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April 23, 2024

When a money launderer's art collection comes up for auction

Photo Credit ANP

Once upon a time, the individual pictured above, Jan-Dirk Paarlberg had a prominent place in the Quote 500, with a fortune according to business publications that at its peak reached 280 million euros.  A buyer and seller of works of art, his collection is said to have included works on canvas and paper by Marc Chagall, Claude Monet, Kees van Dongen, Pierre Bonnard, Karel Appel, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, to name a few, as well a at least one sculpture, a statue by Feranando Botero. 

Forty-one objects from his collection have been consigned for auction and will be sold off today (and tomorrow) at Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary Art auction in Paris. 

To show the interesting way the legal art market documents artwork ownership, shielding potential buyers from distasteful facts in publicly available auction records, its worth looking at one Paarlberg-owned painting.  This hotly contested (for unrelated reasons) Portrait of Jeanne, c 1901, was painted by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Its sales advertisement makes no mention of Paarlberg in its provenance, only mentioning that the painting's last owner purchased the work from Kunsthandel Frans Jacobs in Amsterdam.  

Instead this oil on canvas artwork, with a presales estimate of 500,000 - 700,000 EUR, lists an innocuous phrase in the text of the sale's page, which discretely states:  Sale on behalf of the Dutch State.

But who is Jan-Dirk Paarlberg and why are his purchases and this upcoming sale interesting to ARCA?

Paarlberg was the man behind the Euromast in Rotterdam, the restaurants of the Oyster Group and the co-owner of the Merwede Group, which owns a large part of the retail properties in Amsterdam's PC Hooftstraat and on Rotterdam's Lijnbaan.  He also had homes scattered in New York (at the historic Dakota), as well as in London, Portugal, and France, in addition to historic real estate in the Netherlands.  

That is until the real estate magnate's empire collapsed. 

Dutch authorities implicated Paarlberg in a money laundering scheme involving 17 million euros tied to the notorious Dutch penose underworld figure, Willem Frederik Holleeder.  That legal entanglement marked a stark contrast to Paarlberg's previous stature, and underscores the intricate intersections of wealth, power, and criminal influence, and the art that we see in circulation in the art world.  In this instance,  it is not the art itself which is criminal, but the laundered money possibly used for its purchase. 

Money, in part, it was determined by the courts, which had been extorted by Willem Holleeder from Willem Endstra.  Another prominent Dutch real estate developer, known as the "banker of the underworld," Endstra was assassinated by hitmen in 2004.  His death underscored the ruthlessness of Holleeder's organisation and its reign of terror, as well as Paarlberg's role in the perilous consequences of money laundering when it crosses paths with organised crime.

In testimony given on 19 April 2010, Jan-Dirk Paarlberg described some of his more suspicious art transactions.  Speaking under oath, in the the Haarlem court, the former wealthy resident of the Maarssen castle Ridderhofstad Bolenstein described how he rounded up eight important artworks from his home, including the statue by Feranando Botero, a painting by Marc Chagall, a canvas by Claude Monet and five works by painter Kees van Dongen, and placed them all in his jeep before driving them to a Belgian dealer where he exchanged the objects for large denomination bills totalling of 8.5 million guilders (roughly 4.5 million euros). 

Paarlberg was extremely vague on details, claiming he couldn't recall exactly which artworks he had sold, nor could he produce evidence of the pieces having ever been in his collection. He claimed he handed everything over to the dealer in Belgium for the new owner, having not saving purchase receipts, shipping documents, or even a single photograph which depicted the works which had once graced his properties. 

Fourteen years ago, at the time of this testimony, Paarlberg's statements were met with skepticism.  Art professionals argued about the feasibility of transporting a heavy Botero sculpture in his jeep, how Paarlberg had failed to use an art shipper, and even questioned the overly large cash sum he claimed to have been received as being excessive relative the value of the artworks and the two intermediaries.  But given what we know about the underworld, and as “traditional” money laundering vehicles, such as real estate, became less attractive to criminals, (given their immovability) one has to wonder if this event could have gone down as the property baron described?

Fast forward to today.  We now know and accept that art money laundering – often at inflated prices – to disguise the origins of illegally-obtained funds in order to reintroduce them into the legitimate economy, is in fact a thing.  So much so that the FATF includes “cultural objects” in its sector-specific guidance as a potential vehicle to launder funds, or to finance organised crime, terrorist groups, or their related activities. 

