Are Iraq’s Antiquities in a Revolving Door?

A 4,400 year old statue of King Entemena looted and now returned

In a ceremony today 542 works of art and objects were returned from the United States to Iraq.  Among the items returned were:

[A] 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena of Lagash looted from the National Museum . . . an even older pair of gold earrings from Nimrud stolen in the 1990’s and seized before being auctioned at Christie’s in New York last December; and 362 cuneiform clay tablets that had been smuggled out of Iraq before the invasion . . .  There was also a more recent relic: a chrome-plated AK-47 with a pearl grip and an engraving of Mr. Hussein, taken by an American solider as booty and displayed at Fort Lewis, in Washington.

Yet a senior Iraqi official admitted that 632 other pieces returned by U.S. forces have apparently gone missing.  They were supposed to have been shipped to the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office via a flight authorized by Gen. Petraeus, Steven Lee Myers reports for the NYT that antiquities returned to Iraq are in a “revolving door”. Iraq’s ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaidaie told reporters ““We asked the US military to move it to Iraq. When the pieces arrived in Iraq, they were delivered to the office of the prime minister and now we are trying to find them”.  Perhaps the attention paid to these newly returned artifact will help to recover the previous shipment.  

  1. Steven Lee Myers, Iraq’s Looted Treasures in a Revolving Door, The New York Times, September 7, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/08/world/middleeast/08iraq.html?_r=1&hp (last visited Sep 7, 2010).
  2. The Associated Press: Hundreds of looted artifacts returned to Iraq, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hwK_CSpBxsNuVUEaDuOwmSSCiqGwD9I344LG2 (last visited Sep 7, 2010).
  3. Jane Arraf, 542 antiquities looted in Iraq war return home. Where are the rest?, Christian Science Monitor, , http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2010/0907/542-antiquities-looted-in-Iraq-war-return-home.-Where-are-the-rest (last visited Sep 7, 2010).

Video from the NYT after the jump.

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

US Returns Angkorian Sculptures to Cambodia

 The United States returned seven sculptures today which had been smuggled out of Cambodia.  The statues were recovered in Los Angeles in 2008.  They objects include two heads of Buddha, a bas-relief, and also an engraved plinth.  I’m unable to find any details about the seizure at present, but these returns may be tied to the investigation of Galleries and Museums in California in early 2008

  1. AFP: US returns stolen Angkorian sculptures to Cambodia, AFP (2010), http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5goRoNfmLD0vbnGwi6ospmF1MBRmQ (last visited Jun 17, 2010).
  2. The Associated Press: US returns 7 stolen ancient Cambodian sculptures, AP (2010), http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iDRqLsyg_5D0Sim77b6ZhkroOlXAD9GCTS800 (last visited Jun 17, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Forfeitted Pissarro Returning to France

A federal jury has ruled that this Pissaro painting, “Le Marché,” was stolen from the Faure Museum in Aix-la-Bains in France.  The work was seized by ICE agents from Sotheby’s in 2006, after its theft in 1981.  The thief took the work from the museum under his jacket.  The work has a storied history as the Department of Justice Press Release describes

It seems that in 1985 the thief, Emile Guelton, sold the work to Sharyl Davis who was using space art gallery in San Antonio owned by Jay Adelman.  Mr. Adelman seems to operate an antiques shop on the Riverwalk, and operate a website.  In 2003 the work was consigned to Sotheby’s by Davis.  Davis paid $8,500 for the painting in 1985, and estimated an auction price of $60-80,000.  However Sotheby’s asked about the history of the work and was told it was purchased from someone named “Frenchie”. But then Davis asked for “Frenchie’s” real name from Adelman, who told her it was Guelton and that he was from Paris.  That information appeared in the auction catalog with an image of Le Marché.”

Just before the auction, French federal law enforcement officers learned that Le Marché was at Sotheby’s. Based on the information in the auction catalog, the French officers located, contacted, and interviewed Guelton. Guelton confirmed that he knew Adelman, was living in Texas in 1985, sent a container of artwork from France to the United States in 1984, and sold Adelman paintings. The French officers, using a prior arrest photo of Guelton, created a six-person photo array, which they showed to the Faure Museum guard in October 2003.

 The Pissarro was then forfeited under the National Stolen Property Act.  Forfeiture allows prosecutors to bring a suit against an object which was part of a crime, and all claimants to the object come forward to challenge the forfeiture.  It is a powerful tool for prosecutors, and thus should be used carefully, else we may risk losing works of art for many years.  It seems like the right result was achieved in this case.  Mark Durney rightly points out that this round-about story reveals a lot about how difficult recovering stolen art is and how easy it is to acquire in “good faith”.

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

Stolen Antiquities Recovered With the Help of the Art Loss Register

The Art Loss Register—though not a cure-all for what ails the antiquities trade—is an invaluable tool for the recovery of stolen objects so long as they have been documented and reported.  I have received a couple of press releases from the ALR highlighting recent recoveries of antiquities.  Though it cannot help aid the recovery of antiquities which have never been documented, it can help in the recovery of stolen antiquities which have been documented and reported missing, underscoring the need I think for museums and nations of origin to do a better job documenting and reporting the stores of objects which they currently have.  A couple recent seizures by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) highlight this.

