Tag Archives: Carlos Picon

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.

serveimage-3.jpg

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:

Advertisements

Hecht’s Footprints: Haverford College Opens Up About Source of Their Greek Vases

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht died in February 2012 after six decades at the top of the trade in recently looted Classical antiquities.

I’ve recently learned that some of that infamous career will be recounted when Hecht’s memoir is privately published in the coming months. The book is based on Hecht’s handwritten memoir, seized by Italian authorities from his Paris apartment and used as evidence against him at his Italian criminal trial. (I have a copy of Hecht’s notes and can assure you that he names names!) That account will be supplemented and expanded upon by a series of interviews Hecht conducted with Geraldine Norman, a former art market correspondent for the Independent.

Hecht on trial in Rome, 2006

Hecht on trial in Rome, 2006

It’s not clear how widely available the book will be for sale, but Hecht’s account will almost certainly be incomplete. His trafficking network spread tens of thousands of looted ancient sculptures, coins and vases across museums and collectors around the world.

How should museums handle those Hecht objects in their collection today? That is the question I tackle in a forthcoming article in the alumni magazine for Haverford College, Hecht’s alma mater. Haverford’s current exhibition of Greek vases tied to Hecht serves as a good model for others museums wrestling with his sticky legacy.

The full article, which will appear in Haverford’s alumni magazine in late November, includes comments from alumni James Wright, Brian Rose, Edward L. Bleiberg, Carlos Picon (kinda), Jeremy Rutter and Patty Gerstenblith.

Here’s an excerpt:

78861_lg

Jenna McKinley has spent much of her life visiting museums. But it was only recently that she began thinking about how ancient objects had ended up in those museum vitrines.

The question arose while McKinley, a Haverford class of 2015 art history major and classics minor, was researching a collection of ancient Greek vases given to Haverford more than two decades ago by George and Ernest Allen, twin brothers who graduated from the college in 1940.

The Allen brothers acquired most of the ancient vases, McKinley learned, from Robert E. Hecht, Jr. ’41, a Latin major who went on to become one of the world’s leading—and most controversial—dealers in ancient art.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 6.26.24 PMOver a storied six-decade career, Hecht sold tens of thousands of pieces of ancient art to leading museums and private collectors around the globe. Throughout, he was dogged by accusations that his wares had been recently—and illegally—excavated from tombs and ruins across the Mediterranean.

In the 1960s, Hecht was thrown out of Turkey and banned for life from Italy for allegedly trafficking in looted antiquities. In the 1970s, he sold the Metropolitan Museum of Art its famous “hot pot,” the Euphronios krater, whose $1 million price tag and mysterious origins immediately sparked claims that it had been looted. In the 1980s, Hecht was part of an alleged tax-fraud scheme involving the donation of hundreds of looted antiquities to the J. Paul Getty Museum near Los Angeles. And in 2005, he was criminally charged by Italy as the mastermind of an international looting and smuggling ring.

Hecht died in 2012, weeks after that Italian criminal case ended with no verdict, because the allotted time had expired. Despite a lifetime of allegations, he was never convicted of a crime.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 6.38.27 PMAs McKinley discovered in her research during the summer of 2013, the Allen collection, which became part of Magill Library’s Special Collections, was an artifact of Hecht’s long, colorful career. From the 1950s until the 1970s, George Allen worked as Hecht’s Philadelphia sales representative, publishing a biannual catalog of antiquities under the name Hesperia Art. Over the years, he arranged for his brother Ernest to purchase several vases from Hecht.

McKinley excavated this hidden history over the next year, poring through yellowing college records and dusty Hesperia catalogs and reading books about Hecht’s role in the illicit antiquities trade. Her findings, along with the 20 Greek vases that inspired them, went on display in October in the Sharpless Gallery in Magill Library. The exhibit, titled Putting the Pieces Together: Antiquities From the Allen Collection, runs through Jan. 2.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 6.35.45 PM

It is rare for the history of an antiquities collection to be discussed so openly. Museums, while dedicated to education, often reveal little about where and how they obtained their ancient art, something McKinley hopes her exhibition can help change.

“We display the objects themselves regardless of their cracks,” McKinley writes in the essay that accompanies the exhibit, “but too often we try to ignore the fragmented nature of their more recent histories.”

Terry Snyder, the librarian of the college, conceived of the project in the fall of 2012 during conversations with Associate Professor of Classics Bret Mulligan. Both recognized that revealing the history of the vases could invite a claim for their return by Italy, where they were likely found. But the opportunity for a valuable educational experience outweighed the risk, Snyder and Mulligan concluded.

“If you collect things and hide them away, the world loses,” says Snyder, who tapped McKinley to research and curate the exhibit. “These questions about the vases and other antiquities are big ones that really create an opportunity for learning. Each item has its own biography. What can these materials teach us? This exhibit is a great opportunity for our students to delve into these issues, to raise questions about cultural patrimony, and to see where they lead. Haverford students are not afraid of hard questions. That goes back to the College’s Quaker values and our educational values.”

The Allen exhibit puts Haverford squarely in the middle of an international conversation about the role that museums and universities have played in the illicit antiquities trade, a global black market supplied by looters and smugglers and stoked by the art market’s demand for ancient relics.

As McKinley learned, the story of how ancient objects came to sit on the shelves has, until recently, been largely hidden. Over the past decade, however, those stories have begun to come to light, thanks to criminal investigations, probing journalists, and growing demands from foreign countries that their cultural relics be returned.

