UPDATED: Fordham’s Folly? Some Answers, Many More Questions about Acquisition of Syrian Mosaics

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UPDATE 1/31: Fordham has hired an independent expert to “vet the provenance,” and is trying to obtain the original forms from the U.S. Customs Bureau, according to university spokesman Bob Howe. “We’ll share our findings and any appropriate documentation at at the end of the process,” Howe writes. I’ve asked for a timeline and the identity of the expert. Why was this vetting not done before the acquisition?  

UPDATED on 1/26 with comments from Peppard, below.

Last week, Fordham University announced it had accepted a gift of nine early Christian mosaics from an anonymous donor.

The mosaics formed part of a church floor located in what is now northwest Syria, according to a university press release, which showed University museum curator Jennifer Udell and Theology professor Michael Peppard posing victoriously next to the recently uncrated acquisitions.

The acquisition sparked concern for several reasons: According to inscriptions translated by Peppard, the mosaics likely come from an ancient church near Apamea, Syria — the site of devastating looting, particularly in recent years. The acquisition also falls outside the Fordham museum’s collecting area, which until now focused on Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. That collection was built largely from the 2007 donation of objects from William D. Walsh, many of which had no clear provenance before the auction sale where they were purchased. The donation raised concerns among scholars. “The message that it sends is there is nothing wrong with looting and buying illegal objects. Fordham needs to be very careful about this,” UPenn museum director Richard Hodges told the New York Times.

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Finally, the donor has insisted on anonymity, and the press release disclosed nothing of the mosaic’ removal from Syria or subsequent ownership history. Predictably, the announcement has caused a flurry of concern among archaeologists and those who follow the illicit antiquities trade.

Via Twitter, Peppard offered a few bits of information: “Excavation unknown. Entered Beirut antiquities market in 60s. Legally purchased/exported in 1972.”

Legally according to…? “According to Lebanese customs papers and all relevant international laws at the time. Henri Seyrig (Beirut) sent photos of these to J.-P. Rey-Coquais in 1968, so they were already there.”

Where were the mosaics likely found? “There were hundreds of rural church ruins in Syria in mid 20th c. Can’t know for sure, esp. since 2011. I argue Apamene diocese based on names, comparanda, and info from Seyrig in 1968.”

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When pressed for more detail, Peppard demured. “I was brought on to translate the inscriptions. I don’t know everything our legal counsel did, but it was a lot. I asked all the Qs that I knew to ask. I really can’t take this up on Twitter any more. Sorry.”

A similar conversation unfolded on the Facebook page of Elizabeth Marlowe, an art history professor at Colgate University, where Fordham’s Susanna McFadden defended the acquisition.

“Guys, I don’t disagree with you on the ethics of this issue, but to defend my colleagues and their decision to acquire these objects: 1) They were previously collecting dust in someones private collection and would never have otherwise seen the light of day if it weren’t for this acquisition. 2) The curator was very careful to make certain that the mosaics had a clear provenance detailing their purchase well before 1970 before accepting the gift 3) We wouldn’t know where they were from AT ALL if Fordham hadn’t acquired them and thus became accessible to a scholar who has managed to convincingly date and located them (article forthcoming in ZPE) 4) A discussion of the legal and ethical issues about this acquisition will certainly ensue as a result of this acquisition, and is welcomed by the curator and all involved. There will be full transparency. BUT, the mosaics only arrived a month ago, and this article was written by a PR person for the university who knows nothing of the issues and was simply trying to get the word out. Lets not attack prematurely.”

Marlowe responded: “Sorry Susanna; I don’t hold you accountable for this (obviously), but given Fordham’s recent collecting history, I don’t see why we should give their acquisitions decisions the benefit of the doubt. The argument that collecting looted antiquities saves them from oblivion is always trotted out, but the fact remains that if there were no buyers of undocumented antiquities, no one would bother to rip them out of their archaeological contexts in the first place. The celebratory tone of this article, and its utter silence about the larger issues, only encourages buyers and looters to keep doing their thing. And the gushing of the historian is naive, at best.”

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At our request, Fordham has now released additional information about the acquisition in an unsigned “university statement” provided by Udell:

Prior to acceptance of the mosaics, museum and University officials, including the curator, executive director of University Art Collections, and University counsel, plus a Fordham scholar specializing in early Christianity, conducted a thorough review of the mosaics’ provenance, ancient and modern.

In accordance with University policy, and in line with standard guidelines for museums, University personnel reviewed documentation provided by the donor. This included two separate special customs invoices, issued by the U.S. Bureau of Customs and filed with the Treasury Department, which confirm that the mosaics were legally purchased in Beirut on May 19, 1972, and August 4, 1972, and shipped on the SS Concordia FJell and SS Star, respectively, and imported into the United States at the port of Baltimore on June 16 and August 23, 1972, respectively.

The mosaics remained continuously in the possession of the donor’s family until they were given to Fordham.

Though acquired in Beirut, their Syrian provenance was established by Michael Peppard, Ph.D, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham. Among Peppard’s research interests is early Christianity,  including its art, ritual, and material culture. His research on the prosopography of the early Byzantine Christian names on the large round mosaic (based largely upon the work of Pauline Donceel-Voute’s work on church mosaics of Syria and Lebanon) shows that the names, especially the bishop Epiphanius, are closely associated with the Apamene diocese of Syria, the region to the west of modern Maarrat al-Numan on the highway between Aleppo and Damascus.

In a forthcoming article in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (ZPE–Journal for Papyrology and Epigraphy), the international flagship journal for first editions of such artifacts, Peppard shows that:

[The mosaics] were available for purchase earlier than [1972], though. In a March, 1968, letter to Jean-Paul Rey-Coquais, Henri Seyrig reports having seen a group of mosaics from “the region of Tell Minis” for sale, which seems to have included these among others. He made photographs of two of them along with “une série de copies hâtives.” Then in a 1979 article about Apamene inscriptions from Huarte, Pierre Canivet reported that Rey-Coquais had shared with him knowledge of the mosaic inscriptions he had seen via Seyrig, one of which dated the episcopacy of Epiphanius to 463 CE. It would take until 1994, however, for the text of that mosaic (namely, the large rondel now in Fordham’s possession) to be printed, in a footnote by Denis Feissel, who had seen a photograph and a transcription of it from a different source, the records of Jean Marcillet-Jaubert. Finally, the transcription was included in a 1996 article by Rey-Coquais and in that year’s L’Annee epigraphique and Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (SEG).

Peppard’s research was conducted prior to the University’s acceptance of the gift. He and Jennifer Udell, Ph.D., curator of University art at Fordham, will continue to publish scholarly examinations of the mosaics’ ancient and modern histories.

