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January 11, 2023

Not surprisingly, and despite all of his protestations earlier, Ali Aboutaam has been convicted.


In a hearing that took less than an hour at the Geneva police court, Ali Aboutaam, the owner of the Geneva gallery Phoenix Ancient Art SA has been sentenced by the Swiss authorities.  Following on a complex and multi-year criminal and procedural investigation by officers and analysts with Switzerland's customs and anti-fraud divisions, working with the Geneva Public Prosecutor's Office, the Swiss-based merchant has been found guilty of forgery of titles.  A misdemeanour under Swiss law on the transfer of cultural property, his admissions come with an 18-month suspended prison sentence, three years probation and requiring him to pay procedural costs totalling 450,000 francs or approximately €454,410.

The courts also confirmed the seizure of 42 artefacts, confiscated due to their illicit origin which will be devolved to the Federal Office of Culture.  Several dozen other antiquities will be returned to the countries of origin.

Aboutaam's conviction and sentencing comes in response to a conspiracy which proved that the art dealer, with the help of accomplices, produced false certificates of provenance in relation to ancient art objects in circulation. Aboutaam was also found guilty of having knowingly paid at least one accomplice, who sourced antiquities from illicit excavations in various countries of the Middle East.

A statement extracted from the Swiss indictment read: 
"Ali Aboutaam knew or must have assumed that they had been wrongfully acquired". 

This particular Swiss investigation dates back to 20 December 2016 when around 5:10 p.m., at around 17:10 hours, when arriving from France by car, a Swiss border patrol officer stopped a grey Land Rover vehicle, registration No. GE777994 registered to the company Phoenix Ancient Art SA, rue Verdaine 6 & 1204 Geneva at the Veyrier border checkpoint. The car had been driven by Ali Aboutaam's driver and was transporting then-Germany based antiquities dealer Roben Galel Dib as a passenger. 

The testimony of the two persons revealed that Dib was in possession of an antique oil lamp, which neither the driver, nor the purported owner of the lamp, were able to provide documentation for proving the object’s provenance to the officers’ satisfaction.  Dib told authorities he was coming to Switzerland to "meet a girl" and that he was carrying the lamp with him because he had just had an appointment on this subject in Paris to have it restored. The object was sequestered, and an inspection of the car revealed the presence of 3 receipts for the rental of two storage units at the company Flexbox Self Storage, route du Nant-d'Avril 40 in 1214 Vernier, in the name of a conservator in Chanoy. 

Both the driver and Roben Dib were released after questioning around 2:00 AM the following morning, while on or around that same time surveillance footage of the storage warehouse listed on the receipts found in the car captured Ali Aboutaam’s wife, Biljana Aboutaam, the family's chauffeur and a housekeeper participating “several movements of merchandise".  Predicated on the foregoing, Swiss Customs Administration developed a “strong suspicion” that the warehouse was being used to store illegally imported art and antiquities. 

As is publicly now known, Roben Dib is the business partner of Hamburg-based dealer of Egyptian art Serop Simonian.  Dib was arrested in Hamburg by German police on suspicion of art trafficking in August 2020 and released after only five weeks behind bars.  

Subject to a European Arrest Warrant, Dib was then rearrested in Paris, France on 22 March 2022 after traveling there to discuss charges related to dealing in illegally trafficked Egyptian antiquities with French authorities.  

Both Dib and Simonian have been tied to million dollar illicit antiquities which have made their way (illegally) into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and museum and private collections throughout the world on the basis of false provenance documentation, a subject which has been covered with frequency on this blog.  

In January 2016, a 3rd millennium BCE, alabaster plaque was displayed at the European art fair BRAFA after first passing through Port Franc, the free port of Geneva to Inanna Art Services, a subsidiary of Phoenix Ancient Art.  This artefact, according to a qualified Syrian archaeologist, likely came from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari.  This artefact was confiscated following an inspection operation, carried out by the Belgian Federal Public Service Economy (French: SPF Économie, Dutch: FOD Economie) along with a marble table in the context of a suspicion of illicit trafficking in antiquities. 


The plaque was first identified in the Aboutaam's Phoenix Ancient Art 2012 - Crystal IV catalogue, which listed the 39.5 cm 3rd millennium BCE plaque with an image of ritual worship as having a provenance of: 

"Ex Elie Bustros Collection, Beirut, 1950s-1960s"

implying that the artefact may have come from the Beirut dealer Elias (Elie) Bustros, purportedly active from at least the 1930s through by some records the 1980s.   

It should be noted that in addition to its Ottoman Empire laws an antiquities, the Syrian Republic's Antiquities Law, Decree No. 222, was enacted in 1963.  That law vested ownership of all antiquities in the State and prohibited the sale or transfer of antiquities without governmental approval. 

