Friday, 15 December 2017

Eshamun Sculptures Return to Lebanon

Antiquities and diplomacy, getting the special tablecloths out, the Office of the District Attorney of New York sent back to Lebanon and its citizens three looted artefacts that had turned up in New York. At the Repatriation Ceremony earlier this week, Majdi Ramadan, the Consul General of Lebanon in New York expressed his appreciation for the efforts of the Office 'to enforce the rule of law, to eliminate the illicit trafficking of antiquities', Angel M. Melendez, Special Agent-in-Charge of HSI New York, said:
“These three pieces have travelled through the underworld of art, being recovered here in New York. Now it is time that they are returned to Lebanon, their rightful home. The trafficking of cultural property and art is a lucrative criminal enterprise that transnational criminal organizations seek to partake of to make a profit; nonetheless, the cultural significance and worth of these returned treasures is beyond any monetary value.”

The three pieces that had travelled through that arty underworld to New York were all sculptures, and notably, all from the temple of Eshamun an ancient place of worship near Sidon in southwestern Lebanon excavated in the 1970s. They were probably part of the group of 600 items that had been stolen from a storeroom to which they had been evacuated on the outbreak of war. So far relatively few of this group have been recovered. The three concerned now are:

1) Marble bull’s head, circa 360 BC looted during the Civil War. This was recovered from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was on loan for display by a private collector who acquired the statue after it was somehow sold to private collectors. Nobody was arrested. (Value to the market approximately $1.2 million). [For some reason, the photo shows that this was going back to Lebanon without the mount on which it was displayed - maybe the collector claimed it back to use again?]

2)  'The Calf Bearer': In October, a marble torso, circa the 6th century BC. was recovered from a private owner who acquired the artifact after it too was 'stolen during the Lebanese Civil War, and sold to private collectors'. Nobody is on record as having been arrested. The value of the object to the market was approximately $4.5 million.

3) 'Torso E1912: In November, a marble torso, circa the 4th century B.C.E., was recovered from a private owner who acquired it after the statue was 'stolen during the Lebanese Civil War and sold by an antiquities dealer before being shipped to New York.' Nobody is on record as having been arrested. The value of the object to the market was not stated.

Pictured (from l-r): Torso E1912; the Bull’s Head; and the Calf Bearer.

Note here totally missing are any of the names of the three collectors involved in buying artefacts with unverified licit origins. We know the name of the owner who lost his bull head (but seems to have kept the stand) but the October and November seizures seem to have gone relatively untrumpeted - why?

One may speculate whether or not the fact that these three items were found and seized so close together in time indicates that somebody implicated in their trafficking was induced to 'talk' about their clients. The Sidon head was the one seized first and interestingly, had been 'bought from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector'. The dealer is unnamed. Can one speculate that this hypothetical London dealer had pressure put upon him or her somehow and revealed the name of a client in New York who'd bought 'the calf Bearer' and who maybe had just shipped a third piece (torso E1912) to New York where the DA could seize it? That is an interesting possibility, especially when one would consider how a New York DA would pressurize a hypothetical British dealer to do anything at all... also it raises the question what else such a hypothetical dealer might have shipped out to places where the Manhattan DA cannot touch him?

I rather think there was a message being sent out by the display and repatriation of these three objects together.  I think we might watch the doings of the reformed Scotland Yard Art and Antiquities Squad with some interest.

And a final thought for collectors: You may think you can 'trust' the 'reputable' dealer in the shiny shop who has a trophy antiquity that you covet but - he regrets - somebody has mislaid the paperwork for. But the moment American (let's say) investigators get him or her in their sights and make them 'an offer they cannot refuse'  (like not go to jail if you co-operate), they'll have no compunction about dredging their business records for the names and addresses of people that have bought dodgy items from them, no-questions-asked. No compunction.

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