and some of the world's most prestigious auction firms specializing in ancient art and are frequently identified by Tsirogiannis, archaeologists working with Italy's Avvocatura dello Stato, the Italian Carabinieri and the Greek police. 

In his email, Tsirogiannis stated that he had identified the attic marble anthemion in three professional and two Polaroids images as well as in four separate documents found in the confiscated Becchina business records. The dealer's documentation indicated that the stele appeared to have been in Becchina's hands from 1977 until 1990, when it was then sold on to George Ortiz, a collector and heir to the South American Patiñho tin fortune who lived in Geneva and whose name has appeared with regularity on this blog tied to purchases of objects of illicit origin.   Ortiz's name has long been associated with this trafficking network as his was one of the names found on the network organigram found in Pasquale Camera's personal possessions.

Interestingly both Becchina and Ortiz were never mentioned in the 'Provenance' section given by Sotheby's.   During the sale, the object's collection history was listed simply as follows: 


Possibly as a result of Tsirogiannis' identification, the 340 B.C.E. object (thankfully) failed to sell.  Eleven months later, in a May 7th 2018 issue of the Times, the newspaper reported that Sotheby's, not Tsirogiannis, had discovered that they had a false collecting history on the stele at which point "by way of a voluntary goodwill gesture" handed the stele over to the Metropolitan Police in London.  The Greek Embassy in London working with the Greek The Ministry of Culture authorities via the Directorate for the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Property, followed up with the legal claims necessary for restitution and on June 27th, 2018 Christos Tsirogiannis testified at the Greek consulate in London as to his findings. Subsequent to the above, the object was formally handed over on September 8, 2018.

After its return to Greece, yesterday, the column has been delivered to the Epigraphical Museum of Athens, Greece. 

August 8, 2018

Sicilian judges reject appeal made by William Veres

Screenshot of William Veres from the documentary
“The Hunt for Transylvanian Gold
Judges from the Tribunale del Riesame di Caltanissetta, the court of first instance with general jurisdiction in criminal matters within the territory of Caltanissetta, Sicily, have rejected an appeal made through attorney, Davide Limoncello,  presented in relation to a European arrest warrant (EAW) issued for William Veres.  The London-based Hungarian antiquities dealer is one of 41 persons who have been named in Operation Demetra, an Italian-led illicit trafficking blitz carried out by law enforcement authorities in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom in July 2018.  

The appeal presented by Limoncello on behalf of Mr. Veres was made to address the personal and real precautionary measures requested by the Italian authorities in relation to his client, deemed necessary by the prosecutor in the context of the criminal proceedings related to the case. 

Veres was taken into custody on 4 July by officers from London's Metropolitan Police - Art and Antiques Unit at his home in Forge Close, Stanmore in north-west London.  Subsequent to his arrest, Veres was released on bail with supervised release conditions while he awaits the UK's ruling at London’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court as to whether or not he should be extradited to Italy to face the charges against him.

Extradition to Italy is regulated by law as well as by international conventions and agreements. In general, extradition, is this case between Britain and Italy, means that Italy has asked the UK to surrender Veres as a suspected criminal in order to stand trial for an alleged violation of the Italian law.  But before doing so, the antiquities dealer is entitled to an extradition hearing.

During that extradition hearing a UK judge will need to be satisfied that the conduct described in the European arrest warrant amounts to an extraditable offence in Great Britain.  This means, in almost all cases, that the alleged conduct of the suspect would also amount to a criminal offence were it to have occurred in the UK.  The UK courts would also have to evaluate whether or not  any of the UK's statutory bars to extradition apply. 

Most of the bars prohibiting extradition in the UK have to do with double jeopardy, the absence of a prosecution decision (whether the prosecution case against the accused is sufficiently advanced) or whether or not the request by the requesting foreign authority is improperly motivated.   The London judge will also decide if extradition would be disproportionate or incompatible with Veres'  human rights. 

Should the judge at the extradition hearing decide it would be both proportionate and compatible, Veres' extradition to Italy would subsequently be ordered.  Veres could then, if he so chose, ask the UK High Court for permission to appeal this decision, provided that request is made within seven days of the previous order.  