This is not, however, the only incidence where "Ex-Elie Bustros Collection" has been used in connection with an artefact handled by Phoenix Ancient Art.


Provenance:
Elias Bustros, Beruit 1950’s-1983;
By descent, 1983-1986?;
(Gawain McKinley, England, on behalf of Selim Dere and Sleiman Aboutaam, 1986)

Selim Dere is the owner of a New York antiquities gallery, Fortuna Fine Arts where Manhattan authorities executed a seizure warrant in June 2018. Erdal Dere (the son of Aysel Dere and Selim Dere), was indicted in the US indicted in relation to a conspiracy to defraud buyers and brokers in the antiquities market with the use of false provenance documentation. 

The Belgian identifications resulted in a separate four-year investigation overseen by the Belgian federal prosecutor's office into the activities of the Aboutaam brothers, who opened a branch of Phoenix Ancient Art in the city of Brussel's Sablon in 2017.  This branch was subject to police raids in 2019 ordered by Judge Michael Claise. 

By June 2021, a Lebanese intermediary of Phoenix Ancient Art had already been condemned by the Geneva public prosecutor for having imported archaeological objects looted in the Middle East.  This individual was identified as having travelled to Geneva four or five times a year, for four years, to deliver ancient objects to Ali Aboutaam. Arrested in Romania, he was extradited at the request of the Geneva public prosecutor's office.

That same year, in November 2021, Ali Aboutaam was handed a 1.6 million francs fine via Swiss customs, including the costs of the proceedings. The tax authorities came after the dealer in this instance for having imported 37 million francs worth of antiquities into Switzerland between 2010 and 2017 without paying the applicable VAT. 

Which brings us back to the present, the Swiss indictment, accepted by Ali Aboutaam within the framework of a simplified procedure, acknowledges the following, verbatim:

"Ali Aboutaam, in his capacity as administrator of Phoenix Ancient Art SA, has asked art experts, or has asked employees of Phoenix Ancient Art SA to obtain from art experts: produce and/or sign false invoices; and/or produce or cause others to produce documents indicating source that are contrary to reality, sometimes contained directly in invoices; and/or provide untrue source indications for use by others."

In another section of the indictment, Aboutaam agrees that the falsification  of provenance documentation was done to launder the artworks, giving them: 

"a pedigree aimed at dispelling suspicion of illicit provenance and/or to facilitate their customs transfer with a view to their sale on the art market through Phoenix Ancient Art SA, Tanis Antiquities LTB and Inanna Art Services SA, i.e. companies of which Ali Aboutaam has Control."

The mention of Tanis is significant.  It helps conceptualise the range of years where this shell company has been linked to questionable transactions and laundered antiquities.  In 13 December 2003 Hicham Aboutaam, Ali's brother, was arrested in the United States and charged with smuggling the silver ceremonial drinking vessel known as a rhyton into the United States from Iran and falsely claiming that it came from Syria.  That 2003 government complaint identified the gallery’s affiliate office in New York as "the Bloomfield Collection" and informed that the invoice for the artefact, declaring Syria as country of origin was issued by Tanis Antiquities, Ltd.  

Tanis Antiquities, Ltd comes up again very recently in the ongoing important French investigation involving materials sold to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.  As reported by the French newspaper Liberation, French investigators discovered that Jean-François Charnier's sister, Marie-Christine Charnier, had received money from the Aboutaam family via an account opened in a Moroccan bank, paid from the offshore structure controlled by the merchants, again, Tanis Antiquities Ltd., based in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.  

The legal representative for Tanis Antiquities Ltd is, a Canadian citizen, of Lebanese origin, resident of Geneva, Ali Aboutaam.

I will close this article by mentioning that this is not the first occasion where the Aboutaam family, or Ali personally, has had run ins with legal authorities for their involvement  in the circulation of suspect artefacts originating from varying jurisdictions regarding trafficked objects from the Middle East.  In April 2004 Ali Aboutaam was tried in absentia in an Egyptian court and pronounced guilty and sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison in a long-running trafficking ring that had smuggled Egyptian artefacts through Switzerland to Western dealers and galleries.  That investigation resulted in the convictions of 25 defendants, including several high-ranking Egyptian police and government officials and nine foreigners. 

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

July 18, 2017

Long-time antiquities dealer Hicham Aboutaam has sued the Wall Street Journal


Long-time antiquities dealer Hicham Aboutaam has sued the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal’s corporate parent Dow Jones and Company in New York County Supreme Court on Monday over an article titled “Prominent Art Family Entangled in ISIS Antiquities-Looting Investigations” which was published in the WSJ on May 31, 2017.  The Journal’s reporters Benoit Faucon and Georgi Kantchev shared a byline on the article but have not been named as defendants in the lawsuit.  

