One report links drugs and antiquities smuggling in Texas

This report from a local Dallas news station details yet another example of how illicit networks piggyback off each other. We know that in Italy antiquities smugglers used other illegal and grey networks to smuggle antiquities up into the freeports of Switzerland.

It comes as no surprise then that the illegal narcotics trade, a big problem on the border towns of the US and Mexico, has also opened up pathways for looted and stolen antiquities.

According to Homeland Security Investigations, thieves removed thousands of items from archaeological sites in the area of Northern Mexico near Big Bend National Park. Other artifacts were stolen during a museum heist in Cuatro Cienegas, Coahuila, and smuggled across the border. “From here, they’d be just like drugs or any other stolen property,” Stone said. “They’d be moved and transshipped to other locations.” Undercover agents intercepted some of the items by infiltrating the smuggling ring. “We were able to set up some meetings and view these artifacts posing as buyers,” said Bill Fort, a Homeland Security Investigations agents who helped crack the case.

Here’s the video report:

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

Prosecutors Allege Customs Violations in Koh Ker Statue Forfeiture

Prosecutors have amended their complaint which seeks to forfeit this Koh Ker Khmer statue. Much of the press coverage focuses on whether the colonial French government or some other legal enactment created ownership rights in the statue before the time it was removed.  I don’t have a pacer account and access to these court filings, but based on the reporting it appears prosecutors saw a difficult path to victory in attempting to apply colonial French law to the statue. Instead they are also seeking a more straightforward argument: arguing that the importers of the statue lied on their customs forms. From the NYT:

Prosecutors say that in 2010, when the statue was being imported into the United States, the owner submitted an inaccurate affidavit to American customs officials, at Sotheby’s request, stating the statue was “not cultural property” belonging to a religious site. The government contended in its filing on Friday that both parties knew the statue, a mythic Hindu warrior known as Duryodhanna, valued at up to $3 million, was stolen when they agreed to ship it from Belgium to New York. The government says it can prove that the statue in fact came from a Khmer Dynasty temple, Prasat Chen, part of a vast and ancient complex called Koh Ker.

If prosecutors can establish these statements were inaccurate, the more difficult question of which law might apply to the statue would be largely irrelevant. This is the same legal principle used when prosecutors successfully forfeited a 4th-century B.C. ancient golden phiale from Michael Steinhardt in 1999. Lying to customs officials is a violation of the law, with its own forfeiture provision. If the prosecutors can establish this, a successful forfeiture seems very likely.

  1. Tom Mashberg & Ralph Blumenthal, Sotheby’s Accused of Deceit in Sale of Khmer Statue, The New York Times, November 13, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/arts/design/sothebys-accused-of-deceit-in-sale-of-khmer-statue.html (last visited Nov 14, 2012).
  2. United States v. An Antique Platter of Gold, 184 F. 3d 131 (2nd Cir. 1999).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

U.S. Repatriates 4,000 Looted Antiquities to Mexico

Yesterday U.S. law enforcement officials returned 4,000 object to Mexico. They are the fruit of 11 different investigations in cities like El Paso, San Antonio, Fort Stockton, Phoenix, San Diego, Chicago and Montana. These kinds of ‘art on the table’ news conferences are quite common. But I admit to feeling conflicted about them. On the one hand they certainly speak to the degree of seriousness with which ICE agents and the Federal Government take these crimes. But as with any crime that becomes federalized like this, the incentives are I think primarily geared towards rewarding these big investigations and successful returns. Yet the underlying problems endemic to the antiquities trade itself are not treated or targeted. It is an important step, but also the more of these returns I see (and there are a lot of them) the more frustrating it becomes as well. Because these investigations target the objects. There is no mention of arrests, prosecutions or of much of anything which would produced sustained compliance on the part of the art trade.

In fact after reading the news release I feel more pessimistic about the mass of objects which are being smuggled up from the south. Consider that three statues were smuggled in by a migrant worker on a bus; another clay statue was hidden in luggage in El Paso; another statue was hidden in the dash of a vehicle; a grinding stone was found in another vehicle; another millstone was found in the back of a truck; and the list goes on. These are straightforward and low-cost means to smuggle the objects into the country. We cannot I think expect ICE agents to catch every smuggled object found in luggage, trucks or cars. The trade itself and art buyers need to step up at some point and correct a market which routinely accepts these looted and stolen objects. But that kind of sober reflection on these recoveries is not to be found in the statements of U.S. and Mexican officials. From the ICE news release:

