If you haven’t yet read the profile of Christos Tsirogiannis by Vernon Silver, you should. Silver wrote a terrific account of the Euphronios Krater called The Lost Chalice, so this extended profile into how Tsirogiannis uses his database, and how auction houses and prosecutors use this information is fascinating. I really recommend you give it a read, but here is a taste:
When he finished clicking through the last of Christie’s 109 lots, Tsirogiannis was ready to dive into his archive. It’s meticulously organized so he can fetch images from one of three major dealers, including Medici, and from galleries and smaller dealers whose photos help him reconstruct who owned what and when. Within each of these libraries, he has folders for about 10 object types, amphorae in one, kylix drinking cups in another. Those in turn are categorized by shape and color. Figurines are sorted by animal type—horses are with horses, boars with boars.
To vet the catalog, he’d made a list of about 15 suspect lots. Then, one at a time, he looked for matches. The laptop screen was filled 14 across with thumbnails from the Medici folder, and Tsirogiannis’s eyes darted left to right as he scrolled through in an intricate game of Memory, where players turn over two cards at a time looking for a pair.
He’d barely begun when he needed to run to a lunch meeting. He would continue the search that evening; we could meet the next day, he said. As we prepared to leave, he deleted the downloaded portion of the archive. Tsirogiannis’s curiosity proved overwhelming. As soon as I left, he logged back in. “These are things that always have priority for me,” he told me later. What he found made him late for his appointment. By midnight, he’d alerted law enforcement on two continents.
So says Paul Reed, an archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest in a story by Jennifer Oldham for Reveal and Salon, which describes the massive error by Bureau of Land Management officials who posted a 77-page report which included the locations heritage sites in Utah. All in all 900 sites were described, including cliff dwellings, religious sites, rock art, and other archaeological sites.
The Bureau of Land Management posted a 77-page report online that included unique identifiers for priceless artifacts as it prepared to auction the most archaeologically rich lands ever offered for industrial use. The report exposed ruins spanning 13,000 years of Native American history to vandalism and looting, and experts say the BLM violated federal regulations that prohibit publicly sharing information about antiquities.
The document appeared on a BLM web page before the March oil and gas lease of 51,482 acres in a remote desert region of southeastern Utah. The BLM removed it and then reposted it with entire pages of detailed site descriptions blacked out. The report appeared online the last weekend in February and remained there for at least a few days – long enough for a state agency in Utah to download it and realize it violated the state’s privacy restrictions.
Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa was quoted in the story expressing his surprise at the report, which “went to a level . . . that was very unusual in terms of listing site numbers and descriptions by parcel that I haven’t seen before.” So how did this information get published? Oldham’s story notes that the BLM field offices are understaffed, and have been instructed by the Trump administration to undo the “regulatory burdens” impacting the energy industry. The report was only online for a few days, but likely made it easier for determined looters to target and clandestinely remove material from a staggering number of archaeological sites.
Police in Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy have announced arrests in a four year investigation named Operation Demetra. The name for the investigation has a bit of history, which it may be worth remembering. Demeter, the ancient Greek Earth goddess was likely depicted in the notorious Getty goddess. The Getty mistakenly referred to her as Aphrodite.
As many of you likely know, the story of this and other illicit acquisitions by the Getty, and the tax fraud perpetrated to pay for much of this is described in the terrific book, Chasing Aphrodite. In a nutshell: The statue was first smuggled from Morgantina. Looters broke her into pieces, and it was acquired by the Getty in 1988 for $18 million. While at the Getty, it was described as the finest classical piece of sculpture in North America, perhaps even outside of the Mediterranean and Europe. She was brazenly referred to for a while as the Getty Goddess, before ultimately being returned to the small archaeological museum at Aidone after evidence of the statue’s theft and connection to organized crime groups in Sicily helped build a case for return. Aidone and this part of Sicily are covered in wheat fields, the choice of using Demeter for a codename, goddess of the Earth and the wheat harvest was certainly intentional.