Faucon, a Senior Report for the Wall Street Journal, has long covered issues related to OPEC and the oil industries of Iran, Libya, Nigeria and Algeria. More recently he has been working on investigative reports involving illicit trafficking, money laundering or terrorism financing.  Kantchev is a London-based reporter primarily covering financial markets.

In the 30 page complaint Aboutaam demands unspecified damages on two claims of defamation.

Publication, ID, Defamation, Falsity and Fault

These are the five elements that a plaintiff must successfully demonstrate in most liable suits against the mass media.

In general, under New York State Law, to recover for libel (injury to one’s reputation from a written expression), Hicham Aboutaam will need to establish five elements outlined in Celle v. Filipino Reporter Enters. Inc., 209 F.3d 163, 176 (2d Cir. 2000). 

Those elements of a defamation claim are:

(1) a written defamatory statement of fact concerning the plaintiff;
(2) publication to a third party;
(3) fault (either negligence or actual malice depending on the status of the libeled party);
(4) falsity of the defamatory statement; and
(5) special damages or per se actionability (defamatory on its face).

As the result of First Amendment concerns, when a defendant is a media publisher or broadcaster, a private plaintiff must establish that the media defendant “acted in a grossly irresponsible manner without due consideration for the standards of information gathering and dissemination ordinarily followed by responsible parties”  (Chapadeau v Utica Observer-Dispatch, 38 NY2d 196, 199 [1975] with respect to a matter of public concern.

Plaintiffs must also prove that the alleged defamatory publication refers to them. This element of a libel lawsuit often is referred to as the “of and concerning” principle.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But names will never hurt me.”
    --19th Century English nursery rhyme

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.  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.  To date, he 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 tied to one of Italy's most notorious smuggling rings.

Perhaps the brothers might wish to consider which of the aforementioned elements, an article by the Wall Street Journal or engaging in suspect trading practices, has the greater potential for damaging their reputation.

By Lynda Albertson

March 24, 2017

Repatriation: Roman sarcophagus held at Swiss Freeport finally clears last hurdle for its return to Turkey

Image taken September 23, 2015
by the Office of the Attorney General of the Canton of Geneva - Image Credit: AFP
In December 2010, Swiss Federal Customs Administration authorities, acting under new customs legislation to combat trafficking in works of art, requested access to the inventory of Phoenix Ancient Art SA., a major supplier of museum-quality antiquities, which stores ancient works of art at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève, a freeport located in a sprawling grey industrial building on the corner of a busy junction in southwest Geneva. 

For more information about freeports as a tax free haven to store art, please see a few of ARCA's earlier blog posts here, here, and here

At the time of the audit, authorities inspected the holdings of both Phoenix Ancient Art and its warehouseman and freight forwarder, Inanna Art Services.  During this inspection, Swiss authorities discovered, but didn't physically seize, a 1-2 ton, 150-180 CE Roman sarcophagus which depicted the twelve labours of the ancient Greek war deity, Hercules. According to customs information on file for the antiquity, the sarcophagus was imported into Switzerland in the name of Phoenix Ancient Art, which often used Inanna Art Services to store its goods or to transport works of art to and from other countries. 

This extraordinary ancient funerary object, likely only one of four of this significant quality documented in the ancient art world, had little in the way of detailed provenance.  For a piece of its quality to have nothing tying it to a previously known ancient art collection; no notations of its discovery or find spot, and nothing notable in the way of published scholarly examination of its style and iconography, rang alarm bells in Switzerland. 

In a recent video, with Al Jazeera news, Ali Aboutaam claimed that the ancient funerary object had been purchased by his father and had been in their family for 25 years. While under their control, he indicated that the sarcophagus had always been stored at the Geneva freeport aside from when it was shipped to the UK for conservation treatment.   Ali Aboutam added that in 2010 the object was sold to the Gandur Foundation as a donation to the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire in Geneva and according to Phoenix Ancient Art's attorney Bastien Geiger, Sleiman Aboutaam purchased the object in the early 90s.

Phoenix Ancient Art had proposed the sarcophagus to billionaire Swiss tycoon and commodities trader, Jean-Claude Gandur in the spring of 2010 for an estimated $1 - 4 million saying that the firm was acting on behalf of a third party whom they interestingly refused to disclose.  Gandur, who made a fortune during the 1990s buying oil concessions in Africa, has long been a powerful collector of ancient art, as well as a long term patron of the Musée d’Art et d’histoire in Geneva. 

In consideration of the donation, Marc-André Haldimann, head of the archaeology department of the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire of Geneva and the director of the museum, Jean-Yves Marin, went to the freeport and inspected the sarcophagus to carry out an appraisal for consideration.  The pair however remained highly skeptical of the lack of established information on the ancient sarcophagus, which implied possible illicit origins.  

How could such a prestigious object emerge on the ancient art market having never been talked or written about previously?   

