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April 19, 2024

Spain's antiquities dealer arrest and the importance of facts-based reporting

TEFAF Maastricht 2022
Image Credit: ARCA

Earlier this week, ARCA published an article building on an announcement made by Spain's Ministry of the Interior which involved the identification of a looted Egyptian object.  This investigation involved the Policía Nacional in collaboration with the Dutch Politie, and the expertise of forensic scholars, as well as the assistance of cooperating dealers and the support of art fair personnel.  These combined efforts resulted in the voluntary handover of the trafficked artefact in the Netherlands, and later, the reported arrest of a Barcelona-based ancient art dealer who, although unnamed by the authorities, was stated to have been charged with money laundering, smuggling, and document falsification.  

ARCA's article touched on its own research into the circulation of this suspect antiquity and to the object's identified Spanish handler.  In it, I named the dealer whom I (too) had ascertained as having been in possession of this piece after it arrived to Spain from Bangkok before being sold onward to other ancient art dealers in Germany and Switzerland.  

Shortly following the Spanish announcement, the bulk of the reporting by mainstream media covered this investigation by simply regurgitating the Spanish  government's official press release.  ARCA, being a research-based organisation which specifically examines (and sometimes reports on) forensic crimes that impact art and artefacts, opted to provide more detail.  To do so we discussed both the object itself and named its first seller, while also ensuring that in doing so we haven't compromised the work of international police forces.

Too frequently, trafficked artefact reporting becomes routinely formulaic, giving readers cursory information on an object's country of origin, value, age, and the names of involved agencies responsible for that object's recovery.  In this type of reportage, the artefacts themselves take second stage, often reduced to photo opportunities, where they are frequently overshadowed by fancy diplomatic handshakes. Whereas the story of the piece itself, its trafficking journey, its good faith and bad faith handlers and its place in history are often unconsidered, or left to vague statements and assumptions, much in the same way, archaeologists and art historians lament the loss of context when an artefact is extracted from its find spot and the object's history is lost during a clandestine excavation.  

Basic shapes of block statues

Likewise, when describing this partial 18th Dynasty Egyptian block statue most of the published news articles reduced the artefact to its period of creation, i.e., "a stolen Egyptian sculpture dated from 1450 BCE" or spoke to its rudimentary aesthetic characteristic, referring to the piece as simply as "an Egyptian head".  Smuggled clandestinely, often over great distances and hidden in shipments through multiple transit countries, by the time such looted antiquities appear on the ancient art market, where they are displayed in glittering European art galleries and art fairs, the pieces are no longer intact.  

In this case, the less informed buyer, might appreciate this sculpture's beautiful depiction of the head of an Egyptian male.  I, on the other hand, see its decapitated form as evidence of a crime scene.  I question whether or not this anonymous severed head, had likely been hacked off its body, or deliberately broken at the shoulders for ease of transport and smuggling, knowing that unfortunately this once complete representation of a man, is now absent the rest of his body.  

During Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty, the artisan who sculpted this black-granite representation of a once-living human would have worked the hard stone with care and precision.  The focus of his efforts would have been to respectfully express the belief that the deceased person's Ka, his eternal life force, when separated from his earthly body at death, would be travelling between the worlds of the living and the dead and would need to find his eternal home inside this single memorial block statue, created expressly for this purpose.  Carved to represent the likeness of the deceased and placed inside a sanctuary, had this head remained with the rest of its body, we might also have learned, through inscriptions, the name of the esteemed person the sculptor sought to portray when he had creating this memorial artwork.  

But why the need for a second article? 

Over the past several days there has been scattered chatter via various social media sites where the veracity of my statements regarding who the arrested Spanish dealer was have been the subject of discussion.  

Art News journalist Karen Ho, doing her best to report the news and remain impartial to the contentious subject, wrote: 

...the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, has claimed in a blog post that the individual in question is Jaume Bagot Peix, operator of the J. Bagot Arqueología gallery in Barcelona, Spain.

Art lawyer Justine Philippart, when pointed to ARCA's original blog article, stated on LinkedIn:

This article is fake news. Nothing is true. Thus, for example, Mr. Bagot was not arrested.

Art and cultural property lawyer Yves-Bernard Debie, who states his Brussels firm represented Bagot and his gallery, wrote in the Art News article: “We can confirm that our client has not been arrested. The information that is being disclosed is false.”

So let's start with things that we can assume are indisputable.
Spain's Ministry of the Interior stated that agents of the National Police have arrested an antiques seller in Barcelona for the head of the Block statue, which they indicated had been on display with a Swiss dealer at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) although they did not specify in what year.  The ministry also stated that the investigations made it possible to prove that this artefact had been acquired in July 2015 by the person in charge of a (unnamed) Barcelona establishment after transiting through an international company based in Bangkok and that this gallery owner "knew of the illicit origin of the Egyptian piece" and had "justified the origin of the piece by providing a document that collected information on several archaeological pieces belonging to a Spanish collection." 

Now on to what I assessed before naming Jaume Bagot in my last article, and whether or not that information is false or fake news as claimed by the two lawyers.

To trace this artefact's progression through the art market I started by looking for, and analysing, any photographic evidence I could find that depicted this object in circulation.  Its passage with the Swiss dealer being the easiest part. I was able to  review photos taken by ARCA researchers while this piece had been on display at the dealer's TEFAF stand during events held at the Maastricht Exhibition & Conference Centre in March 2020, and again in June 2022.  Both of these photos were included in my previous blog post, one of which even had the date/time/street location for the MECC watermarked on the front. 

Both photos clearly demonstrate that this artefact was on display during the fair's operational hours and had not been "removed before its opening" in 2022 as was incorrectly stated in the Art News article.  Today, TEFAF provided me with clarification that the artefact had been removed, from sale, while the Dutch portion of the investigation was underway, but that the object had been allowed to remain on display to the public for the duration of the fair with the consent of the Dutch police while their investigation got underway. 

