Showing posts with label illicit trafficking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label illicit trafficking. Show all posts

January 5, 2021

Israel's Antiquities Authority's Robbery Prevention Unit take three people into custody for questioning on suspicion of dealing in illicit antiquities.

Image Credit - Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Three people, believed to be involved in an illegal antiquities trading network, have been taken into custody as the result of an extensive investigation in Israel.  All three individuals are said to be residents of Gush Dan, the densely populated region surrounding the city of Tel-Aviv and have been under surveillance for suspicion of trafficking, illegal possession of antiquities, as well as possible instances of fraud and money laundering.  Amir Ganor, the director of the Antiquities Authority's Robbery Prevention Unit told Israeli newspapers that this is one of the "most significant operations carried out in the country against illegal trade in antiquities" involving some €2.5 million worth of ancient art. 

During the past several months, the fraud unit in the Tel Aviv district has conducted a joint undercover investigation, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the country's Tax Authority.  Yesterday, in the early morning, law enforcement announced that they had conducted search warrants on the apartments of the three unnamed suspects, in warehouses and at a gallery in Tel Aviv.

Law enforcement officers recovered ancient objects and coins most of which dates from the 3rd century BCE through the 11th century CE.  The objects are believed to have been removed from their context during clandestine excavations throughout the Mediterranean basin and North Africa and include Red-figure and Black-figure attic pottery from Ancient Greece and Italy, as well as jugs, vases, coins from the Seleucid Hellenistic period, jewellery, statues, and figurines.  Officers also recovered decorated sarcophagus lids, painted wooden boxes, and objects created with faience from Egypt. 

Despite their stunning recovery, the Israel Antiquities Authority has stated that their investigation is just now getting started.   The country will be reaching out to art and antiquities enforcement counterparts in other countries to discuss the origins and perhaps movements of the objects before their arrival to Israel. 

Two of the suspects have been listed in open source reports as a 70-year-old gallery owner and his 40-year-old son though other article sources indicate that none of the detainees were licensed traders in ancient art though some of the suspects were in contact with licensed dealers.  The third suspect has been described as being a 40-year-old resident of the city of Holon, located 10 km outside the Tel Aviv metropolis.   

All three men were brought in for questioning at the offices of the fraud unit in the Tel Aviv district.  Carrying out illegal excavations at antiquities sites in Israel without a license constitutes a severe violation of the country's patrimony law.  If convicted as such, culprits can be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Operación Nongreta brings in three gun runners and uncovers one suspect's "museum" of Nazi-themed objects

Image Credit: Guardia Civil

Arrested in a complex multinational police action code-named Operación Nongreta one of three gun runners arrested in Spain at the end of December has been found to have maintained a "museum" of Nazi-themed objects, alongside a substantial arsenal of weapons and ammunition.

Within the framework of the year-long Nongreta operation, involving the Information Office (UCE3) of Spain's Civil Guard, with the support of the Bundeskriminalamt, (the German Federal Criminal Police Office, BKA), the Andalusian Area Information Section, the USECIC and the GEDEX of the Málaga Command, and members of the GAR and the Servicio Cinológico, law enforcement successfully dismantled an arms trafficking group known to be dealing with drug trafficking cells working the Costa del Sol and Campo de Gibraltar regions in the south of Spain.   

The operation, born out of a noticeable uptick in murders carried out during drug-related crimes committed on the Costa del Sol in the final stretch of 2019 using modified assault rifles, resulted in the arrested of three key actors - two German citizens and one British, who have each been charged with participation in an organized crime group, storing and trafficking of arms and ammunition, drug trafficking, and use of forged documents.  The arms traffickers are believed to have been in operation for at least three years, operating a sophisticated scheme which funnelled weaponry obtained from Eastern Europian countries, with access to the old Soviet arsenals, to drug traffickers in need of weaponry active in southern Spain. 

In breaking up the ring, investigators focused their attention on a seventy-year-old German citizen, a former gunsmith living in Coín on the pretext of being a simple foreign retiree. Through exchanges of information with Germany's Bundeskriminalamt, Spanish authorities were informed that the suspect had spent four years in prison for the illegal modification of weapons and also had a current outstanding European Arrest Warrant (EAW), after an arsenal was tied to him in a Hannover case in 2019.  In that case, a family member has already been sentenced to prison for their involvement.