“The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border crime and has become a worldwide phenomenon that transcends frontiers,” said HSI Assistant Director Janice Ayala. “The teamwork and cooperation that exists between ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and our Mexican law enforcement counterparts, as well as with U.S. federal, local and state law enforcement agencies made it possible for us to secure these cultural artifacts and to ensure that they are returned to the government of Mexico. HSI will remain committed to combating the looting and trafficking of Mexico’s cultural treasures.”
Consul General of Mexico Jacob Prado stated, “The restitution to Mexico of more than 4,000 archaeological pieces, which were seized by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations special agents, is proof of the excellent collaboration that exists between Mexico and the United States, and attests to the relevance of the institutions and legal framework that our authorities have developed to successfully address the many different issues of our bilateral agenda.” Consul General Prado also expressed the gratitude of the government and the people of Mexico to the six HSI offices involved in recovering the artifacts, “for their support to ensure the restitution of these archaeological pieces, which are part of the cultural heritage and the historical memory of the people of Mexico.”

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

Not Just Bad Paperwork

In July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it had indicted four men and dismantled an entire antiquities smuggling network. The indictments in what I’ll call the “Lewis Smuggling Network” alleged that the four men sent objects from Egypt to Dubai before coming to America. The case brings to mind another similar kind of prosecution in which an individual was accused of not properly declaring the history and value of antiquities being imported into the United States. The case offers a number of similarities to an older case involving customs declaration.

In 1980 a gold phiale, called the golden phiale of Achyris, pictured here, probably of Sicilian origin, was sold by a collector in Sicily to another collector and coin dealer, who in turn sold the work to William Veres, an art dealer based in Zurich, Switzerland (it gets confusing and we still haven’t reached the ultimate endpoint). The phiale was offered to Robert Haber, a New York art dealer. Haber acted as a middle man in an eventual sale to Michael Steinhardt for $1.2 million. In December 1991, Haber flew to Switzerland to retrieve the phiale. Upon his return to New York, the customs forms declared the work’s country of origin as Switzerland and its value a mere $250,000. Why did the customs forms lie? To hid and disguise the object’s history.

In 1995, Italy began asking for formal assistance, and the Federal government intervened with a civil forfeiture action. A federal magistrate in New York issued a warrant for the seizure of the phiale from Steinhardt. The U.S. government then instituted a civil forfeiture action against the phiale in federal district court in New York. The district court held that the phiale was subject to forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. § 545. The importation of goods “by means of false statements” is prohibited by 18 U.S.C. § 542 and renders them subject to forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. § 545. The court found that falsely listing the work’s country of origin as Switzerland tainted the importation process and violated § 542. Steinhardt defended on the grounds that he had no knowledge that the object was looted or stolen. The court disagreed, finding that 18 U.S.C. § 545 does not afford an innocent owner defense. Steinhardt appealed the district court’s decision. The Second Circuit affirmed on the grounds that the misstatement of the phiale’s country of origin was material and thus subjected it to forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. § 545.

There are some differences between Steinhardt and the pending case against Mousa Khouli (Windsor Antiquities, NY), Salem Alshdaifat (Holyland Numismatics, West Bloomfield MI), Joseph A. Lewis, II (collector of Egyptian antiquities), and Ayman Ramadan (Nafertiti Eastern Sculptures Trading, Dubai).

This recent case has the Federal prosecutors pursuing charges against the dealers and collector in this case. They are not pursuing the object by itself, but rather they have a case against the whole network. Irrespective of whether Steinhardt, and his intermediary should have known and asked more closely about what they were buying, there were false statements made on the importation documents, just as false statements were alleged to have been made in this recent sting. Both Steinhardt and Lewis held esteemed positions, with power and influence. In Lewis’ case however, the Federal Prosecutors feel they have a much stronger case, with information on the entire smuggling and looting network, not just an isolated false statement on an importation document. In any event, neither Lewis nor Steinhardt will likely consider their cases bad paperwork. Misrepresenting the value and nation of origin is a deliberate attempt to circumnavigate heritage law. And if the government can make its case, there may be some real custodial sentences imposed.

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

"Groundbreaking" Antiquities Smuggling Ring Investigation

 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced yesterday that it has for the first time “dismantled” an antiquities smuggling network operating in the United States. Charges have been brought against individuals before, but this is appears from the indictment to be a pretty complete looting network, operating in the Middle East and the United States, which has been uncovered. According to the federal indictment four men have been charged with smuggling antiquities into the United States. It alleges that four men operated a smuggling operation which sent objects from Egypt to Dubai and its freeports and on to the United States. The federal agents also note that there was money laundering involved here, perhaps a tangible case implicating organized criminal activities to antiquities smuggling.