In addition to ARCA's own photos, I also scanned open source records looking for other depictions this object, finding photographic evidence which placed the artefact with the Swiss art gallery at least as early as 3 October 2018.  I then repeated similar exercises of date range-search-find-analyse in order to find photographic evidence which might confirm the identities of the German and Spanish dealers.  This process of elimination, helped to further narrow down the range of dates when this object was in the possession of the named Barcelona dealer. 

Narrowing down my search to whose photos to review first, to limit the number of photos I needed to sift through was easy.  I started with the only Barcelona-based ancient art dealer who had been publicly-mentioned as having connections to smuggled conflict and post-conflict country artefacts from the MENA region, some of which transited through intermediaries in Thailand. That person being Jaume Bagot Peix.  

Given that Bagot also had a standing conviction in Italy, related to a stolen antiquity and is currently alleged to have sold a stolen Egyptian artefact ushabti from Sudan with falsified provenance documentation to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in the Netherlands, I felt that reviewing the Egyptian material he may have sold after the July 2015 arrival date mentioned in the Ministry of the Interior's announcement might help to confirm whether or not he was the unnamed Barcelona dealer. 

Working with that hypothosis, I was able to locate and document this object in Bagot's possession through a series of photographs, as well as one video.  All depict the Egyptian head on display and for sale with J. Bagot Arqueología during the 37th edition of the Feriarte.  This art fair was held from November 21 to 29, 2015 in Madrid, roughly four months after law enforcement officers defined the object's entry into the EU from Bangkok.  To be fair, I have not added proof of these evidentiary images to this article, but simply forwarded each of my findings to the Spanish and Dutch Law enforcement officers working on this case.   

In closing I will state that as a routine act of due diligence, ARCA makes every effort to identify the circulation specifics of illicit artefacts discovered in circulation, in order to ensure their proper documentation.  This holds true for artefacts which have been seized by law enforcement agencies as the result of court orders, as well as those which have been voluntarily relinquished. Doing so helps us to map less-than-careful art market actors, as well as culpable ones.  

ARCA does not condone "fake news". Nor do we contribute to it.  Cultural property crimes are insidiously complex and as the old adage goes, when dealing with suspect material and the naming of problematic actors who handle said material, the devil is in the details which can be proven beyond dispute, even more so when that evidence is considered probative at trial.

By: Lynda Albertson

April 15, 2024

Arrest made in Spain on Egyptian antiquities smuggling case.

TEFAF Maastricht 2020
Image Credit: ARCA

According to Spain's Ministry of the Interior, following an investigation begun in 2023, the Policía Nacional have arrested a Barcelona gallery owner (Jaume Bagot Peix, operator of J. Bagot Arqueología) for allegedly committing the crimes of money laundering, smuggling, and document falsification in relation to this black granite head of a funerary monument for a high ranking official from the reign of Hatshepsut or Tuthmosis III in Egypt. 

TEFAF Maastricht 2022
Image Credit: ARCA

Valued at 190,000 euros, the circa 1504-1450 BCE artefact had been acquired by the Barcelona ancient art dealer in July 2015 via an intermediary in Bangkok, Thailand.  ARCA notes that this partial statue was documented on social media sites and up for sale through a Swiss-based art dealer during the short-lived European Fine Art Fair in 2020 and again with this same dealer when the fair reopened post-Covid in 2022.  

Having been the subject of a joint-European policing initiative which resulted in law enforcement authorities with the Dutch Politie in the Netherlands sharing evidence with their Spanish counterparts, police in Spain were able to concretised that this Egyptian artefact was illicit, despite it having been in free circulation for seven years through several sales passages occurring via dealers in Spain, Germany, and Switzerland.  Prior to these transactions, the object had traveled though the transit county of Thailand via an intermediary in Bangkok. 

The 18th Dynasty head depicts its patron wearing a short wig revealing the ears as well as defined almond-shaped eyes and prominent eyebrows.  In its complete and original form, the head would have once been attached at the shoulders to the rest of its memorial block statue representing a seated non-royal person.  

These types of statues would have depicted the individual's head, hands, and feet emerging from a cloak drawn tightly around the subject's body, similar to the one depicted at the left, which is on display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.  During the period of the trafficked head's creation, it was likely crafted to resemble a guardian seated in the gateway of a temple as Egyptians believed that after a person's death, their soul could inhabit a statue in a general context of solar beliefs. 

The Swiss gallery that had purchased the artwork via another ancient art dealer in Germany, freely relinquished the artefact to the Dutch authorities once it was determined that the piece was suspect and had been acquired via the Spanish gallery owner, who had already been linked to the illicit trade in antiquities in conflict zones such as North Africa and the Middle East. 

To circulate this illicit artefact, the Spanish gallerist provided his trusting buyer, with a document that substituted collected information relating to several archaeological pieces belonging to a Spanish collection from the 70s making it appear as though the head had been part of a legitimate and documented collection prior to Egypt's antiquities laws tightening in 1983.  A not uncommon technique, suspect dealers have often attempted to "whiten" freshly looted material, by substituting, reusing, or outright fabricating documents of ownership, which, if not carefully explored, cosmetically appear to provide a legitimate "pedigree" to an antiquity which in reality is more recent plunder from an illicit excavation.  

It is for this reason, that the dealer who has been arrested has been charged not only with smuggling and money laundering, but also with document falsification of the object's provenance record. 

Point of reference in 2018, Frédéric Loore revealed in Paris Match that Jaume Bagot's network used various smuggling routes, notably via Egypt and Jordan to the United Arab Emirates, before returning to Catalonia after transiting through Germany or Thailand.

By:  Lynda Albertson

NB: For now, the Spanish authorities have elected to publish their arrest announcement withholding the name of the charged ancient art dealer.  

March 11, 2024

The wacky illicit world of one Ushabti of the Pharaoh Taharqa

The Cultural Heritage Brigade of Spain's Policía Nacional have completed an investigation into a rare, illicitly trafficked, ushabti. The statuette, holding traditional Egyptian agricultural implements, reproduces the text of Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead and would have been placed in the tomb of the deceased.  Property of the Republic of the Sudan, the funerary figurine was sold to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in the Netherlands by "a Catalan antiques dealer". 

