Showing posts with label Phoenix Ancient Art. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Phoenix Ancient Art. Show all posts

July 18, 2017

Long-time antiquities dealer Hicham Aboutaam has sued the Wall Street Journal


Long-time antiquities dealer Hicham Aboutaam has sued the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal’s corporate parent Dow Jones and Company in New York County Supreme Court on Monday over an article titled “Prominent Art Family Entangled in ISIS Antiquities-Looting Investigations” which was published in the WSJ on May 31, 2017.  The Journal’s reporters Benoit Faucon and Georgi Kantchev shared a byline on the article but have not been named as defendants in the lawsuit.  

Faucon, a Senior Report for the Wall Street Journal, has long covered issues related to OPEC and the oil industries of Iran, Libya, Nigeria and Algeria. More recently he has been working on investigative reports involving illicit trafficking, money laundering or terrorism financing.  Kantchev is a London-based reporter primarily covering financial markets.

In the 30 page complaint Aboutaam demands unspecified damages on two claims of defamation.

Publication, ID, Defamation, Falsity and Fault

These are the five elements that a plaintiff must successfully demonstrate in most liable suits against the mass media.

In general, under New York State Law, to recover for libel (injury to one’s reputation from a written expression), Hicham Aboutaam will need to establish five elements outlined in Celle v. Filipino Reporter Enters. Inc., 209 F.3d 163, 176 (2d Cir. 2000). 

Those elements of a defamation claim are:

(1) a written defamatory statement of fact concerning the plaintiff;
(2) publication to a third party;
(3) fault (either negligence or actual malice depending on the status of the libeled party);
(4) falsity of the defamatory statement; and
(5) special damages or per se actionability (defamatory on its face).

As the result of First Amendment concerns, when a defendant is a media publisher or broadcaster, a private plaintiff must establish that the media defendant “acted in a grossly irresponsible manner without due consideration for the standards of information gathering and dissemination ordinarily followed by responsible parties”  (Chapadeau v Utica Observer-Dispatch, 38 NY2d 196, 199 [1975] with respect to a matter of public concern.

Plaintiffs must also prove that the alleged defamatory publication refers to them. This element of a libel lawsuit often is referred to as the “of and concerning” principle.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But names will never hurt me.”
    --19th Century English nursery rhyme

Suspect antiquities, traceable to ancient art sales through Hicham and Ali Aboutaam's companies have been written about with recurring frequency on the Association's blog.

It should be remembered that Hicham Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 for smuggling a looted ceremonial drinking vessel from Iran into the US, claiming that it had come from Syria.  Hicham pled guilty to the charges in 2004, paid a fine, and the vessel was returned to the Iranian authorities.  Hicham Aboutaam stated that his conviction stemmed from a "lapse in judgment."

In the past, the Egyptian authorities accused Ali Aboutaam of involvement with Tarek El-Suesy (al-Seweissi), who was arrested in 2003 under Egypt’s patrimony law for illegal export of antiquities. Ali Aboutaam was tried in absentia, pronounced guilty and was fined, and sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Egyptian court in April 2004.  To date, he has not served any of the Egyptian sentence. 

The Aboutaams voluntarily repatriated 251 Antiquities valued at $2.7 Million to the State of Italy in May 2009 tied to one of Italy's most notorious smuggling rings.

Perhaps the brothers might wish to consider which of the aforementioned elements, an article by the Wall Street Journal or engaging in suspect trading practices, has the greater potential for damaging their reputation.

By Lynda Albertson

April 20, 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017 - , No comments

Repatriation: The Cleveland Museum of Art returns WWII looted bust of Drusus Minor to Italy

Sometimes the repatriation of a looted object is a long time coming. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017 the Cleveland Museum of Art and Italy's Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo - MiBACT announced with great public fanfare and press releases that an agreement had finally been reached for the transfer of a marble portrait head representing Drusus Minor (Drusus Julius Caesar, 13 B.C.E.-C.E. 23) back to its country of origin.

The object was part of a group of sculptures excavated in the 1920s that had been displayed in the Civic Museum of Sessa Aurunca from 1926 until it went missing some 70+ years ago at the end of the Second World War.  It is speculated that the object was taken by military personnel, perhaps in search of war mementos.

When the museum first announced the object's acquisition in 2012 they made no mention of who the marble head was purchased from, nor what the purchase price was.  