But none of this seems to be getting much coverage in Modern and Contemporary art market publications, nor with regards to today's sale, which, by the way, involves some 41 artworks seized by the Dutch authorities from Paarlberg's estate. 

Who are the Penose?

While most of us have heard of Italy's 'Ndrangheta from Calabria, the Cosa Nostra from Sicily, and the Camorra based in Campania, few people outside of the Netherlands have heard of the Penose. Coming from Bargoens, a form of Dutch slang, the name is traditionally used to describe networks predominantly headed by ethnic Dutch crime lords, mostly known to operate in the underworld of Amsterdam, but also in other big cities in the Netherlands such as The Hague, Rotterdam or Eindhoven.  

In addition to money laundering, members of the Penose have been associated with and convicted of activities such as drug trafficking, armed robbery, chop shops, illegal gambling, illegal slot machine vending, and, lest we forget, even contract killing. 

To be clear, having been seized by the Dutch state, the proceeds from these upcoming auctions of Paarlberg's paintings won't support organised crime. But let them serve as an illustration that it is just as important to know who the names and backgrounds of former artwork owners are, as it is to know the names and backgrounds of the individuals who have sold work of art you are interested in.

Happy shopping, don't let the tricksters get ya. 

By Lynda Albertson

April 20, 2024

Christ Church Picture Gallery painting by Baroque painter Salvator Rosa recovered in Romania

On 19 April 2024 Christ Church, a constituent college of the University of Oxford in England, announced the recovery of one of three stolen paintings, A Rocky Coast, with Soldiers Studying a Plan by the Italian Baroque painter Salvator Rosa.  This painting, along with two other Baroque Period artworks, had been stolen, by three masked accomplices, from the Christ Church Picture Gallery at around 11pm on Saturday, 14 March 2020

This first painting has been recovered outside of the United Kingdom, in Romania after law enforcement officers in the country were contacted by a man who was said to be in possession of Rosa's historic landscape.  When questioned by police, he admitted to having sold the other two stolen artworks onward, both of which had been on display at Christ Church since 1768.  

According to Romanian news sites, the restituted painting was handed over to the judicial authorities in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the end of March this year. 

The two remaining stolen art works are:

Oil on Canvas, circa 1616
H 91 x W 55 cm
Accession number: JBS 246

Oil on Canvas, circa 1580
H 75.5 x W 64 cm
Accession number: JBS 180

Both of these paintings are believed to be in circulation still. 

For now the unnamed man is being treated as a witness by Romanian authorities and has not been arrested.   The case continues in the United Kingdom with Thames Valley Police as well as with Romanian investigators working closely with the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust), the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) and Romanian judiciary. 

The Christ Church Picture Gallery is known for its impressive collection of Old Masters paintings and drawings, with an emphasis on Italian art from the 14th to the 18th century. Works in the museum also include paintings and drawings by Titian, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and Tintoretto, many of which were donated by General John Guise (1682/1683–1765) in the eighteenth century. Guise is known to have donated some 200 artworks to the college in furtherance of its art education programming. 

Thames Valley Police are appealing for witnesses who may have seen or heard anything suspicious in the immediate area of the Christ Church Picture Gallery or elsewhere on St. Aldates or High Street on the night of the theft or who might have leads regarding the artworks' handlers.  Officers can be contacted by calling the non-emergency number 101, or making a report online using the reference 43200087031.  Individuals who wish to remain anonymous can also contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

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 30, 2024

Stolen Saint: Ukraine Authorities Retrieve the Holy Warrior Bas-Relief of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki from an Online Auction

After a rare bas-relief appeared in an online auction, with an asking price of 210 thousand Ukrainian Hryvni, historians with the National Museum of the History of Ukraine notified law enforcement about the suspicious upcoming sale. Believed by its wear to be a wind-blown architectural element, which at some point adorned the exterior façade of the unknown 12 to 13th century "white stone" church, experts believed the stone sculpture had been removed by looters in contravention of national law, based on the fact of illegal appropriation by a person of someone else's property or treasure that has been found or accidentally found in his possession, which has special historical, scientific, artistic or cultural value (Part 1 of Article 193 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine).