Fordham has also amended the release on its website with some of the above information, adding this statement:

Fordham University acknowledges the serious and legitimate concerns for the security of Syria’s ancient archaeological sites and artifacts, and more broadly, the importance of establishing provenance as rigorously as possible in acquiring artworks from antiquity. The University is committed to best practices in antiquities acquisition, documentation, and display.

We have asked Fordham to release the underlying provenance documents to us, so they can be inspected widely and skeptically by those with no interest in the acquisition. We’ll post them here when we have them.

David Gill at Looting Matters has also asked several pertinent questions about the acquisition. [UPDATE 2/1: He has now also raised questions about the Fordham's Villanovan hut, a bronze head of Caracalla and the Walsh Collection.] To his list we add our own:

Lebanon is notorious as a country of transit for looted antiquities from the Middle East, in part because forged government export documents have historically been easy to obtain. (Just ask Arthur Houghton about the Sevso Treasure and other cases.) Did Fordham obtain copies of the provenance records described above? Do they hold up to close scrutiny?

Why has the donor of such valuable archaeological material insisted on anonymity? What tax write-off did the donor receive for the donation? Given the uniqueness of the material, who provided the arm’s length valuation?

Where is the other related material cited in the Henri Seyrig letter?

In our conversation over Twitter, Peppard asked us, “Honest Q: What would you do differently?” For a start: In light of overwhelming evidence of on-going and historical looting in Syria and the prevalence of false provenance documents, these questions should have been addressed publicly and in detail in the triumphant press announcement.

While we await the release of more details, perhaps now is as good a time as any to dig into that 2007 Walsh donation…

UPDATE 1/26: On Jan 13, I asked Fordham University to release the provenance documents referred to in their release above and details on their due diligence. Specifically, “What in the 1968 letter suggests the Fordham mosaics? Has Fordham seen/obtained a copy of the letter, the photographs or ‘hasty copies’? If so, would you please release copies of them to me?” Fordham curator Jennifer Udell responded the same day, saying, “I am working to get you the relevant documents and the answers to your additional questions. I appreciate your patience.”

It has been 13 days. Despite repeated requests for an update, I have heard nothing further and received no documents.

I have received a number overheated emails from Fordham theology professor Michael Peppard. In his first, on Jan. 14th, he described the above blog post as “a shocking and slanderous personal attack of me.” Noting my request for additional information, he asked, “…Instead of waiting to receive all your answers, why did you proceed to write such defamatory things?”  Subsequent emails continued in a similar tone, accusing me of libel, slander, defamation and unprofessionalism.

Peppard has launched similar allegations at David Gill and at Bill Caraher in the comments section of his blog. Caraher’s response A response from a user “Nakassis” is worth quoting in full: “Ridiculous. Nobody is making any such slanderous accusations and the scholarly community is perfectly legitimate in asking to see the documentation authenticating the legality of the sale. Your (I suspect false) offense is mere smokescreen. Nice try. In any case, the legality of the sale has no bearing on the ethical issue of their purchase, which I notice that you ignore altogether. The fact that thoughtful, professional archaeologists are taking issue with the purchase ought to suggest to you that they might have some legitimate gripes, in which case the best course of action is to say, as your institution did, that you agree with ‘the importance of establishing provenance as rigorously as possible in acquiring artworks from antiquity’ instead of doubling down.”

When I asked Peppard to identify a factual error in my post, he could not, saying instead that I had associated him with modern looting near Apamea. Of course, he made the link between the mosaics and Apamea, not I, and the looting there did not start during the current conflict. Putting his legal threats and outrage aside, Peppard’s point seems to boil down to this: “When photos and transcriptions of an artifact were made over 45 years ago and have been published over twenty years ago, it is simply impossible that said artifact was excavated in 2011.”

Impossible? Perhaps. It will be more clear if and when Fordham releases copies of the documents. But the question is not whether the mosaics were looted during the current conflict in Syria. It is whether they were removed legally – whenever they were removed. Nothing in the information Fordham or Peppard has released answers that question.

According to UNESCO’s database of national cultural heritage laws, Syria has had a national patrimony law since at least 1963. A quick search shows that Article 30 of legislative decree #222 adopted by Syria on October 26th 1963  states: “State owned movable antiquities might not be sold or given as gifts. They must be in state museums.”

Unless Fordham can establish the mosaics were exported from Syria before that date – or that the government sanctioned their export after it – it seems unlikely the university can acquire clear title. This is to say nothing of the ethics of Fordham acquiring the mosaics in exchange for an undisclosed tax-write off for donor who wishes, for reasons unclear, to remain anonymous.

We look forward to seeing the documents.

False Provenance: Indictment of Kapoor’s Girlfriend Reveals Fake Ownership Histories

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office criminally charged the girlfriend of Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor on Friday, alleging she participated in a decades-long conspiracy to launder stolen antiquities by creating false ownership histories and, more recently, helpin to hide four stolen bronze sculptures as investigators closed in on Kapoor.

subhash kapoorSelina Mohamed was charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property and one count of conspiracy, court records show. She is the third person criminally charged in the case, following the indictments of Kapoor’s sister Sushma Sareen and gallery manager Aaron Freedman, who pled guilty to six criminal counts earlier this month. There is arrest warrant out for Kapoor, who is in custody in India awaiting trial. [Full coverage.]

Prosecutors allege that since 1992 Mohamed has been involved in the fabrication of bogus ownership histories for dozens of objects Kapoor sold to museums around the world. Since 2007, she also had nominal control over several of Kapoor’s storage facilities.

The possession charges relate to Mohamed’s alleged role in the disappearance of four of Kapoor’s stolen bronze sculptures – two of Shiva and two of Uma – valued at $14.5 million. Kapoor instructed his gallery manager to send the Chola-era bronzes to Mohamed’s house in November 2011, the complaint states. After federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations searched Kapoor’s Art of the Past gallery and storage facilities in January 2012, Mohamed insisted that the bronzes be removed from her house. They are now missing.

Mohamed, who records show was arrested on Friday, could not be reached for comment. Her attorney is not identified in court records.

Mohamed allegedly created false provenance for several Kapoor objects we’ve written about in the past. Several more are identified in the complaint for the first time. They include:

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A 10th – 11th century sculpture of Lakshmi Narayana from northern India, now at the National Gallery of Australia. The NGA bought it from Kapoor in 2006 for $375,000, records show. As Kapoor noted in promotional materials, “The treatment of the eyes is similar to that of another Lakshmi-Narayana from the temple at Khajuraho,” a world heritage site in Madhya Pradesh that contains some of the greatest masterpieces of Indian art.