The ensuing controversy has shaken this corner of the art world to its roots.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 6.31.51 PM

 

Almagia Objects Traced to Boston MFA, San Antonio Museum, Indiana University.

We’ve heard back from more museums about objects they acquired from Edoardo Almagia, the Italian dealer at the center of an investigation into the illicit antiquities trade.

As we’ve reported previously, the Met and Princeton University museums have recently returned more than 200 Almagia objects and fragments to Italy, some of which may be used as evidence in the criminal trial of Almagia and Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett. Italian investigators have also traced the dealer’s objects to the Dallas Museum of Art, and we found one at the Getty.

We can now provide details about Almagia objects at three more American museums.

BOSTON MUSEUM OF FINE ART

The Boston Museum of Fine Art has ten objects tied to Almagia, nine of which were impasto vases acquired in 1995 as donations from Jonathan Kagan, a prominent investment manager. Prior to Almagia, the objects were “said to have been purchased in Basel.” An old Swiss collection there, no doubt. A decade before donating the Almagia objects to the Met, Kagan was reportedly behind the sale of the Elmali Treasure, a vast hoard of ancient coins allegedly looted from Turkey.

Boston 1991.534

The tenth Almagia object at the Boston MFA is a lovely Roman bust of an old man made of Carraran marble from northwest Italy. The museum purchased the bust directly from Almagia in 1991. It has no documented ownership history.

Details of all the Almagia objects in Boston can be found in the MFA’s release here.

In a statement, museum spokeswoman Amelia Kantrovitz said, “Since 2000, the provenance of these objects–like virtually all objects in the Museum’s collection–has been available at mfa.org. There have been no recent discussions with Italy or Mr. Almagià about these works. The MFA’s relationship with Italy over the last 5 years has led to important loans, several of which are on view in the current exhibition ‘Aphrodite and the Gods of Love.'”

None of the 13 objects returned by Boston in 2006 came from Almagia, Kantrovitz added, though the bust shown above was among the objects discussed during negotiations.

SAN ANTONIO MUSEUM OF ART

The San Antonio Museum of Art purchased two Greek vases from Almagia in the 1980s. The first (above) is a red-figure Oinoche depicting Dionysos and a satyr attributed to the Florence Painter.

The second vase (right) is a red-figure Attic plate depicting the head of a man. As for its provenance, the museum could only say it is “said to be from Barbarano Romano,” an Etruscan necropolis in Viterbo, Italy. (You can view a panoramic image of the tombs here.)

The museum also has 54 vase fragments — also said to be from Barbarano Romano — that were purchased from Almagia in 1986 by a local attorney, Gilbert Denman Jr., who donated them to SAMA the same year.

Carlos Picon, curator of antiquities at the Met

None of the antiquities have a documented ownership history. All were acquired under then-curator Carlos Picon, the current antiquities curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As David Gill has noted, Picon also knew Giacomo Medici and has described being touched by the generosity of the convicted antiquities trafficker. It will be interesting to know more about the relationship between Picon and Almagia as the Italian investigation unfolds.

SAMA director Katie Luber said in a statement that the museum reached out to Italian authorities about the Almagia objects on February 17th, two weeks after first being contacted by us. It has not yet heard back.

INDIANA UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUM

The museum Indiana University acquired two objects from Almagia in 1986. Mark Land, a museum spokesman, said in an email, “IU Art Museum has not been contacted by Italian authorities regarding Mr. Almagia nor has the museum been asked to return any objects associated with Mr. Almagia. The museum has had no discussions with Mr. Almagia about the objects in question.”

Land did not have details about the objects’ ownership histories but he did provide images:

A South Italian stemless kylix, 3rd century BC (UI 86-48-2)

An Apulian trozella (urn), ca. 5th-4th century BC (UI 86-48-1)

PRINCETON UPDATE: STILL STONEWALLING

Meanwhile, Princeton University is refusing to respond to questions about its own ties to Almagia, perhaps because the museum’s antiquities curator Michael Padgett remains the subject of a criminal investigation for his ties to the dealer. Since the University released a vague statement on January 25th, we have sent several follow-up requests for additional information. University spokesman Martin Mbugua has failed to respond to any of them — odd behavior for an educational institution.

Below are the questions I send to Martin on January 27th. Perhaps some of our readers will have better luck than I getting answers. Should you care to try, his email is mmbugua@Princeton.edu

Thank you for the link, Martin.

Unfortunately the release was not very helpful. It did not state the reason for the returns and did not answer my questions about the objects. I shall try again:

Can you please provide images and the ownership history for each of the returned objects?

Also, please provide a copy of the internal investigation that apparently led to the decision.

Can you clarify the release’s statement that Princeton had good title to the objects it returned? If Princeton had title, that would indicate the objects had not been illegally exported from their country of origin. If that is the case, why would the university return them?

Finally, are there additional objects in Princeton’s collection that were donated or purchased from Almagia that have not been returned? If so, please provide a list of them with information about their ownership histories.

You referred me to investigators for an update on the Padgett investigation. I have contacted them. Given that Padgett is an employee of the university, I have a few questions that only the university can answer:

— is the University paying for Dr. Padgett’s defense?

— The Met indicated it returned objects so they could be used as evidence in a possible criminal trial. Were the Princeton returns sent back for the same purpose?

— Has the University investigated the allegations against Dr. Padgett? If so, what conclusion was reached?

I understand that on-going investigations are sensitive matters. My experience is that transparency in these matters is the best way to demonstrate good faith to the public.