Believed to depict Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (as a Holy Warrior), the Western Romanesque-styled limestone carving could only come from areas where this specific saint was honoured, i.e. Greece, Bulgaria, or more likely, Galicia–Volyn, the former principality in post-Kyivan Rus whose structures were built in the late twelfth century through the middle of the fourteenth century.  The rural landscape of this area, now predominantly situated in western Ukraine, is speckled with forgotten and deserted Roman Catholic churches (kościoły), poignant relics of bygone settlements that once flourished in the region.

Following a lengthy two year investigation, headed by Viktor Tymchuk of the Volyn Regional Prosecutor's Office and Svitlana Nedumova, the head of criminal proceedings and prosecutor of the Lutsk District Prosecutor's Office, assisted by the inquest section of the Lutsk District Police Department in the Volyn Region, the bas-relief was seized. 

This week, on March 27th, a handover ceremony was held at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine.  There, Andriy Kostin, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, entrusted the bas-relief of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki to the museum, where it will remain on display as part of the "Archaeologist's Day: Rescued Treasures" exhibition.   The Prosecutor General thanked his colleagues from the Lutsk District Prosecutor's Office for their prompt response to the statement of the General Director of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, Fedor Androshchuk, regarding the monument identified during the online auction. 

Over the past three years, Ukraine's National Police and its Security Service (SBU), under the procedural guidance of the prosecutor's office, have investigated more than 300 crimes related to the theft, illegal trade, and smuggling of monuments.  

March 26, 2024

Judgment entered in favor of Plaintiff (Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc). against Defendant (Dirk D. Obbink)

In early June 2021 Hobby Lobby Inc, owned by craft store mogul, David Green,  filed a Civil Complaint for fraud against former professor Dirk Obbink.  According to Civil Docket No. 21-CV-3113, the craft conglomerate alleged that as many as 32 items that it had purchased between 2010 and 2013 from the Oxford professor, to be featured in the Museum of the Bible (MOTB), were not his to sell.  

Instead, the papyrus fragments the scholar sold them via Private Sale agreements had been stolen from Egyptian Exploration Society's collection.  The textual artefacts  were identified as having come from the Grenfell and Hunt excavations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the site of Oxyrhynchus and were removed from the EES collection while Obbink still had access to the Sackler Library of the University of Oxford.

During the period of Obbink's commercial relationship with the MOTB philanthropists he served as the General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri for the EES (until August 2016).  He was also a renowned Lecturer in Papyrology and Greek Literature in the Faculty of Classics at Oxford.  That position ended in a fall from grace in February 2021 just as his life as a part time dealer began to unravel.  

The seven Hobby Lobby-purchase transactions were itemised as:

    Purchase #1 - February 6, 2010: Papyri fragments for $80,000 
    Purchase #2 - February 15, 2011: Papyri fragments and other antiquities for                $500,000
    Purchase #3 - July 22, 2010: Papyri fragments and other antiquities for $350,000 
    Purchase #4 - November 20, 2010: Papyri fragments and other antiquities for            $2,400,000
    Purchase #5 - July 20, 2011: Papyri fragments and other antiquities for                       $1,345,500 
    Purchase #6 - March 7, 2012: Papyri fragments and other antiquities for $609,600
    Purchase #7 - February 5, 2013: Papyri fragments and other antiquities for                 $1,810,000

Obbink had represented to Hobby Lobby that the 32 items he was selling all came from private collectors. 

In September 2023 Hobby Lobby asked the Magistrate Judge, overseeing the case at the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York to grant their request to transfer their fraud and breach of contract case to the US District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, where the company is headquartered. On October 5, 2023, their request was granted and on October 17th an amended complaint against Obbink was filed with the court in Oklahoma City which was served on the scholar on 4 November 2023. 

Throughout the proceedings, Obbink has failed to appear, plead, or otherwise respond to the unfolding US-based court case, and on January 29, 2024 Hobby Lobby filed a motion seeking a Clerk's Entry of Default.  As a result, on March 11, 2024 Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, David L. Russell entered a motion for Default Judgment in favour of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., awarding them the eye popping sum of $7,085,100.00, with prejudgment interest from February 5, 2013, at the rate of 6% per annum. 