Seeking to establish an exception to the AAMD's Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art the cached version of the now removed AAMD website object information page listed the object's details and collection history as follows:

Object Title:  Head of Drusus Minor (13 B.C. – A.D. 23)Measurements:  H. 35 cmCreation Date:  probably after A.D. 23 and likely before A.D. 37Credit Line:  Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. FundMuseum Name:  The Cleveland Museum of ArtCulture:  RomanCountry of Origin:  AlgeriaObject Type:  SculpturesMaterials / Techniques: MarbleProvenance Information: Fernand Sintes before 1960; sold at auction at Hôtel Drouot-Richelieu Paris on September 29, 2004, lot. no. 340, unknown purchaser; Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A.(2004); sold to the Cleveland Museum of Art by Phoenix Ancient Art in 2012.Exhibition Information:  No DataPublication Information:  Piasa, Paris, Hôtel Drouot-Richelieu, Archéologie, 28–29 Septembre (Paris 2004) 74, lot. no. 340. Phoenix Ancient Art, Imago, Four Centuries of Roman Portraiture, (New York 2007) cover, III.

Section of the AAMD Guidelines relied upon for the exception to 1970: 

Cumulative facts and circumstances - Explain why the object fits the exception set forth above: The Cleveland Museum of Art has provenance information for this work back to the 1960’s, but has been unable to obtain documentary confirmation of portions of the provenance as described below. The work was sold at public auction in 2004 when it first appeared on the art market. The work was initially identified and published as Tiberius, but was later (after 2007) recognized as a likeness of his son, Drusus Minor. A certificate of origin was issued dated the day after the auction by Jean-Philippe Mariaud de Serres (deceased 2007), who assisted the prior owner and consigner, Fernand Sintes. The certificate stated the sculpture came from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Sintes of Marseilles; that the sculpture had been in Mr. Sintes’s family for many generations; that the family’s name was Bacri; and that they had lived in Algeria since 1860. The museum contacted Mrs. Sintes who confirmed on behalf of herself and Mr. Sintes that Mr. Sintes’ grandfather, Mr. Bacri, had owned the sculpture; that Mr. Sintes inherited the sculpture from his grandfather; that Mr. Sintes brought it from Algeria to Marseilles in 1960; that he had inherited it from his grandfather prior to bringing it to Marseilles; that the sculpture was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 2004; and that they had worked with Mr. de Serres. The portrait, monumental in scale and of great historical importance, belongs to a major category of Roman imperial portraiture not otherwise represented in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Drafted by the the Association of Art Museum Directors and adopted by the AAMD member institutions in the US, Canada and Mexico, the AAMD guidelines, set standards by which member museums should conduct due diligence when acquiring archaeological material and ancient art.  These guidelines serve to discourage member museums from purchasing antiquities unless solid collection histories prove that the object was outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970, or was legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970.

Filling in the gaps on one repatriated object's collection history 

Through the dedicated work of multiple researchers, archaeologists, and lawyers in Italy, France, the UK, the US and Poland, we know the following:

The French auction house's website recorded that the sculpture was sold as lot. 340 to an anonymous buyer at a Hôtel Drouot auction in Paris on September 29, 2004 for €324,000. 

The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired the ancient Roman portrait of the son of Emperor Tiberius 8 years later, from Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealer with galleries in Geneva and New York, whose has been discussed with recurring frequency on the Association's blog.

An image of the Drusus Minor bust graces the cover of the 2007 edition of the Phoenix Ancient Art catalog Imago, dedicated to four hundred years of Roman portraiture.  This cover photo can be seen in the screenshot taken from the dealer's eTiquities website below. 


It is unclear if the bust remained in the Aboutaam brothers' inventory from its 2004 purchase until its eventual purchase by the museum in 2012.

The museum's 2012 purchase was made possible from a credit line tapping the Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund.  Iron, coal, and shipping magnate Leonard C. Hanna Jr. was an avid art collector, theatergoer, and patron of the arts. At his death, Hanna left a bequest of $34 million USD to the Cleveland Museum of Art making it the best-endowed art museum in the United States.  Income from the Hanna endowment fund is restricted to the purchase of art.