If the High Court grants an appeal, in that situation and later affirms the lower court's ruling that extradition is both proportionate and compatible, Veres would become subject to extradition within 10 days of the final court order (unless an agreement to extend, due to exceptional circumstances, is made with Italy).

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 29, 2018

41 suspects now named in the antiquities blitz "Operation Demetra" carried out in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the UK


As the transnational crime investigation Operation Demetra proceeds into the alleged trafficking of archaeological finds, Italian news reports have begun publishing the names of the 41 individuals currently listed in the obgoing investigation.  Some of these individuals have been given precautionary pretrial measures including pretrial incarceration, house arrest or electronic monitoring.  The remainder are at large pending the conclusion of the investigation.


The individuals alleged to be involved live in 19 cities in Italy, as well as in Ehingen, Germany, Barcelona, Spain, and Stanmore (London) in the United Kingdom. 

A breakdown of the cities is as follows:

Resident of Adrano, Italy
Salvatore Leanza, 55

Resident of Albiano d'Ivrea, Italy
Walter Angelo Rezza, 70

Resident of Belpasso, Italy
Palmino Pietro Signorello, 66

Residents of Campobello di Licata, Italy
Francesco Giorano, 71
Luigi Giuseppe Grisafi, 64
Ignazio Urbano La Mendola, 79

Residents of Canicattì, Italy
Anna Maria Omero, 74
Mauro Ettore Zanchi, 56

Residents of Centuripe, Italy
Franco Benardelli, 82
Francesco Saccone, (also known as "Ciccio") 80

Residents of Collegno, Italy
Valter Bertaggia, 70

Resident of Favara, Italy
Calogero Stagno, (also known as "Lillo"), 51

Residents of Gela, Italy
Giuseppe Cassarà, 58
Simone Di Simone, (also known as "Ucca aperta"), 46
Orazio Pellegrino, (also known as "nacagliacani"), 54

Resident of Licata, Italy
Salvatore Curella, 66

Resident of Mazzarino, Italy
Giovanni Stuppia, 39

Resident of Mazzè, Italy
Alfredo Crepaldi, 61
Salvatore Pappalardo, 55

Resident of Palma di Montechiaro, Italy
Domenico Dario Cutaia, 43

Residents of Paternò, Italy
Santo Gulisano, 58
Alfredo Antonino Pennisi, 57a
Luigi Signorello, 34

Residents of Ravanusa, Italy
Matteo Bello, 53
Calogero Ninotta, (also known as "Lilli"), 39
Gaetano Romano, (also known as "Mimmo"), 58
Bernardo Tresca, 67

Residents of Riesi, Italy
Angelo Chiantia, (also known as "Faccia pulita") 59  
Daniele Correnti, 55
Onofrio La Leggia, (also known as "Ciuffettino") 59
Francesco Lucerna, (also known as "U zu Ginu") 76
Gaetano Luciano Oliveri, 57
Gaetano Patermo, (also known as "Tano"), 63
Filippo Vecchio, 51

Residents of Refrancore, Italy
Renzo Maggiora, 79

Resident of Strongoli, Italy
Luigi La Croce, 62

Residents of Torino, Italy
Giovanni Lucerna, 49
Maria Debora Lucerna, 55

Resident in Ehingen, Germany
Rocco Mondello, 61

Resident in Barcelona, Spain
Andrea Palma, 36,

Resident in Stanmore (London), UK
William Veres, (also known as “il professore"), 64

July 17, 2018

Quotes given by ancient art dealer William Veres outlining Balkan trafficking methods.

Image Credit:  Screenshot from documentary “The Hunt for Transylvanian Gold.”  
In 2008, following a ten-year investigation coordinated by Prosecutor General Augustin Lazăr of Romania, a number of individuals were charged in connection with illegal excavations carried out in the dense forests of the Orăştie Mountains in the vicinity of the Sarmizegetusa Regia fortress, one of six heritage sites which make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Dacian Fortresses of the Orăştie, dating to the mid-first century BCE.  To date twenty-eight individuals have been named in connection with this multinational investigation which has resulted in antiquities recoveries from New York, Zurich, Paris, Munich, and Hunedoara – Romania. 