Although unnamed in today's press release, the Spanish police did provide some interesting details regarding the sales transaction for this illicit object, which, in turn, also help us to identify who the unnamed dealer in question is.  

Today's press statement indicates that the Spanish investigation began when the Dutch National Polite forwarded their colleagues in Spain a complaint for aggravated fraud that had been filed in the Netherlands by the director of the museum in Leiden regarding their purchase of a suspect ushabti for Pharaoh Taharqa, the 4th king of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt and the Qore of the Kingdom of Kush from 690 to 664 BCE. 

The press release went on to say that "the complaint stated that an antiques dealer, responsible for an antiques establishment in Barcelona, ​​had sold a sculpture of Sudanese origin to the Dutch museum for 100,000 euros" and that the sales transaction was facilitated using false provenance documentation which was presented to provide a cover to the artefact's illicit origin.  Based on the foregoing, the museum then filed their complaint with the Dutch national authorities and were seeking the return of their purchase price.

To facilitate the sale, the police confirmed that the dealer in question had provided the museum with a digital copy of a handwritten document purportedly dating to May 27, 1967 which, at face value, appeared to have been written by an employee of the Sudanese government.  This document also appeared to attest to the fact that the artefact had left the Sudan for London sometime between 1930 and 1940.  

After careful review of this document, which included follow-up examination involving individuals affiliated with the Embassy of the Republic of Sudan in Spain,, as well as with heritage experts specialising in the illicit trafficking of Egyptian material circulating within the ancient art market, the paperwork provided was determined to be a false attestation.  This technique is sometimes used by sellers of illicit material to increase verisimilitude to a work of fiction through the invention and insertion of details into an object's documentation which are presented as factual, when they are not.

Reviewing this document it was determined that the paperwork presented by the dealer to legitimise this object's circulation contained several discrepancies. The most blatant error on the part of the fraudster(s) was that the forged document referenced Sudan's "Ministry of Archeology", a departmental name that has never existed in this African country.  

In 1967 the competent authority tasked with the protection of cultural heritage in the Sudan was the Sudanese Antiquities Service, abbreviated as the SAS (now the National Corporation for Antiquities & Museums - NCAM).  In 1939 the SAS was linked to the Ministry of Education, and by 1953 to the Ministry of Al Maref.  In addition to the above, the signatory of the falsified attestation referred to himself with the title of "general director" for the aforementioned nonexistent ministry.  And while this named individual does match to a person previously affiliated with the government of Sudan, this person never held a position with this title.  Likewise,  their documented signature on official records differs from the one signed and given to the museum substantiating the objects departure from the country.

During this investigation it was also determined that the artefact was one of several artefacts believed to have been stolen from the Gebel Barkal Museum situated on the right (north) bank of the Nile on the SW edge of modern Karima, Sudan which occurred between 2000 and 2003.

The complaint filed by the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, concluded that based on the evidence of fraud they were seeking a refund of the purchase price from the Catalan dealer.  The Spanish police press report indicates that the person under investigation, if found guilty, would be responsible for a crime of aggravated fraud by involving assets of artistic, historical and cultural heritage, as well as for exceeding the fraud of 50,000 euros for the object's sale to the Dutch museum. 

But just who is the unnamed Catalan dealer? 

Matching the partial photograph of the ushabti for Pharaoh Taharqa depicted on Spain's press release lead me to a more complete rendering of the object on the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden's accession record.  That record indicates that the Dutch museum purchased the sculpture in 2014 via Spain but not much else in the way of detail on its official collection history.  That same year, Jaume Bagot, of J. Bagot Arqueología, a problematic Catalan dealer who has been mentioned frequently on ARCA's blog, was identified as having brought a 25th Dynasty ushabti of similar proportions to Brussels for the 2014 BRAFA art fair.  Unfortunately, the first Pinterest photo of that event wasn't clear enough to confirm if Bagot's artefact was the one the museum had purchased. 

Going back to Bagot's website we can find a "sold" notice for a Ushabti of the Pharaoh Taharqa. 

The provenance for this piece is listed as follows:

‘Family Babeker, Sudan. In Europe since 1930. Family C., Barcelona, prior 1970.’

This seemed to match to the export date on paperwork the Spanish authorities had, but I still wanted to ensure that I had the right artefact and the right doggy documents presenting dealer, before naming him, so I dug a bit deeper.  I then came across an article by Alain Truong which tells us more regarding the provenance of Bagot's 2014 ushabti. That article listed the collection history for the Spanish dealer's ushabti as:

Provenance:  The family of M. Mustafa Abdalla Babeker, Khartoum, Sudan, 1917 - 1930. Collection of Don C. Bes, 1930. Private European collection, 1940. From the archaeological work at the pyramid of Taharqa, the royal necropolis of Nuri, Nubia.

To be 100 percent certain the objects were a match, I then took the image from J. Bagot Arqueología sales record with the black background and overlayed it with the one attached to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden accession record.  Without a doubt, the two images reflect an object of the same size and proportion and depict the same object. 

It should be noted that this is not the only "Babeker" provenance artefact sold by Bagot.  In 2017 the Catalan dealer brought another ushabti to Brafa, this one of the King Senkamanisken, the third successor of Taharqa, who likewise was a king buried at Nuri (Sudan) and low and behold it too had the same purported provenance.  Did Bagot use the same attestation letter provided to the Dutch museum? 

So with that, I leave you with a pressing question.  To those of you out there who have handled other objects with Mr. Babeker as your assumed touch stone of pristine provenance, what say you? Any comments from Christie's, or Christie's again or  Sotheby's or Axel Vervoordt or anyone else who has bought or sold a Taharqa or a Senkamanisken ushabti since the early 2000s?  

Care to share your details with the Spanish authorities?  