Wouldn't the archaeologist who discovered such a masterpiece have mentioned this spectacular find in his or her field notes?  

Wouldn't a scholar of some repute have compared it in an academic article with the other known artworks by the same signatory group of sculptures or other sarcophagi depicting Hercules?

The only documentation Phoenix Ancient Art produced which attested to the fundamental question of this exceptional object's past, were independently established statements attesting that the ancient work of art was part of the Aboutaam collection from 2002 onward and a certificate from Art Loss Register attesting the object had been checked against ALR's known stolen art database registry.  Ultimately the sale to the Gandur Foundation was cancelled, in no small part because of suspicions that the object had been smuggled out of its source country. 

In March 2011, the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (FOC) issued a statement that they believed the sarcophagus had originated from the general area of the famous marble quarries of Dokimion in Phrygia, the present day Antalya region of Turkey. The Dokimeian white marble sarcophagus was likely sculpted sometime during the the second century, when the area was under Roman rule. 

Based on the FOC's examination, Swiss authorities alerted their counterparts in Ankara, and Turkey in turn, issued a demand for the restitution of the rare antiquarian work by a letter rogatory of July 2011. Turkey also sent a request for mutual assistance to the Geneva court and an inquiry was formally opened in Switzerland to look into alleged violations of the Cultural Property Transfer Act (LTBC).  This act requires art market professionals keep a register for 30 years, in which the "origin of the cultural property" is to be documented. 

In order for the sarcophagus to have been in good standing in Switzerland under the LTBC, the dealers would be obliged to prove that the acquired object was in an old collection outside the source country prior to 2005 or to demonstrate that the object was not stolen or exported illicitly after 2005.

In October 2013, the case made its way through Swiss court. The Geneva Chief Public Prosecution Office and the Chief Public Prosecutor of Antalya conducted a comprehensive joint study with the Swiss magistrate in charge of the case traveling to Antalya, Turkey where Turkish Public Prosecutor Osman Şanal provided access to witnesses.   

Testimonies were heard from Professor Haluk Abbasoğlu and Professor İnci Deleman who conducted excavations in the region where the sarcophagus was illegally excavated.   The Swiss prosecutor also met with an unnamed imprisoned smuggler serving time on a separate smuggling charge in Elmalı prison.  This smuggler allegedly confirmed that the artifact had been looted and smuggled out of Turkey. 

Based on the evidence gathered, on September 21, 2015 Swiss authorities ordered the repatriation of the sarcophagus. But international legal proceedings move at a snail’s pace and the return of this one object, approved by the Geneva Court of Justice on May 2, 2016, was slowed again, due to a challenge by the Swiss Federal Court. 




More on the dealers involved in this repatriation case.

Phoenix Ancient Art operates a gallery in New York city as well as in Geneva Switzerland.  Founded by Sleiman Aboutaam in 1968, the firm was incorporated in 1995.  The second-generation family business is now managed by Sleiman's sons, Hicham Aboutaam and Ali Aboutaam, who took over the firm's operation after Sleiman’s death in 1998.  The firm has been embroiled in a significant number of antiquities-related controversies. 

A sampling (not a complete listing) of other instances of concern involving this firm include:

A third-century CE South Arabian alabaster stele the brothers attempted to sell in May 2002 via Sotheby’s auction house in New York for approximately $20,000 to $30,000 in which they listed the provenance for the piece as having belonged to a private English collection. Sotheby's researchers conducting due diligence before the auction found published photographs of the stele indicating that this tablet, carved in low relief, with an image of the fertility goddess Dat-Hamin, had been stolen in July 1994 from the Aden Museum in Yemen's port city during the country's previous war.  This object was forfeited to the U.S. government in December 2003 and eventually returned to Yemen.  

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.  Hicham Aboutaam stated that his conviction stemmed from a "lapse in judgment."

The Egyptian authorities have 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.  To date, he 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 tied to one of Italy's most notorious smuggling rings.

Advice on collecting ancient art

ARCA encourages its readers to remember that the only way to avoid looting is to pressure dealers and collectors to not participate directly or indirectly in looting through their sourcing and purchases.  Collectors of ancient art are only the most current stewards of objects with long and telling histories. The provenance, or ownership history of a piece of art is important and should detail strong proof that an object has come from a legitimately traded collection.  

Buying and trading in ancient works of art, without well documented collecting histories, simply for their beauty or for the purpose of rescuing them from countries in conflict, only encourages further looting and further laundering of smuggled illicit objects. 

ARCA strongly discourages collectors and museums from buying or accepting objects that cannot pass the 1970 test or which lack a legitimate export permit from the actual and correct country of the object's origin.