Some of the persons identified in this complex investigation include Ioan Bodea, Radu Horia Camil, Iulian Ceia, Călin Ciota, Călin Corhan, Ciprian Hidişan, Daniel Jurca, Ilic Ljubisa, Ilie Luncan, Viorica Luncan, Daniel Moc,  David Magda, Ion Nedelcu, Miu Nedelcu, Adrian and Florin Nistor, Ovidiu Olah, Remus Pop, and Mihai Zerkula, each of whom were associated in some way with a criminal enterprise that has been identified as being involved in unauthorized excavations conducted in the Dacian citadels in the Orăştie Mountains, located in the counties of Hunedoara and Alba, in Romania.


In 2017 details of this looting case, which began in the capital of the Dacians civilization in the central mountains of Romania, were detailed in a fifty-minute documentary called “The Hunt for Transylvanian Gold.”  

Of the 24 gold spirals, stolen between 1998 and 2001, only 13 have been recovered.  They are now on display at the Muzeul Național de Istorie a României.  Six of the bracelets are believed to have passed through the hands of one antiquities collector, Ilic Ljubisa, believed to have been the organizer of a group of traffickers known as the "Serbian cartel" which operated out of Zurich.  Ljubisa bought three pairs of the gold spirals and is believed to have been involved in their transport to Belgrade.

To understand how Romania's golden artifacts made their way out of Romania via Serbia and onto the antiquities market, the documentary makers, Boston-based Kogainon Films, interviewed many people, including Hungarian born and London-based antiquities dealer William Veres.  Veres is now the subject of his own multinational police investigation of antiquities trafficking originating in Italy. 

In the documentary, Veres is filmed making several interesting, if not quite incriminating, statements regarding the methodologies used by the antiquities handlers caught up in the Dacian gold looting case.  

Veres comments on the city of Belgrade in Serbia and its role in the illicit trade of cultural heritage

“Belgrade, as you know, is *inaudible* the biggest capital maybe in the whole world for stolen art. So...the....let's call it the Serbian mafia, it would be a number of individuals who, would, amongst other things, deal with ancient objects and would have clients in the west.

Veres comments on the differences between art dealers in Western Europe and art dealers in the Balkans

“I've known these people as dealers, and as I say, you can look at this in a...in another context, as I say, if, the laws in countries like Serbia and Romania were different, these people wouldn't be much different from myself. But the point is that, this activity you can carry on legally in somewhere like Germany, France, even Italy, let's say, and in other countries, you can't carry it on because of the nature of cultural.... the laws of cultural property.

While drawing out a hypothetical illicit trafficking route, Veres comments on how plundered art moves from Romania to Serbia

“In the case of these spirals, once you have, once they are here in Belgrade, then of course they go to ahh Vienna, ummm Munich, maybe Zurich, and Geneva. These are the, I would say, the first stops, and from here then, to America. So it is a personal trade, run by professionals, who know what they are doing very, very well. The bus drivers they know where to hide things. So you give them a small package, you know, five hundred euros and I'm sure ahhh this can be transported to Belgrade, to Vienna overnight.  It's very efficient, like DHL.

Efficient like DHL.  Words worth remembering. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 8, 2018

On the trail of looted antiquities, Carabinieri arrest another individual in Sicily.


Image Credit: Carabinieri 
An ancient amphora and 25 terracotta fragments of ancient statues, some believed to date as far back as the III millennium BCE (the Early to Middle Bronze Age), these are the plundered archaeological finds seized during a 04 July 2018 raid on the home of Gianni Francesco Scimemi in his home in Salemi, a village located in the Belice Valley within the interior of Western Sicily.

Led by the Carabinieri Comando Compagnia Mazara del Vallo under the authority of  commander, Lieutenant Maurizio Giaramita, Italian authorities also found the man to be in the possession of a handgun in which the factory-marked serial number had been completely abraded. 

The area around Salemi is rich in archaeological material.  Excavation and study of the historic remains in this region have provided crucial evidence regarding the ancient Elymian town of Halikyai. The Elymi occupied various hilltops of western Sicilduring the Archaic (c. 700 – 480 BCE), Early Classical (480 – 400 BCE), Late Classical (400 – 323 BCE), and Hellenistic (323 – 30 BCE) periods. 