In a subsequent search of this suspect's home in Coín, the Civil Guard, with the assistance of a firearm-sniffing K-9, found a sophisticated hidden workshop, complete with complex machinery, which tapped into the city's electrical grid in order to operate a milling lathe, column drills, a hydraulic press and a blueing oven, the latter used after erasing the serial numbers to restore the barrels of the weapons to almost mint condition.  This would make the weapons almost untraceable, and therefore a perfect weapon of choice in the clandestine arms market.

It was here that the suspect would modify weapons such as the Zastava M70, (Застава М70), a standard-issue domestic folding-stock Kalashnikov variant once used by the Yugoslav People's Army in 1970.  Short and easily concealable under a coat or loose jacket, the weapons are perfect for drug factions engaged in quick hits when fighting over competing turf.  The weapons had been purchased from collectors in Eastern Europe disassembled and were modified in the Spain workshop for resale. The second suspect, also a German citizen, is believed to have been responsible for the storage and concealment of the weapons in a rented warehouse. 

Image Credit: Guardia Civil

The Third Reich memorabilia was identified in a second suspect's home in Alhaurín el Grandes, a town located in the province of Málaga on the north side of the Sierra de Mijas.  There, the police found tables, shelves and display cases jammed with Nazi memorabilia including a portrait bust of Adolf Hitler, SS Uniforms, helmets, stick pins, insignias, medals, flags, and armbands of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, many of which were emblazoned in some way with a swastika or the Nazi eagle.

After a search of the suspect's home, officers moved on to a safe house he rented on the outskirts of the municipality.  It is in that rented warehouse where authorities uncovered an arsenal ready for sale.  There, law enforcement seized 160 firearms made up of 121 short weapons, 22 assault rifles and 8 submachine guns.  Along with the arms, officers recovered 9,967 rounds of ammunition of different calibres, eight silencers, 273 magazines, a grenade, and a kilo and a half of military explosives. 

Spanish newspapers have identified the holder of the Nazi memorabilia and the warehouse as a 54-year-old German named Tilo Kränzler, who publically claimed to be "the grandson of the real driver of the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler" during an interview which can be found on the Radio Platja d'Aro program "Enigma Report." He is also known to have saught connections with a Spanish far-right group.

In addition to his involvement with arms selling, the Kränzler sold olive oil on eBay, and operated a stall which sold military and Nazi paraphernalia as well as T-shirts with the face of the Swedish activist and environmentalist Greta Thunberg with the label “persona Non Greta.” It was this play on words that became the code name for the UCE 3 of the Civil Guard's Operación Nongreta.

The third lead suspect is a British national who also resided in Coín, who acted as the group's intermediary in the sale between the arms dealers, taking a cut of the profits for the arms sold to drug traffickers working the Costa del Sol and Campo de Gibraltar.  Previously arrested for drug trafficking, this UK individual also using fake passports to hide his identity, several of which were recovered by law enforcement during the operation.

At the search of the British suspect's home, the Civil Guard recovered a pistol with its serial number erased and more than 1,200 rounds of ammunition. 

For now, the Court of Instruction of Coín has ordered that the three remain in custody pending trial while the hashish drug traffickers who operate in the Campo de Gibraltar area and to a large part of the mafias that have faced each other for years in Málaga's Costa del Sol will have a bit of difficulty stocking up on their firearms.

Image Credit: Guardia Civil

March 27, 2020

Steve Green to return another 11,500 antiquities to the Iraqi and Egyptian governments, but let's not forget the past.


Journalist Kelly Crow, in a Wall Street Journal exclusive, reports that Hobby Lobby magnate Steve Green has agreed to return an additional 11,500 antiquities to the Iraqi and Egyptian governments.  Consisting mostly of papyrus fragments and ancient clay objects, the collection pieces, originally destined for the philanthropist's museum project, are being relinquished to their source country because they all lack ownership histories.  

No a big surprise there.  It is something academics have been worriedly asking the collector and his museum about for years.

Seemingly apologetic, the billionaire behind the $800 million, eight-story Museum of the Bible, told the Wall Street Journal “One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased,” adding when he started collecting biblical-era antiquities in 2009 he  “knew little about the world of collecting.”