By: Lynda Albertson

November 27, 2023

Marking the return of 12 pieces to Libya recovered from Spanish gallerist Jaume Bagot of J. Bagot Arqueología

Image Credit: Archaeology IN - Libya

Following the order of the Central Court of Investigation number 6 of Madrid on 24 November 2023, it was announced last week that Spain had provisionally delivered a grouping of antiquities including four marble sculptures and eight mosaics, recovered during Operación Harmakis to the Libyan authorities at the country's  embassy in Spain.  

Hardly covered in the English speaking press, the pieces were formally transferred at a ceremony held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Madrid, the pieces were delivered to Mohamed Alfaloos, the general director of Museums and Archeology of Libya, and representatives of the ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs.  Seized during investigations conducted by Spain's law enforcement authorities, each of the artefacts has been earmarked by the Court as having been looted in the North African country, coming from Balagrae (modern day al-Bayda), Apollonia (modern day Marsa-Susa), and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Cyrene (near modern day Shahhat).   They will remain at the Libyan embassy in Madrid, in the custody of the Libyan ambassador to Spain, Walid Abu Abdulla, as per the court's ruling, until the legal case surrounding them has concluded. 

The recovery of these artefacts dates back to late March 2018, when, after three years of investigations involving some fifty law enforcement officers, including the Spanish Policía Nacional, the UDEV Central de la Comisaría General de Policía Judicial and the UCIE de la Comisaría General de Información formal charges were brought against ancient art dealer Jaume Bagot and his partner Oriol Carreras Palomar.  During which, the pair were taken into custody under suspicion for their alleged participation in a crime of financing terrorism, belonging to a criminal organisation, concealment of contraband and use of forgery for their roles in facilitating the sale of illicit antiquities.

During the 2018 Harmakis action, five property searches were conducted, three in Barcelona and two in Argentona, with police inspecting a restoration studio, a deposit/warehouse where the artworks were stored, Bagot's residence and his Barcelona art gallery and the home of Oriol Carreras Palomar.  During the execution of these search warrants, artefacts from multiple countries and circulation documentation were retained by police as evidence in a criminal investigation. 

On March 28th of that same year, the Policía Nacional in Barcelona released a video which depicts part of the searches in which some of the objects sequestered during their investigation can be identified. In this opensource video, some of the mosaics handed over to the Libyan authorities can be seen beginning at 0.38 seconds into the video.  In addition, the marble head of Demeter is depicted from 0.58 until its boxing at 1.11 and the Roman togatus can be seen at 1.19. 

Answering to the charges in Spain, Jaume Bagot and Oriel Carreras appeared before Judicial Magistrate Diego de Egea of the Central Court of Instruction Number 6 of the National Court on March 26, 2018 where each were formally informed of the allegations and charges pending against them.  During the hearing the magistrate granted both men release pending trial, while imposing a financial surety (bond) of €12000 and a series of pretrial release conditions which include the forfeiture of their passports, a mandate to remain within the territory of Spain, and biweekly court appearances as conditions of their release while awaiting trial.

Standing by the all too familiar, I didn't know approach, which has, for so long, contributed to some of the challenges of prosecuting individuals for the illegal trafficking of cultural objects,  Bagot pleaded his innocence in handling blood antiquities in an March 30, 2018 interview with Crónica Global Media.  When asked the carefully-worded question --Do you claim not to have bought any objects from sellers in Iraq, Libya or Syria?  The Spanish dealer responds cleverly:

Never in life. What they intend in the Civil Guard report - to which I have not had access because it is confidential - is to make the judge see that I transported these objects or that I was in charge, through third parties, of moving them from a country. in a conflict zone to another country where there is legality to buy them legally in order to justify the operation.

The police say that I have expressly arranged to buy an object in Libya, take it to Dubai and sell it in Spain. But this is not the case, I don't know any people from Libya, nor do I have any contacts in Libya or anything.

What the Barcelona dealer failed to acknowledge in his interview was that he has bought artefacts coming from conflict and post conflict countries, via intermediary sellers, in multiple countries, who are known for brokering the sales of ancient objects from countries plagued with political and civil upheaval including, in this case, funerary sculptures of Cyrene in Libya.  This demonstartes, once again, that the routes laundered "blood antiquities" travel can be circuitous and that the international flow patterns conflict, and post conflict, antiquities travel often involve intermediary countries with willing middlemen.  This allows bad acting dealers in market country galleries to profess their purchases to these third-parties were made in good faith.  That is, until officers leading investigations gather evidence which proves definitively otherwise. 

Let's not forget that the 10th section of the Rome court in Italy sentenced Jaume Peix Bagot to 4.5 years of incarceration for his handling & laundering of the second-century headless Roman sculpture depicting the Muse Calliope which had been stolen from actor Roberto Benigni's villa in 2010.  That sculpture was identified in Spain with the dealer in April 2019 and was identified as part of a multinational investigation conducted by the Spanish authorities and Italy's Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale who also recovered another sculpture in  the posession of another Spanish dealer that had been stolen from Villa Borghese.

ARCA would like to close this blog post with a reminder to its collecting readers that the market for illicit antiquities operates within the framework of basic economic principles, where the scarcity of authentic material and supply and demand dynamics play a pivotal role in incentivising the clandestine trade in ancient artefacts.  As the demand for antiquities by collectors, private investors, and museums increases, this buying power in turn stimulates profiteering individuals to acquire more and more material, sometimes sourcing artefacts through individuals who engage in, or turn a blind eye to, where, or who, a sellable object comes from.

Collectors of ancient art who acquire archaeological material without conducting thorough scrutiny of the sellers, especially when encountering seemingly too-good-to-be-true items like a Hellenistic Greek marble head from a war torn country, inadvertently fuel a perpetuating cycle of illegal activities. Unchecked acquisitions also contribute to the ongoing destruction of archaeological sites, posing a threat to the preservation of our historical record. 

A more conscientious approach involves diligent research into the provenance and legal status of what a collector or museum are purchasing, accompanied by a proactive "Know Your Seller" strategy. This not only shields the purchaser from potential legal complications but also plays a pivotal role in disrupting the demand side of the illicit supply chain for cultural goods, particularly antiquities from conflict-ridden regions. 