M5913A gilded 18th century altar from Goa showing the Virgin Mary at Singapore’s Asian Civilization’s Museum. Kapoor sold it to the museum in 2009 for $135,000, describing it as “one of the most important and unique examples of Goanese art to appear on the market in over a generation.”

For the first time, Friday’s criminal complaint  lists several American museums that purchased objects from Kapoor and his associates, who the complaint says attempted to launder them with fabricated ownership histories. They include:

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12th century Vishnu Trivrikrama at the University of Florida’s Harn Museum in Gainsville, FL

Records show Kapoor visited the museum in April 1999 and met with the interim director, Larry David Perkins. Soon after, Kapoor offered to sell the statue to the museum with a false provenance created by Mohamed, records show. His promotional material described its importance, saying, “There is only one known Vishnu Trivikrama image in the world in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, which rivals the Art of the Past image.” The Harn purchased it for $75,000 in 1999.

M5240A 19th century painting at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The museum purchased the painting from Kapoor for $35,000 in 2006. This is the first of painting that investigators have identified as bearing a bogus provenance, suggesting his criminal activity may have extended beyond ancient art. Kapoor sold or donated dozens of paintings to museums, particularly the Met.

The complaint also notes Kapoor attempted to sell a Jain bronze shrine with a false letter of provenance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992. The museum did not acquire the piece, and its unclear where it is today.

M5796aFinally, Mohamed allegedly provided false provenance for a torso of a Vedata that was reported as stolen from Karitalai, India in 2006 on the Interpol database. Kapoor put its value at $450,000, noting in his catalog, “This ornamentation is nearly identical to the jewelry seen on the famous sculpture of a Dancing Devata at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The similarity is so strong that it is highly possible both sculptures come from the same workshop.” (The Met’s Devata is a promised gift from Florence and Herbert Irving and has been on loan to the museum since 1993.)

The false provenances allegedly created by Mohamed over the years were not terribly sophisticated. Here is a sample of one she allegedly created to go with with the NGA’s Dvarapalas:

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Going forward, a key question will be: To what extent did museums conduct basic due diligence on these claimed ownership histories? Many museums no doubt took them at face value. They should immediately make public any provenance information they’ve received from Kapoor to show their good faith and assist investigators with this burgeoning case.

We’ve posted the criminal complaint against Mohamed here:

Blood Antiquities: After Lengthy Fight, Sotheby’s Agrees to Return Looted Khmer Statue

Sotheby’s and a private collector agreed on Thursday to forfeit a 10th century statue of a warrior to Cambodia, ending a lengthy legal fight that exposed the trafficking of looted Khmer antiquities to museums and collectors around the world.

The agreement states that Sotheby’s will transfer the statue of Duryodhana to Cambodia within 90 days in exchange for the U.S. government dropping a lawsuit brought on behalf of the Cambodian government. The suit claimed the auction house and Belgian collector Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa had attempted to sell the statue in 2011 despite their knowledge that it had been looted from a Cambodian temple. 

There was never any doubt about whether the statue had been looted, or where it had been found. As we wrote in April 2012, internal emails cited in the case revealed that Sotheby’s officials were warned by an expert that the statue had been stolen from the Khmer temple of Prasat Chen, in Koh Ker, and that its public sale might lead to a legal claim.

“The Cambodians in Pnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ…The two Dvarapalas must have stood close together and their feet remain, so it’s pretty clear where they came from,” wrote Emma Bunker, a leading expert on Khmer art and close associate of Douglas Latchford, the Bangkok dealer who allegedly bought it from looters and exported it from Thailand. “It is also possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back,” she added. “I’m sorry as I had some exciting things to say about it, but I don’t think Sotheby wants this kind of potential problem.”

Sotheby’s officials decided that while it might receive bad press from “academics and ‘temple huggers,’” the potential profits from the sale made it “worth the risk,” internal emails showed.

Thursday’s agreement to forfeit the statue shows that calculation was decidedly wrong. Sotheby’s could have returned the statue to the collector and let her decide its fate, as auction houses have often done when claims arise. It also could have accepted a $1 million offer from a private collector who sought to buy the statue on Cambodia’s behalf. Instead Sotheby’s opted to fight it out in court – at considerable cost to both its bank account and its reputation.

One of the lingering questions from the case is, why? Some have pointed to the personalities involved in the case, which pit the US Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York against Jane Levine, one of the former stars of its cultural property crimes unit who now works as Sotheby’s Director of Worldwide Compliance. In a series of bare-knuckled filings, the government accused Levin of providing “false and misleading information to the Government.” Levin pushed back, accusing investigators of misleading the auction house about having probable cause for the statue’s seizure.

Another theory, floated this weekend at a UN-sponsored conference in Courmayeur by a prominent retired art crimes investigator, is that Sotheby’s may have taken on partial ownership of the statue. Why else would it spend what were likely hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending someone else’s problematic statue?

Regardless of the motive, the outcome of the case has cast a spotlight on a major trafficking network of looted Khmer antiquities. At the Courmayeur conference, researchers Tess Davis and Simon MacKenzie reported on their field work this summer mapping that very trafficking network, which was responsible for plunder of 10th and 11th century Khmer temples across northern Cambodia. Among the preliminary findings of the research was that Ta Mok, the senior Khmer Rouge leader known as The Butcher and Brother Number 5, may well have played a personal role in the removal of ancient statues from Koh Ker. This lends support to the notion that looted Khmer objects at museums around the world should be considered “blood antiquities.”

Attention now shifts to other Khmer statues likely acquired through the same smuggling network. Over the past year we and others have traced objects from Koh Ker and other sites that passed through the hands of Douglas Latchford before ending up in museums across the United States and Europe. The case for the return of those objects has now grown much stronger.

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In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return its two Khmer Kneeling Attendants, which it acquired from Latchford and other donors. The decision was reached after museum officials traveled to Cambodia and were presented with “dispositive” evidence of the statues’ illicit origins. The Met continues to possess several other objects tied to Latchford that have not been returned.

Officials from the Norton Simon will soon travel to Cambodia to discuss the museum’s statue of Bima, whose feet remain in the Koh Ker temple next to those of its companion, the Durydhana that Sotheby’s has just agreed to return. The Bima was purchased in 1976 from New York dealer William H. Wolff. The museum may well consider the words of its founder. When asked about repatriation of looted antiquities, Norton Simon once told the New York Times: “If it did some good, I would return it. If there were reason and probability that smuggling could be stopped, I would do it. It would do a lot to establish a constructive relationship between nations….Looting is a terribly destructive process. In cutting works out of temples, thieves mutilate them.”