Sessa Aurunca, Remains of the theatre (scavi 1925–1926)
Image Credit: Soprintendenza Archeologia della Campania
In the October-December 2014 Bollettino D’Arte, produced by Italy’s Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo, author Giuseppe Scarpati deduced that documentation stored in the Neapolitan archives of the Superintendence Archeologia della Campania, included previously unpublished photos which catagorically confirm that the object was originally discovered between 1925-1926 in Italy when Amedeo Maiuri was excavating the Gagliardella district of Sessa Aurunca, near the site's theater.

The black and white photos found in the Naples archives were taken in 1926. Contact find records of the documented measurements for the ancient marble head, also match records from the Cleveland museum's ancient art collection. 

Image Credit Top Left and Bottom, Soprintendenza Archeologia della Campania, 1926
Image Credit Top Right: ARCA
In a still earlier Italian article, published before the museum's purchase, by the Italian Societá Nazionale di Scienze Lettere ed Arti Napoli, Volume LXXV 2008-2011,  Scarpati had already documented the find images, as well as site diagrams by Sergio Cascella whose documentation reconstructs the zone of the the excavation find spot, the theatre at Sessa Aurunca.

With all this documentation, transfer of the object by the Cleveland Museum of Art back to Italy was clearly the only appropriate resolution.

But will the museum will be reimbursed by Phoenix Ancient Art?

At the time of this article, William Griswold, the museum's director at the Cleveland Museum of Art declined to comment on whether his museum would be reimbursed by the Aboutaams. 

And if the museum is not reimbursed? 

According to a 2014 US government, there are upwards of 35,000 museums in America.  But how many museums employ dedicated provenance researchers to conduct research, to trace an object's history of ownership, and to clarify the circumstances surrounding the potential costly acquisition of an artwork or an antiquity with illicit or looted origins?

In 2016 Cleveland Museum of Art was named the second best museum in the U.S. by Business Insider magazine, just one step behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Perhaps given the diplomatically touchy nature of repatriating looted objects, which necessitates both parties drafting tedious carefully-agreed upon press releases about how wonderful one another is, museums might be wiser to invest in more personnel with solid provenance researching backgrounds to vet objects before their purchase.

In the long run, provenance researchers are cheaper than having to forfeit a pricey accessioned treasure, not to mention,  museum directors aren't subjected to those cheesy photo opportunities with cultural attachés wearing diplomatically-pasted-on grins.

Food for future purchasing thought

A statement from the ICOM International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods states: 

Might be worthwhile to re-read this suggestion before signing a check for that new must-have acquisition.  Failure to engage in due diligence causes institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Art  to suffer at their own hands.

By:  Lynda Albertson


References accessed and interviews used for this article


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ARCA internal research data

Avvocatura dello Stato and the Procuratore Aggiunto dello Stato, Italy

Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo

Stefano Alessandrini, consultant to Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo and the L'Avvocatura dello Stato - Italy. 

Paul Barford, http://paul-barford.blogspot.it/search?q=drusus+cleveland&max-results=20&by-date=true

Sergio Cascella - https://www.academia.edu/2199517/Un_ritratto_di_Tiberio_da_Sessa_Aurunca_ritrovato_RAAN_LXXV_2008-2011_pp._345-368

David Gill, http://lootingmatters.blogspot.it/search?q=drusus+cleveland&max-results=20&by-date=true

Giuseppe Scarpati - https://www.academia.edu/24236780/IL_RITRATTO_DI_DRUSO_MINORE_DAL_CICLO_STATUARIO_GIULIO_CLAUDIO_DI_SESSA_AURUNCA


Rick St. Hilaire - http://culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.it/2017/04/drusus-head-revisited.html

March 24, 2017

Repatriation: Roman sarcophagus held at Swiss Freeport finally clears last hurdle for its return to Turkey

Image taken September 23, 2015
by the Office of the Attorney General of the Canton of Geneva - Image Credit: AFP
In December 2010, Swiss Federal Customs Administration authorities, acting under new customs legislation to combat trafficking in works of art, requested access to the inventory of Phoenix Ancient Art SA., a major supplier of museum-quality antiquities, which stores ancient works of art at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève, a freeport located in a sprawling grey industrial building on the corner of a busy junction in southwest Geneva. 

For more information about freeports as a tax free haven to store art, please see a few of ARCA's earlier blog posts here, here, and here

At the time of the audit, authorities inspected the holdings of both Phoenix Ancient Art and its warehouseman and freight forwarder, Inanna Art Services.  During this inspection, Swiss authorities discovered, but didn't physically seize, a 1-2 ton, 150-180 CE Roman sarcophagus which depicted the twelve labours of the ancient Greek war deity, Hercules. According to customs information on file for the antiquity, the sarcophagus was imported into Switzerland in the name of Phoenix Ancient Art, which often used Inanna Art Services to store its goods or to transport works of art to and from other countries. 