Responsible acquisition practices can and does empower collectors to contribute actively to the protection of global cultural heritage. By prioritising the preservation of our shared human history over profit, collectors wield significant influence in fostering an art market characterized by ethical values and a genuine commitment to cultural preservation.

By:  Lynda Albertson

April 18, 2020

Saturday, April 18, 2020 - ,, No comments

Understanding the chiaroscuro context of art crime and statistics

Erika Bochereau, the Secretary General of the Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Œuvres d’Art (CINOA), a trade organization for art and antiques dealers, has written a response to a recent report by ILLICID,  launched by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.   In their report, the researchers reported that thousands of archaeological cultural assets from the eastern Mediterranean are currently offered for sale in Germany and in most cases, it is impossible to use the accompanying information to assess whether the objects are legally or illegally placed on the market or even determine what is fake.  Bochereau's Op Ed article can be found on ArtNet News here

In her article the CINOA Secretary General expressed that the report is:

"part of the trend now dubbed “zombie statistics”—that is, pieces of information that are frequently cited by experts and institutions, despite having no basis in research or reality."

In one sense Bochereau is partially correct, statistics regarding art crimes are difficult to concretise and even harder to evaluate and there is the circular loop where off the cuff recorded stats are repeated by various institutions citing one another, without any of them actually taking responsibility for researching the statistic.

Frequently art crime statistics are inconsistent, incomplete, ineffectual or inconclusive, in part because the market is intentionally opaque with regards to object provenance, which makes data collection difficult, and therefore harder to quantify, especially when what is "clean" in the market and what isn't requires an object by object evaluation, and in part because statistics are only as good as the record keepers' records, and having some uniformity in how records are documented is a problem with all national and transnational crime.  

Bochereau is also correct that many of the numbers thrown about in newspaper articles can be based on word-of mouth evidence or are subject to individual interpretation:

"a “belief” held by some experts—but gave no evidence to support that belief."

But I would argue that point a bit further.

Statistical analysis, reported in the press or in loftier political, regulatory, or economic corridors is always problematic, even more so when interpreted by journalists with rapid deadlines, asking for quotes from talking head experts who are non statisticians,  or worse, citing a one-liner written in an academic article without a fuller examination.

To illustrate my point in a less contentious manner, let's take a look at a non art crime case with its own more concrete, yet still frustratingly, very variable, set of statistics.  

Let's assume you are a news journalist or a researcher who wants to calculate a statistical result regarding a specific seizure of illicit drugs.  

In our test case, let's use last year's arrest of an Italian national connected to the seizure of 1,500 kilos of cocaine which had been destined for Europe and found aboard a fishing vessel bound for Spain.  Knowing that the UNODC keeps stats from 2007 to 2017 on cocaine prices in Western and Central Europe, it should be fairly easy to extrapolate the "value" of that particular haul.  

So let's set about calculating the value of this single cocaine seizure in a methodological manner. 

I could start with the wholesale price point of the drug in Spain, the port where the vessel was headed, which, as a country, values cocaine at $39,747 per kilo.
  • $39,747 multiplied by 1500 kilos = $59,620,500
Or, I could start with the wholesale price point of the drug in Italy, where the drugs may have been destined, which, as a country, values cocaine at $43,527 per kilo.
  • $43,527 multiplied by 1500 kilos = $65,290,500
Or I could start with the wholesale average price point of the drug in the whole of Europe, not knowing what country is the final destination of the drugs, in which the EU averages the values of cocaine across all reporting European countries is $44,083 per kilo.
  • $44,083 multiplied by 1500 kilos = $66,126,000 
Oh but those numbers might not be sensational enough for the daily newspaper,  so let's redo the exercise again, using the UNODC's retail values of a gram of cocaine purchased by the average party animal.

The street value price point in Spain for cocaine is $67 per gram.  
  • $67 per gram multiplied by 1000 grams (1 kilo) multiplied by 1500 = $100,500,000
The street value price point in Italy for cocaine is $92 per gram.
  • $92 per gram multiplied by 1000 grams (1 kilo) multiplied by 1500 = $138,000,000
And finally, by some weird quirk, the street value price point averaged out across the all reporting EU countries for cocaine is slightly lower, at $84 per gram.
  • $84 per gram multiplied by 1000 grams (1 kilo) multiplied by 1500 = $126,000,000
Which dollar value do you use?  Well, if you are law enforcement and want to validate the investigative successes of your detectives, you may elect to use the numbers related to your particular country.  If you are a politician coming up for reelection who wants to show a drop in crime during your administration, he/she may want to use the data that reflect the lowest dollar amount possible (to show a downturn in crime) or the highest number possible (to solidify a get tough on crime stance).  Lastly, if you are a journalist, well, bigger is always sexier right?  

Now imagine asking every law enforcement agency where drugs are seized which numbers they used when they gave their estimate to their governments, to news journalists, or to research academics.  And when asked to generate numbers on multiple seizures, confirming if anyone has bothered to specify which numbers they used or how they derived the figure. 

I can tell you form experience, many people are satisfied with just having any measurable number without exploring further where the statistical data was derived. 

All this to say that even with an illicit drug, which at least has a quantifiable price, and a finite weight, to determine a financial value, does not always give you a uniform formula for interpreting that data when left unspecified.

Heck, even with something as simple as counting the dead in the COVID-19 pandemic can give you skewed data, as some countries are keeping statistics which only count confirmed (i.e. tested) coronavirus deaths and leave out all the people who died before they could be tested.

But let's switch back to trying to establish financial numbers related to art crimes.  

Winding the clock back to September 2016 when two Van Gogh paintings, which were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum, were recovered in Italy.  

According to the New York Times, at the time of the theft, the estimated value of Vincent Van Gogh's “Seascape at Scheveningen” (1882) and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (1884/85), was 4 million euros, or about $4.5 million, according to Adriaan Dönszelmann, the managing director of the Van Gogh Museum. 

The UK's newspaper the Telegraph estimated that the two paintings were worth a total €100 million despite giving no explanation as to how they arrived at this exaggerated number.  