By: Lynda Albertson

June 18, 2014

The Legal Case of the Mummy Mask of Lady Ka-nefer-nefer at the St. Louis Art Museum Ignites Discussion on Museum Security Network after Courthouse News Reports US Court Rules US Government Could Not Prove Theft

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Updated to reflect published comment by Rick St. Hilaire

In 2011, the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) took legal action to keep the  Mummy Mask of Lady Ka-nefer-nefer from being taken by the U.S. government on the grounds that authorities knew about the mask as early as 2005 and that a five-year-statue of limitations period had expired ("St. Louis Art Museum Sues the United States to Preclude a Forfeiture", ARCA blog, Feb. 16, 2011). Jack Bouboushian reported in "Egyptian Mummy Mask Will Stay in St. Louis" for Courthouse News Service on June 17:
(CN) - An ancient Egyptian mummy mask will remain in the St. Louis Art Museum because the U.S. government cannot prove the mask was stolen from Egypt when it went missing 40 years ago, the 8th Circuit ruled.
[Rick St. Hilaire submitted a comment to the ARCA blog which we published and are reprinting here for your ease of reading -- you may also refer to his blog, Cultural Heritage Lawyer:
The CN article is inaccurate. The appeals court did not rule that the U.S. government failed to prove that the mask was stolen from Egypt. Instead, the appeals court ruled that the lower district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the government’s post-dismissal motion asking for leave to file an amended civil forfeiture complaint. That amended complaint, if accepted by the lower court, contained the allegations that the mummy mask was stolen property. Therefore, the substantive case involving whether the mask was stolen was never litigated. That is what prompted appeals court judge Diana Murphy to write a concurring opinion that agreed with the dismissal of the Ka Nefer Nefer case on procedural grounds, but addressing a caution because of the substantive matters raised but never addressed by the case: "Museums and other participants in the international market for art and antiquities need to exercise caution and care in their dealings in order to protect this heritage and to understand that the United States might ultimately be able to recover such purchases."
Security Consultant Ton Cremers, whose emails were cited in SLAM's 2011 complaint (see ARCA Blog post here), initiated a discussion today on Museum Security Network (MSN) then told the ARCA blog:
In cases of looted, stolen and smuggled cultural goods always the laws of the 'consumer' countries prevail, and most unfortunately not the laws of the victim countries. There is no doubt at all that the Ka-nefer-nefer mask was stolen. The Saint Louis Art Museum is not a member of ICOM [International Council of Museums] and never should be as well.
Dick Ellis, retired police officer for Scotland Yard and an ARCA Lecturer on a course on art investigations, wrote on MSN (quoted here with his permission):
If nothing else, this case identifies a lack of understanding in the processes available to those wishing to recover their stolen cultural property. We may not like the laws or legal processes of a country, but they are what you have to work with and if the wrong option is taken in the recovery process and you fail to meet the required deadlines then your case will fail, as it has in this case. 
Having followed the twists and turns of this case and actually obtained a copy of the records that exist in Egypt showing where the mask was at specific dates it is clear to me that the wrong process was adopted. Rather than sue for the return of the mask, Egypt should have resorted to the same process that put Fred Schultz in prison for contravening US property law. This would have resulted in the FBI actually having to investigate the conduct of those involved in the sale of the mask to the museum and the provenance that was provided in support of it. 
If these investigations had produced evidence that criminal offences had been committed within the jurisdiction of the US courts then those responsible may well have faced a trial under the criminal process, and had the provenance as supplied to the museum been proven to be bogus then it is doubtful that the museum would, or could have resisted a subsequent claim for the return of the mask. 
Having worked with the Egyptian authorities on the successful prosecution of Tokeley Parry, Fred Schultz and others, which established the effectiveness of prosecuting under national property laws rather than cultural property laws, it is disappointing to find that the many lessons of that case appear to have been forgotten so quickly.
Virginia Curry, a retired agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), also wrote on MSN (quoted here with her permission):
While I am not an attorney, I've been successful in all my investigations and have investigated hundreds of similar cases involving  international  property theft and smuggling. Generally, a U.S.  Federal Inter-pleader action, which is a civil, not criminal procedure, occurs AFTER the federal criminal case has been proven that property is in fact stolen and has a nexus to interstate-international transportation or communication (Title 18 United States Code Section 2314, 2315.)
  
Dick you will remember that our collaboration (under a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty Request)  the theft of the Teniers painting by a U.S. citizen was just that.  The painting was proven stolen at federal criminal  trial in the U.S. -- even though it was stolen from a London dealer, in London.  That court trial, which led to the guilty plea of the thief of the action of transporting property internationally, determined that the painting was stolen.  The court then acknowledged the ownership of the property by the London dealer. 
In my opinion, a case which FIRST proved that the mask was illegally imported to the United States, rather than relying on the logical presumption, especially when there is sufficient extant evidence to do so, would have prevailed.  
I agree with Dick: Consulting with field experts such as he and myself and a dozen others with well known, actual convictions with restitution in similar criminal cases can avoid such "procedural issues" -- such as the "untested legal theory" (that I interpret as the presumption of stolen and smuggled, rather than the presentation of evidence) as expressed by Judge Murphy.
For background on the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask residing at the Saint Louis Museum, Ton Cremers referred readers of MSN to Malcolm Gay's 2006 article "Out of Egypt: From a long-buried pyramid to the Saint Louis Art Museum: The mysterious voyage of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask", Riverfront Times, Feb. 15, 2006.