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus once wrote that the indigenous Sicilians who inhabited this zone were fiercely culturally independent despite their interaction with the Greeks and Phoenicians.  But the origins of these pieces are unknown as they have been excavated without any care for the archaeological context. 

For the moment Scimemi remains "free", confined to house arrest pending the completion of this investigation. 




July 6, 2018

More details on Operation Demetra

Image Credit:  Carabinieri TPC
As has been noted to be the case in the past, Sicilian trafficking cases sometimes have organized crime origins and that appears to also be the case with this week's announced Operation Demetra, named after the Greek divinity much venerated in Sicily.   As new individuals are identified with this investigation, it is interesting to see how some of them are connected to one another, to incidences of trafficking in the past and how they fit into the puzzle of this multinational investigation. 

Gaetano Patermo
Begun as an anti-mafia investigation, initiated by the Nissena Prosecutor for the territory of Riesi, Operation Demetra grew to international proportions when the Carabinieri began reinvestigating the activities of Gaetano Patermo (A.K.A "Tano"). 

Gaetano Patermo
In 2007 Patermo was named along with other individuals,  including Angelo Chiantia and Simone Di Simone, in a 35-person investigation involving illegal excavations, theft, reproduction, falsification, exportation, sale and receipt, even in foreign territory, of archaeological assets belonging to the public domain.

Although acquitted for these earlier alleged offences the details of the 2007 case were remarkably similar to the methodology used by traffickers involved in the 2014-2018 investigation that Patermo has now been arrested for.  According to the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Property responsible for the archaeological heritage of Palermo, led by Major Luigi Mancuso, the antiquities were being transferred from Sicily to northern Italy, hidden inside baggage along with travellers garments and inside the linings of suitcases. 

In the older case, clandestine material was transported out of Sicily through Spain and Switzerland by means of campers or trucks loaded with fruits and vegetables.  Once out of the country the antiquities and coins were also passed on to potential international buyers.  

As it relates to Operation Demetra, it is alleged that Patermo had contacts with the network of couriers that transported illlicit material and interacted with individuals connected to the London-based art dealer William Thomas Veres. 

Angelo Chiantia and Simone Di Simone
Angelo Chiantia (Left) and Simone Di Simone (Right)
Not picked up in the original sweep earlier this week, but wanted by the Italian authorities in connection with this more recent investigation, Angelo Chiantia of Riesi and Simone Di Simone of Gela, in the presence of their lawyers, turned themselves in to law enforcement authorities yesterday afternoon.  Both are believed to have played roles as middlemen in the smuggling of cultural heritage abroad. 

Francesco Lucerna is from Riesi, hometown of the notorious Mafia boss Giuseppe Di Cristina in the province of Caltanissetta, whose death was a prelude to the Second Mafia War.  In addition to being an alleged "tomborolo" Lucerne was identified in February 2015 as the person who put together this organized network of tombaroli and counterfeiters, selling authentic and imitation archaeological remains to wealthy entrepreneurs and industrialists in Piedmont, where he had relocated, as well as on to buyers in Germany.  

Following the 2015 search and seizures carried out in the province of Caltanissetta more than one thousand artifacts were seized including 859 clay vases and amphorae, 146 ancient coins dating back to the Greek and Roman age, 191 paleontological finds and two illegal metal detectors.   The antiquities were believed to have come from an undocumented fourth or fifth century BCE villa, most likely discovered somewhere in the archaeological area of ​​Philosopiana, between Butera and Riesi.  Unfortunately without a find spot, and with nothing known about the context around where the antiquities were excavated, little can be concretely ascertained.  Police also raided two forgers in Misterbianco and Paternò, near Catania, whose workshops contained 878 counterfeit coins and 960 forged coin dies which were used to strike the authentic-looking fakes.  These were being prepared to be sold to collectors, possibly being told they were authentic. 

Andrea Palma
Lists himself on Linkedin as a Numismatic Expert & Advisor at Martí Hervera, SL in Barcelona as well as at Soler y Llach Subastas Internacionales, S.A.

