Tag Archives: Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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.


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!

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


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. 

Kapoor Case: Investigation into Stolen Indian Idols Will Test Museum Transparency

Subhash Kapoor

The investigation of antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, which made international headlines this week when federal agents raided his Manhattan warehouse, promises to shine a bright light on the illicit trade in antiquities smuggled out of India and other South Asian countries — and the dealer’s ties to prominent museums around the world.

New York authorities issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor, the longtime owner of Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past, the same day that agents with Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement seized what they said were $20 million worth of stolen Indian artifacts from his Manhattan storage facilities. The seized objects include three Chola period statues that investigators say match objects in Interpol’s database of stolen works of art. Some objects were imported into the U.S. labelled “Marble Garden Table Sets.” An additional $10 million in antiquities were quietly seized from Kapoor in January of this year.

The seized objects are likely the tip of the iceberg of the dealer’s inventory. Since 1974, Kapoor has traded in ancient art from India, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world, as well as more recent art from India. A sample of his recent inventory can been seen in this 2011 catalog for Art of the Past.

Kapoor’s legal troubles extend far beyond New York. He was detained in Germany in October 2011 and this month extradited to Chennai, India, where he is facing criminal charges of being the mastermind of an idol smuggling ring that plundered ancient temples in Tamil Nadu. Kapoor has reportedly admitted to Indian police that he earned more than $11 million through the transport and sale of plundered Indian antiquities with his daughter and brother through a US corporation called Nimbus International.

Kapoor’s New York attorney Christopher Kane did not return a call to his cell phone on Sunday, but told the New York Post that Kapoor ““thinks of himself as a legitimate businessman, and I have no reason to think he’s not.” We’ll post any response we receive here.

As Kapoor’s legal case plays out in India, the spotlight now turns to the dozens of museums and collectors who did business with the dealer. Kapoor boasts in his bio that he has sold antiquities to a long list of leading museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco; The Art Institute, Chicago; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; Museum fűr Indische Kunst, Berlin; The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; and the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

Investigators have tied a Dancing Shiva at Australia’s National Gallery to Kapoor, the New York Post reported.

In a press release, American investigators asked Kapoor’s clients to check their collections and be in touch. “Some of the artifacts seized during this investigation — which are stolen — have been displayed in major international museums worldwide,” ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations team said in a press release. “Other pieces that match those listed as stolen are still openly on display in some museums. HSI will aggressively pursue the illicit pieces not yet recovered.”

The press, however, is not waiting for museums to come clean. The New York Times queried several museums last week about Kapoor objects in their collections. And on Saturday, The New York Post reported that a statue of Shiva as the Lord of Dance at the National Gallery of Australia has been tied to the investigation.

Not all museums that did business with Kapoor will be in trouble, of course. The Freer-Sackler Gallery, for example, told the New York Times that the only object they had acquired from Kapoor was a 20th century Indian necklace. The two objects in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’s online catalog linked to Kapoor Galleries, operated by Kapoor’s brother Ramesh, are 17th century Indian paintings.

The Met’s response to the Kapoor investigation has been rather cavalier. Despite the admonition from the federal authorities, the museum will not review its Kapoor antiquities, Holzer told the Times, noting that the collection had long been posted on the Met’s website. One might think that recent history would have taught Met officials time and again that open possession of allegedly stolen property is no protection from claims both legal and moral.

The Met tried to deflect the questions from the press, telling the NY Times that most of the 81 pieces they had acquired from Kapoor were drawings from the 17th, 18th or 19th century highlighted in the 2009 Met exhibit, Living Line: Selected Indian Drawings From the Subhash Kapoor Gift. “They do not appear to be the type of items that they are worried about,” said museum spokesman Harold Holzer.

But a search of the Met’s online catalog reveals several antiquities from Kapoor that authorities likely will be interested in — none have documented ownership histories dating to 1972, when India began controlling exports of ancient art.

