Tag Archives: Art Loss Register

The Sidon Bull’s Head: Court Record Documents a Journey Through the Illicit Antiquities Trade

02MET-master675.jpgA remarkable document filed with New York’s Supreme Court on Friday reconstructs the journey of an ancient sculpture of a bull’s head from its theft during the Lebanese civil war through the shadowy corners and winding pathways of the international antiquities black market.

serveimage.jpgThe filing, an application for a turnover order filed by Deputy DA Mathew Bogdanos, recounts a Grand Jury investigation that traced the stolen relic through a who’s who of the antiquities trade before ending up on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was seized in July.

The 66-page filing is worth reading in full, as it bristles with insights into the antiquities trade that Bogdanos, the author of Thieves of Bagdad, has collected over more than a decade investigating antiquities trafficking networks. It is also a testament to the type of dogged investigation required to uncover the true history of a stolen antiquity.

Bogdanos’ investigation included the use of Grand Jury subpoenas, search warrants, interviews with witnesses in several countries and thousands of pages of shipping documents, customs forms and email correspondence.

“Nonetheless, even this investigation…has been unable to illuminate those well-appointed shadows where money changes hands and legitimate, but all-too-inconvenient, questions of the provenance and ownership history of the objects are frequently considered outre and ever so gauche,” Bogdanos writes. “Indeed, because so many shadows remain, and because the farther back we go the darker and more impenetrable are those shadows, it is best to trace the possession of the Bull’s Head backward…”

Anyone familiar with investigations of Mediterranean smuggling networks over the past two decades will recognize the dozen names associated with the object’s past.

The following summary of that shadowy journey does not do justice to the tale, but highlights the key players:

July 8, 1967: The bull’s head was excavated from the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon, by French archaeologist Maurice Dunand as part of a state-sponsored excavation.600px-Eshmun_Temple.jpg

1979: Amidst the raging Lebanese civil war, the bull’s head and other artifacts from Eshmun were transferred to Beirut and then to a storage area of the Byblos Citadel for safekeeping.

1981: Armed members of the Phalangist paramilitary group seized objects from the Citadel, including the bull’s head. After negotiations with the antiquities directorate, the Phalangists return many of the objects to the Citadel. But the bull’s head and dozens of other objects are not among them and disappear into the black market.

1980s: The Bull’s Head is associated with the George Lotfi Collection of Beirut and Paris and with Frieda Tchacos in Zurich (Nefer Gallery), according to a subsequent claim by the Met’s curator of ancient art Joan Mertens. Her source for this information is never clarified or documented.

April 11, 1991: Four sculptures stolen from Eshmun appear in an auction by the Numismatic & Ancient Art Gallery in Zurich. They are seized and returned to Lebanon.

December, 1994: Sotheby’s offers a male torso and a sarcophagus fragment from Eshmun for sale. Both are eventually seized and returned to Lebanon. Several more Eshmun objects are recovered over the years.serveimage-1.jpg

May 18, 1996: The Bull’s Head re-appears in shipping documents and was delivered to London antiquities dealer Robin Symes New York penthouse at the Four Seasons’ Hotel on 57th Street.

As Bogdanos notes, “There is not a single piece of paper known to exist on or about the Bull’s Head (C-17) between its disappearance from the basement storage room of the Byblos/Jubayl Citadel on August 14, 1981, and its brief appearance in the Transcon invoices in the summer of 1996…A neon sign flashing “stolen” would have been more subtle and less insidious.”

council5feb08-352x224November 27, 1996: Symes sells the Bull’s Head for $1.2 million to Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, who display it in their dining room. While Symes assures them the object is authentic, as Bogdanos notes, “there was not a whisper-not even the faintest hint of a whisper about whether it was a lawful antiquity. Indeed, the lawfulness of the Bull’s Head (C-17) does not appear to have been part of any documented conversation between the Beierwaltes and Symes.” The Bull’s Head appears on the market “like Athena full-grown from the brow of Zeus,” Bogdanos writes, one of several flourishes in his filing.

1998: The Bull’s Head and other objects in the Beierwaltes collection are displayed in an article in House and Garden. Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist specializing in identifying illicit antiquities, identified many looted antiquities in the Beierwaltes collection by matching the photographs in the article to photographs of looted antiquities contained in dealer archives.

2004: The Beierwaltes ask Max Bernheimer, Head of Christi.e’s Ancient Art & Antiquities Department, to appraise their antiquities collection. He appraised 115 objects in the collection at $51.5 million but never offered it at auction. Symes was revealed as their main supplier, the source of 97 of the 99 objects that listed a prior owner. “Symes was not just their main supplier, he was to all intents and purposes their only supplier: the direct, the essential, and clearly much-used link in a supply chain that started with the tombaroli and ended with the Beierwaltes,” Bogdanos writes.

serveimage-2.jpg2005: The Beierwaltes approach Hicham Aboutaam at Phoenix Ancient Art about selling the Bull’s Head and other antiquities in their collection, which is estimated to be worth $95 million. Phoenix appraises the value of the Bull’s Head at $1.5 million.

