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.”

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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

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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.  

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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.

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French Man Pleads Guilty to Art Theft Conspiracy

Last week the US Department of Justice issued a press release announcing a Frenchman named Bernard Jean Ternus pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell four works of art stolen last August from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nice, France.

According to the release, Ternus and another man attempted to sell two of the works to undercover agents in Barcelona, Spain for three million euros. They sold two works, and attempted to keep the other two as leverage in case they got arrested. This plan revealed its flaws in June though when Ternus’ co-conspirators were arrested in Southern France when they attempted to exchange the final two works.

Ternus was arrested by FBI and ICE agents in Florida, and its likely a condition of his plea agreement was to give testimony about the thefts themselves, which should aid French authorities in their prosecution of the co-conspirators in Europe.

The arrests are a very good thing, but it will be interesting to see what Ternus’ and his conspirators prison sentances will be, as art theft is typically not given long prison terms. Though the armed nature of the robbery may lead to harsher penalties for the actual thieves in Europe.

This is nonetheless a very good example of cooperation of Federal Agents and prosecutors, and their French and Spanish counterparts. Its a job very well done, and an indication why theft of these kind of high-profile works is very silly. I’ve included images of the recovered works from the press release below:

Cliffs Near Dieppe, 1897
Permanent loan, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice; © Musée d’Orsay, Paris Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926). Cliffs Near Dieppe, 1897. Oil on canvas. 65 x 100 cm (25 9/16 x 39 3/8 in.).
Allegory of Earth, ca. 1611
© Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568-1625) and Hendrik van Balen the Elder (Flemish, 1575-1632). Allegory of Earth, ca. 1611. Oil on panel. 53 x 94 cm
Allegory of Water, ca. 1611
©Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568-1625) and Hendrik van Balen the Elder (Flemish, 1575-1632). Allegory of Water, ca. 1611. Oil on panel. 53 x 94 cm
The Lane of Poplars at Moret, 1890
Permanent loan, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice; © Musée d’Orsay, Paris Alfred Sisley (French and British, 1839-1899). The Lane of Poplars at Moret, 1890. Oil on canvas. 76 x 96 cm (29 15/16 x 37 13/16 in.). (20 7/8 x 3)
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100 Antiquities Returned to Mexico

There is a report in the Dallas Morning news on the repatriation of 100 pre-Columbian objects to Mexico, many of which were of museum-quality.

A treasure-trove of about 100 artifacts, believed to be pre-Columbian, is on its way to Mexico, its presumed home, U.S. customs agents and Mexican diplomats said Tuesday.

Among the antiquities is a stone mask of a broad-featured man, which is believed to come from the Olmec civilization, the oldest in the Americas, and it dates as far back as 1000 BC, experts said. Other items include figurines in jadeite, precious stones symbolically linked to fertility for the people of ancient Mesoamerica and once valued more than gold.

“We’re so very happy about the return of these pieces,” said Eduardo Rea Falcón, the consul in charge for Mexico’s diplomatic post in Dallas. “It is unfortunate that through looting and robbing, these items fell into private hands.”

One of the most stunning pieces is the mask, Mr. Rea said.

But when the experts at Mexico’s National Institute for Anthropology and History unpack the goods, they may unravel far more significant mysteries, as authentication deepens, he said. “They may find something of incalculable value,” Mr. Rea said.

Equally mysterious is the trajectory of the smuggled artifacts into the Dallas vaults of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The goods represent several seizures in Texas and New Mexico, including an initial seizure in 2001, said Carlos Fontanez, a CBP spokesman in the Houston office.

But Mr. Fontanez gave few details to the whodunit tale. No one has been charged with smuggling the goods into the U.S., he said, though it is illegal to traffic in antiquities under U.S. law.

It’s an odd story, as there is no indication of how or under what circumstances these objects were seized. Dealing and importing these objects is of course illegal; one wonders why there was no arrest, and also why it took so long to return them to Mexico. One possible answer is the objects were being held for possible prosecution or criminal charges.

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Stolen Egyptian Antiquities Arrest

Edward Earle Johnson, aka “Dutch” has been arrested in Alabama and charged in Manhattan for wire fraud and selling stolen goods in connection with a 2002 theft from the Ma’adi Museum near Cairo in Egypt. Johnson is an active duty Chief Warrant Officer with the US Army, serving as a helicopter pilot.

In September of 2002 370 “pre-dynastic artifacts” were stolen from the museum, some dating to 3000 BC. Around 80 of those objects have been recovered by US authorities.

ABC News has a good overview of the story, with pictures, and has helpfully posted the unsealed complaint, sworn out by Senior Special Agent James McAndrew of the Homeland Security Department, specifically the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The ICE press release announcing the arrest yesterday is here.

An interesting question to ask here is whether Johnson used military ships or aircraft to somehow smuggle these objects back into the United States. That would be particularly troubling. That’s just speculation on my part at this point, but it seems like a potential way for him to get those object into the US.

It is also important to note I think that this arrest stems from a theft from a museum. These objects were excavated in an archaeological dig in the 1920’s-30’s, and had been in a state collection. One interesting aspect of the case which may come to light later is how McAndrew and the ICE discovered these thefts. Did a scrupulous dealer come forward? Did someone notice these objects for sale? Were these objects cataloged and documented by the Egyptian culture ministry?

It can be extremely difficult to track stolen antiquities generally even where they have been excavated and on display, however the problems grow increasingly acute when we consider looted and illegally excavated objects, which are new to the market.

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