In 2012 at ARCA's Conference on the Study of Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, Leila Amineddoleh discussed the issue of this Egyptian Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask and its probably looted origins.

SLAM's website describes the provenance for the Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer:
Provenance:1951/1952 -Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, excavated at Saqqara, Egypt [1]
by 1952 - Unknown Dealer, Brussels, Belgium [2]
- early 1960sKaloterna Collection [3]
early 1960s -Private Collection, Switzerland, acquired from Kaloterna collection [4]
by 1997 - 1998Phoenix Art, S.A. (Hicham Aboutaam), Geneva, Switzerland, purchased from private collection [5]
1998/03/30 -Saint Louis Art Museum, purchased from Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A. [6]
Notes:[1] Excavated by Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, Keeper of the Antiquities of Saqqara, at Saqqara, during his first season (1951-1952) at the site [Goneim, Mohammed Zakaria,"Excavations at Saqqara; Horus Sekhem-Khet, the Unfinished Step Pyramid at Saqqara." Vol. 1. Cairo: Imprimerie de L'Institut Français D'Archéologie Orientale, 1957].
A letter from a scholar, dated December 12, 1999, indicates that the other objects from the Saqqara excavation group were displayed together in the Cairo Museum, suggesting that they were put on display right after Goneim's excavation. The scholar suggests that the mask was never displayed with the other excavated objects and was probably awarded to the excavator himself. This would correspond with its appearance on the European art market soon after its excavation [SLAM document files].
[2] In a letter dated February 11, 1997, Charly Mathez confirms that he saw the mask in a gallery in Brussels in 1952. According to a letter dated October 5, 1999, he did not remember the name of the gallery [SLAM document files].
[3] In a letter dated March 19, 1998, Hicham Aboutaam indicated that an anonymous Swiss collector acquired the mask from the Kaloterna (possibly Kaliterna) family. In a letter of July 2, 1997, addressed to Hicham Aboutaam, the Swiss collector stated that this acquisition took place in the early 1960s [SLAM document files]. The name "Kaloterna" may be a misspelling of the common Croatian name "Kaliterna." The Swiss collector also had an address in Croatia, and it is possible that the collector became acquainted with the Kaloterna (or Kaliterna) family there. 
[4] See note [3]. The Swiss collector requested anonymity.
[5] The Swiss collector's letter of July 2, 1997 confirms the sale of the mask to Aboutaam [SLAM document files]. Aboutaam also states that the mask was in the United States from 1995 until 1997, possibly indicating that it was in the possession of the New York branch of Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A. during that time [letter, September 23, 1997, SLAM document files]. 
[6] Invoice to the Saint Louis Art Museum dated March 12, 1998 [SLAM document files]. Minutes of the Collections Committee of the Board of Trustees, Saint Louis Art Museum, March 18, 1998.
In The New York Times article "Do You Know Where That Art Has Been?" (Rod Stodghill, March 18, 2007) Hicham Aboutaam's legal problems (and that of his gallery, Phoenix Ancient Art were identified:
For the Aboutaams, whose father started the gallery in Beirut in the 1960s, the makeover will require not only overhauling some of its business practices, but also restoring a public image dogged by legal and ethical questions. In 2004, after an investigation by the United States Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Hicham Aboutaam pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in connection with his importing and selling for $950,000 a silver ceremonial drinking vessel that at the time was alleged to be part of the plundered Iranian Western Cave Treasure. He paid a $5,000 fine. That same year, an Egyptian court sentenced Ali Aboutaam in absentia to 15 years in prison after he was accused of smuggling artifacts from Egypt to Switzerland. The charges against him were later dropped by the Egyptian court due to a lack of evidence. Such run-ins with the law have made big museums nervous even when nothing may appear untoward. In 2001, the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth returned a 2600 B.C. Sumerian statue it had bought from the brothers for $2.7 million for a refund. Hicham Aboutaam said that questions surrounding the taxes on his parents’ estate unraveled the deal.

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.

December 3, 2013

Tuesday, December 03, 2013 - , No comments

Persian chalice authentic or fake? Dutch Art Investigator Arthur Brand has no doubts

Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand is of the opinion that the chalice "that helped make possible the Iran nuclear deal, as reported in the media, is a fake."