2006: Phoenix ships the Bull’s Head and other objects from the Beierwaltes to Geneva, where it is kept in the Geneva Freeport. “According to Hicham Aboutaam, and as is standard procedure with shipments to the Freeports, and hence part of the sine qua non of their existence, the Bull’s Head went directly from the Geneva airport in a Swiss-customs-padlocked truck to the Geneva Freeport. And it left the Freeport the same way.”

2008: Phoenix requested a search for the Bull’s Head in the Art Loss Register database of stolen art. The ALR had been provided details about the stolen Bull’s Head in 2000 but mysteriously failed to enter it into their database of stolen art. ALR issued a certificate for the object — a fact that, in Bogdanos’ words, “highlight(s) the dangers of relying on an ALR search and nothing more for provenance research.”

2008: Phoenix Ancient Arts publishes images of the Bull’s Head in their Geneva catalog in advance of showing the Bull’s Head at the 24th Biennale des Antiquaires at the Grand Palais in Paris. After the Paris show, it is shipped back to Geneva.michael_steinhardt

September 2009: The Bull’s Head is shipped to New York, where hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt expressed an interest after seeing it in the Phoenix catalog but claimed in an email he was too “broke” to buy it at the time.   

August 10, 201O: Steinhardt acquired the Bull’s Head for $700,000 and left it on display at Phoenix Ancient Art’s New York Gallery.

October 2010: The Bull’s Head is loaned to by Met by Steinhardt through Phoenix Ancient Art Gallery. The only reference to its provenance is a single line of six words: “Ex-American private collection, collected in 1980’s-1990’s.” When the Met presses for more detail, Phoenix says The Beierwaltes aquired it from Symes.

2014: The Beierwaltes declare bankruptcy, declaring that their “primary business for much of their adult lives has been the acquisition, management and sale of an extremely extensive and valuable body of art works…[in]…a category of art known as antiquities.”

April 2014: Carlos Picon, the Curator in Charge of the Met’s Greek and Roman Department, noticed that the Bull’s Head on loan from Steinhardt appeared to be the same bull’s head missing from the Eshmun excavations. The object was removed from display and Aboutaam was notified.

April 16, 2014: Given the revelation, the Beierwaltes re-acquired the Bull’s Head from Steinhardt for $560,000 ($700k minus Aboutaam’s 20% commission). Steinhardt receives a piece of equal value from Aboutaam.

October 2016: Met General Counsel Sharon Cott writes to Steinhardt saying the Met intended to notify Lebanese authorities about the stolen Bull’s Head. William Pearlstein, the Beierwaltes’ attorney, acknowledged that the bull’s head was likely the one found in Eshmun but asked the Met not to contact authorities.

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Dec. 5 2016: Met director Thomas Campbell notifies Lebanon that the bull’s head on loan to the museum appears to come from Sidon.

January 10, 2017: Sarkis Khoury, the Lebanese Director General of Antiquities, requests the return of the stolen Bull’s Head. He also writes to the Beierwaltes with a similar demand in March.

June 2017: Amid the District Attorney’s investigation, counsel for the Beierwaltes filed a pre-emptive lawsuit against the Lebanese Republic and the Manhattan DA’s office seeking to prevent the seizure of the bull’s head.

July 7, 2017: Acting on the request from Lebanese authorities, the DA’s office seized the Bull’s Head from the Met.

The full court filing can be found here and below:

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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.

 

SCOOP: New Evidence Of Stolen Idols at the National Gallery of Australia

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This 900-year-old bronze statue of Dancing Shiva, shown on display at the National Gallery of Australia, was stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu, India shortly before the museum acquired it, new records show.

UPDATE 11/6: The NGA has released a statement saying there is no “conclusive evidence” the sculpture was stolen. See below.

UPDATE 6/12: Since publishing this post we’ve received documents that show the National Gallery of Art purchased the Dancing Shiva (above) for $5 million, not the $2 million originally stated below and in other media reports.

Last July, we wrote that the arrest of Indian antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor would test the museum world’s commitment to transparency.

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Federal investigators in the United States have seized more than $100 million in allegedly looted art from the Manhattan dealer, who they describe as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world.” In previous posts, we have identified suspect Kapoor objects at museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which acquired 21 objects from Kapoor.

RadfordSo far, the NGA has failed the transparency test. As a member of the International Council of Museums, the museum is bound by a code of ethics that requires it to be open about its collection. But museum officials have refused to identify or release collecting histories for the 21 objects. Instead, the NGA created an investigative committee that includes the two museum officials most responsible for the Kapoor acquisitions: museum director Ron Radford (left) and senior curator of Asian art Robyn Maxwell.

The museum has promised to cooperate with investigators, but in May, Indian officials complained that the NGA had refused to respond to a formal request for information. (The museum claims it never received the request.) Last week Radford was asked about the case during a hearing of Australia’s senate, but would not divulge additional information, saying only that he was confident none of the Kapoor objects had been looted.