The Van Gogh Museum's administration at the time of the recovery gave no numbers whatsoever.  They stated only that the "art historical value of the paintings for the collection is "huge"

And lastly, given that the paintings were never actually up for sale in the first place, nor would they ever appear on the licit market auction block, others argued that the works of art were "priceless".  

What quantitative financial figure do you give to a "priceless" work of art? 

So how would you quantify that one single theft when trying to create a total value of art thefts from museums for example?

In making a financial accounting of not-for-sale plundered antiquities accessioned into museum collections, what value would you put on the Getty Bronze?  The price the museum originally paid for it?  The sales price, plus the price for restoring and maintaining it?  All of the above plus the cummulative years of attorney fees spent to litigate over and over again for its return?  Or would this statue also simply be referred to as "priceless".  

Now quantify the "damages" to heritage originating from conflict countries.  What price can you put on undermining the cultural identity of the local communities, the sometimes absolute destruction of their cultural and religious monuments, or the theft of private property (as in World War II related claims) and national collections?  What price do you put on art as it relates to its tactical value, for insurgencies and terrorist groups, when they destroy art as a means of displaying control, and loot the objects of their perceived opponents for financial gain in an asymmetrical conflict?

Better still, try quantifying the smaller, portable artefacts deliberately stolen from archaeological sites, temples and museums which are on the market now.  Here we COULD in theory at least give a market value based on searching out the individual sales prices of confirmed suspect artefacts, but that type of drilled down research isn't being done comprehensively and it sure isn't being funded by countries or academic institutions, let alone by the market itself.    

So there you have it.  A total standoff, between the market making excuses for its own provenance opacity, standing behind the convenient loophole that data protection rules prevent full disclosure without consent, and the traditionally clandestine nature of the art market in and of itself, each of which pose further challenges to putting financial figures together to concretely assess "the cost" of looting and trafficking in an easily digestible, and truly accurate way. 

What we do know is that the illicit market in movable cultural property motivates looting in developing nations.  On a transnational level, it is indisputable the trade in illicit art has been proven to put money in the hands of everyone, from gallery dealers, an unemployed workman, farmers, petty criminals, organised crime syndicates and on some occasions military insurgencies and terrorist groups. 

I will close by saying, I too question statistics frequently.  But I do look at facts, even in isolation.  Facts which clearly illustrate that the problem of illicit art being bought and sold on the licit art market still presently exists and it is real.  

I am also open to admitting the difficulties of data and its inherent fallibility, but I'd like to also see a similar openness from the art market's dealer associations openly addressing that there are still problems among some of their stakeholders that they should be taking an active role in addressing, instead of merely downplaying the research of others while putting their collective heads in the sand that there is real work to be done in order to clean up the art market. 

If the Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Œuvres d’Art (CINOA) wants to critically judge the research efforts of ILLICID, then let them do so, but they should also turn a critical eye to the concrete proofs that there is an ongoing problem with tainted artworks circulating in the art market amongst some of their membership, despite old and new legislation and conventions.  In doing so they should also be more forthcoming with acknowledging that some of the market's current problems can be traced to individuals directly affiliated with their member associations.

I have yet to read a statement by a member of CINOA management which seeks to address what stance CINOA has taken towards dealers-members like Jaume Bagot Peix, under investigation in Spain, or Jürgen Haering who has been listed in the sales of an oinochoe, a lekythos, and an attic cup all tied to disgraced dealer Gianfranco Becchina.    

Nor has CINOA openly addressed the fact that suspect objects for sale or on consignment with some of its association members are (still) being seized in connection with law enforcement investigations; some as recently as TEFAF Maastricht 2018, TEFAF New York 2018, BRAFA 2020, and TEFAF Maastricht 2020.  

Those seizures may not always make for irrefutable, pretty bar graph with an eye-popping stats, but they happen with enough frequently that both BRAFA and TEFAF have clauses written into their Terms and Conditions documents which specify that the fairs cannot prevent and are not responsible for any legal seizure and/or custody of works of art. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

January 29, 2020

30 art objects held in precautionary seizure at the Brussels Antiques & Fine Arts fair

Begun in 1956, BRAFA, the eight day Brussels Antiques & Fine Arts fair (Salone dell'Antiquariato e dell'Arte di Bruxelles) is Europe's most unashamedly eclectic art fair, covering artworks from antiquity to even a charity auction of five original segments of the Berlin Wall.  Kicking off Europe's annual art market sales, the event takes place inside the former Entrepôt Royale at the Thurn & Taxis railway depot which overlooks the industrial canal that links Brussels to the North Sea.  There it gathers together some 50 Belgian and 83 international galleries, showcasing more art than one can find in some fine museums around the globe, and attracting everyone from the curators of important museums to wealthy millionaires.

That said, despite the champagne, candelabras and exclusivity, the 65th edition has got off to a bumpy start.  Despite what some feel is a sufficiently strict vetting process, which is said to examine each work prior to the fair’s opening, relying on a panel of 100 independent experts, checks by the Art Loss Register, and a scientific laboratory specialising in the analysis of art objects, a number of artworks have raised concerns in the days leading up to the fair's opening.

A joint inspection operation, carried out by the Belgian Federal Public Service Economy ( French: SPF Économie, Dutch: FOD Economie), conducting routine controls to make sure that exhibitors fully respect all regulations according to the import, export and transit of goods revealed some objects of concern.  The inspectors attention is reported to have been focused on merchandise, intended for sale directly, or under consignment by various dealers listed in the Belgian news journal L'Echo.  

Following their preliminary inspection, authorities moved forward with what is known as a precautionary seizure, or the freezing of a traceable asset, for a total of thirty ancient artifacts and tribal art objects, on the basis that the objects were either of suspect authenticity or may be proven to have issues of concern regarding their provenance.

Speaking to journalists with the Belgian business newspaper, L'Echo, the deputy spokesperson of the FPS, Étienne Mignolet, confirmed that on January 27, the FPS Economy (Directorate General of Economic Inspection) carried out a routine check of some of the dealers participating at the BRAFA fair.  Mignolet, stated:

That review, in turn, resulted in the precautionary seizure of some works of art.  