In the LA Times article by Christi Parsons "The chalice that helped make possible the Iran nuclear deal" has been surrounded by controversy regarding its authenticity:
Some experts believe the vessel, known as a rhyton, was crafted in the 7th century BC in what later became the Persian Empire, now Iran. It features three trumpet-shaped cups that sprout from the body of a griffin, a fabled creature that typically has the head and wings of a bird and the body of a lion. On the chalice, the eyes are deep-set and wide open, like those of a bird of prey. The object was allegedly part of a cache of antiquities found in a cave near the Iraqi border in the 1980s, shortly after Iran's Islamic Revolution. "These were great treasures from a great civilization," said Fariborz Ghadar, an Iranian scholar who served as a deputy economic minister to Iran's shah. "Their discovery was of great significance to those who consider themselves Persians, who honor that period in history." 
In 2003, the chalice surfaced in the hands of a well-known antiquities dealer, Hicham Aboutaam, who ran a firm based in Geneva. As he passed through U.S. customs at Newark International Airport, Aboutaam presented a certificate indicating the vessel was from Syria. He was waved through. Aboutaam then set out to document the object's value. Three experts he consulted determined it was from Iran; two concluded it was consistent with the antiquities taken from the cave. An art collector was prepared to pay $1 million, but federal investigators caught wind of it. They charged that the object had been taken from Iran illicitly, making its importation to the U.S. illegal. The dealer was prosecuted and paid a $5,000 fine. The chalice was then placed in a climate-controlled storage unit. The value of the chalice remains uncertain. Some have maintained that it is not 2,700 years old at all, but a modern fake. But Iranian officials have insisted it is genuine and demanded its return.
Arthur Brand pointed out previous questions about the object's authenticity in an Oct. 14 article by Frud Bezhan in Radio Free Europe "U.S. Gift To The Iranian People A 'Fake':
Unfortunately, according to Hamid Baqaie, the former head of Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization, the artifact is without question a modern forgery. "Firstly, the way it has been made and the style in which it has been made shows it's a fake. This artifact doesn't have any roots in ancient Iran," Baqaie says. "Secondly, from a technical point of view the materials used to make it also show that it's not an original." 
Archeologist Oscar White Muscarella, a former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has gone on record as saying he, too, does not believe the artifact is the real deal. He wrote in a paper published last year that it took only a glance at a photograph of the artifact to convince him it was a fake.
Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand wrote in an email:
I saw many western-cave objects, some looted, more fake. I saw them too in the Aboutaams' shop. The one the USA gave to Iran is mostly fake, partly constructed from original pieces. I even know who did the construction. It is the same man who made the partly fake which was offered in Germany a few years ago. I made a documentary about that piece, together with the German ARD. Skip to 8.10.
Another Western-cave invention of the Aboutaams, in their shop, secretly filmed by me (see photo below):

February 16, 2011

Ton Cremers Weighs in on the lawsuit by the St. Louis Art Museum on Keeping the Ka-Nefer-Nefer Mask


by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

Questions have arisen about the legal status of an 3,200 year-old Egyptian mummy mask from a noblewoman at the court of Ramses II that has belonged to the St. Louis Art Museum for more than two decades.

The Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask, with its inlaid glass eyes and shimmering plaster face, has been on display since the museum purchased it in 1998 from a New York art dealer for $499,000, according to Jennifer Mann, reporting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on “stltoday.com” in the article “Art museum sues to keep Egyptian mummy mask.”

Ton Cremers, security consultant, and operator of the website news service, Museum Security Network in The Netherlands, is mentioned in the lawsuit that cites numerous emails Mr. Cremers sent to government officials in 2005 and 2006 call for an investigation, according to Mann.

I reached Mr. Cremers in Rome and he, traveling on with an iPad and without his usual computer, referred us to his response today that he posted on the MSN Google Group:
Ton Cremers: There is NO doubt whatsoever that this mask was stolen from a storage in Saqqara. One does not need to be surprised that the infamous Aboutaam brothers were the ones selling this mask. They are 'renowned' for trading in dubious antiquities without any provenance. In this case they just made up a fake provenance: supposedly the mask had been part of a Swiss private collection. Yes, Switzerland again....

Anybody who has read Peter Watson's books, Sotheby's The Inside Story and The Medici Conspiracy, knows that the Swiss route should be distrusted. The Aboutaam fake provenance was very easy to unmask because the Swiss collector mentioned by them in the provenance had never heard about this mask.

According to the ICOM deontological code, no museum should keep stolen objects, no matter any legal context. There is a knack in this case: the Saint Louis Art Museum is not a member of ICOM and apparently does not mind the ICOM ethical code. If they had been an ICOM Member, they should have been thrown out of this organization immediately. It is an outright lie that they performed due diligence when achieving this mask, for they did not.