These objects were likely looted from archaeological sites in Sicily, and the investigation recovered an astounding 25,000 objects including coins, statues, and pottery fragments.
One of the individuals arrested was Thomas William Veres in London, a man of Hungarian origin antiques dealer who has long been involved in trafficking illicit material from Sicily to other parts of Europe and abroad. Police told reporters that:
The London art merchant Thomas William Veres commanded a transnational criminal holding that was able to traffic considerable quantities of Sicilian archaeological artifacts . . .
He was prominently featured in a case of another Sicilian antiquity, the Gold Phiale case. In 1991 Veres helped transport an ancient Greek Phiale (plate) to Switzerland where it was sold to Michael Steinhardt for $1.2 million. Veres was referred to by Federal prosecutors as a Swiss art dealer. Veres and another art dealer, Robert Haber, revealed how little faith they had in the licitness of the gold plate when in the purchase agreement with Steinhardt thy agreed that:
If the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser.
Steinhardt’s customs agent failed to accurately disclose the purchase price and the location of the plate, which ended up setting an important precedent for customs forfeitures and the use of civil forfeiture by Federal prosecutors in the United States for securing the return of illicit material.
It likely came as no surprise then to many who follow the antiquities trade that the name William Veres appeared in the news reports of arrests stemming from Operation Demetra. That investigation reveals a massive looting, smuggling, and counterfeit operation involving the movement of authentic and inauthentic material across borders, where histories were fabricated, and sales routinely took place.
“sequestrare l’Atleta di Lisippo ovunque si trovi”
Translation: Seize the Athlete of Lysippos, wherever it is found.
A court in Pesaro on June 8 has for the third time ordered the seizure of the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, currently in the possession of the Getty Foundation. The Getty Foundation purchased the Bronze in 1977 for approximately $4 million dollars. The Getty has maintained that the Bronze was found in international waters in the Adriatic Sea. Italy though has long sought the return of the Bronze on the grounds that the fishermen who pulled the Bronze up in their nets were required under Italian law to report the discovery, that the Bronze became subject to Italian heritage law when it was brought ashore, and that it was abused and smuggled before ultimately being acquired by the Getty.
The difficulty of course will be can an Italian court successfully seek the assistance of an American court to enforce this forfeiture order. I have argued that yes, it could. Italy via its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States could trigger a transnational forfeiture that if successful would be a powerful tool on the part of nations of origin.
The Getty though may decide to appeal this decision, and I’ll defer to Italian attorneys the question of whether those appeals have merit. To be sure though, Italian officials are continuing to aggressively use their own courts to seek the return of this rare Bronze.
Michael Steinhardt has been involved in over 1,000 antiquities transactions, and he is not eager to discuss the details of any of them. That’s my key takeaway from a recent Magistrate Judge’s order which may throw a good deal of daylight on many of those 1,000 transactions through pre-trial discovery. The suit involves the Republic of Turkey, represented by Herrick, Feinstein LLP, in the ongoing lawsuit between the Republic of Turkey, Christies, and Steinhardt involving the Guennol Stargazer. That could have big implications for future potential repatriation suits involving material which passed through Steinhardt and dealers he was associated with. If he has been involved in 1,000 antiquities transactions, we could be looking at a large amount of new information coming to light. It may also lead to more actions by the Manhattan District Attorney‘s office like the one earlier this year.
First, a few observations about Mr. Steinhardt. He is a billionaire. He was one of the first hedge fund managers. He has generously funded many cultural exchanges, including the Jewish Birthright movement which pays for Jews to return to Israel. He also has a gallery named after him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and serves on Christie’s advisory board. He has also been subject to many repatriation and forfeiture lawsuits, two notable ones including an ancient Greek gold Phiale from Sicily, and an Etruscan tomb fragment.