Cambodia has indicated it is preparing to makes similar claims against Khmer statues tied to Latchford at the Kimbell Museum, the Cleveland Museum and the Denver Art Museum. Many more exist in private collections.

The owners of these blood antiquities would be wise to learn from Sotheby’s experience and not wait for a demand from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Here’s the stipulation Sotheby’s signed on December 12th agreeing to the statue’s return.

UPDATED: Guilty Plea: Kapoor’s Gallery Manager Cops to Six Criminal Counts

UPDATE: The National Gallery of Australia announced Thursday that it is seeking to return its stolen Shiva, purchased from Kapoor in 2008 for $5 million, and will pursue a lawsuit against Kapoor. See below for details. 

The manager of Subhash Kapoor’s New York antiquities gallery pleaded guilty Wednesday to six criminal charges related to trafficking in stolen art.

ed106For nearly two decades, Aaron Freedman, 41, managed Art of the Past on Madison Avenue, a major supplier of ancient art to museums and private collectors around the world.

During that time, court records say, Freedman helped Kapoor manage a global network of looters, thieves and smugglers who pried artifacts from temples and ruins, laundered them with forged ownership histories and sold them to some of the world’s most prominent museums and collectors.

“He arranged for the shipping into and out of the United States of antiquities stolen from numbers countries including, but not limited to, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Cambodia, having the antiquities shipped through intermediaries in order to create documentation to help launder the pieces,” the court records say. “He also arranged for the manufacturing of false provenances for illicit cultural property, the contacting of prospective buyers, and the ultimate sale and transport of those looted and thereafter laundered antiquities.”

In a court appearance Wednesday, Freedman pleaded guilty to one count of criminal conspiracy and five counts of possession of stolen property, according to a spokesman for  the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. His attorney Paul Bergman did not return calls for comment. According to an online profile, Freedman graduated from Vassar College before studying Art History at Rutgers University. He started work at Art of the Past in 1995.

UPDATE: Bergman told The New York Times his client was eager to “take concrete steps to rectify his serious mistakes.” The prosecutor on the case was quoted by the Times saying, “Mr. Freedman, I believe, is sincerely and genuinely remorseful and repentant and he has taken significant steps toward making amends.” It appears likely Freedman will be cooperating with investigators.

subhash kapoorFreedman’s boss Subhash Kapoor is now in custody in Chennai, India where he is facing trial as the alleged mastermind of an international antiquities smuggling ring. Federal investigators have described Kapoor as one of the most prolific antiquities smugglers in the world. In a series of raids on his New York gallery and storage facilities, agents have seized an estimated $100 million in art. They are now in the process of tracking down objects he sold to museums and collectors around the world. [Find all our past coverage of the Kapoor case here.]

Since 1974, Kapoor has sold or donated thousands of pieces of ancient art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art , the Norton Simon Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Toledo Museum in Ohio and others. Abroad, his clients included the Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin; the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore; and Australia’s National Gallery and Art Gallery of New South Whales.

The court records filed Wednesday detail several stolen objects that Freedman and Kapoor attempted to sell to museums and collectors.

The Bharhut Stupa

M5648 copyThe most important has not previously been revealed: a nearly 7-foot tall 2nd Century BCE sandstone sculpture from Bharhut stupa, in central India. Kapoor priced it at a staggering $15 million, calling it “the most significant example of Indian sculpture known to exist outside of India.”

In his gallery’s promotional materials for the sculpture, Kapoor stressed the object’s importance and rarity: “The Bharhut Stupa is one the most important monuments for the history of stone sculpture in India, as it was one of the first Buddhist monuments to have used stone extensively in its construction. In addition, the Bharhut Stupa was one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in its time.”

“The material remains from Bharhut Stupa are extremely limited, and, therefore, incredibly rare. Aside from a handful of museums in India (the Allahabad Museum, the Indian Museum in Calcutta, and the National Museum in New Delhi) there is no collection in the west, except for the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, that has anything worth mentioning from this all-important site. The Norton Simon Museum has two well-known railing pillars from the Bharhut region that were acquired in the late 1960s….”

In a letter to a potential buyer, Freedman said the sculpture had “become available from an old private collection.” Investigators say it was stolen from the private residence of an Indian man who reported the theft in 2004.

Uma Parameshvari in Singapore

M5354newhfThis 11th Century Chola sculpture of Uma Parameshvari, the Great Goddess, standing in her sensuous thrice-bent pose, was stolen from the Sivan Temple in India’s Ariyalur District in 2005 or 2006, according to the court records.

Kapoor sold it to Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum in February 2007 for $650,000, records show. His contact there was the museum’s senior curator Dr. Gauri Krishnan.

Also cited in support of Freedman’s criminal charges are four missing Chola sculptures worth $14.5 million that authorities allege were hidden by Kapoor’s sister, Sushma Sareen. As we reported in October, Sareen was criminally charged for her role in the case.

The final piece mentioned in the court records is the National Gallery of Australia’s sculpture of Shiva, purchased for $5 million in 2008. As we revealed in June, the sculpture was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Tamil Nadu.

UPDATE 12/5: The National Gallery of Australia released the following statement after learning about Freedman’s plea agreement:

The NGA’s Chola-period Shiva Nataraja is among the items listed as being illegally exported from India. This information represents a significant and concrete development in the available information regarding the Kapoor case. The Gallery has instructed its American attorneys to commence legal proceedings against Subhash Kapoor in accordance with the provisions of our acquisition agreement. NGA Director Ron Radford has already contacted the Indian High Commission to discuss avenues for restitution…

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Freedman is due back in court on February 4th for sentencing. The Superior Court Information on his case, NY vs. Freedman (No. 2013NY091098) can be found here: 

Steinhardt Redux: Feds Seize Fresco Looted from Italian World Heritage Site, Destined for New York Billionaire

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UPDATED with a statement from Andrew Baker below.

Federal agents in New York have seized a looted fresco fragment destined for Michael Steinhardt, the billionaire hedge fund titan turned antiquities collector, according to court records filed last week.

michael_steinhardtThe legal foundation for the case was created by Steinhardt himself twenty years ago with his failed effort – fought all the way to the US Supreme Court – to block the seizure of a golden libation bowl that was illegally exported from Sicily.

The Steinhardt case, as it is known, affirmed that false statements on customs forms about an object’s value or country of origin could be a basis for forfeiture. The civil complaint against the fresco filed Nov 14th by Assistant US Attorney Karin Ornstein in New York’s Eastern District cites the same law on material false statements (Title 18 USC Sec 542) in justifying its seizure and forfeiture.