Yet despite this scandal of Biblical proportions, Dirk Obbink was last seen on his houseboat, self-destructively ignoring the US and UK legal drama swirling around him. 

To recap the last eight years. 

In the Spring 2016 the Egyptian Exploration Society realised that the much rumoured "First Century Mark" papyrus that had been the subject of so much speculation was in fact their own papyrus fragment (P.Oxy. 5345).

By August 2016 the EES decided to not re-appoint Obbink as the General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri primarily because of unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties, but also because of concerns, which he did not allay, about his "alleged involvement" in the marketing of ancient texts, especially the controversial Sappho and Gospel of Mark fragments.  

By December 2017, according to court documents, Obbink had admitted to Hobby Lobby that he had “mistakenly” sold the Gospel Fragments in Purchase #7 (for  $1,810,000) and that they were, in fact, owned by his employer, the Egyptian Exploration Society.

By January 2018 the Museum of the Bible formally severed ties with the Oxford-based scholar. 

On 16 April 2019 Obbink's UK-based antiquities sale's enterprise, Castle Folio Limited was dissolved.

By June 2019 the Egyptian Exploration Society took a harder stance against their former colleague and banned Obbink from any access to its collection pending his satisfactory clarification of the 2013 contract. 

On 2 March 2020 Obbink was "detained" briefly by officers from Thames Valley police on suspicion of theft and fraud. Unnamed at the time by the British authorities, he was released after questioning. 

By February 2021 Obbink no longer held his position as Lecturer in Papyrology and Greek Literature in the Faculty of Classics at Oxford University and had retreated to his houseboat where he was served in relation to the US court case. 

Yet, to date, and despite the ongoing investigation by the Thames Valley Police, Dirk Obbink has inexplicably still not been charged with any crime in the United Kingdom.

By:  Lynda Albertson

18 May 2024 - 2024 New Zealand Art Crime Symposium - Art Crime Research Today

Sponsored by: 

The New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust

Saturday, 18 May 2024

RHLT3 (Lecture Theatre 3)
Rutherford House, Pipitea Campus, 
Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka
Wellington, New Zealand.

Times: 10:00 am - 7 pm

The New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust’s invites you to attend their 2024

This year’s theme is Art Crime Research Today. 

Presenters Include:

Detective Inspector Scott Beard
The theft and recovery of two Gottfried Lindauer portraits from Auckland’s International Art Centre in 2017

Judge Arthur Tompkins
A hard conversation looms about New Zealand's Benin Bronzes

Professor Simon Mackenzie
Research into the science of deterrence and art crime trafficking

For more information on this event and its registration please see the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust's event's page here.

March 17, 2024

Girolamini Library Theft - Convictions and acquittals in the network of every bookworm's antichrist

Last week, after some eleven years and over one hundred and twenty hearings, the Court of Naples, presided over by Maurizio Conte, announced some lengthy sentences and penalties in the pursuit of justice with regards to the 1,500 volumes of historical interest and textual treasures that were pilfered from the Biblioteca e Complesso monumentale dei Girolamini

Sentencing la banda degli (dis)onesti

On 12 March 2024 the first criminal section of the Naples court sentenced six defendants (in the first degree) for a series of episodes of embezzlement.  Those convicted were:

Massimo Marino De Caro, the former director of the Girolamini library until 1992 was sentenced to an additional 5 years and 3 months for his primary role in the theft of thousands of volumes from the historic Girolamini library, on top of the 7 years assigned in 2013;

Maurizio Bifolco, of Libreria Antiquaria Calligrammes srl was sentenced to five years and six months; 

Mirko Camuri,  a Verona dance teacher involved in numerous suspicious sales of ancient books, was sentenced to an additional 1 year on top of the 4 years and eight months previously announced.

Luca Cableri,  of Theatrum Mundi and Studio Bibliografico Wunderkammer was sentenced to four years and six months;

Stéphane Alexandre Delsalle, of Librairie De Ce Paysci Di Delsalle Stephane (also operating as Livre Rare Books (LRB), was sentenced to four years in prison; 

Stefano Ceccantoni, an Orvieto antiquarian was sentenced to two years and six months

Of these, Bifolco is a familiar figure in the London book world and is said to have acted as agent to Italian booksellers handling material from the Girolamini.  He is not a member of ALAI (the Italian ABA), but Cableri and Solni were, until they were suspended. 