His dispute with Turkey involves a small sculpture which dates to the third millennium BCE, and was sold for a reported $14.5 million at Christie’s Auction House in New York on April 28, 2017. Soon after the Republic of Turkey brought suit against the auction house and the consignor, Michael Steinhardt.
At the time the ministry of Culture of Turkey published a full-page letter in the New York Times demanding repatriation of objects which have been illegally removed from that country.
Turkey brought suit in advance of the contemplated sale on April 27, 2017. Turkey sought to block any potential sale, and was denied that request. However District Judge Nathan did agree to an accession by Christie’s which would delay for 60 days the receipt of any funds by the winning bidder, and to retain possession of the object. Soon after Turkey amended its complaint on May 26, 2017 re-asserting claims that the Figure had been removed from Turkey at some point prior to 1966 in violation of Turkey’s National Patrimony Law. In the complaint, the lead attorney Lawrence Kaye argued that Turkey has had since as far back as 1906 national ownership of all undiscovered antiquities in Turkey. The only known published provenance for the Figure from Christies was the following:
Alastair Bradley and Edith Martin, New York, acquired 1966 or prior; thence by descent. with the Merrin Gallery, New York, acquired from the above, 1993. Acquired by the current owner from the above, 16 August 1993.
That current owner was Michael Steinhardt. Which brings us to the recent ruling by Magistrate Judge Aaron. The parties at this point, Christie’s and Steinhardt on one side; and Turkey on the other, are presently engaged in the pretrial discovery process. This involves Turkey asking for as much information as possible about how Steinhardt acquired his antiquities. What was his diligence before every acquisition? What if any concerns were raised? Steinhardt is justifiably reticent to hand over all of that information. As Magistrate Judge Aaron summarizes in his decision, Turkey “argues that Steinhardt’s ‘habits and practices’ with respect to antiquities transactions even after his 1993 acquisition of the Idol are relevant.” But the ultimate discovery was limited to “Steinhardt’s antiquities transactions up to and including December 31, 2006”, which was limited in two important ways. First, any transactions by Steinhardt in Anatolian antiquities; and also any antiquities transactions by Steinhardt which involved John J. Klejman. Klejman was according to Thomas Hoving, one of his favorite “dealer-smugglers“. Klejman had also handled the series of objects known as the Lydian Hoard, which was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966, and which was returned to Turkey in 1993.
The pre-trial discovery process in America can be a long carefully argued process with each party arguing about how much or little information should be conveyed to the other parties in a lawsuit. Though Mr. Steinhardt has demonstrated a willingness to aggressively litigate to defend his possession or in this case sale proceeds of antiquities, he has not always been successful. At the very least this recent ruling highlights just how much information may be discoverable, how many transactions he was engaged in, and raises an important point moving forward. If this material is not transmitted back to nations of origin, or if a nation of origin cannot be ascertained, what Museum would want this collection of objects with incomplete histories? Wouldn’t we have a much more interesting story to tell about the Guennol Stargazer if we know which tomb it came from? David Gill has speculated that the Guennol Stargazer may have been found with a similar Stargazer which has been acquired by Shelby White.
Sam Hardy, The antiquity of the Guennol Stargazer – legal, looted, fake?, conflict antiquities (Mar. 0, 2018), https://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/turkey-guennol-stargazer-legal-looted-fake/.
The Supreme Court has ruled that victims of a 1997 terrorist attack in Jerusalem cannot satisfy their default judgment by seeking possession of antiquities from Iran which have been on loan to the University of Chicago Oriental Institute since 1937.
This collection of objects, the Persepolis Fortification Archive rests in Chicago for a good reason, these thousands of clay tablets have been studied at the University of Chicago with the permission of Iran. It affirms a ruling by the Seventh Circuit. In 1997 three Hamas suicide bombers detonated themselves in a crowded area in Jerusalem. Eight U.S. citizens who were victims in the attack filed a suit against Iran on the theory that Iran was liable due to its support of Hamas. Iran did not contest the lawsuit, essentially protesting the ability of an american court to hold it liable, and so a $71.5 million default judgment was entered against Iran.