Dubai has freeports, much like Switzerland does. These are special areas which allow for the ease of international commerce, but can also be a haven to looters and smugglers. Giacomo Medici of course operated a very posh looted antiquities showroom from a Swiss freeport for many years. As the tension and unrest in many Middle-Eastern countries emerges, will Dubai become a focus for antiquities investigations? A haven for looters? I would suspect that Dubai will be far more willing and able to police and investigate on the looting of objects and stolen artifacts. I have a PhD colleague who currently works in their copyright enforcement force, and I would imagine that if nations ask for enforcement assistance from Dubai, they will likely receive it.


Windsor Antiquities booth in Manhattan, via WSJ

The investigation began when ICE Special Agent Brenton Easter and his team were looking for a terracotta head which was uncovered in Iraq in 2000, and the investigation uncovered an international smuggling ring. This is an example of what appears to be a very successful operation which has targeted all of the individuals in the ring, including the conduit from the thieves or looters in the Middle East, “the broker”, “the individual providing false provenance”, and “the end-all collector”. One of the objects, pictured here was a Greco-Roman-style Egyptian sarcophagus which might be worth as much as $2.5 million.

The indicted men are Mousa Khouli (Windsor Antiquities, NY), Salem Alshdaifat (Holyland Numismatics, West Bloomfield MI), Joseph A. Lewis, II (collector of Egyptian antiquities), and Ayman Ramadan (Nafertiti Eastern Sculptures Trading, Dubai).

  1. ICE makes arrests and seizes cultural artifacts stolen from Egypt, (2011), http://www.ice.gov/news/releases/1107/110714newyork.htm (last visited Jul 15, 2011).
  2. Keith Johnson, Alleged Antiquities Smugglers Busted, wsj.com, July 15, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304223804576446313624549304.html (last visited Jul 15, 2011).
  3. Kiran Khalid, Feds: Global antiquities smuggling ring dismantled CNN (2011), http://edition.cnn.com/2011/CRIME/07/15/new.york.antiquities.smuggling/ (last visited Jul 15, 2011).
  4. Feds accuse 4 of smuggling Egyptian artifacts, Reuters (2011), http://newsandinsight.thomsonreuters.com/Legal/News/2011/07_-_July/Feds_accuse_4_of_smuggling_Egyptian_artifacts/ (last visited Jul 15, 2011).
  5. Kate Taylor, Federal Authorities Charge 4 People in Antiquities Smuggling, The New York Times, July 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/15/arts/design/federal-authorities-charge-4-people-in-antiquities-smuggling.html?_r=1 (last visited Jul 15, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Guns, Degas, and Legal Disputes

A work purportedly by Degas, at the center of a legal dispute in Florida

Details of an odd art dispute are unfolding in Florida. A law firm is being sued by its client for failure to release this work, allegedly by Degas. All the red flags are up in this case, yet it wasn’t the auction house Sotheby’s which delayed the auction, but rather a dispute over legal fees and a $1 million retainer.

In August, a pleasantly cool month in Chile, Bonati was in Santiago, where he and McInnis boarded the chartered, nine-seat Cessna. The plane refueled in Ecuador and landed in Fort Lauderdale after the 4,000-mile flight.
As the men headed for the terminal, they drew suspicion because of what the law firm later called their “bizarre” conduct.
“Bonati carried the multi-million dollar painting in his arms as the pair made their way across the tarmac . . . while McInnis walked alongside with a gun holstered at his waist,” the firm said in a court filing. 

“Bonati was also carrying in excess of $10,000 in cash on his person, a sum which he did not declare to U.S. Customs as required by law.” 

Anyone taking more than $10,000 in currency into or out of the country must file a report with customs. 

Paintings and other original works of art also must be declared, though most are allowed to enter the United States duty-free. But with art theft a major international problem, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up efforts to ascertain the ownership of potentially valuable works. 

In January, the agency returned to France a Degas painting stolen from a museum there in 1973. It resurfaced last fall in the catalog of a Sotheby’s auction in New York. 

That episode “shows why we take an interest in these kind of cases and if it is stolen, returning it to its rightful owner,” says Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokeswoman.

  1. Susan Taylor Martin, Doctor’s legal battle reveals potential art trove, St. Petersburg Times, March 6, 2011, http://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/civil/doctors-legal-battle-reveals-potential-art-trove/1155579 (last visited Mar 8, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com