Yesterday ICE announced a wall panel fresco which had been stolen in 1997 was recovered.  I found the history of the site interesting:

The panel, rectangular with a white background depicting a female minister, white wash on plaster with a modern wooden frame, was previously located at the excavation office in Pompeii and was reported stolen with five other fresco panels on June 26, 1997.

The investigation revealed that, between 1903 and 1904, the Italian government authorized a farmer, Giuseppe De Martino, to restore his farmhouse, which was located on an archeological site in Boscoreale, province of Naples. During the restoration, six important frescos, originating from Pompeii were found.

On July 12, 1957, the Government of Italy purchased the frescos. On June 26, 1997, after the completion of work to the excavation site, the Italian government observed that the six frescos were missing and subsequently reported the theft.

 This follows soon after the recovery of seven Egyptian antiquities which had been stolen from the Bijbels Museum in Amsterdam in 2007:

The investigation received significant help from the Art Loss Register (ALR) of New York, an organization that maintains a database of stolen works of art. The ALR discovered the artifacts at the Manhattan auction house, which turned the artifacts over to the Register and ICE agents.

One of the pieces recovered is a 7-inch-high depiction of a mummy with arms folded over the chest and hoes in each hand. It dates to between 1307 and 1070 B.C. The other recovered artifacts were an bronze figure of Imhotep, artchitect of the first pyramid, and one of Hapokrates, and an Egyptian painted Wood Osiris, all dating as far back as 712 B.C.

“The recovery of these artifacts sends a strong message to thieves that the market to sell stolen antiquities in the United States is freezing up.” said Peter J. Smith, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in New York. “ICE is committed to working closely with foreign governments and organizations like the ALR to recover priceless works of art and antiquities so they can be returned to their rightful owners.”

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

Another Recovery for the Stern Estate

The AP reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have returned this work, St. Jerome by Ludovico Carracci (1595) to the estate of Max Stern.  The work was owned by art dealer Max Stern, and he was forced into selling the works in 1937 in Cologne, Germany.  The work had been hanging in the home of art dealer Richard L. Feigen.  Feigen had read about the other recent return to the Stern estate, and discovered the work had been missing after checking with the Max Stern Art Restitution Project

This voluntary return follows soon after another recent return, and the recent decision by the First Circuit, Vineberg v. Bissonette

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

Stolen Antiquities Returned to Egypt


From the AP:

Dozens of ancient artifacts stolen by a former U.S. Army officer were returned Wednesday to the Egyptian government.
Officials said the items, such as small urns, came from the Ma’adi archaeological site outside Cairo and date to 3600 B.C. or earlier.
Army helicopter pilot Edward George Johnson, a chief warrant officer from Fayetteville, N.C., was arrested in February in Alabama on charges of transporting stolen property and wire fraud. He pleaded guilty in July to possessing and selling stolen antiquities and was sentenced to 19 months of probation.
“When (Johnson) stole these items from Egypt, he robbed a nation of part of its history,” said Peter J. Smith, head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s New York office. “The repatriation of the Ma’adi artifacts reunites the people of Egypt with an important piece of their cultural heritage.”
Johnson was deployed to Cairo in September 2002 when about 370 artifacts were stolen from the Ma’adi Museum. He sold about 80 pieces to an art dealer for $20,000.
The government said experts had determined a majority of the items he sold had been stolen from the museum. The pieces had been excavated from the Ma’adi site in the 1920s and 1930s. 

I discussed the arrest of “Dutch” back in February.  

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

AP: Antiquities Trade "Growing problem at US Ports"

Tamara Lush has an overview of antiquities coming through US ports:

_ On Monday, federal authorities will repatriate some 1,000 items, including a rare temple marker worth $100,000, to Iraq. On June 7, 2001, ICE agents in New York received information from the Art Loss Register that a Sumerian Foundation Cone, buried under a Babylonian temple, was being sold by auction at Christie’s New York. ICE New York agents seized the artifact from Christie’s and discovered that it, and several other items in the U.S., had been stolen from the Baghdad Museum and other locations at the end of the first Gulf War.

_ In May, four tons of fossils from Argentina — including 200-million-year-old dinosaur eggs, egg shell fragments, petrified pine cones and fossilized prehistoric crabs — were seized by federal agents in Tucson, Ariz. Authorities said a corporation based in Argentina had brought the fossils into the country. No arrests have been made, but the fossils were repatriated.

_ In February, an Army pilot was arrested and charged with stealing 370 pre-dynastic artifacts from the Ma’adi Museum near Cairo, Egypt, and selling them to an art dealer in Texas for $20,000. The artifacts, dating to 3000 B.C. and earlier, were originally discovered during excavations in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s. The pilot, Edward George Johnson, pleaded guilty in June and is awaiting sentencing.

Lush does not follow her argument to its logical extension though. She notes the new AAM and AAMD guidelines, as well as the difficulty ICE agents and others have in establishing criminal wrongdoing. She fails to note looted antiquities can still slip through this patchwork regulatory framework because of the paucity of accurate provenance information given in antiquities transactions.

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