Since then the plaintiffs have attempted to satisfy the judgment. At issue in this case were collections of antiquities which are being held by the Oriental Institute and the Field Museum. In most cases, the property of a foreign State is immune from this kind of suit, but some provisions of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act might have offered an exception to this immunity according to the plaintiffs. However the Supreme Court disagreed in a technical decision of interpretation in a unanimous opinion found insufficient grounds to allow the plaintiff’s to attach the cultural objects.
I had hopes that the opinion might offer a chance that the Supreme Court to offer ideas on the special status of antiquities or cultural objects, but those hopes were dashed. This was a technical opinion which made no mention of culture, heritage, or cultural property. Any special status of works of art or objects of antiquity will have to be inferred. Lawyers for the Republic of Iran did begin their brief by noting:
Petitioners seek to satisfy their default judgment by seizing ancient Persian artifacts loaned to an American museum almost a century ago for academic study. That sort of cultural property – a nation’s historic patrimony – has long been immune from execution. Instead, execution has historically been limited to commercial property and commercial entities. Nothing in § 1610(g) contemplates the dramatic departure from well-accepted immunity principles that petitioners now propose.
Museums are home to millions of artworks and cultural artifacts, some of which have made their way to these institutions through unjust means. Some argue that these objects should be repatriated (i.e., returned to their country, culture, or owner of origin). However, these arguments face a series of philosophical challenges. In particular, repatriation, even if justified, is often portrayed as contrary to the aims and values of museums. However, in this paper, I argue that some of the very considerations museums appeal to in order to oppose repatriation claims can be turned on their heads and marshaled in favor of the practice. In addition to defending against objections to repatriation, this argument yields the surprising conclusion that the redistribution of cultural goods should be much more radical than is typically supposed.
An interesting argument, and it sounds to me like he is making a case for cultural justice.
Manhattan prosecutors have continued to pursue the seizure of antiquities in 2018. Yesterday the NYT reported that investigators seized several antiquities from Michael Steinhardt. Steinhardt has been the focus of much of the investigative thrust directed at the antiquities trade. Chasing Aphrodite thoroughly discussed Steinhardt in the recent seizure of a Bull’s head originating from Lebanon. Steinhardt is a noteworthy figure as he was an early pioneer in hedge funds, reportedly worth billions, who has also collected antiquities. One of the galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is named for him. He has also continued to acquire antiquities even as investigations and repatriations have continued in recent decades.
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has done much to use his office to secure the return of looted antiquities. That trend looks to continue with the creation of a new Antiquities Trafficking Unit, led by assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine who investigated the theft and looting of antiquities from Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion in the early 2000s. The investigation into these objects joins a long list of other investigations that the Manhattan DA’s office has successfully undertaken in 2017, including the return of a marble bull’s head to Lebanon which had been on loan to the Met, the return of an ancient limestone bas-relief on display at the European Fine Art Fair a the Park Avenue Armory, the return of a remnant from one of Caligula’s ships perhaps stolen from an Italian Museum before the Second World War, and other investigations.
These investigations have resulted in the seizure of a great deal of material. Prosecutions of individuals remain elusive. Steinhardt has had very valuable antiquities seized from him before, yet he has continued to acquire this material. Whether this investigation will be able to change his behavior, and the behavior of others is an open question. The Manhattan DA’s office would not comment on the specific grounds for the seizures of these objects, other than the use of New York’s state theft statute. The NYT notes that though Steinhardt has had many object seized, he has not been the subject of any charges for possessing this allegedly stolen material.
The NYT reported that the material seized from Steinhardt included:
[A] Greek white-ground attic lekythos — or oil vessel — from the fifth century B.C., depicting a funeral scene with the figures of a woman and a youth, according to the search warrant. It is worth at least $380,000.