1st Century BC ceramic Bengal pot (2003 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

1st Century BC Bengal Vessel (2001 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

The God Revanta Returning from a Hunt (2003 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

Yakshi Holding a Crowned Child (2002 Gift of Subhash Kapoor)

Curiously, the Met also has five stone sculptures from Kapoor in its study collection, here and here, for example. They resemble ancient pieces but are labeled by the museum as “20th Century.” All were acquired in 1991. Did the museum acquire these objects from Kapoor, only to discover they were modern forgeries? We’ve asked Holzer for more information.

UPDATE: Harold Holzer tells us, “The group of 20th-century forgeries was accepted as a gift along with the other Kapoor gifts for our study collection, and always identified as such.”

To be fair to the Met, their online collection is far more transparent than that of several other American museums tied to Kapoor. The Toledo Museum of Art told the NY Times that it had received a gift of 44 terracotta antiquities from Kapoor in 2007. The only object that appears in a search of the museum’s online collection is a terracotta vessel purchased in 2008. The museum published the object in 2009 in a book of the museum’s masterworks, but offers no ownership history other than saying it was created in Chandraketugarh, an archaeological site north-east of Kolkata. Where was it before Toledo? What are the ownership histories for the other 43 objects acquired from Kapoor?

We’ve asked the Toledo Museum for that information, but apparently such requests are a low priority there. More than a month ago, we requested information about objects in their collection tied to two other dealers who investigators have connected to the illicit trade — Edoardo Almagia and Gianfranco Becchina. We have still not received a response.

Several years ago, the Getty Museum took a similar stance when faced with questions about objects in their collection. Stonewalling only convinced the public of the museum’s bad faith, and fueled the zeal of investigations by foreign governments and the media. Museums would be smart to heed those lessons from the Getty case, lest they relive the consequences.

Like the Almagia investigation, the Kapoor case will be a test for how transparent American museums can be in the face of unpleasant questions about ancient art in their collections. Will they take a proactive approach to investigating their collections, as they have done with objects with unclear provenance from World War II era? Or will they stonewall and encourage others to do the investigation for them?

Hat-Tips: Several people have been covering the Kapoor case for months, and you should read their detailed coverage. The Indian press, especially the Times of India, has been covering the case for months. Damien Huffer, whose excellent blog It Surfaced Down Under tracks the illicit antiquities trade in the Southern Hemisphere, was one of the first to pick up the story, a distinction that earned him repeated legal threats. Paul Barford’s blog has also diligently tracked reports on the case, adding his salty commentary along the way. Most recently, The New York Post broke the news of the Manhattan raids last week and has followed-up with some additional scoops.

UPDATE: Attorney Rick St. Hiliare has some very interesting thoughts on what the Kapoor case reveals about antiquities smuggling networks: “Examining the import and export methods surrounding the Kapoor case not only can aid police in the United States and India in their current investigations targeting the alleged idol thief, but it can help policymakers, criminologists, and scholars think about better ways to detect, uncover, interdict, and prosecute future crimes of heritage trafficking.” Hilaire also offers excellent analysis of the bills of lading allegedly used by Kapoor’s enterprises, revealing how these objects were able to enter the U.S. under false premises. He goes on to say the case might give a boost to our WikiLoot project, which is designed to suss out these very matters. Worth reading his entire post.

Federal Investigators Behind Criminal Case Against Coin Dealer Arnold Peter Weiss

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

[See below for updates.]

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss, the Rhode Island doctor arrested in New York City on Jan. 3 for allegedly trying to sell a looted ancient coin, had his first court appearance in a Manhattan criminal court on Wednesday. The case was adjourned until July 3rd, and no additional documents have been filed in the case, according to the District Attorney’s office.

We first reported on the case in January here, and have posted the criminal complaint in the case here. You can find our reports on Weiss’ ties to RISD and Harvard here and here; and on a link between his Swiss coin dealership Nomos AG and the Getty Museum here.

There have been few other public developments in the case since January. But we have confirmed that the investigation was initiated by federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency under the Department of Homeland Security.

“Agents with HCI’s El Dorado Task Force Cultural Property group did arrest Dr. Weiss on Jan. 3rd,” according to agency spokesman Lou Martinez, referring to ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations directorate. “This was an HSI lead investigation.”