This extraordinary ancient funerary object, likely only one of four of this significant quality documented in the ancient art world, had little in the way of detailed provenance.  For a piece of its quality to have nothing tying it to a previously known ancient art collection; no notations of its discovery or find spot, and nothing notable in the way of published scholarly examination of its style and iconography, rang alarm bells in Switzerland. 

In a recent video, with Al Jazeera news, Ali Aboutaam claimed that the ancient funerary object had been purchased by his father and had been in their family for 25 years. While under their control, he indicated that the sarcophagus had always been stored at the Geneva freeport aside from when it was shipped to the UK for conservation treatment.   Ali Aboutam added that in 2010 the object was sold to the Gandur Foundation as a donation to the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire in Geneva and according to Phoenix Ancient Art's attorney Bastien Geiger, Sleiman Aboutaam purchased the object in the early 90s.

Phoenix Ancient Art had proposed the sarcophagus to billionaire Swiss tycoon and commodities trader, Jean-Claude Gandur in the spring of 2010 for an estimated $1 - 4 million saying that the firm was acting on behalf of a third party whom they interestingly refused to disclose.  Gandur, who made a fortune during the 1990s buying oil concessions in Africa, has long been a powerful collector of ancient art, as well as a long term patron of the Musée d’Art et d’histoire in Geneva. 

In consideration of the donation, Marc-André Haldimann, head of the archaeology department of the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire of Geneva and the director of the museum, Jean-Yves Marin, went to the freeport and inspected the sarcophagus to carry out an appraisal for consideration.  The pair however remained highly skeptical of the lack of established information on the ancient sarcophagus, which implied possible illicit origins.  

How could such a prestigious object emerge on the ancient art market having never been talked or written about previously?   

Wouldn't the archaeologist who discovered such a masterpiece have mentioned this spectacular find in his or her field notes?  

Wouldn't a scholar of some repute have compared it in an academic article with the other known artworks by the same signatory group of sculptures or other sarcophagi depicting Hercules?

The only documentation Phoenix Ancient Art produced which attested to the fundamental question of this exceptional object's past, were independently established statements attesting that the ancient work of art was part of the Aboutaam collection from 2002 onward and a certificate from Art Loss Register attesting the object had been checked against ALR's known stolen art database registry.  Ultimately the sale to the Gandur Foundation was cancelled, in no small part because of suspicions that the object had been smuggled out of its source country. 

In March 2011, the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (FOC) issued a statement that they believed the sarcophagus had originated from the general area of the famous marble quarries of Dokimion in Phrygia, the present day Antalya region of Turkey. The Dokimeian white marble sarcophagus was likely sculpted sometime during the the second century, when the area was under Roman rule. 

Based on the FOC's examination, Swiss authorities alerted their counterparts in Ankara, and Turkey in turn, issued a demand for the restitution of the rare antiquarian work by a letter rogatory of July 2011. Turkey also sent a request for mutual assistance to the Geneva court and an inquiry was formally opened in Switzerland to look into alleged violations of the Cultural Property Transfer Act (LTBC).  This act requires art market professionals keep a register for 30 years, in which the "origin of the cultural property" is to be documented. 

In order for the sarcophagus to have been in good standing in Switzerland under the LTBC, the dealers would be obliged to prove that the acquired object was in an old collection outside the source country prior to 2005 or to demonstrate that the object was not stolen or exported illicitly after 2005.

In October 2013, the case made its way through Swiss court. The Geneva Chief Public Prosecution Office and the Chief Public Prosecutor of Antalya conducted a comprehensive joint study with the Swiss magistrate in charge of the case traveling to Antalya, Turkey where Turkish Public Prosecutor Osman Şanal provided access to witnesses.   

Testimonies were heard from Professor Haluk Abbasoğlu and Professor İnci Deleman who conducted excavations in the region where the sarcophagus was illegally excavated.   The Swiss prosecutor also met with an unnamed imprisoned smuggler serving time on a separate smuggling charge in Elmalı prison.  This smuggler allegedly confirmed that the artifact had been looted and smuggled out of Turkey. 