Interestingly, he also appears to have been affiliated in some way with an excavation at the Villa Romana del Casale di Piazza Armerina (EN), in Sicily and to have earned a degree from the Università degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza" where he studied at numismatics, epigraphy and archaeology. 

William Veres

The Hungarian-born antiquities dealer William Veres has always walked a fine line in who and how he has worked with individuals known to have had connections to illicit trafficking.  In addition to the questionable incidences already mentioned in our earlier blog posts, in which he received a suspended sentence, and the billionaire purchaser was acquitted, Veres was once accused by former self-confessed smuggler and police informant Michel Van Rijn of running a London-based business that deals in smuggled relics.  One of those relics was a Coptic Ps.Gospel of Judas (Iscariot), part of an ancient codice written in Coptic and Greek which surfaced on the international art market once connected to many well known names and faces.

Veres was arrested at his home at his home in Stanmore, northwest London this week. 

William Veres
Lest we forget, art criminals don't just deal with tomb raiders, gallery show rooms and collectors of ancient art.  Sometimes they also rub elbows with the worst of the underworld. And if you think that the Procura di Caltanissetta only deals with heritage crimes you would be wrong.

Personnel of the provincial command of the Carabinieri of Caltanissetta, at the request of the DDA (Direzione Distrettuale Antimafia) and of the local prosecutor are also following investigations in the region against the 'family' of Riesi, the "stidda" of the Cosa Nostra.  This group is believed to be responsible for not only the trafficking of drugs, and extortion, but also appear to have been the executors of numerous murders and attempted murders which took place in the early 1990s. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 4, 2018

Operation Demetra: The Trafficking of Sicilian Archaeological Treasures

Image Credit: Carabinieri TPC

Updated 13:00 GMT+1

In a press conference held today, at 11:00 at the Public Prosecutor's Office of the Court of Caltanissetta, Italy announced the result of an illicit trafficking investigation, long established under the code named "Demeter" which first started in 2014.

In coordination with officials from EUROPOL and EUROJUST, the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Caltanissetta and the Carabinieri of the Cultural Heritage Protection Unit of Palermo, in collaboration with the investigative nucleus of Caltanissetta, an order for the application of precautionary measures was issued by the Court of Caltanissetta, against 23 people.

Precautionary measures, were issued to individuals in Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Crotone, Enna, Lecce, Naples, Novara, Taranto, Turin, Ragusa, and Syracuse, where simultaneously or in tandem, raids were carried out which also included searches for illicit archaeological finds.  Precautionary measures against those taken into custody are those measures of privation or restriction of the rights of a person, adopted on the basis of a dual premise: the serious indications of guilt (article 272 c.p.p.) and the precautionary requirements related to ensuring their presence at judicial proceedings (article 273c.p.p.).

According to the Italian authorities, Francesco Lucerna, a 76-year-old "tombarolo" from Riesi, a small town in the province of Caltanissetta, worked alongside a network of individuals fencing archaeological finds for decades uncovered via clandestine excavations.  Many of these illicit excavations purportedly took place in the provinces of Caltanissetta and Agrigento, areas in Sicily which are rich with ancient objects of Greek and Roma production, many of which date back to the IV-V centuries BCE.  The plundered objects dug up by this group were transported to Northern Italy via middlemen and from there made their way into collectors hands and the greater European art market.

With regards to in this multiyear long investigation the following individuals are being held in pre-trial detention:

• Francesco Lucerna, also known as "Zu Gino", 76 years old from Riesi (CL);
• Matteo Bello, 61, from Ravanusa (AG);
• Francesco Giordano, 71, from Campobello di Licata (AG);
• Luigi Giuseppe Grifasi, 64, from Ravanusa (AG);
• Calogero Ninotta, 39, from Ravanusa (AG);
• Gaetano Romano, 58, from Ravanusa (AG);
• Gaetano Patermo, 63, from Riesi (CL);
• Palmino Pietro Signorello, 66, from Belpasso (CT).