In addition to the seizures, two merchants, from France and Mali, were taken into custody.   
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Other dealers exhibiting at BRAFA in previous years have undergone probes into allegations of art trafficking from current war zones.  In 2018 Jaume Bagot Peix, once hailed as the "child prodigy of ancient arts" and a regular dealer at BRAFA through his business J. Bagot Arqueología Ancient Art, was arrested by Spanish authorities on suspicion of jihadi terrorist financing through the sale of illicit antiquities, some of which he displayed at the Brussels-based fair.   Earlier, in 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that Belgian customs authorities seized objects sent to Belgium for the BRAFA fair by Phoenix Ancient Art SA, cofounded by Hicham  and Ali Aboutaam.  The objects were two 4500-year-old bas-reliefs from Syria. Both cases are ongoing.

While it has been noted in the press by BRAFA administration that these types of controls are commonplace prior to the Fair,  the art fair organizers fully support the general goal of transparency and due diligence within the art art market and fully cooperates with the authorities in the common interest of insuring the best practices within legal art market.

Update 29 January 2020/18:50:  ARCA has received a Press Release from the BRAFA fair administration.  This document (in French) can be downloaded here and is translated into English below.  This release seems to indicate that several of the dealers mentioned in the L'Echo and other Belgian news article were not subject to seizures.   Please see that BRAFA press release in its entirety below.


PRESS RELEASE - 29.01.2020
Official correction to the article published in L’Echo and relayed by other Belgian media this Wednesday 29 January 2020.
BRAFA confirms that a routine check was carried out by the SPF Economy this Monday, January 27 in the morning.
This is a usual procedure which, moreover, takes place regularly at the various trade fairs in Belgium and abroad. BRAFA has always collaborated with the various administrative services and maintains a completely transparent relationship with them.
Certain pieces were in fact the subject of a simple conservatory seizure pending further information.
It is important to note that none of the items seized were on display on the BRAFA. Following the internal appraisal procedure, these objects were stored in a reserve closed to the public and exhibitors throughout the duration of the show. This procedure for admitting objects is in force at all international fairs and is based both on an examination of authenticity and on the guarantee of its provenance, but also on its intrinsic artistic quality.
BRAFA deplores the publication of names of galleries which are not involved in the current checks (Aaron, Desmet, Cybèle, De Jonckheere), as well as the use of illustrations from other galleries completely foreign to the subject of the article. BRAFA regrets the negative image and the confusion that can arise from the publication of erroneous information, being normal and routine procedures, which has been going on for many years.
BRAFA - Brussels Art Fair - 26/01 → 02/02/2020Tour & Taxis, Avenue du Port 88 - 1000 Brusselswww.brafa.artAlso follow BRAFA on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.Press contact Belgium and international coordinationBruno Nélis - - Tel +32 (0) 2 513 48 31 - GSM +32 (0) 476 399 579

March 30, 2018

Illegal chains which mirror legal ones and function in the penumbra of the legal ones

While much has been discussed with regards to terrorism financed via the sale of plundered antiquities, substantiating claims with clear and defined ‘evidence’ is not straightforward. From the outside these networks are labyrinthine, multi-tiered and opaque.  From the inside militants and non-militant criminals are known to conduct illicit transactions with cash and cash alternatives which are, by their very nature, structured to fly below the radar of law enforcement authorities. This makes assessing their impact difficult to estimate and the detection and prosecution of criminals complicated. 

Even when uncovered, traffickers involved in the laundering of illicit antiquities usually haven't kept substantive incriminating paper trails that investigators can peruse.  This makes it difficult to determine what their profit margins are on the antiquities they launder.  Nor are people facing charges of laundering antiquities through the art market likely to be forthcoming with incriminating evidence that identifies who else has benefited from the layered transactions that occur from the time the object is looted from an archaeological rich region until the antiquity reached the identified via a collector, dealer, gallery, or auction house.

All this to say that those involved in the illicit market don't advertise their relationships with known criminals and the same holds even more true when the profiteering parties have direct or indirect business dealings with transnational criminal networks or militant organizations.  Additionally the economic behavior of terrorist groups and transnational criminal networks during conflicts share many of the same characteristics, methods and tactics.  Both operate in secrecy and little is known about how groups such as these coexist and, or, interact within the same geographic space.  

But like any legal supply chain does, an illegal supply chain matches supply with demand. So while much of our evidence of where the proceeds of transnational artefact crime finish is condemned by the market as being overly anecdotal, what we see clearly is from what regions illicit contraband flows.  From there we can extrapolate that illicit antiquities originating in countries of conflict, from zones where terrorists or militants have a controlling stake territorially, are by extension, a viable revenue stream for terrorism.

Where the two chains, the legal and the illegal, meet.

This month after almost three years of investigations, involving some fifty law enforcement officers, Spanish authorities have brought formal charges against two individuals for their alleged participation in a crime of financing terrorism, belonging to a criminal organization, concealment of contraband and use of forgery for their roles in facilitating the sale of illicit antiquities.

On orders from the Audiencia Nacional, a special high court in Spain with jurisdiction throughout the Spanish territory, as well as over international crimes which come under the competence of Spanish courts, Barcelona antiquities dealer Jaume Bagot and his partner Oriol Carreras Palomar are being investigated for their purported roles in illiit trafficking.  Both have been taken into custody for their alleged role(s) in the sale of Greek and Roman antiquities plundered from Libya and Egypt, which prosecutors believe were then being sold through the licit European art market purporting to be antiquities from historic collections.

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Answering to the charges, the pair appeared before Judicial Magistrate Diego de Egea of the Central Court of Instruction Number 6 of the National Court on Monday, March 26, 2018 where they were formally informed of the allegations against them. During the hearing the magistrate granted their release pending trial, imposing a financial surety (bond) and a series of pretrial release conditions which included the forfeiture of their passports, a mandate to remain within the territory of Spain, and biweekly court appearances as conditions of their release while awaiting trial.