On April 19, 2011 the fresco was shipped to Steinhardt via FedEx from Kloten, Switzerland, according to the complaint. On customs forms, the object was described as being for “personal use” — as opposed to “for sale” — and it’s country of origin was declared to be Macedonia, the complaint states.

The fresco never made it to Steinhardt. It was detained at Newark Liberty Airport by Customs and Border Protection agents, who requested a documented ownership history for the fresco. An employee of Mat Securitas, a Swiss shipping and security service, provided an Oct. 2011 affidavit of provenance signed by the shipper of record, Andrew Baker of Vaduz, Lichtenstein.

Baker’s affidavit stated the fresco had originated in Macedonia and been acquired in 1959 by Lens Tschanned, who had kept it in his private residence ever since. It was being shipped to a potential buyer and had an estimated sale price of $12,000, the affidavit said.

Experts and Italian investigators came to a different conclusion, court records show. The fresco appears to have been looted from the archaeological site of Paestum, south of Naples. Paestum is well known for its painted tombs and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

800px-The_Tomb_of_the_Diver_-_Paestum_-_Italy

In 1969, Italian archaeologist Mario Napoli began excavations of the Andriuolo necropolis. Among the finds was Tomb 53, which had a triangular pediment nearly identical to the fragment sent to Steinhardt. Today it is the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum. With identical dimensions and an image that precisely mirrors the Steinhardt fragment, experts believe the two stood at opposite sides of Tomb 53, the complaint states.

Fresco from Tomb 53, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum

Fresco from Tomb 53, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum

The complaint alleges that the story of the “old Swiss collection” and the customs declaration citing a Macedonian origin are false, noting that Tomb 53 was first excavated a decade after 1959. In short, the fresco fragment was stolen.

When Baker was presented with the evidence, he cooperated with investigators and agreed to forfeit the fresco fragment, according to a stipulation filed with the case. He denied knowledge that the fragment had been stolen and said he relied upon the representations of an unnamed person who donated it to him. The fresco is now in federal custody awaiting its return to Italy.

The case involves some familiar names:

Cult Statue of a Goddess (Aphrodite)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 moto is “Safe. Discrete. Reliable.”

Andrew Baker is a UK solicitor based in London, Turks and Caicos and, since 1992, Lichtenstein. He specializes in tax minimization and has been accused of fraud and money laundering, court records show. One account of the case says, “After analyzing Baker’s offshore structure one expert issued a damning report referring to Baker’s structure as ‘sham’ that is clearly reminiscent of a classic money laundering scheme, indeed rustic at that.'” We’ve asked Baker for a comment and will post it if we receive one.

UPDATE: Via email, Baker said:

The piece in question was part of a long-standing family collection held by a Liechtenstein establishment of which I am the director. It was believed to have originated from Macedonia but sufficient evidence was eventually produced to me by the US authorities to persuade me that its more probable origin was Italy. As soon as I received the evidence, I was more than happy to give the piece up for return to Italy which had laid a claim to it. To answer your question, I do not regularly trade in ancient art.

Regarding the allegations in the lawsuit mentioned above, Bake called them bogus, adding:

[Joseph] Kay and [Emanuel] Zeltser did indeed start a civil law suit in Miami against me and others but they have lost hands down at every instance so far. My understanding is that we now await the outcome of their final appeal.

Baker’s attorney on the fresco case is none other than Harold Grunfeld, who is representing collector Jonathan Rosen in the return of 10,000 cuneiform tablets to Iraq that we wrote about earlier this month.

Michael Steinhardt is a pioneering hedge fund manager and prominent antiquities collector whose net worth is estimated at more than $1 billion. Both he and his wife play a prominent role in the New York art world.

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Michael sits on the American advisory board of Christies and endowed the Director’s position of New York University‘s Institute of Fine Arts, where his wife Judy is the chairwoman. In addition to antiquities, Steinhardt is a major collector of Judaica. On his collection’s website he gives special thanks to Robert Hecht, one of the most prominent dealers in looted antiquities since World War II.

He has been a vocal defender of Shelby White, another prominent New York antiquities collector and controversial donor to NYU. In 2007, Steinhardt told The New York Sun, a newspaper he owns, that White had been unfairly singled out by Greek and Italian authorities who sought the return of looted antiquities in her private collection. “She and her husband, Leon [Levy], have been generous to a fault to all sorts of institutions” Steinhardt said. “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.”

The success Italy, Greece and others have had with restitution claims against American collectors and museums “reflects the weak and inept policy of the American government,” Steinhardt told the Sun. “It seems to me that [the source countries] go after that place whose government is weakest and doesn’t have the courage to stand up for its citizens. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. cultural policy professionals have really, I think, done a great disservice to the cultural institutions in this country.”

The fresco case suggests that Steinhardt remains an active collector of antiquities with unclear ownership histories – even after his lengthy legal battle in the 1990s. In the past he has loaned prominent works to the Met, but recently told Lee Rosenbaum that he would not donate the objects to the museum because he was “less than overjoyed” with how the museum handled antiquities controversies.

It remains an open question if an American institution would accept Steinhardt’s extensive antiquities collection should he choose to donate it some day.

Untold Millions: The National Gallery of Australia Won’t Say What They Paid Kapoor, So We Will – At least $8.5M

imagesThe National Gallery of Australia has refused to tell Australia’s Senate how much it paid (with public money, in some cases) for the 21 objects it acquired from New York antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now facing criminal trial in India for trafficking in stolen art.

The museum has also refused repeated requests from local and international media to release details on the objects it acquired from Kapoor, despite mounting evidence those objects are stolen property and were illegally exported from India.

The NGA’s stonewalling has inspired our digging. We can now reveal that the National Gallery of Australian paid Kapoor at least $8.5 million between 2002 and 2011.

Previously we’ve reported the NGA paid Kapoor $5 million for a Nataraja; $500,000 for a pair of Dvarapalas; $337,500 for a Nagaraja; and $195,000 for an Alam. Here are the prices paid for several other Kapoor objects that were first identified by Michaela Boland in the Australian last month:

The first object the NGA acquired from Kapoor was in September 2002, when the museum paid $35,000 for this Durga Slaying The Buffalo Demon, a 12th-13th century sculpture made in Gujarat, India. An employee of Kapoor assured NGA curator Robyn Maxwell that the piece would “arrive no later than next Friday in Sydney – in time for the gallery’s birthday weekend.”

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In Nov. 2003, the NGA purchased a Seated Gina under an arch from Kapoor for $125,000. The museum identifies the Jainist marble piece as coming from the Mount Abu region, Rajasthan, India.