I'd like to remind ARCA's readership that by the time we published our first article on Green's buying antiquities like hotcakes, in October 2015, the Hobby Lobby craft store giant had already purchased an estimated 40,000 objects for their collection, in just six years.  These included Dead Sea Scroll fragments, biblical papyri, rare biblical texts and manuscripts, cuneiform tablets, Torah scrolls, and rare printed Bibles.  

That's 6,666 objects per year or a whopping 18 objects purchased per day. 

Looking at that from a transactional basis, I would say that Mr. Green's excuse of knowing little about the world of collecting rings a bit hollow.  Green's purchasing power, and avarice, meant his collective team knew a lil more than the average joe when it comes to the world of ancient art dealers and collectors. It is not like they made one or two wrong newbie purchases.  

According to US law enforcement documents, by 2010, just one year after he had started collecting, Green, himself made a trip to the United Arab Emirates to eyeball some 5,548 artefacts reportedly worth millions. This same law enforcement complaint states that the objects “were displayed informally...” “spread on the floor, arranged in layers on a coffee table, and packed loosely in cardboard boxes, in many instances with little or no protective material between them.” 


For a man known to watch his financial line to the level Green does within his craft store empire, for me it is inconceivable to believe that an individual of this billionaire's stature would fork out millions, buying ancient objects without at least a tacit knowledge that he might need to ask questions of the dealers and suppliers he was buying material from. 

For years now I have been saying that if the Greens truly want to make amends, they should fill their future Museum of the Bible with acquisitions collected ethically. In addition they should also make the details of their past purchases open and searchable to external researchers and investigators not just relinquishing batches of suspect objects purchased without sufficient moral and ethical consideration. 

During the first handover of antiquities Green said “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”  Unfortunately it took him another five whole years to muster up the gumption to admit that these additional 11,500 objects were also likely purchased in the same haphazard manner as the ones relinquished earlier.  

I don't know about most folks but if I had the capability of writing million checks dollar checks, and had already once had my feet held to the fire for purchasing antiquities that didn't pass muster, I think that I would likely remember all the other occasions when I wrote eye-popping checks for astronomical sums for equally suspect, not fully-thought out, purchases from individuals who were not completely transparent about where their merchandise was coming from. 

Why it took Green five years to do the right thing on this other set of objects is therefore not to be applauded.  The people in Egypt and Iraq who loot to feed the collecting appetites of Westerners spend years in jail when caught.  But big dollar collectors like Steve Green, who incentivise that very plunder, seem to think that showing remorse in a financial journal or a Hobby Lobby press release should suffice.   

For me it isn't.

Put your collection on line Mr. Green.

Then I will truly believe that you are sincerely sorry for what you have done.  Help researchers, who can connect dodgy dealers put a dent in the illicit supply chain.   Just giving back boxes and boxes of pretty baubles to the countries your dollar has plundered doesn't undo the damage you have done.   

Op/Ed: Lynda Albertson

July 13, 2019

Quando, Dove, Da Chi e a Quale Prezzo


When, Where, From Who and At What Price...

Demonstrating, once again, how important observation skills (and patience) are in following up on illicitly trafficked material, an observant officer within the Palermo unit of Italy's Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio has been able to identify a remarkable Attic Red-Figure Column Krater dating back to the 5th century BCE trafficked clandestinely. Ironically though, the officer's success did not come about by the monitoring of online sellers of objects, as misrepresented in numerous Italian language articles today, but rather by qualitative observation and awareness of the similarities in purchasing patterns buyers of such objects sometimes exhibit. 

The large ceramic vessel, used for mixing water and wine, depicts a female playing a double aulos (diaulos), an an ancient Greek wind instrument.  She is standing between two male figures, each wrapped in a himation around the lower portion of their bodies while reclining languidly upon klines.  On the reverse side of the vase, the iconography depicts three additional standing youths, each of whom is mantled in a red himation, one of whom is leaning heavily on his walking stick.


After the officer notated the suspicious vase, the antiquity was geolocated to a prestigious villa in Aci Castello, twenty minutes by car from Catania.  On requesting a search warrant, later approved by the Public Prosecutor's office, the object was seized and an individual unnamed by the prosecutor's office has been placed under investigation for having received stolen goods.

This interesting, yet time consuming, econometric approach to investigations demonstrates, once again, how the internet constitutes not only the conduit for selling illicit material, but also at times can be a useful environment for the recovery of illicit antiquities.