Also seized were Proto-Corinthian figures from the seventh century B.C., depicting an owl and a duck, together worth about $250,000. The other pieces included an Apulian terra-cotta flask in the shape of an African head from the fourth century B.C.; an Ionian sculpture of a ram’s head from the sixth century; and an attic aryballos, a vessel for oil or perfume, from the early fifth century. The objects were all bought in the last 12 years for a total cost of $1.1 million, according to the warrants.
Conservation is not a conservative principle anymore. Today President Trump signed presidential proclamations that will take the unprecedented step of dramatically shrinking two national monuments in Utah. The moves are largely seen as favors to Senator Orin Hatch, a frequent Trump apologist. This part of the American West frequently suffers from antiquities looting on the part of local residents, and the designation of these monuments was an important step to reduce the destruction and looting of these sites. A step that the Trump administration now is attempting to undo.
The reductions in these national monuments are a seldom-used step, one few other presidents have considered since the Antiquities Act was created in 1906. The New York Times reported that reductions have occurred before—Woodrow Wilson reduced the size of Mount Olympus, and Franklin Roosevelt reduced the size of the Grand Canyon monument.
Trump’s attempted reduction in size is not yet known, and will have to survive likely legal challenges, but mark an unfortunate step away from preservation of natural and cultural heritage. Instead the short-sighted move seems to prioritize development, mineral extraction, and ranching. Tribal groups are likely to be impacted most directly, and as a result some have already announced plans to challenge the reduction in court. The Navajo Nation in a statement declared:
The decision to reduce the size of the [Bears Ears] Monument is being made with no tribal consultation. The Navajo Nation will defend Bear Ears . . . . The reduction in the size of the Monument leaves us no choice but to litigate this decision.
On Friday afternoon New York prosecutors and police officers seized a limestone relief which once decorated a building from the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. The New York Times reported that “cursing could be heard” from the booth. The seized bas-relief, valued at an estimated $1.2 million dollars was being offered for sale by Rupert Wace, a London-based antiquities dealer. In a statement, Wace argued that the stone fragment “has been well known to scholars and has a history that spans almost 70 years.”
According to Wace, the relief was donated to a Canadian museum in the early 1950s. It was on regular display until it was stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2011. It was recovered by Canadian authorities, but rather than seek the return of the object, the museum decided to keep the insurance payout given by AXA Insurance Company. AXA then had title to the object, which sold it to Wace.
What then is the crime committed which would lead to a seizure? I have not had a look at the warrant, so I’m speculating here, but reportedly it alleges the bas-relief was stolen. Likely because it was removed from Iran after the enactment of an ownership declaration. That argument has not been helpful on its own for material from Iran when Iran initiated an unsuccessful civil lawsuit against Denyse Berend for another bas-relief removed from Persepolis before the Revolution.
This case may be different though, as this is a criminal seizure, not a private suite. Iran declared ownership of objects like this one in 1930. Adding to the claim is the immovable nature of this bas-relief. It had been affixed to the wall for 25 centuries before it was removed.
This object may have been transported in the modern era, but had been designed and crafted to stay on a wall as part of a monument. This seizure pushes up against some of the oldest successful seizure of illicit material, and has as one obstacle the passage of time. On the other hand though is the reality that this object was part of a monument, Persepolis, which was granted World Heritage Status in 1979.
The Antiquities Trade Gazette reported that the Art Loss Register was responsible for vetting objects at the fair. James Ratcliffe, the director of recoveries and general counsel at the Art Loss Register stated:
We understand this piece was seized and although we’ve not seen an official explanation for this we gather it relates to the possibility that it was taken from Persepolis unlawfully. Given that it was on public display in a museum for over 60 years it will be interesting to see how the claim develops.
Indeed it will. What claims Wace will offer to defend his possession of the object, and what claims he may have against AXA or other predecessors up the chain of possession will be interesting to watch. One thing is certain though, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is vigorously policing the antiquities trade at a level not seen in the United States or elsewhere. Dealers of illicit cultural property are on notice.