Operation Pandora nets 75 arrests in Europe

This Byzantine depiction of Saint George was one of the artworks recovered.

Earlier this week police in Europe announced the fruits of operation Pandora, an investigation into an international art trafficking network. In total, 75 people were arrested and 3,500 objects and artworks were seized. The investigation centered in Spain and Cyprus. The network allegedly moved works of art from conflict areas, and dealt in objects stolen from museums. The Europol press release boasted that over 48,000 individuals were investigated, almost 30,000 vehicles were investigated (along with 50 ships).

According to the release the aim of the investigation was to:

[d]ismantle criminal networks involved in cultural theft and exploitation, and identify potential links to other criminal activities. Moreover, there was a special focus on cultural spoliation, both underwater and on land, and the illicit trafficking of cultural goods, with a particular emphasis on conflict countries.

The operation was supported by UNESCO, INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization, Europol, and law enforcement officials from 18 countries. This was an extensive operation, which took a great deal of cooperation and resources. The investigators and policy makers who made this investigation successful should be commended. And yet, is this kind of large scale investigation sustainable? Will art thieves and traffickers be chastened and refrain from art crimes? Will the arrests actually produce successful prosecutions unlike so many of American investigations?

  1. Raphael Minder, 75 Arrested in European Crackdown on Art Trafficking, The New York Times, January 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/22/world/europe/75-arrested-in-european-crackdown-on-art-trafficking.html (last visited Jan 25, 2017).
  2. 3561 artefacts seized in Operation Pandora, Europol, https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/3561-artefacts-seized-in-operation-pandora (last visited Jan 25, 2017).
  3. “Operation Pandora”: police in Spain and Cyprus lead major bust of antiquities traffickers, , http://theartnewspaper.com/news/operation-pandora-police-in-spain-and-cyprus-lead-major-bust-of-antiquities-traffickers/ (last visited Jan 25, 2017).

A strong connection between looting and organized crime in Greece

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Police in Greece have announced the arrest of 26 individuals in connection with an antiquities looting network that had been operating for 10 years. The announcement showed the recovery of more than 2,000 objects, including coins, jewelry, and other objects. Two individuals were arrested last Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border with an astounding 1,000 coins and small portable objects hidden in the bumper of their car.

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Police also confiscated metal detectors, guns, currency, and materials used to counterfeit currency.

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The arrests on Sunday were the culmination of a 14-month investigation which may have involved as many as 50 people.

Nicholas Paphitis, Greek police break up gang that excavated, sold antiquities, US News & World Report (Oct. 5, 2016), http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2016-10-05/greek-police-break-gang-that-sold-thousands-of-antiquities.
Helen Stoilas, Police in Greece arrest 26 in bust of alleged antiquities smuggling ring, http://theartnewspaper.com/news/archeology/police-in-greece-arrest-26-in-bust-of-alleged-antiquities-smuggling-ring/.

Federal and local cooperation in the Kapoor investigation

I heard Manhattan prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos present at a conference a few years ago. His discussion focused on his work in Iraq after the U.S-led invasion. But the main thing I remember was his stated intention to prosecute one dealer of looted antiquities. Just one. He may be getting closer to that goal.

The NY Times reports that the sister of Subhash Kapoor, a woman named Sushma Sareen, has been arrested and charged with hiding four bronze statues of hindu deities. They are valued at close to $15 million.  Kapoor has been described as a dealer in looted and stolen art on a level which would far eclipse even Giacomo Medici or Robert Hecht. Upwards of 200 objects have been traced from Kapoor to prominent museums including the Norton Simon, the MFA in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and others. He has been described by Federal Customs Enforcement Special Agent James T. Hayes as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world”. Kapoor is facing looting charges in India; but now it seems his family has become the target of federal and local prosecutors in New York.

Tom Mashberg reports:

The criminal complaint filed in Manhattan says Ms. Sareen took charge of her brother’s business operations after he was arrested and traveled to India to arrange for wire transfers and contact the smuggling network.