In my view, Brent Benjamin, the director of the SLAM, is nothing else than an outright buyer of stolen property (yes, I am aware that his predecessor actually bought the mask). His standpoint is that Egypt must prove that the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was stolen. That is putting the world upside down. One thing is sure beyond any doubt: The mask was not excavated in Missouri.

The Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask must return to Egypt as quickly as possible.
ARCA blog: Is it appropriate to mention your emails in the lawsuit and how will this impact the Museum Security Network?
Ton Cremers: I really do not know who quoted my 2005 - 2008 messages about the Ka Nefer Nefer mask in the present law suit. As far as I am concerned there is no objection against using my messages since all of these have been sent publicly. Using these messages will not have any impact on the Museum Security Network. At least not any negative impact. It really shows that the MSN is regarded as a very serious factor in the struggle against illicit trade in cultural goods.

September 25, 2017

The Illicit Passages of a Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE) and some familiar names


Marble Head of a Bull (ca 500-460 BCE),
 (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
July 6, 2017 Manhattan prosecutors initiated custody of a 2,300-year-old marble bull's head, that was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art over suspicions that the antiquity had been pillaged from Lebanon.  In additional documents filed with New York’s Supreme Court on September 22, 2018 by Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, senior trail council in the office of New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., New York authorities reconstruct the journey of this ancient sculpture from its theft during the Lebanese civil war through its passage in the hands of antiquities dealers well known to readers of this blog.

Damningly, the report further outlines the extreme lack of due diligence on the part of wealthy US collectors who purchased the stolen object for their collections despite the sculpture's alarming lack of legitimate pedigree.

The State of New York's 68-page Application for Turnover goes into painstaking detail on how this plundered antiquity made its way to the United States.  This entire document can be read here.

Jason Felch, has also given an excellent distilled synopsis of this court document on his blog.  His summary can be found here. 

The bull's head sculpture was acquired by Lynda and William Beierwaltes on November 27, 1996 for US$1.2 million from one of the (now) most notorious dealers in the antiquities world, Robin Symes.


Building one of the world's largest ancient art businesses, tainted Symes and Michailidis antiquities also were purchased for museum collections around the globe, including the J Paul Getty Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum.   At the height of their unethical enterprise Italian authorities estimated that Symes and Michailidis' jointly-run ancient art business earned them an estimated 170 million euro, but a series of missteps proved the Symes' undoing, literally and figuratively and in 2005 he served 7 months of a 2 year jail sentence for disregarding court orders over the sale of a £3M Egyptian statue.

Art Dealer Robin Symes
In 2006 Symes was further implicated as being part of one of the most sophisticated illicit antiquities networks in the world.   In the book “The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums” Peter Watson and Cecelia Todeschini outline Symes' assets which included thirty-three known warehouses encompassing some 17,000 objects worth an estimated £125 million ($210 million).The writers also clearly illustrate  Symes ties to traffickers connected through Europe's illicit antiquities trade. Each of the museums mentioned above were subsequently forced to relinquish purchased looted objects that had been laundered illegally and which at one time had passed through illicit networks connected to Symes.  This is likely one of the reasons why the loaned object rang alarm bells with curatorial staff at the Metropolitan Museum. 

It is worth noting in relation to the bull's head that according to Bogdanos' Application for Turnover, the bulk of the Beierwaltes' substantial collection had been sourced through Symes and his partner.  Also of note, it wasn't long after Symes' January 2005 sentencing that the Colorado couple elected to contact Hicham Aboutaam and his brother Ali about the possibility of their firm, Phoenix Ancient Art, acting as their agents in the sale of objects from their collection originally acquired through Symes.

After the Aboutaam's appraisal, the couple elected to consign the marble sculpture and other objects to Phoenix Ancient Art where the brothers' firm would act as the Beierwaltes' exclusive dealer. In 2010, the Aboutaams then brokered the sale of the bull's head to Michael Steinhardt and Steinhardt shortly thereafter, finalized the loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After learning that the object was to be subject to seizure, Steinhardt then prssured the Beierwaltes to take back the object and compensate him for his losses.

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

In their pursuit of the rare and beautiful, both Steinhardt and the Beierwaltes are not amateurs when it comes to collecting ancient art. Both have amassed million dollar collections and both should have been able to recognise the material consequences of the illicit trade in providing material for the market.  Furthermore, the limited collection documentation associated with these objects should have raised further red flags.  With such a spartan amount of documentation, both collectors should have walked away from the object doubting its legitimacy on the licit market.  Yet neither collector put much, if any, emphasis on rigorously researching the provenance of the object prior to its acquisition.

In the case of the Beierwaltes it also seems possible that the couple, having learned of Syme's problems with the law, established a consignor/consignee relationship with Phoenix Ancient Art and the Aboutaams in order to recoup a portion of their their financial investment once they came to see the associated liability of having a $95 million collection sourced by, and purchased through, Robin Symes.