Ceccantoni, who eventually collaborated with the magistrates and revealed many details of the case gave statements about some of the activities of the group. 

"I went to Naples to the Girolamini library at least six times." – stated Ceccantoni in the report filed in the investigation documents. He also admitted to loading boxes of books into De Caro's car in the middle of the night. 

Others swept up in the investigation, including Don Sandro Marsano, the priest in charge of the Congregation of the Oratorians of Naples (defended by lawyers Manlio Pennino and Bruno von Arx),  Alejandro Eloy Cabello, Cesar Abel Cabello, Viktoriya Pavloskiy, Federico Roncoletta and Lorena Paola Weigant were acquitted of all charges.  This despite requests from the prosecutor, who during the indictment had asked for 10 years of imprisonment for all the accused.

In terms of financial penalties, the Court ordered property confiscations from De Caro, Delsalle, Cableri and Bifolco, as well as the confiscation of rare books in De Caro's possession. The Court also ordered the confiscation of liquid assets in the form of money held in accounts and securities registered in Bifolco's name which were frozen by the investigating judge on 22 April 2012 and on 28 May 2014 and which totalled 8 and a half million euros. 

Background of the Library:

The extraordinary Girolamini Library of Naples is home to almost 160,000 ancient manuscripts and books and opened its doors to the public in 1586.  Built alongside the Church and Convent of the Girolamini, the library served as the convent’s Oratory and is believed to be one of the richest libraries in Southern Italy.

The collection, which includes many rare editions dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is centred on Christian theology, philosophy, sacred music, and the history of Europe and the Catholic Church.  After the massive Irpinia earthquake, which struck Campania in 1980 the Biblioteca e Complesso monumentale dei Girolamini remained closed for an extended period.  The library's collection, off limits to anyone except specific scholars with collection permissions, suffered from a lengthy period of neglect, only to then be plundered by a network of individuals tasked with its very protection.

Details on the thefts:

In April 2012 it was discovered that as many as 1500 important texts were missing from the library.  At the epicentre of the scandal was the library's appointed director, Marino Massimo de Caro, who was swiftly suspended and subsequently charged with  embezzlement.  Alongside him, other accomplices from Italy, Argentina, and the Ukraine would also be implicated and later prosecuted as a result of the scandal.

On 19 April 2012 the Biblioteca de Girolamini was formally impounded by the judicial authorities as Naples prosecutor, Giovanni Melillo oversaw an investigation into the library's thefts.  This months ruling concludes that impoundment.  

As part of this investigation, the prosecutor authorised the tapping of De Caro's phone, through which Melillo and investigators learned that the library's former director had been stashing looted books in his home, in a storage unit in Verona, and in the basement of an accomplice’s aunt residence, as well as arranging to sell many others onward through various channels.  

Some stolen volumes were fenced through major Italian dealers as well as private collectors. An additional 543 books travelled on to Germany where they were to be auctioned on May 9, 2012 at the Bavarian auction house Zisska & Schauer in Munich after accomplices to the Girolamini library thefts stripped the institution's markings from the titles before their upcoming sale.

While under questioning, De Caro would claim that the books sent to Munich were from his own personal collection.  Despite this, investigations determined that many of the consigned texts in fact came from both the Girolamini Library and the priests’ convent library and that the auction house Zisska & Schauer had paid an emissary of De Caro’s nine hundred thousand euros in advance of the texts' auction date, with De Caro expecting to receive a million euros more after the bidding closed.

With requests for assistance in hand, the German authorities halted the sale at Zisska & Schauer, and later arrested the company’s executive director, Herbert Schauer.

Although this trial focused on the embezzlement of hundreds of volumes from the Girolamini Library, De Caro has been connected to thefts from additional targeted institutions. 

Herbert Schauer was arrested by German authorities on 2 August 2013, following the execution of a European arrest warrant. He was subsequently sentenced in the first degree by the Court of Naples to 5 years of imprisonment for his involvement in receiving stolen property,  however his sentence was overturned by the Italian Court of Cassation.

