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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.

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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.

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James Cuno on Timothy Potts and the Getty’s New “Appetite for Risk”

Getty CEO James Cuno discussed his “appetite for risk,” his decision to hire Timothy Potts as the Getty’s next museum director and his vision for the museum in an interview on Warren Olney’s Which Way LA program on KCRW.

Chasing Aphrodite’s Jason Felch and CultureGrrl Lee Rosenbaum were also guests on the program. The interview came on the same day that Cuno announced a shakeup at the Getty museum that consolidated administrative powers under the Trust  and led to the dismissal of two senior staff members.

Listen to the full program here:

Five Tips for Finding Loot at Your Local Museum

Jason and Ralph will be speaking Friday, June 10 in Orlando at IRE, the annual gathering of investigative reporters. Our topic is how to find loot at your local museum.

You don’t have to be an investigative reporter to find looted antiquities. Museums around the country are home to ancient art of questionable origins. As Marion True once told her museum colleagues: “Experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely — if not certain — that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.” (p. 190 of Chasing Aphrodite)

So, in that spirit, here are five things to look for at your local museum:

1. The Usual Suspects:For decades, the market in Classical antiquities

Robert Hecht poses in front of the famous looted Greek vase he sold the museum in 1972 for $1 million.

was controlled by a handful of shady dealers who operated much like a cartel. They were competitors, but cooperated as necessary to get the highest price for their wares. Look for their names in the ownership histories of ancient art: Robert Hecht, Frieda Tchakos, Fritz Burki, Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, Christo Michaelidis.

2. Read the Labels: Many museums are frustratingly vague about an object’s origins. In the language displayed next to a piece of ancient art, you’ll find see something like “said to be from” this or that country or region. The question to ask is: who said? The answer is often dealers, middlemen and even looters. Curators often sought out this important information from their market sources, but kept it vague to hide an object’s illicit origins.

3. Accession numbers: Most museum objects are identified by an accession number, the inventory number given to an object when it enters the collection. Every museum uses a different code for their acquisitions, but they usually contain the date of acquisition. For example, the Getty’s statue of Aphrodite was 88.AA.76. “88” is for 1988, the year the Getty acquired the statue. “AA” is the Getty’s code for ancient statues. “76” tells you its the 76th acquisition of the year. This can be key information. For example, if you know the year an object was acquired, you can figure out the standards and policies that were in place at the time.

4. Scrutinize the donors. Museums have been getting in trouble for donations for decades. Donations of art are tax deductible, and have often been a means for tax fraud at museums. Museums have also used donors to launder recently looted art. (See Chap 2: A Perfect Scheme) Some museums have lower standards when it comes to objects donated to the museum.

5. Ask for answers: Once you see an object the sparks your curiosity, ask the museum for answers about the object’s provenance, or ownership history. Most museums should (reluctantly) provide you with what they know. If they claim to have no information, ask them why they felt it was safe to purchase. The AAMD has guidelines for museum transparency on these issues. Is your museums following them?

In our view, not all looted antiquities need be returned to the country from which they were stolen. (The Getty, for example, returned only a fraction of the hundreds of objects in their collection its former curator would consider “almost certainly looted.”) But museums should be asked to come clean about their collecting practices.

Joining us on Friday’s panel will be Lee Rosenbaum of CultureGrrl fame, and James Grimaldi, the WaPo’s lead reporter on the Smithsonian’s shenannigans.