Context for the Hobby Lobby antiquities forfeiture

An image of one of the cuneiform tablets which accompanied the government’s forfeiture complaint.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have announced  a civil forfeiture proceeding against 5,500 objects from Iraq. The current possessors of the objects have also quickly announced they will not contest the forfeiture, and have agreed to pay a $3 million fine.   The objects were imported by Hobby Lobby and its president, Steve Green, to create the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

The Museum of the Bible, set to open in November near the National Mall in Washington D.C., has been rapidly acquiring antiquities from the Middle east for the last several years. History shows this kind of rapid acquisition with generous financial backing will inevitably lead to buying objects which may be looted, illegally exported, stolen, or orphaned. The questions surrounding the quick acquisition of all these objects has generated speculation for many years that these objects would cause legal difficulties for the museum.

The government’s civil forfeiture complaint tells a fascinating story of how Green traveled to the United Arab Emirates in July of 2010 and agreed to purchase 5,548 objects, including “500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets, and 500 stone cylinder seals”. These objects were then then shipped via Federal Express to Oklahoma City to various different addresses of Hobby Lobby and its subsidiaries. The complaint notes an important reality of customs—not every shipment raises suspicion. Only some of the shipments of this material were seized by customs agents. Five shipments which traveled through Memphis, Tennessee were seized between January 3-5 of 2011. Other shipments successfully reached their destination in Oklahoma City.

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On that funerary statue seized in the UK

HMRC seized this funerary statute because it was misdeclared
HMRC seized this funerary statute because it was misdeclared

Janet Ulph has given a helpful overview of the seizure by UK Customs of this funerary statue. The statue was seized after Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs said the statue was “misdeclared”. It was declared as a statue from Turkey, with an estimated value of $110,000. Yet HMRC alleged the statue originated from Cyrene, Libya and its value was closer to £1.5m.

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United States v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment

The fresco fragment from a tomb in Paestum, via chasingaphrodite.comThe Chasing Aphrodite blog has the story of a noteworthy new federal forfeiture involving billionaire hedge-fund manager and buyer of antiquities, Michael Steinhardt. At issue is this lovely fresco allegedly looted from Paestum. The name Steinhardt will likely be a familiar one as he was a claimant who lost another federal forfeiture action over the Gold Phiale, which helped set useful precedents for federal prosecutors.

The Federal prosecutor’s complaint alleges the importation of the fresco violated US customs law, §1595a, which prohibits the importation of objects contrary to law. The fresco was part of a FedEx shipment into Newark in 2011 that was detained by Customs and Border Protection. the shipment had a customs declaration form, but again, just like with the Godl Phiale case there appears to been misstatements on the customs form with respect to the country of origin for this object. The form declared the origin to be Macedonia, while the complaint alleges the fragment was taken from a tomb in Paestum.

The provenance for the object claims that the fresco was acquired by Lens Tschanned from a Swis art gallery in 1959, and it had been in his home from then until April of 2011. The fresco had no export permissions.

Customs and Border Protection contacted the Italian Carabinieri, and the Tutela Patrimonio Cultrale was able to identify the object as the pediment of a painted tomb north of Paestum in present-day Salerno. This site is known as the necropolis of Andriuolo. The complaint alleges that the figures on the fresco in question are painted in mirror image to another fresco from tomb 53 suggesting they may have likely been installed on different sides of the same tomb.

Here’s the mirror image fresco from tomb 53, which is not on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Paestum. Federal prosecutors appended both of these images in the complaint:

The Mirror image fresco from Paestum
The Mirror image fresco from Paestum

Chasing Aphrodite gives some background of the company Mat Artcare, based in Switzerland:

Mat Securitas is the same Swiss shipping service that transported the Getty Museum’s looted goddess of Aphrodite from Switzerland to London. (See Chasing Aphrodite p. 148).Their motto is “Safe. Discrete. Reliable.”

Will Steinhardt litigate this dispute as aggressively as he did in the 1990’s with the Gold Phiale forfeiture? The Federal complaint makes an extremely compelling case that this fragment was looted from a tomb in Paestum. It’s connection to macedonia seems ludicrous when compared to the other pediment which was excavated and is on display at the museum there.

Complaint, United States v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment, CV 136286 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).

Steinhardt Redux: Feds Seize Fresco Looted from Italian World Heritage Site, Destined for New York Billionaire CHASING APHRODITE, Nov. 18, 2013.

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

Shelby White at the Met

Kate Taylor, of the New York Sun, has lengthy and extremely interesting article on Shelby White, a generous benefactor to the Met, who has also been accused by Italy of purchasing unprovenanced antiquities. The article notes that Michael Steinhardt, a friend of White’s (and who also is a proprietor of the Sun) believes White’s collection has been singled out by Italy for 2 reasons: her collection is published which allows the authorities to check the antiquities against criminal investigations, and she and her husband have been very generous.

Steinhardt is quoted as saying “She and her husband, Leon, have been generous to a fault to all sorts of institutions… Therefore she is a ripe target. Those people who are pursuing her don’t seek justice; they seek victory… Further, I would say, Shelby has stood alone, and was not as strongly defended as she should have been by those very institutions to whom she had been a too-generous donor.”

Steinhardt is not exactly an impartial actor here though. A phiale was seized from his home in 1997 because the customs declaration form was clearly misstated. Interestingly, had the customs form been accurate, and even if it was conclusively shown the phiale had been illegally exported from Italy, there would have been no legal claim for the objects return. The phiale was seized because the customs form was incorrect.

In any event, the article on White highlights the tension Museums are now facing as they change their acquisition policies, and that may require them to refuse donations from wealthy benefactors who have been collecting for many years, many times without being careful about the provenances of objects which they have acquired.

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