The following have been released on house arrest pending the outcome of their cases:
• Giovanni Lucerna, 49, from Turin;
• Maria Debora Lucerna , 55, from Turin;
• Salvatore Pappalardo, 75, of Misterbianco (CT);
• Calogero Stagno, 51, of Favara (AG);
• Luigi Signorello, 34, from Belpasso (CT);
• Luigi Laroce, 62, from Strongoli (KR).

While most of the individuals implicated reside in Italy, three others were arrested in Great Britain, Germany and Spain.

They are:

William Thomas Veres, 64, residing in London, UK;
Andrea Palma, 36, originally from Campobasso but resident in Barcelona, Spain;
Rocco Mondello, 61 years old from Gela, a resident of Ehingen, Germany.


Each is accused in various ways of criminal association and/or the receiving of stolen goods as it relates to the trafficking of antiquities.

William Thomas Veres has been previously arrested in Spain on August 16, 2017 on un unrelated trafficking case via an extradition warrant from Italy for the alleged theft of antiquities and cultural heritage objects.  Veres was also given a suspended sentence of one year and ten months imprisonment for his role in a November 09, 1995, U.S. Customs seizure of a $1.2 million fourth century BCE gold phiale used for pouring libations sold on to Art Collector Michael Steinhardt.


Utilising a European Investigation Order issued by the prosecutor of the Republic of Caltanissetta and with the coordination of EUROPOL and EUROJUST, searches were conducted abroad where numerous archaeological finds, 30,000 euros in cash and documentation useful for further investigations were all seized.  Investigations are also reported to be ongoing at two auction houses located in Munich, Germany.

Entered into force 22 May 2017, a European Investigation Order is based on mutual recognition, and requires that each EU country be obliged to recognise and carry out the request of the other EU country, as it would do with a decision coming from its own authorities. 

In total some 3,000 archaeological objects are said to have been recovered with an estimated value of €20 million.  Placing value on material culture outside of their context though cheapens the loss as the loss of context and what we can learn from the objects found in situ is not factored in their estimated valuation. 

Interestingly this network is also believed to have been involved in counterfeiting ancient coins and other objects intended for sale when the demand for ancient material exceeded the supply chain's capacity to provide looted material. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

May 25, 2018

Countering Antiquities Trafficking (CAT) in the Mashreq

From April 16 – 20, 2018 I had the pleasure to be one of a specialised group of trainers for Countering Antiquities Trafficking in the Mashreq: A Training Program for Specialists Working to Deter Cultural Property Theft and the Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities, a programme developed through the Secretariat of the 1970 Convention, the unit responsible for the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. 

Funded through UNESCO's Heritage Emergency Fund, the multidisciplinary practical training programme took place at UNESCO's Regional Office in Beirut, and involved experts working with and in collaboration to UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, a specialised agency of the UN based in Paris,  ARCA — the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, UNIDROIT — the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law, ICOM — the International Council of Museums, UNODC — the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and INTERPOL— the International Criminal Police Organization.


The CAT in the Mashreq training program was developed to provide technical support (risk management measures, situational interpretations, drawing conclusions, making recommendations) to staff from governmental authorities, art professionals, academics and decision-makers who work in fragile source countries, the very places where illicit antiquities originate and where heritage trafficking incidents are known to occur.

Developed by professionals for professionals, who understand the necessity of tackling the prevalent issues contributing to heritage crimes and cross-border smuggling of illegally exported antiquities, this initiative, hopefully replicable in more countries, was developed as a means of providing support to the affected source and transit countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

The overarching goal is to help heritage professionals address issues of common heritage concern in countries where civil unrest and social turmoil have contributed to porous borders where the absence of controls contributes to avenues for the looting and trafficking of cultural artifacts, as well as on occasion, incidences of cultural cleansing.

As a part of this ambitious initiative, 32 trainees where invited from the five aforementioned designated countries.  Each trainee, while there to learn, also contributed from their own professional knowledge, expertise and first-hand knowledge if the issues as they relate to the situation in their own country. Drawing upon my own professional experiences in cross-border policing, museum security and risk management, my objective in the initiative was to build multilateral capacity and to strengthen knowledge as it relates to the intricacies of art crime and heritage protection across jurisdictions.