Radford’s confidence is sorely misplaced. In the coming days, ChasingAphrodite.com will publish new information about several of the objects the NGA acquired from Kapoor. The records, obtained from sources with knowledge of the on-going investigations, show that several of the objects were illegally removed from Indian temples shortly before Kapoor offered them to Radford, Maxwell and other NGA officials. Many of the objects were accompanied by false provenance papers. Those ownership histories are belied by evidence seized from Kapoor, including photographs sent to him by smugglers soon after the idols had been removed from Indian temples.

The Lord of Dance

In 2008, the NGA paid Kapoor $5 million $2 million for a bronze Nataraja, or Dancing Shiva. The more than 4-foot (130 cm.) tall figure depicts the Hindu god as the Lord of Dance, prancing in a ring of flames as he steps on the head of a dwarf who represents ignorance. Shiva is ushering in the destruction of the weary universe so that the god Brahma may restart the process of creation. It is a common theme in Indian mythology, particularly in the Tamil temples of southern India.

Kapoor provided the museum with a document stating that he had purchased the bronze from a Washington D.C. man in October 2004. He also signed a warranty prepared by the museum that transferred title to the NGA and indemnified the museum in case of a breach.

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The story of the Washington owner was a fabrication, the records show. This photo of the Nataraja (left) was sent to Kapoor by smugglers in October 2006. Sources say it was taken soon after the  idol was stolen from the Sivan Temple in the village of Sree Puranthan in Tamil Nadu, where it and several other large bronze idols were worshiped before the temple fell into ruin.

According to Indian investigators, a year earlier Kapoor had traveled to Tamil Nadu and met with Sanjivi Asokan, the alleged head of a ring of idol thieves in the region. Kapoor asked for Chola-era bronzes, which were in high demand on the art market. Over the next several months, Asokan allegedly hired thieves who — for 700,000 rupees, or about USD$12,000 — broke into the Sivan Temple and stole the eight idols shown below (Shiva at top left.)Sivan Temple idolsThe idols were allegedly mingled with replicas to convince a government official to certify them as modern handicrafts. They were exported by Ever Star International Services Inc. to New York, where they were received by Kapoor’s company Nimbus Imports Exports in the fall of 2006. For his trouble, Asokan was allegedly paid about USD$200,000.

In April 2007, Kapoor obtained a certificate from the Art Loss Register saying the Shiva had not been registered as stolen property. ALR had no basis to know the Shiva had been stolen — the theft was only discovered by villagers in 2008. But Kapoor was not required to provide any provenance information for the bronze, despite ALR’s public claim that “certificates are not issued on the basis of incomplete or inadequately researched information.”

shiva.kapoorKapoor included the Shiva in the catalog of his Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past with the above photo and this description:

Shiva as the Nataraja, The Lord of the Dance, is the symbol par excellence of South Asian art. It is the full and perfect expression of divine totality—the manifestation of pure, primal rhythmic power. Shiva simultaneously dances the universe into existence by awakening inert matter with the rhythmic pulse of movement, sustains this existence, and sends all form into destruction….

This is the largest, most significant Chola Period sculpture of this subject to appear on the market in a generation.

There are many bronze sculptures of Nataraja, and they all share certain basic characteristics. But even to a lay eye, the similarities between the Shiva shown in the smuggler’s photos and the one on display at the NGA are apparent. For example, looking closely at the individual flames surrounding Shiva, most have tails to the left, center and middle of the flame. In both the smugglers and the NGA’s Shiva, however, the first and second flames on the top left and the third flame on the top right have tails to the right and left, but none in the middle.

Here is a photo of the Shiva from behind, also sent to Kapoor by the alleged smugglers in 2006. It gives more context for the room, which does not appear to be on Madison Avenue or in Washington D.C.

Shiva Nataraja2

Kapoor, Asokan and the alleged thieves have all been arrested and are currently being tried in India for the Sivan Temple thefts. Meanwhile, American officials with the Department of Homeland Security’s HSI team have issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor in the U.S. and are pursuing their own investigation of museums that acquired objects from him.

We’ll soon post additional documents and photos of Kapoor objects at the NGA and other museums. Meanwhile, institutions that did business with Kapoor would be wise to 1) publicly disclose complete copies of the collecting history for those objects and 2) proactively contact U.S. and Indian investigators.

UPDATE: On Nov 6, 2013, the museum released the following statement from its attorney:

The National Gallery of Australia believes there is yet to emerge any conclusive evidence to demonstrate that the 11th-12th century bronze sculpture of Shiva as Lord of the Dance [Shiva Nataraja] in its collection was stolen or illegally exported from India. The Gallery notes that criminal proceedings against Art of the Past dealer Subhash Kapoor are ongoing.

If, at the end of the legal process, the courts determine that this Shiva Nataraja was stolen and illegally exported, the Gallery will have been a victim of fraud. The Indian Government may request the Australian Government to return the work if it is found to have been stolen or illegally exported from India. The court has made no findings in relation to the sculpture.

In the meantime, the Gallery will continue to cooperate with the relevant authorities including the Indian High Commission.