Using emergent web intelligence, i.e., determining buyer behavioral commonalities, the Carabinieri has found an unusual information gathering opportunity which facilitated the object's identification after the object had been sold.  This in turn will hopefully lead to officer's identifying those who deal in and sell illegally excavated objects on to others. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 3, 2019

Questions for Christie's with regards to its upcoming sale of the Quartzite head of the young pharaoh portrayed as the ancient god Amun

Unpacking some miscellaneous thoughts on the upcoming Christie's sale.

@ChristiesInc does the name Heinz Herzer sound any alarms?  

What valid paperwork does the auction house in their possession which would substantiates that the quartzite head of the young pharaoh portrayed as the ancient god Amun, left Egypt legally?

Has anyone provided the auction house with shipping, storage, customs, or insurance records of any kind documenting when and how the quartzite head left Egypt, or when and how it arrived in Munich or elsewhere during its travels?


Looking over your Resandro Head Fact Sheet the first thing that draws my eyes was not the head's innate beauty but rather it once being in the possession of a specific Munich dealer, Heinz Herzer.  As a firm champion of Italy's right to the return of  the statue known as The Victorious Youth, also known as The Getty Bronze or Atleta di Fano I am all to familiar with the fact that the very illegal, proven illicitly exported statue was acquired by Heinz Herzer in 1971.  Herzer even created a publicly traded fund called Artemis S.A., specializing in art works just to sell the bronze to either Thomas Hoving, the former Director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.or John Paul Getty for his California Museum.  


But before the statue’s sale to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Herzer’s Munich firm removed the corrosion and incrustations covering the bronze statue, meaning Herzer had knowledge of the statue’s existence during the earliest periods of its clandestine movements. 

Image Credit:  Jiri Fril
Evidence presented by the Italian state at the Tribunal in Pesaro, Italy and later at the Appellate and Supreme Court demonstrate that Artemis was created ad hoc, with the specific purpose of managing the exportation and subsequent purchase of this valuable, but illicitly smuggled statue.  As most will remember, Italy's Appellate Court, followed by its Supreme Court, ultimately affirmed that this statue was clandestinely removed from Italian territory and has issued an order for restitution of their bronze. 


But back to the Quartzite head.  Christie's documentation state that Prince William of Thurn and Taxis owned the sculpture in the 1960s and sold it to Josef Messina, the owner of Galeria Kokorian & Co., Vienna, between 1973 and 1974.  


Best I can see Galerie Kokorian & Co KG, located at Spiegelgasse 19, 1010 Wien, Austria seems to be a discretely modest paintings gallery.  An unusual place to have an Egyptian statue of this significance to say the least. 


Let's also talk about the prince for a minute.  His full name was Wilhelm Alexander Lamoral Erich Maria Josef Ignatius Von Loyola Franciscus Von Assisi Benedictus Cyrillus Quirinus.  He lived from  1919-2004.  

As a general rule, as Live Science journalist Owen Jarus stated, the prince often went by the name "Willy".  Digging through records you can find some things listed in this diminutive name which includes some generalized information about his life including his debutante ball work but nothing at all on his collecting Egyptian antiquities.  Closest he ever appears to have gotten to Italy was a brif stay in Morocco after the second World War.

There is even a strange mention of some former actress who swears that she was secretly married to him.  Her name is Ilona Medveczky.   Yet I find absolutely no mention of an art collection containing Egyptian artifacts. 

Even his grave seems to me to be a modest one....so again, I would question if he was wealthy enough to have had an important, yet for all intents and purposes, unknown, ancient art collection.  

His neice, Daria Maria Gabriele Prinzessin von Thurn und Taxis was born on 6 March 1962. She is the daughter of Franz von Assisi Prinz von Thurn und Taxis (the prince's brother) and Mafalda Theresia Franziska Josepha Maria Prinzessin von Thurn und Taxis.  She told the Live Science journalist she didn't recall her uncle having such a piece in their collection. 

Interestingly though, I find nothing linking no official sons or daughters to the prince within official peerage documents.   I did find a "Viktor" is, who is referred to in the Live Science article as Willie's son.  He lives in Vienna and goes by the simplified name of Viktor Thurn Und Taxis and manages a Vienna film company called  VTT Film Service.   Who is mother was and why he is not listed on the noble roster is a mystery to be untangled though. 