Criminals work outside border considerations.

Always at the forefront of my training module was to need to develop a purposeful framework, for knowledge transfer and exchange, to be used to develop activities and approaches that move knowledge from those who have first hand experience in a specific area to others who need similar knowledge before during or after a similar incident.  Also of importance was to foster in others, the trust to work collaboratively and to be open to learning from one another as I believe it takes a non-political, multidisciplinary and multi-visionary approach to adequately deter and detect incidents of art crime as they across country boundaries.

There’s a difference between crime prevention and crime reaction:  Changing the way we think.

My contribution to the week-long training was to guide and coach participants through interactive case studies and exercises, promoting a proactive and systematically collaborative mind set to heritage risk management.  To that end,  I believe I was able to encourage the participants to take into consideration a variety of unexplored approaches to site security and protection.


This was done not only by analyzing and reviewing past incidents after they occur, in order to deter cultural property theft and illicit trafficking but to also fulfill my own goal for this training which was to raise individual and agency understanding of the need for a more proactive prevention and preparation approach, by predicting what types of emergencies might occur in advance of an incident or an all-out crisis, in order to rectify deficiencies in risk management, to prevent incidents from happening.

This was done by demonstrating the use of practical, proactive security measurements, proactive planning, predictive analysis, threat and risk management assessment, many of which can be applied to the conflict theatre and could be applicable to the situations occurring in this specific region.

During my module participants were given real world proactive vs. reactive examples of security measures and risk management advance planning techniques as this is the single most important thing an organisation can do to defend itself against a threat, i.e. understanding its existing vulnerabilities and setting up a framework for addressing them before incidences can occur.   By sharing and coordinating relevant information and existing security processes my goal was to help trainees be better able to protect assets, people, property (tangible and intangible), and archival information, before a loss occurs.

With so many incidents happening in the last decades in this region we still tend to look at the conflict itself and how to stop the trafficking of stolen goods after they have already been taken.  We need to start thinking outside the box and start looking how we can predict those incidents before they occur, and with that knowledge how we can find and develop solutions, measurements and support how to prevent them. And for the record, no I do not mean that this can stop a conflict, I mean that if it obvious that there can be a conflict, we should not wait until it is happening and react to it then.

Time to look further ahead as well as looking back.

Although I understand the current situations occurring in this zone, and the sensitive feelings of those involved, knowing that until now, their focus has been on getting the stolen, plundered or otherwise stolen or destroyed cultural heritage objects back, it is also time to look forward and try the prevent the next possible situation to happen.  I’m proud and honoured that I was asked to be part of this training and hope that a little seed of proactivity was planted, and there, will continue to grow.

Dick Drent, CPE
Founding Director, Omnirisk
Associate Director, SoSecure Intl.
Museum and Site Risk Management Expert

January 31, 2018

ICOM releases its newest Red List for the country of Yemen in New York today


For decades, ICOM – the International Council of Museums has continued its fight against illicit traffic in cultural goods with the publication of its Red Lists of endangered cultural assets.  These lists, which are extremely effective reference tools, illustrate endangered categories of archaeological objects and works of art from specific geographic regions that have a greater potential for being traded illegally.

Produced as a handy-sized, illustrated poster, each Red List help customs authorities, law enforcement agencies, auction houses, museums, dealers and other parties of the importance identify the general types of archaeological, ethnographic, religious and historic objects likely to be looted from cultural sites, stolen from museums and religious institutions, and subject to illicit trafficking.

To date ICOM has created 17 Red Lists for:

Afghanistan (2007), Africa (2000), Cambodia (2009), Central America and Mexico (2010), China (2010), Colombia (2010), the Dominican Republic (2013), Egypt (2011), Haiti (2010), Iraq (2003, updated in 2015), Latin America (2003), Libya (2015), Peru (2007), Syria (2013), West Africa (2016) and as of today, Yemen (2018). 

According to France Desmarais, the creator of the Yemen Red List, "Seven of these Red Lists were classified as "Emergency" Red Lists because they concern countries whose movable heritage had suddenly been placed at risk, either due to a natural disaster (as in the case of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010) or armed conflict (Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Mali and Yemen)."