Ms. Sareen, 60, who is charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property, was released on $10,000 bail. Her lawyer, Scott E. Leemon of Manhattan, said that his client denied the charges.

In three raids after the initial seizures at the Art of the Past gallery, federal authorities confiscated more than $90 million in Indian antiquities from storage units in Manhattan linked to Mr. Kapoor. Simultaneously, they asked American museums to examine their collections for items they might have obtained from Mr. Kapoor. While some said they had drawings and terra cotta items donated by him, none have reported owning an ancient statue.

  1. Tom Mashberg, New Arrest in Inquiry on Art Looting, The New York Times, October 11, 2013.

19 Arrested in Connection with Jade Thefts

Dawn raids in London, Sussex, Cambridgeshire, the West Midlands, Essex, and Northern Ireland have netted the arrest of 19 individuals in connection with the theft of Chinese works of art and rhinoceros horn. The arrests were connected to six thefts, which occurred over four months in 2012:

Continue reading “19 Arrested in Connection with Jade Thefts”

Two Antiquities Smugglers Arrested in Greece

Earlier in June two men were arrested for allegedly smuggling an ancient gold wreath and armband out of the country:

The suspects were stopped by highway police near the village of Asprovalta, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Thessaloniki late Thursday. Officers, who were working on a tip that the house painter might be trafficking in antiquities, found the 4th century B.C. artifacts in a shoebox under the passenger seat. The wreath was a rare and valuable find, said Nikos Dimitriadis, head of the Thessaloniki police antiquities theft section. “It is a product of an illegal excavation from a Macedonian grave, according to archaeologists (who examined it),” he said.

  1. Associated Press, 2 arrested in Greece for alleged antiquities smuggling of ancient gold wreath, armband, The Washington Post, June 8, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/2-arrested-in-greece-for-alleged-antiquities-smuggling-of-ancient-gold-wreath-armband/2012/06/08/gJQAijagNV_story.html.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Arrests in the Fitzwilliam Theft

There are reports that between two and six individuals have been arrested in connection with the theft of 18 Chinese objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The theft was the subject of BBC’s Crimewatch Tuesday:

The stolen pieces had been given as gifts or bequests to the museum, with some experts estimating the artifacts to be worth approximately £18 million (about $28.7 million Cdn). None of the artifacts has been recovered. Police sought help from the public through a segment on the BBC-TV program Crimewatch on Tuesday evening. The show aired closed-circuit camera footage of four suspects sought in conjunction with the robbery.

As Dick Ellis explained in an interview last week, these thieves probably saw the booming trade in Chinese artworks, and may not have understood how difficult an eventual sale would be. Much in the same way similar objects were stolen from the Durham museum.

17th Century jade "imaginary beast" stolen from Fitzwilliam MuseumNoah Charney speculated last week that the stolen objects will be “smuggled [to China] . . . for in China the general rules about not purchasing art without performing Due Diligence and checking stolen art databases do not apply. Provenance is far less of an issue, sometimes for cultural reasons, but also for practical ones–Internet black-outs mean that many in China could not check stolen art databases, even if they were inclined to do so.” I’m not sure that will be the case.

The Chinese have—on paper at least—the most regulated art market in the world, with a tiered series of regulation. It is one of the only sets of regulations which puts direct regulation in the art market, at the point of sale. Are there problems and corruption? Perhaps. But what art market—whether its in Rome, Paris, London, or New York is not corrupt?

In 2002, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics. The 2002 Law legalizes private transactions involving cultural relics in five circumstances, (1) legal inheritance or gift; (2) purchase from cultural relics shops; (3) purchase from cultural relics auction enterprises; (4) exchanges or transfers between individual citizens; and (5) other methods authorized by the central government. Many of these transactions take place at officially sanctioned cultural relics shops and auction enterprises; and the 2002 Law prohibits a cultural relic shop from running an auction and vice versa.