Further digging I see that the three branches of the von Thurn und Taxis family: the German, Czech and the Austrian have little or no love lost for one another.  The German branch seems to be the very very wealthy one and extremely put out by the Czech branch of the tree going so far as to file at least one lawsuit against its relatives across the border. 


But let's not stray too far from the activities of Heinz Herzer and other dealers of interesting repute in the recent past that make me speculate about the legitimacy of this stone head.   Herzer's appears to have been associated with French dealer Christophe Kunicki, who was involved in the questionable acquisition of the looted Egyptian B.C.E mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh.  

Herzer's name is also connected with Serop Simonian, an art dealer of Armenian origin, born in Egypt and a resident in Germany.  Simonian's involvement in the Nedgemankh case makes for some interesting court document reading, as does the notoriety he gained with the controversy over the disputed fake/authentic Artemidorus papyrus, which sold for €2.75 million to the Compagnia San Paolo Art Foundation in Italy in 2004. 


Herzer and Serop's names both come up alongside the French dealer Christophe Kunicki via Pierre Bergé & Associés in the provenance of a 13th Dynasty Egyptian limestone chapel-stele of Kemes, which Kunicki sold to the Metropolitan Museum in 2014. This object's provenance also connects with the same Egyptian middleman, and was purportedly purchased Feb 1969 by Uwe Schnell from Heinz Herzer Gallery in Munich.


Which brings us back to Hertzer’s name in Christies Auction of a quartzite head of the young pharaoh, which portrays him as the ancient god Amun.  Lot 110, is set to be auctioned in London tomorrow in Sale 17042 on 4 July 2019.


Yet despite statements made by noble family members that they have no recollection of the object, the potential purchaser (as well as Egyptian authorities apparently) are supposed to accept the auction house’s word that due diligence has been properly and sufficiently conducted without being privy to any of the documentation Christie's used to made their determination that this stone head is fit for sale. 


Where is the paperwork provided to the auction house which fully and clearly confirms that this antiquity left Egypt legally and was once truly part of a collection of Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis?
Image Credit of Egyptian Law
Courtesy of ICOM Red List for Egypt.
If this antiquity was removed legally from its country of origin, before the effective date of Egypt’s applicable patrimony law, the seller of the object should be able to provide something tangible to substantiate that export date.


In its statements to the Press, officials from Christie's have stated "It is hugely important to establish recent ownership and legal right to sell which we have clearly done. We would not offer for sale any object where there was concern over ownership or export."

In the interest of transparency, and good faith, and with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities making diplomatic demarches to INTERPOL, UNESCO, ICOM, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well as asking Christie’s directly to provide any concrete information on the object's validity for sale on the London market, shouldn't tomorrow's pending auction be postponed until such time as the Egyptian authorities have been given the opportunity to satisfactorily review any and all related documentation that Christie's had at its disposal when making its claim that this object is licit and not illicit?   

By:  Lynda Albertson

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

February 13, 2019

Looted artworks returned to Italy via voluntary forfeiture via Christie's auction house in London


In a memorable act of rare collaboration, Italian officials have announced “the first case of such close co-operation between Italy and a private auction house” in which a number of illegally obtained and trafficked antiquities, the proceeds of clandestine excavations between the 1960s and the 1980s, were voluntarily restituted to the Italian authorities. 

In a handover event held at Italy's Embassy in London, twelve antiquities and one document were ceremoniously returned, some of which had been placed up for auction in 2014 and 2015 and which were withdrawn from sale after being determined as questionable.  Attended by Alberto Bonisoli, the Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities,  Raffaele Trombetta, the Italian ambassador to London, Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli of Italy's Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, the CEO of Christie's Guillaume Cerutti and the auction house's Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Stephen Brooks, this event represents a much needed step forward in art market's cooperation with the Italian authorities and a welcomes step towards collaboratively working with one another towards the restitution of looted objects.

The antiquities returned are: 


A marble fragment whose theft from a sarcophagus from the Catacombs of St Callixtus, on the Appian Way in Rome was reported in 1982. 


A 6th -5th century BCE Etruscan terracotta antefix used to capthe terminus of covering tiles on ancient roofs.