Jaume Bagot established his gallery, J. Bagot Arqueología Ancient Art Gallery in 2005 in the heart of Barcelona.  According to his profile on the BRAFA art fair website, where he is a vetted dealer of ancient art, Bagot's firm specializes in the sale of art from the Etruscan, Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilizations, from Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Gandhara and from various Pre-Columbian cultures. No mention of Libyan cultural objects are mentioned in his BRAFA profile, and yet, police authorities in Spain have seized sculpture which originated from three cities of Libya: Albaida, Apolonia and Cyrene, some of which are believed to have been looted while the territory was under the control of Islamist militant groups.

Bagot's gallery is listed as a member of the influential dealer association C.I.N.O.A. (Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d'Art), as well as the F.E.A. (Federación Española de Anticuarios) where they list him as Jaume Bagot Peix, and where he is also identified as the vice-président of the  Professional Group of Antiquarians of the (Barcelona) Royal Shipyard (Asociación de Anticuarios de las Reales Atarazanas) 

In addition to forming strategic affiliations within the art market's important dealer associations, Bagot's gallery's "about us" page assures potential collectors that he is an ethical dealer by stating:

"Our main objective is to offer original ancient works of art guaranteeing their authenticity and maximum quality while at the same time strictly complying with the laws of protection of national, foreign and UNESCO heritage." 


"We also carry out exhaustive research into the provenance and previous ownership of the pieces. To this end we make use of the  data base [sic] of stolen objects, Art Loss Register, as well as making use of publications, sworn  statements, dated photographs, bills, customs documents and insurance policies."

All of which stands in stark contradiction to the apparent charges he now faces with the Spanish authorities of facilitating the sale of illicit antiquities from regions of conflict where terrorist actors might have been involved.

Criminal actors and investments in the legitimate art economy: 
The making of a case = Good (unfortunately usally unpaid) research.

As is all too often the case, some of the best evidence collected highlighting trends in the field of illicit trafficking, is research conducted by unpaid academics, as there has been little funding up until now, made available at the national or multinational level in market countries to financially support the type of in-depth specialized research required by provenance experts studying the flow of illicit objects onto the licit market.  This holds true as well for this particular Spanish investigation, which got its start thanks to an academic researcher.

During his PhD research on les sculptures funéraires de Cyrénaïque (the funerary sculptures of Cyrenaica), French historian, turned conflict antiquities researcher, Morgan Belzic, of the École Pratique des Hautes Études had been working with the French Archaeological Mission and Libya heritage authorities documenting antiquity in the northeastern part of modern Libya focusing on the cities of Shahat (Cyrene), Susa (Apollonia), Tulmaytha (Ptolemais), Tocra (Taucheira), and Benghazi (Euesperides/Berenike).

Looking at evidence useful for understanding the culture and history of ancient Cyrenaica, which thrived between the 6th century BCE and the 4th century CE, Belzic uncovered a worrisome correlation between the looting and destruction that has occurred over the past twenty years at the Greek necropoleis of Libya and an uptick in the number of ancient objects, identifiable solely to that specific region, appearing on the international art market. In conjunction with this increased availability of ancient material surfacing on the art market, he also noted that tomb destruction in the region had risen exponentially, in part as a result of the longstanding instability in the region, but notably over the last ten years in conjunction with items appearing in the market.

Speaking with Morgan about his research last summer, during an informal ARCA meeting of academic antiquities researchers, he told me that while the material remains, the alabaster, glass, and terracotta, found in the tombs of Cyrenaica could likewise be found in other Hellenistic regions, making it difficult to pinpoint the country of origin for looted antiquities of these types, the deities and funerary portraits of Cyrenaica are an exception.

Belzic explained that these sculptures are quite specific in their iconography and style, making it possible for experts, familiar with the sculpture of Cyrenaica, to objectively identify pieces from the region.  Then when these types of sculpture come on the market,  with limited documentation that does not match with existing established collections, one can begin to question their legitimacy and whether or not they may have come from ransacked tombs before making their way into some of Europe's prestigious galleries.

With two rival governments, and countless local militias in Libya, Belzic understood that the probability of staunching the flow of illicit objects following out of Libya could only be tackled by disrupting the demand side of the supply chain.  With that in mind, he turned his research over to law enforcement authorities in Spain who began their lengthy investigation building upon the foundation of his academic research.

In an interview with Crónica Global Media “JBP,” as the Catalan antiquarian prefers to be called, denies any direct involvement with purchasing antiquities from parties in Iraq, Libya or Syria.  He goes on to add that all the items in his inventory have been purchased in good faith, without knowing that the objects in question had been stolen or looted.  His statements imply that any illegal antiquities that made their way into his gallery's inventory did so by honest, unknowing mistake, rather than willful ignorance or a lack of due diligence.

Bagot’s statements are telling as they touch upon the legal framework, technicalities and procedural obstacles that the dealer may try to use in his defence and when fighting any cross-border restitution claim presented by Libya and Egypt in relation to the seizure of his merchandise. It is this culture of willful impunity, the eye's closed "I didn't know" approach which has, for so long, contributed to the challenges of preventing the illegal trafficking of cultural objects through the means of prosecution. 

Unless we establish mandated due diligence accountability for dealers, those who deal in the grey area of the market will continue to rely on the legal conceptualizations of property and ownership in countries favourable to their mercurial transactions.  

Last week I spoke at an UNESCO-EU-funded conference in Paris entitled “Engaging the European Art Market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property” where I recommended more dedicated public prosecutors and law enforcement officers assigned to focus on art crimes, and building capacity (i.e. funding) in support of experts dedicated to analyzing trafficking from regions at risk.   Belzic, who sat beside me, listened thoughtfully to Erika Bochereau, General Secretary of C.I.N.O.A. (Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d'Art) as she said “It is in the interest of dealers to work only in the licit trade because their business depends on it.”  

I wonder what the confederation's stance will be now that one of their members has come under prosecutorial scrutiny.  

By:  Lynda Albertson