Antiquities dealer brings a libel suit

Hichaam and Ali Aboutaam

Antiquities dealer Hichaam Aboutaam brought a civil libel complaint against the Wall Street Journal on Monday. That article, which according to Aboutaam’s complaint had been in the works since at least January of this year, discussed the antiquities trade and ISIS involvement in it. The article reported on the separate investigations by Belgian and Swiss authorities of antiquities dealers, including Phoenix Ancient Art, the antiquities gallery with locations in New York and Switzerland which Aboutaam runs with his brother Ali. Sourcing for the Wall Street Journal perhaps came from law enforcement officials in those countries, though they are not named. The article also reported on the looting taking place in Iraq and Syria, and on the efforts by ISIS to profit of antiquities looting. The piece made no allegation that the antiquities sold or controlled by ISIS are handled by Aboutaam or Phoenix ancient art. But the complaint alleges that the juxtaposition of the two stories amounts to libel. The allegation by Aboutaam was that the piece:

[P]urported to link Plaintiff with ISIS funding through defamatory statements and manipulative juxtaposition of information about Plaintiff with unrelated information about ISIS funding activities.

Phoenix ancient art is a gallery familiar to many who follow the antiquities trade, having been the gallery responsible for two sales to American museums of potentially illicit material, including the Cleveland Apollo, and the Ka Nefer Nefer mask at the St. Louis Art Museum. The piece did not mention those examples, though it certainly could have and steered well clear of any libel allegations. But as to the merits of the libel claim itself, the Wall Street Journal in a statement said:

We fully stand by the article and will mount a robust defense to Hicham Aboutaam’s lawsuit.

From the perspective of Aboutaam, this lawsuit allows him to tell prospective buyers of antiquities that the WSJ article made claims it shouldn’t have. The longer term aspect of the case will be to make journalists and outlets perhaps a little more reticent to make claims and report on the opaque nature of the art trade. Which further encourages art and antiquities dealers to reveal as little as possible about their transactions.

Many museums though do not have those same incentives and have increasingly revealed more and more about the ownership history of objects. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston has at least four objects which it acknowledges passed through Phoenix Ancient Art. The most notable objects is this black figure amphora depicting a scene from the Iliad which is currently on display at the MFAH.

Black-figure Amphora with Scene from the Iliad

The wall text gives the usual description when the exact context of an antiquity is unknown:

This amphora depicts scenes from Homer’s Iliad, the greatest war epic of the ancient world. An amphora was a general-purpose container for liquids. In a funerary context, these vessels could also hold the ashes of the deceased. They are named for their two characteristic handles. Here, two hoplites, or foot soldiers, engage in face-to-face battle. Both wear menacing Corinthian helmets. They hold shields on their left arms and wield spears in their right hands. Paris, the Trojan prince who started the war by abducting the beautiful Helen, flees from the battlefield. He wears Eastern dress and carries a quiver of the arrows that would eventually cause the death of the great hero Achilles.

That information is interesting, but of course incomplete. The object is dated at 540-520 BC, and has accession number 2006.644, which means it may have been acquired by the Museum in 2006. Of more interest is the credit line:

 

Museum purchase funded by George Fleming, Robin Gibbs, Lee Godfrey, Charles W. Tate, and Richard Mithoff in honor of Lee Hage Jamail at “One Great Night in November, 2006,” and by Ali and Hicham Aboutaam.

Moving forward, Museums may want to think more carefully about acquiring objects from the Aboutaams, or at the very least may want to avoid disclosing that information online and in wall plaques.

Aboutaam vs. Dow Jones & Co., Docket No. 156399/2017 (N.Y. Sup Ct. July 17, 2017), Complaint.
Benoit Faucon & Georgi Kantchev, Prominent Art Family Entangled in ISIS Antiquities-Looting Investigations, Wall Street Journal, May 0, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/prominent-art-family-entangled-in-investigations-of-looted-antiquities-1496246740.
Barry Meier, Antiquities Dealer Sues Wall Street Journal Over ISIS Article, The New York Times, Jul. 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/arts/design/antiquities-dealer-sues-wall-street-journal-over-isis-article.html.

 

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