Its original provenance when listed in sale 10372 as Lot 102 was "Property from a London Collection
Provenance:   Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 9 December 1985, lot 273, when acquired by the present owner."


Five (5) 4th century BCE Apulian Gnathian-ware plates.


A 350-330 BCE red-figure Apulian hydria believed to be attributed to a follower of the Snub-Nose or Varrese painter.

Its original provenance when listed in sale 10372 as Lot 108 was "Property from a London Collection


A 2nd century CE Roman capitol.


A Roman marble relief depicting a Satyr with Maenad stolen from the gardens of Villa Borghese in 1985.


A 14th century promissory folio from an illuminated manuscript by the Doge Andrea Dandolo and the ducal councilors.


A 4th century BCE red-figure Faliscan stamnos vase used to store liquids.

At the ceremony, attendees underscored that the art market's ethical codes need enhancement and that greater due diligence is needed to ensure the legitimacy of objects before accepting them for sale.  With over 1 million two hundred thousand stolen objects and about 700 thousand images of stolen and looted art, the Carabinieri's Leonardo database, the largest stolen art database in the world, is a good place to start when auction houses such as Christie's consider accepting them on consignment.

During the event Christie's staff indicated that the antiquities had been acquired in the past in good faith.   Three of these however did not pass the smell test in 2014 and 2015 when they originally accepted for consignment and were placed up for auction.   All three were later withdrawn when they were identified as having passed through the hands of well known Italian dealers who have consistently been linked to trafficked antiquities.  Without the required, verifiable title, export documentation or collection history these objects had no place on the legitimate art market. 


Auction houses are not the only parties that need to be diligent when evaluating antiquities, especially when considering objects which appear to have emerged on the open market without substantiated collection histories.

Ancient art collectors should realise that their buying power and unharnessed demand for archaeological material, absent transparent ethical acquisition documentation, serves to incentivise those facing economic hardship to participate in, or tacitly condone, the looting of archaeological sites, by which illicit material enters the licit market.

If collectors in market buying nations such as the United States and UK refused to purchase undocumented artifacts, then the supply chain incentives for looting historic sites, which by proxy funds criminal enterprise, diminish.

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 18, 2018

ARCA's Postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection is now accepting applications.


Who studies art crime?

ARCA's Postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection is now accepting applications.

Early applications will be accepted through 30 November subject to census limitations. 
In 2009, ARCA started the very first interdisciplinary program to study art crimes wholistically.

Designed to give participants a unique opportunity to train in a structured and academically diverse format, ARCA's summer-long postgraduate program was designed around the study of the dynamics, strategies, objectives and modus operandi of criminals and criminal organizations who commit a variety of art  related crimes.  

Turn on the news (or follow this blog) and you will see over and over again examples of museum thefts, forgeries, antiquities looting and illicit trafficking of cultural goods.  Intentional heritage destruction and religion-based iconoclasm during armed conflict, once a modern-day rarity, has affected multiple countries and adds to regional instability in many areas of the globe.


Looted art, both ancient and Holocaust-related, can and often does find its way into the world's premiere auction houses and the galleries of respected museum institutions while dealers working in the field continue to be less than adept at distinguishing smuggled and stolen art, from art with a clean provenance. Thus making dealing with art crime an unrelenting problem and one without any easy solution.

Taken incident by incident, it is difficult to see the impact and implications of art crime as a global concern, but when studied across disciplines, looking at the gaps of legal instruments, country to country, one begins to have a clearer picture of the significance of the problem and its impact on the world's collective patrimony.

The world's cultural heritage is an invaluable legacy and its protection is integral to our future. 

One summer, eleven courses.

At its foundation, ARCA's summer-long program in Italy draws upon the overlapping and complementary expertise of international thought-leaders on the topic of art crime – all practitioners and leading scholars who actively work in the sector. 

In 2019, participants of the program will receive 220+ hours of instruction over 11 courses taught by a range of experts actively committed to combatting art crime from a variety of different angles.

For more information on the summer 2019 postgraduate professional development program, please see ARCA's website here.

To request further information or to receive a 2019 prospectus and application materials, please email:
education (at) artcrimeresearch.org

Interested in knowing more about the program from a student's perspective?

Here are some blog posts from and by students who have attended in 20162015, 2014, and in 2013.



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.