Under Article 58, the government may buy any cultural relic submitted to a mandatory inspection before sale pursuant to Article 56. During this mandatory inspection, under Article 56, the government is given a kind of right of first refusal, with the purchase price determined by the government representative. Pursuant to article 57, in the event of a sale to a private individual, a report is produced, effectively tracking the buyers and sellers of cultural objects. This new regulatory framework seems a very aggressive strategy, and one that, if implemented effectively, could positively impact the illicit trade in China. However, implementing this strategy may be difficult and subject to corruption.  And yet by recording who buys what, it may be possible not only to track the chain of title of specific cultural objects, but also to evaluate whether individuals are routinely buying and selling stolen, looted, or suspicious objects. What other nation does this routinely? Perhaps the Italian Carabinieri, but that may be it.

Many in the West have an immediate reaction to all things China. And I think that quote above does not really convey the reality of the Chinese art market. Prof. Paul Bator remarked in 1983 that China was the great under-researched area of the world when it comes to sources of heritage theft (he called it art theft). Despite s few reports, that is still the case. We can blame the Chinese for other problems perhaps, but the Chinese art market does not I think bear the collective guilt for the Fitzwilliam theft. Rather it seems to be a more homegrown set of thieves from East London.

  1. He Shuzhong, Protection of China’s Cultural Heritage, 5 J. Art, Antiquity & L., 19 (2000).
  2. J. David Murphy, Plunder and preservation : cultural property law and practice in the People’s Republic of China, (1995), http://www.bcin.ca/Interface/openbcin.cgi?submit=submit&Chinkey=204154 (last visited May 2, 2012).
  3. Andrew Jacobs, China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums, The New York Times, December 17, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/world/asia/17china.html?_r=2&hp (last visited Dec 17, 2009).
  4. Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/6374959/China-to-study-British-Museum-for-looted-artefacts.html (last visited Oct 20, 2009).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

$150 Million worth of art in the trash?

Stolen to order?
Nature Mort au Chandelier, Fernand Léger, 1922

Last week it was reported that three individuals were arrested in connection with the theft of five works from the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris. The thefts took place in 2010 and there were reports that the museums alarms had been malfunctioning for months. Well the thieves may have had a very easy time stealing the art. There are reports that the five stolen works were destroyed, and that one of the works was stolen to order:

Detectives said that while they remained sceptical about his account, they could not “totally rule out” this catastrophic scenario. The destruction of such landmark masterpieces would be a major blow to international art heritage. The first to be arrested was a Serb known only as Vrejan T, 43, nicknamed “Spiderman” and who was detained days after last year’s heist over a separate art theft from a chic Paris apartment. Under questioning, the suspect reportedly recounted how he loosened screws in a window at the Art Deco Palais de Tokyo housing the museum, returned a few nights later to remove the frame and sliced through a padlock on an iron grille. He had initially gone there only to steal a Léger work to order, he said, but once inside, was “surprised” when the burglary alarm failed to sound. Being a “veritable art lover,” the Serb told police he then wandered around for another hour, eluding 30 closed circuit cameras to cherry pick four other masterpieces. “He found the Modigliani the most beautiful of all,” a judicial source told the JDD. Vrejan T reportedly told investigators he had stolen the Léger for Jean-Michel C, 56, an antiques dealer with a shop called Antiquités Bastille. He was arrested in May for selling other stolen art works.

As a wise Museum Security Director once said: ‘shit happens’. Lets hope this is the statement of a desperate defendant, and the paintings are still safe. This underscores the point that tracking down art thieves is a delicate proposition. They have a very big piece of collateral, in this case five important works of art. If you prosecute the thief too harshly, you run the risk of destroying what you were after. Of course the best way to prevent this destruction would have been better basic attention to security.

  1. Henry Samuel, £100m masterpieces stolen from French museum “crushed by rubbish truck,” The Telegraph, October 9, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/8816634/100m-masterpieces-stolen-from-French-museum-crushed-by-rubbish-truck.html (last visited Oct 10, 2011). 
The other stolen works:
La Pastorale, Henri Matisse, 1906
L’Olivier pres de l’Estaque, Georges Braque, 1906
The Pigeon with Peas, Pablo Picasso, 1911-12
La femme a l’eventail, Amadeo Modigliani

   

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com