The El Dorado Task Force is a multi-agency group formed in 1992 described as “an aggressive, multi-agency approach to target financial crimes within the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area.” It includes more than 250 law enforcement agents from 55 local, state and federal agencies in the region.

Among the members of the El Dorado Task Force are a half-dozen agents focused on the illicit trade in cultural property, Martinez said. Here’s how ICE describes their mission:

ICE takes pride in bringing to justice those who would trade in such items for personal profit and in returning to other nations these priceless items.

The theft and trafficking of cultural items is a practice that is older than history. What is new about it is how easy it is for cultural pirates to acquire valuable antiquities, artworks and artifacts, fossils, coins or textiles and move them around the globe, swiftly, easily and inexpensively without regard to laws, borders, nationalities or their value to a nation’s heritage.

Fortunately, ICE agents are better prepared than ever to combat these crimes. Our specially trained investigators and attachés in more than 40 countries not only partner with governments, agencies and experts who share our mission to protect these items, but they train the investigators of other nations and agencies on how to find, authenticate and enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.

Customs laws allow ICE to seize national treasures, especially if they have been reported lost or stolen. ICE works with experts to authenticate the items, determine their true ownership and return them to their countries of origin.

Recent ICE cases involving the illicit antiquities trade include:

  • The 2009 return of 334 Pre-Colombian artifacts to Peru. The objects were found during a 2007 raid of the Laredo, TX home of Jorge Ernesto Lanas-Ugaz, who received one-year probation and a $2,000 fine.
  • The 2008 return of 79 objects to Egypt. Edward George Johnson, an active duty Chief Warrant officer in the U.S. Army who had been assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 2002, had used his diplomatic status to illegally ship the Ma’adi artifacts he had acquired in Egypt to the U.S., in violation of Egypt’s export laws, diplomatic protocol as outlined in the Vienna Convention, and U.S. law for smuggling the artifacts into the country. He then sold them to a dealer claiming that they were family property dating back to the early 20th century. An expert on the Ma’adi excavations later recognized the items were from an excavation. In July 2008, Johnson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession and selling of stolen antiquities. He was sentenced in September 2008 to 18 months probation and was ordered to make restitution to the antiquities dealer to whom he sold the artifacts.
  • The 2008 return of  1,044 cultural antiquities to Iraq that were seized in four separate investigations dating to 2001. The items, which included terra cotta cones inscribed in Cuneiform text, a praying goddess figurine that was once imbedded in a Sumerian temple and coins bearing the likenesses of ancient emperors, are an illustration of the long and varied history of the country now known as Iraq. Remnants of ancient Cuneiform tablets, which were seized by the Customs Service in 2001, were recovered from beneath the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001 and will be restored in Iraq. The objects were turned over in a ceremony at the Embassy of Iraq, where Iraqi Ambassador Samir Shakir al-Sumaydi accepted on behalf of his government.
  • The 2008 return to the Colombian of 60 artifacts that were seized in a joint 2005 investigation with the Broward County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office. The artifacts, which included ancient pottery, gold pieces and emeralds, some as old as 500 B.C., were stolen from Colombia and smuggled into the United States. ICE agents arrested and charged a 66-year-old Italian national, Ugo Bagnato, with sale and receipt of stolen goods. He was convicted and served 17 months in federal prison, after which he was deported.

The New York City District Attorney’s office also has a significant background in these investigations. The Assistant District Attorney assigned to the Weiss case is Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine Corp. Colonel who led the search for antiquities looted from the Baghdad Museum, as chronicled in his 2005 book Thieves of Baghdad, co-authored with William Patrick.


Rick St. Hilaire has a good analysis of the important legal precedent this case could establish: “Federal prosecutions involving international theft or trafficking of cultural objects are rare. State prosecutions [like Weiss] are novel. That is why the current case against Arnold-Peter Weiss, involving New York state law, is worth watching. with its novel use of state law.”

NY Post headline: “Doc nab in coin caper.” Weiss was released after posting  $200,000 bail.