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On May 31, 2005 the NGA paid Kapoor $1.775 million for three important Indian antiquities. One was a bronze dancing child-saint Sambandar, purchased for $850,000. It was accompanied by a false letter of provenance dated 1969. This image shows the Sambandar in Kapoor’s catalog:

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The image of the Sambandar below shows it in Kapoor’s gallery before restoration. Note the bronze appears to be dirty.

This image of the Sambandar shows it in Kapoor's gallery before restoration.

The second in the batch was a granite Goddess Pratyangira purchased for $275,000. As Kapoor noted in his catalog, “Representations of Pratyangira are exceedingly rare, with only one other example known, a 17th-century image that is still in worship.”

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The final piece acquired in May 2005 shows worshipers dancing beneath the bodhi tree, and was acquired for $1.25 million. The NGA helpfully identifies it as coming from “the dome of a stupa at Amaravati, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site in India.”

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India wasn’t the only source for Kapoor’s antiquities network. In September 2006, Kapoor sold the NGA the head of a Bodhisattva for $247,500. It was likely looted from a Gandharan site in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

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In addition to antiquities, Kapoor also sold the museum several religious icons. This 18th century ivory Madonna and Child were sold to NGA in August 2011 for $35,000.

Madonna and Child

Kapoor sold this ivory crucifix from the Portuguese colony of Goa, India to the NGA in Oct. 2007 for $337,500. The museum says, “Holes piercing completely through the hands and feet mark stigmata and indicate the icon would have originally been affixed to a large cross.”

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We encourage the National Gallery of Australia and other museums to be more forthcoming with information about objects in their collections. Museums are public institutions and owe the public an explanation of what they acquire, from whom they bought it and what they paid for it, particularly when questions are raised about an object’s provenance.

As we’ve learned from the Getty Museum, museums that try to hide the ball end up paying a higher price in the end.

The Rosen Connection: Cornell Will Return 10,000 Cuneiform Tablets to Iraq

CUSAS_6_52-04-054reverse On the front page of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Jason has the scoop on Cornell University’s decision to return 10,000 cuneiform tablets of unclear provenance to Iraq.

The tablets were donated and lent to Cornell by New York attorney Jonathan Rosen, one of the world’s leading collectors of Near Eastern antiquities. Rosen is a prominent donor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University, among others. For years he was also the business partner of Robert Hecht, a leading dealer of looted antiquities to American museums. Their Manhattan gallery Atlantis Antiquities was the source of several looted objects, including some that the Getty Museum has returned to Italy.

The source and ownership history of the Cornell tablets is unclear, as is the cause for their return. Neither Rosen nor the university will say where they were obtained, what their ownership history is or why they are being returned. Iraqi authorities requested their return in 2012, and likewise will not comment on what prompted the request. A press conference announcing the return is expected in the coming weeks, once a formal agreement has been signed. The deal will likely include a collaboration agreement between Iraq and Cornell.

Cornell has been criticized for accepting the Rosen Collection by scholars who suspect the tablets were looted from Iraq in the years after the 1991 Gulf War. Federal investigators suspected the same thing, records show.

The source of the Garsana tablets was the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to records obtained by Harvard researcher Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act. Buying and possessing antiquities illegally removed from countries such as Iraq, which claim them as government property, can be a violation of U.S. law.

Investigators also looked into potential violations of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which at the time barred doing business with Iraq, and tax fraud, the records said. The 1,679 tablets were valued at less than $50,000 when they were imported, but the donor received a $900,000 tax deduction when they were given to Cornell in 2000, the records said.

Ultimately, there were no findings of wrongdoing because investigators could not determine precisely when or where the objects were found, the records show.

Harold Grunfeld, attorney for Jonathan Rosen, said all of the tablets “were legally acquired” and that the federal investigation found “no evidence of wrongdoing.” He said the tablets at issue were donated by Rosen’s late mother, Miriam.

“It has always been the Rosen family’s intent that these tablets reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research and for the benefit of the public as a vast informational tool in explaining life in the ancient world,” Grunfeld said.

The 1,600 tablets referred to in the records include the Garsana archive, a

… private archive of a 21st century BC Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died.

During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts’ and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal.

“It’s our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman,” said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.

Other tablets provide detailed administrative records of ancient life, including the procedures for temple rituals, the resettlement of refugees and the output of agricultural lands.

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Below are copies of the investigative records related to the donation of the Garsana archive. They were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Benjamin Studevent-Hickman, a Harvard scholar who has a forthcoming book on a related set of tablets. The donor name has been redacted but Grunfeld confirmed the document refers to a donation by Miriam Rosen.

We’ll be posting more about this case and related ones in the coming days. Stay tuned!

A Family Affair: Kapoor’s Sister Charged With Hiding Looted Idols

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has charged the sister of Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor with attempting to hide from federal authorities four stolen bronze sculptures worth $14.5 million.

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Kapoor after his arrest and extradition to India

Sushma Sareen was charged on October 7 with four counts of felony possession of stolen property. According the criminal complaint, Sareen took over Kapoor’s business after his arrest in Germany in 2012 and began running it with Kapoor’s daughter Mamta Sager. Ever since, Sareen has been closely involved with the business, traveling to India, assisting with wire transfers and contacting smugglers, the complaint alleges.

Sareen was released on $10,000 bond. Her lawyer Scott E. Leemon told the New York Times that Sareen denied the charges. See our past coverage of the Kapoor case here.

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Bronze Shiva Natarajah stolen from an Indian temple in 2008

The Chola-era bronzes she attempted to hide are among 14 that were stolen in February 2008 from the Varadharajah Perumi temple in Suthamally Village of Tamil Nadu, India, the complaint alleges. The idols were allegedly stolen for Kapoor by a crew hired by his accomplice Sanjeevi Ashokan. According to Indian investigators, Ashokan “used to select Chola period temples, which were in ruins, for committing theft of antique idols, as theft in such temples would not be known soon after the crime. For identifying temples to commit the crime, he used to refer to books such as South Indian Bronzes, Master pieces of Indian Sculptures and Survey Maps.” In all, 18 idols were stolen from a dilapidated temple during two days in February 2008. They were transported in a truck to Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital, where many were provided to Ashokan, who paid Rs. 25 lakhs, or about $50,000.

Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja shown in Kapoor’s Art of the Past 2010 catalog

Ashokan allegedly exported the idols in a shipment mixed with modern handicrafts through the Chennai Port on March 6, 2008 to Union Link Int. Movers (HK) Inc in Hong Kong. Kapoor paid Ashokan more than 1 million rupees, or roughly US$230,000, through HSBC bank for the idols, Indian investigators allege. Shipping documents seized by U.S. federal agents appear to support that conclusion. The complaint says the shipping records show the 14 idols were illegally exported from India to Hong Kong along with otherwise legal shipments of “new Indian artistic handicrafts.”

The complaint also spells out the early stages of the Kapoor investigation and reveals that federal agents have recruited several insiders — including a member of Kapoor’s staff and a person who posed as a private collector — as informants in their investigation of Kapoor, who they have described as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.”

That investigation appears to have begun in 2007, when a person described as “Informant #1″ was arrested in California and pled guilty to a customs violation. The defendant began cooperating with federal investigators, who asked Informant 1 to contact Subhash Kapoor and employees of his Madison Avenue  gallery Art of the Past.

Informant 1 began asking Kapoor and his staff for “fresh” antiquities, a euphemism for objects that had recently been looted or stolen. In a 2008 visit to Kapoor’s gallery, Informant 1 was offered a stolen 12th century sculpture of the dancing Hindu got Shiva Nataraja for $3.5 million.

In September 2011, Informant 1 recorded a meeting with Kapoor in which he was offered the $3.5 million Shiva and another Shiva valued at $5 million, both of which were on display in the gallery. Kapoor said he had been holding the objects for a few years and expected them to appreciate by 10 to 15% a year. Both had been displayed in Kapoor’s catalogs and other catalogs, including the Asia Week New York 2009.

Emails obtained by federal agents show Kapoor also was shopping two other Chola bronzes: a Uma Parameshvari valued at $2.5 million and a $3.5 million Uma Parvati.

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Figure of Uma Parvati shown in its original setting in an Indian temple 

Uma Parvati shown in Kapoor’s Art of the Past catalogue

In November 2011, Kapoor instructed an employee to send the four bronzes to the apartment of Selina Mohamad. After federal agents searched Kapoor’s gallery in Jan 2012, Mohamad asked that the statues to be moved. Sareen allegedly moved them to a “safe location.”

It is not clear where the bronze idols are today. Kapoor is currently being held in a Chennai jail awaiting trial.

Here is the criminal complaint against his sister:

UPDATE: Vijay Kumar’s site Poetry in Stone has posted a detailed analysis of these and other Kapoor objects. Check it out: http://poetryinstone.in/

Gloves Come Off: Amid Accusations of Deceit, Sotheby’s Lawsuit Reveals How U.S. Built Its Case

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Last week the tables were turned on the U.S. government as documents filed in court by Sotheby’s revealed the private deliberations of American investigators, whose zeal for the return of an allegedly looted 10th century Khmer statue often appears to exceed that of Cambodian officials.

In December, we wrote that filings in the court battle between the U.S. government and Sotheby’s over the statue had revealed the inner workings of the top international auction house. Last November we described how the case had revealed the underbelly of the illicit antiquities trade.

Now it’s the U.S. government’s turn. The exhibits, obtained through discovery in late August and attached to a Sept. 9th Sotheby’s motion for judgment, provide a rare window into the investigation of a major international cultural property case whose outcome will likely hold sway for years. The emails detail how Interpol officials worked close with Brent Easter, an investigator of cultural property crimes at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to build a legal rationale for the statue’s seizure on behalf of Cambodia. The process eventually involved officials at the U.S. Department of State, the American Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government. At one point, Easter asked Cambodian officials to stop negotiating with Sotheby’s for the statue’s voluntary return so that the U.S. government could purse its legal case against the auction house.

Read the correspondence:

Sotheby’s cites the records in asking the judge for a ruling on the case without the need for further discovery. The auction house says Easter claimed to have probable cause for seizure of the statue when in fact he was still scrambling to cobble together a legal theory to support Cambodia’s claim. The auction house also cites an expert on French law in arguing that the government’s legal theory — which relies in part on colonial-era decrees for Cambodia’s ownership claim — is bogus.

Read Sotheby’s motion:

The government rebuts Sotheby’s motion in a Sept. 11th letter to the judge, arguing, among other things, that “Sotheby’s provided false and misleading information to the Government.” To support its claim, the government cites a March 22, 2011 email between ICE’s Easter and Jane Levine, a former assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York specialized in cultural property crimes who now works as Sotheby’s Director of Worldwide Compliance. Easter asked Levine whether Sotheby’s had “solid provenance information” for the statue. Levine said they did, noting Sotheby’s had “identified two individuals who presently have no financial interest in the property and who personally saw the piece in London in the late 1960s.”

SothebyRather than take Levine at her word, Easter pursued the original documentation for the statue, which had been passed from the London auction house Spink and Sons to Christies. Remarkably, the Spink records indicate the statue was stolen from the Cambodian temple of Prasat Chen in 1972, according to the government letter. This is the first hint of documentary evidence to support the government’s claim of the statue’s theft. What else might be contained in the archives of Spink, which was dealer Douglas Latchford‘s  primary pass through for allegedly looted Khmer antiquities? Could this archive also be the source of the “dispositive evidence” of looting cited by the Met in its recent return of two looted Khmer attendants to Cambodia?

Read the government’s letter:

As it turns out, the two individuals Levine cited were Latchford, who the government alleges “conspired with the looting network to steal it from Prasat Chen,” and his colleague Emma Bunker, who later told Sotheby’s the statue was “definitely stolen.” Not exactly disinterested parties, and the government accuses Levine of deception: “The information provided by Levine was simply false.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct 14th. 

Optical Due Diligence: Art Loss Register Claims To Vet Ancient Art. Does it?

UPDATE 8/9/14: The Sunday Times has published another devastating report on the Art Loss Register’s business practices. ALR Founder Julian Radcliffe admits paying thieves to recover stolen art in a dozen cases and is described as a “fence” by senior European law enforcement officials.

UPDATE: A 9/20/13 story in The New York Times reveals other questionable dealings of ALR and the departure of General Counsel Chris Marinello.

UPDATE 9/13: We’re told there have been several recent departures of senior staff from the Art Loss Register. They include Alice-Farren Bradley, a recovery specialist; MaryKate Cleary, who researched Nazi looting claims until she left for MOMA; and Ariane Moser, who managed European clients. That leaves Radcliffe, general counsel Chris Marinello, antiquities specialist William Webber and a handful of others.

Thirty years ago, a Getty antiquities curator coined the phrase “optical due diligence” — creating the appearance of caution while continuing to buying suspect antiquities.

Today, that continues to be the favored approach for much of the art world. Museums, auction houses, private collectors and dealers all claim to vet ancient art to make certain it was not illegally excavated. Yet we keep learning that the vetting process failed to prevent the acquisition of recently looted art.