Call for Collaboration:

ARCA would like to remind book and manuscript collectors that the market for archival literary heritage might be a niche market, but it is still a flourishing one, and one that often overlaps with fine art crimes, driven by the high prices some collectors are willing to pay for the rarest of rare publications.  

Acknowledging that some good faith purchases may be in possession of these stolen items without knowledge of their illicit origin, the Italian authorities are now stressing the need for help from the general public, as well as antiquarian book dealers, and professionals worldwide who are more likely to come in contact with the library's rare material. 

In furtherance to this, the Italian Ministry of Culture has released a 31-page list of the most important stolen texts documented as having been stolen which are known to have been circulated at some point after their theft in Naples.  This list can be reviewed here.

Please note that this listing does not appear to have been uploaded to ILAB's stolen book database which is often the first place most book collectors turn to when checking the legal status of books, manuscripts, and maps that may have been the subject of thefts which have occurred from June 15, 2010 onward.  

Given these items have not been uploaded to the ILAB database (yet), the linked list should be downloaded so that buyers can check for themselves to see if any text they have been offered or may have already purchased has been documented as stolen from this Naples library.  

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Marks 34th Anniversary of Infamous Art Theft

Self-Portrait – Rembrandt van Rijn

As the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum prepares to mark the 34th anniversary of of one of the most infamous art heists in history, the enduring mystery surrounding the disappearance of thirteen invaluable artworks continues to captivate the public imagination.  Despite the passage of time, the mystery surrounding the stolen masterpieces, which include works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Édouard Manet, Johannes Vermeer, Edgar Degas, and Govert Flinck continues to endure, leaving investigators, art enthusiasts, and the museum itself still searching for answers, as well as the artworks. 

Chez Tortoni – Édouard Manet

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers gained entry to the renowned museum located in Boston's Fenway-Kenmore neighbourhood. Over the course of 81 minutes, they brazenly stole a select group of paintings and and other valuable artifacts, including works by renowned artists such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Degas. The stolen pieces are estimated to be worth over $500 million in total.

The Concert – Johannes Vermeer

The heist not only resulted in significant financial losses but also left an irreplaceable void in the museum's collection and the art world at large. Despite exhaustive investigations and numerous leads over the past three decades, the whereabouts of the stolen artworks still remain unknown.

Storm on the Sea of Galilee – Rembrandt van Rijn

In an effort to keep the memory of the stolen artworks alive and to encourage any new leads, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has been actively engaging with the public. The museum continues to offer a substantial reward of $10 million dollars for information leading directly to the safe return of the stolen works.  In addition to a proportionary share of the reward given in exchange for information leading to the restitution of any portion of the works. There is also a separate reward of $100,000 being offered for the return of the Napoleonic eagle finial. 

A Lady and Gentleman in Black – Rembrandt van Rijn

Despite remaining unsolved, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains committed to its mission of fostering appreciation for art and maintaining the legacy of its founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner. The museum continues to showcase its extensive collection, which includes works spanning various periods and styles, (as well as the empty frames, and serving as a hub for cultural and educational programs.

Three Mounted Jockeys – Edgar Degas

As the investigation into the 1990 art heist enters its 34th year, authorities and art enthusiasts alike remain hopeful that renewed attention to the case may finally bring closure to one of the most perplexing mysteries in the art world's history.  The FBI believes it has determined where the stolen art was transported in the years after the theft as well as the identity of the thieves.  In a March 18, 2013 press release the Bureau stated “The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft.”

Cortege aux Environs de Florence – Edgar Degas

For now, the artworks remain elusive. However the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and its supporters will continue to hold onto hope, awaiting the day when the stolen treasures are finally returned to their rightful home. So be on the lookout for these, and if you see them, please contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324) or the museum directly or through a third party.  Tips may also be submitted online here.

Landscape with Obelisk – Govert Flinck

For now, ARCA reminds its readers of the enormous impact of this theft on the museum's collection, even as we remain optimistic that one day soon the paintings will be returned to their rightful place in the Fenway.

La Sortie de Pesage – Edgar Degas

An ancient Chinese Gru

A French Imperial Eagle Finial 

Program for an Artistic Soirée 1 – Edgar Degas

Program for an Artistic Soirée 2 – Edgar Degas

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