Based on the evidence gathered, on September 21, 2015 Swiss authorities ordered the repatriation of the sarcophagus. But international legal proceedings move at a snail’s pace and the return of this one object, approved by the Geneva Court of Justice on May 2, 2016, was slowed again, due to a challenge by the Swiss Federal Court. 




More on the dealers involved in this repatriation case.

Phoenix Ancient Art operates a gallery in New York city as well as in Geneva Switzerland.  Founded by Sleiman Aboutaam in 1968, the firm was incorporated in 1995.  The second-generation family business is now managed by Sleiman's sons, Hicham Aboutaam and Ali Aboutaam, who took over the firm's operation after Sleiman’s death in 1998.  The firm has been embroiled in a significant number of antiquities-related controversies. 

A sampling (not a complete listing) of other instances of concern involving this firm include:

A third-century CE South Arabian alabaster stele the brothers attempted to sell in May 2002 via Sotheby’s auction house in New York for approximately $20,000 to $30,000 in which they listed the provenance for the piece as having belonged to a private English collection. Sotheby's researchers conducting due diligence before the auction found published photographs of the stele indicating that this tablet, carved in low relief, with an image of the fertility goddess Dat-Hamin, had been stolen in July 1994 from the Aden Museum in Yemen's port city during the country's previous war.  This object was forfeited to the U.S. government in December 2003 and eventually returned to Yemen.  

Hicham Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 for smuggling a looted ceremonial drinking vessel from Iran into the US, claiming that it had come from Syria.  Hicham pled guilty to the charges in 2004, paid a fine, and the vessel was returned to the Iranian authorities.  Hicham Aboutaam stated that his conviction stemmed from a "lapse in judgment."

The Egyptian authorities have accused Ali Aboutaam of involvement with Tarek El-Suesy (al-Seweissi), who was arrested in 2003 under Egypt’s patrimony law for illegal export of antiquities. Ali Aboutaam was tried in absentia, pronounced guilty and was fined, and sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Egyptian court in April 2004.  To date, he has not served any of the Egyptian sentence. 

The Aboutaams voluntarily repatriated 251 Antiquities valued at $2.7 Million to the State of Italy in May 2009 tied to one of Italy's most notorious smuggling rings.

Advice on collecting ancient art

ARCA encourages its readers to remember that the only way to avoid looting is to pressure dealers and collectors to not participate directly or indirectly in looting through their sourcing and purchases.  Collectors of ancient art are only the most current stewards of objects with long and telling histories. The provenance, or ownership history of a piece of art is important and should detail strong proof that an object has come from a legitimately traded collection.  

Buying and trading in ancient works of art, without well documented collecting histories, simply for their beauty or for the purpose of rescuing them from countries in conflict, only encourages further looting and further laundering of smuggled illicit objects. 

ARCA strongly discourages collectors and museums from buying or accepting objects that cannot pass the 1970 test or which lack a legitimate export permit from the actual and correct country of the object's origin.

By: Lynda Albertson

December 24, 2014

David Gill publishes on "The Case of the Ka Nefer Nefer Mummy Mask" in the Fall 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
  ARCA Blog Editor-in-chief

In the Fall 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime, David Gill publishes "The Case of the Ka Nefer Nefer Mummy Mask". Here's the abstract:
In 1998 the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) purchased an Egyptian 19 Dynasty mummy mask from Phoenix Ancient Art for USD$499,000. In December 2005 it was suggested on the internet that the mask had been removed from the archaeological store at Saqqara and this led to an extended legal tussle between the museum and the Egyptian authorities. The acquisition of the mask was explored by Laura E. Young in an unpublished study that includes some of the documentation key to this discussion (Young 2007). The case has also appeared in a wider discussion of archaeological ethics (Gill 2009b, 95). It is appropriate to review the case now as the two parallel legal cases relating to the mask were terminated in 2014.
David Gill is Professor of Archaeological Heritage and Head of the Division of Humanities at University Campus Suffolk. He was a Rome Scholar at the British School of rome and a Sir James Knott Fellow at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was subsequently part of the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, and Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology at Swansea University, Wales, UK. He has published widely on archaeological ethics with Christopher Chippindale. He has recently completed a history of British archaeological work in Greece prior to the First World War.

Subscriptions to The Journal of Art Crime or individual copies of eEditions or printed issues may be obtained through ARCA's website here.