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A key facilitator of this fiction is the Art Loss Register, a for-profit registry based in London. ALR charges nearly $100 for a search of its files, touted as “the world’s largest database of stolen art.” In return, a client receives a certificate stating “at the date that the search was made the item had not been registered as stolen.” Sadly, that caveat-laden certificate has become the coin of the realm for due diligence in the art world.

As we revealed recently, the certificate offered no protection to the National Gallery of Australia, which purchased a stolen bronze Shiva after receiving an ALR search certificate from antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor:

The NGA was merely the latest to learn that, when it comes to antiquities at least, ALR certificates are not worth the paper they’re printed on. David Gill recently noted that the ALR claims to protect buyers, but appears to have provided certificates for the Christies sale of antiquities that have since been tied to known loot dealers Giacamo MediciRobin Symes and Gianfranco Becchina.

Tom Flynn recently wrote that the ALR “is not a force for good,” adding that “a virtual market monopoly in Due Diligence provision is not good for the art market.” He cited this example of ALR’s shady dealings outside the area of antiquities:  

In 2008, it was revealed that the company had been approached by a Kent art dealer, Michael Marks, who was seeking to conduct Due Diligence on a painting by the Indian Modernist artist Francis Newton Souza, which Mr Marks was hoping to buy. Marks was told by ALR chairman Julian Radcliffe that the painting was not on the ALR’s database of stolen art. It was.

In the court judgment issued by Justice Tugenhadt, it emerged that: “After Mr Marks had paid the search fee, he spoke to Mr Radcliffe. It is common ground that Mr Radcliffe told Mr Marks that if Mr Marks were to buy the Paintings, he, Mr Radcliffe, had a client who was interested in buying them from Mr Marks. Mr Marks asked Mr Radcliffe whether there was a problem with good title, and Mr Radcliffe said that there was not. It is common ground, and Mr Radcliffe accepts, that he misled Mr Marks.”

Given this history, we were curious why the ALR continues to issue certificates for ancient art — and why the art world continues to accept them as evidence of anything. In June, Jason contacted ALR founder Julian Radcliffe for his views on the issue. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Jason Felch: Why does ALR provide search certificates for ancient art when there is obviously no documented theft when most antiquities are looted?

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Julian Radcliffe: We are aware of the fact that our certifications are waved in the air saying, ‘Look what a good boy we are.’ We don’t like that. Ten years ago, the police and Carabinieri came to us and said, ‘Your certifications are being abused by bad guys who are waving them around as proof of clear title.’ We all know illegal excavations are not in the database. So 10 years ago we said, we’ll stop giving any certifications for antiquities, a difficult area. Then, when we had a further meeting [with law enforcement], they said the certifications are quite useful to police, as they give an audit trail. And if dealers don’t ask you [for one], it’s of great interest because that’s evidence they’re trying to suppress the fact. So we continued to issue them, at the request of law enforcement. 

JF: Who, specifically, asked you to continue providing certificates for antiquities?

JR: I won’t say. And the Carabinieri would deny it if asked, of course.

JF: In 2007, Subhash Kapoor provided no provenance for the Shiva when asking ALR to search its database. Does ALR require provenance today?

JR: We are now insisting they give us some provenance….Where appropriate we try to check the provenance they give us through the British Museum and have made important discoveries. We are not going to be able to detect everything, particularly forged provenance.

JF: When did you start requiring provenance? And what amount of provenance do you require to run a search?

JR: In the last few months. We had a meeting with an auction house this morning, saying that they must give us more provenance…We require the generic information on the current holder and the date that the holder got it. We need a starting point if the certification is challenged later. You told us this was held by a dealer in Paris. If challenged, we would then ask, What’s the name of the dealer? So we can then make the dealer, through a court order, reveal who the parties were. The trouble is very often some of these items genuinely don’t have a full provenance. There are a lot of items out in the market that might have been exported legally, but nobody knows.

JF: So your “provenance” policy doesn’t even require the name of a previous owner until a piece is challenged. Why not require provenance going back to the 1970 UNESCO accord?

JR: I’d love to do that but they [the dealers] would make it up. What I would like to do is to get the source countries and archaeological community to recognize the fact that the antiquities trade would not go away. It continues. One of the problems is that minimalist architectural design favors antiquities and there’s a great demand from interior decorators. The market isn’t going to collapse. So we’ve got to regulate and police it. Reintroduce partage to make the legitimate market and the illicit market very clear. At least we’ve got a clear policy.

JF: Is ALR profitable?

JR: We haven’t made a profit for 10 years. I’ve invested 1 million pounds. I’ve made enough money in other companies that I don’t’ have to worry about it not making additional money. It’s been very hard to get clients to pay. Over half of our income comes from searching people, under half from recovery fees for insurance. Some 40 percent of our income is from recovery. In antiquities we get no recovery fees. The victims can’t pay. It’s a really bad area for us. The rest is from search fees. Half of that comes from auction houses and the other from dealers, museums, collectors, etc. That corresponds to roughly to 50%  of the art market.

JF: Who are your biggest clients?

JR: Our clients include all the major auction houses. A few auction houses won’t search, but Bonhams, Christies and Sotheby’s all use us. It’s no secret that a number of them would like more help from us in this antiquities market. The antiquity dealers have been more inclined to search than dealers in other items.

JF: The NGA’s Shiva is unusual for an antiquity because it had been documented before it was stolen. A year or so after Kapoor received an ALR certificate for the stolen Shiva, Indian authorities posted online images of it with details of the theft. Yet ALR did not make the connection. Why not? Does ALR search past certificates to see if new information has surfaced?

JR: We go around those sites and take items…We employ 25 people in India doing back office searching. A number have worked in the Indian cultural heritage department. But the big issue is with IT:  We have a database of 300,00 – 400,000 stolen items to search against the 2.5 million searches we’ve done in the past. If we search against all those previous searches, it slows down the search too much. And we couldn’t digitize the old searches, not back to 1991.

JF: How many certificates did ALR provide to Subhash Kapoor over the years?

JR: We’re looking into it.

Later via email Radcliffe added, “We are passing on your request for the number of certificates to the law enforcement to whom we gave all the information and will revert when we hear from them.”

No word since.

UPDATE: David Gill, writing with Christos Tsirogiannis in the 2011 Journal of Art Crime, notes that the major auction houses have routinely relied on the Art Loss Register to defend the sale of objects linked to notorious antiquities traffickers including Giacomo Medici, whose archives showing thousands of recently looted antiquities is apparently not included in ALR’s database.