The Lists are available in English, French, the language(s) of the source country, and as interest requires, languages in countries with a potential for being transit points for illicit trafficking. 

The Emergency Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk – Yemen will be officially presented at the Metropolitan Museum in New York today at 5:00 p.m. The event will take place in the presence of museum and heritage professionals, government and law enforcement representatives and members of the press. 

ICOM President Suay Aksoy and Director of Programmes and Partnerships France Desmarais, who developed the Yemen Red List, will officially represent the organisation on this occasion and will introduce the Red List to the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Yemen to the United Nations H.E. Ambassador Khaled Hussein Alyemany as well as to other attendees. Daniel H. Weiss, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Metropolitan Museum will speak on behalf of the Met’s continued support of ICOM’s mission promote awareness on the categories of objects most at risk of being illicitly trafficked.

The Emergency Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk – Yemen is one of several Red Lists which have been produced and distributed by ICOM with the support of the United States Cultural Heritage Center.  On hand for the event representing the US Government will be Jennifer Zimdahl Galt, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Produced with the scientific contribution of international experts and museums from Yemen, the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Germany, ICOM's new Yemen Red List identifies categories of Yemeni objects which may be in high demand on the art and antiquities market and which are vulnerable to being looted, stolen or illegally exported, especially given the unrest caused by the ongoing conflict. 

Doing the Right Thing

If you are a collector ARCA strongly encourages you to pay close attention to the provenance and legal documentation of any objects you purchase from  Yemen,  paying special attention to the types of objects which appear on ICOM's Yemen Red List

January 9, 2018

List of 6 (additional) objects and warrant details on objects seized from Phoenix Ancient Art by New York State District Attorney's Office

Copy of search warrant executed at Phoenix Ancient Art in New York can be viewed here.

On Friday, January 5, 2018, Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., and assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos also initiated seizures at Phoenix Ancient Art, New York, in connection with an investigation into the purchase of illicitly trafficked antiquities.

The second-generation family business Phoenix Ancient Art has galleries in New York and Geneva. The business was founded by Sleiman Aboutaam in 1968 and is now operated by his sons, Hicham and Ali Aboutaam.  The Aboutaam name comes up frequently on ARCA's blog. 

The search warrants executed at 47 East 66th street resulted in the seizure of the following objects:


A) Rhodian Seated Monkey with missing arms (the “Seated Monkey”)
Period: dating to 580-550 BCE
Measurement: 5.25 inches tall
Valued at: $150,000


B) Attic Female Head Flask (the Female Head Flask”)
Period: dating to 500-490 BCE
Measurement: 5.5 inches tall by 2 inches wide.
Valued at: $80,000


C) Ionian figural vessel representing a Siren (the”Siren Vessel”)
Period: dating to 500-525 BCE
Measurement: 4 inches tall by 4.5 inches wide.
Valued at: $35,000


D) Teano Ware figural representing a Dove (the “Dove”).
Period: dating to 330-300 BCE
Measurement: 4.5 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide.
Valued at: $25,000


E) Corinthian figural representing a Ram (the “Ram”) painted with black dots.
Period: dating to the 6th century BCE
Measurement: 2 1/8 inches tall by 3 1/8 inches wide
Valued at: $20,000


F) Corinthian figural representing a Sea-Serpent with a human torso and head of a man (the “Sea-Serpent”) painted with black dots.
Period: dating to the 6th century BCE
Measurement: 4.5 inches tall by 1.75 inches wide
Valued at: $140,000

In addition to the antiquities, as with the seizures which were executed at Michael Steinhardt's residence and office, the DA's seizure warrant called for the seizure of:

any and all documentation or other evidence related to the appraisal, consignment, sale, possession, transportation, shipping, provenance, importation, exportation, restoration, marketing, or insurance of the listed antiquities, including but not limited to appraisals, insurance policies, agreements, leases, contracts, emails, letters, invoices, receipts, documents, handwritten notes, internal memoranda, photographs, recordings, financial records, address books, date books, calendars, and personal papers;

found in the premises and that constitutes evidence, and tends to demonstrate that the crime of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree was committed.