Saturday, 2 July 2011

Antiquities Dealer Arrest Reported: Hoax?

Art Hostage is reporting (following an unsigned post on the Kleintje Muurkrant blog) the following news:
After a long investigation cooperating police forces of Italy, Greece and Turkey (informed by Dutch art-dealer Michel van Rijn) found enough evidence to have a Lebanese art-dealer arrested in Geneva, a few days ago. Ali Aboutaam, together with his brother Hisham, owner of the Phoenix Ancient Art Gallery is accused of dealing in smuggled ancient artifacts from several Meditteranean countries, which the police confiscated during the action. [...] Mr. Aboutaam is free on bail while awaiting his trial.
It also attaches this gossipy 'backstory'.

I am not sure what to make of this 'exclusive' information as I feel we should treat anything emerging from MVR and his fellows with a little circumspection, and this appears to be one of those stories - as yet unconfirmed anywhere else.

I am a bit puzzled by the notion that this alleged event occurred as the result of "a year of surveillance by Italian, Greek, Turkish etc police". Under what circumstances would the police forces working together on this? Were the antiquities concerned allegedly smuggled from Turkey to Greece, Greece to Italy and then on to Geneva? What charges would have been brought and on what basis (on the basis of the law of which of the three countries reportedly concerned)? Such an arrest would necessarily be preceded by the arrest of the smugglers who actually committed the crime of removing the items from the country, where is the evidence that this has happened?

Perhaps Mr Aboutaam might need the services of a good international cultural property lawyer in the future, what do people reckon, will it be Bailey and Ehrenberg's services they will be considering? Who knows?

Phoenix Ancient Art Gallery has attracted attention on this blog a couple of times in addition to other coverage elsewhere. It is somewhat controversial, at times collaborating with the authorities, in the seizure of an Iraqi statue a couple of years back, but then also apparently in trouble with them at other times. Ali Aboutaam was reportedly sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in absentia in Egypt in 2004 for smuggling ancient artefacts when one of the biggest antiquity trafficking rings in Egypt was smashed. There is however a lack of reliable information about his part in all this (actually about that investigation as a whole) and I have heard conflicting accounts whether the reported initial conviction of several of the people allegedly involved (including Mr Aboutaam) was overturned or not. I suspect it was and the Egyptian authorities (guess who?) are not admitting it. There are a lot of weird stories about the two colourful brothers. Readers may remember the curious episode when he was reportedly stopped in Bulgaria and allegedly held under a strange kind of house arrest which apparently allowed him to be in both Sofia and the opening of his New York gallery at the same time. Phoenix was also the source of the Ka Nefer Nefer mask in the SLAM which the dealer had supplied with a collecting history that has been widely questioned.

Let us see what developments occur in this story over the next few days, but my suspicion is that it will turn out not to be true.

UPDATE 7th July 2011: I see the Art Hostage story has now disappeared, suggesting that its author too has had doubts about its veracity. If you look in the Internet you will see a couple of such reports excitedly saying much the same thing every few years, and apparently all wrong. It is notable that most of them appear to be made by the same person hiding under different pseudonyms, which makes one wonder who told the initial (Dutch) Kleintje Muurkrant blog the story, and who the "Mabrouk" (it means "congratulations") is who has been sending insistent and then insulting comments to this post (below). I think this story is an outright hoax.

Vignette: Phoenix - Free Clip Art at


mabrouk said...

"as I feel we should treat anything emerging from MVR and his fellows with a little circumspection"


was it not also Mr. Van Rijn who broke the news and had the Egyptian legal paperwork on his website to prove it when Ali Aboutaam was reportedly sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in absentia in Egypt in 2004 for smuggling ancient artefacts when one of the biggest antiquity trafficking rings in Egypt was smashed?

and did Mr. Van Rijn not also reveal the Ka Nefer Nefer mask in the SLAM to be smuggled from Egypt before anyone else?

why not give credit where credit is due?

jalousie in the art world? Last thing we need. Already complicated enough!

Aren't we all secretly not a bit disappointed that the art news breaking website of Van Rijn is not on the www anymore?

Paul Barford said...

Hm, who could this "Mabrouk" (new identity - no details, one viewer) be? Who are you?

No, not "jealousy". It seems to me that MvR and his fellows (you forgot I mentioned them Mabrouk) deliberately mix misinformation and scurrilous gossip with real documented facts. All "in a good cause", I am sure.

Until we have confirmation from an INDEPENDENT source (which at the moment is lacking) I prefer to treat this as just one of those unconfirmed stories that from time to time float around the "antiquities issues" milieu. At the moment it's just hearsay - which is what I feel it is only responsible (and prudent) to make clear.

As for MvR and the Ka Nefer Nefer mask, you will note that what he clearly stated on his former website was that the object had been stolen from the Sakkara storeroom in 1986, when in fact what transpires from the documentation supplied to SLAM by the Egyptians was that the object went missing when sent to Cairo Museum earlier.

Paul Barford said...

Mabrouk, You can protest as much as you want, there is still no independent confirmation of this story.

[I am not publishing the comment you just sent today as it contains unverifiable accusations. Please start your own website under your real name if you feel the need to spread such material without backing it up, don't burden other people with the task].

mabrouk said...

no need to write me such a rude email. I (mistakingly?) thought you moderate the leading

'Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues'

blog... as the leading blogger shouldn't you inform yourself (and your followers like myself) of the most important occurrences in the art market?

why not ask Mr. Aboutaam for a reaction? That is not me doing your job, but you doing your job.

Paul Barford said...

1) I wrote no "email".

2) Yes you are mistaken, this is not a forum (it is forums which have "moderators").

3) This is MY blog and I am responsible for what is posted on it, under my (real) name. I'm obviously not going to take responsibility for other people's stuff which I cannot verify. Especially when it is disseminated anonymously or pseudonymously.

What is unreasonable about that?

4) This blog is not about "the art market", I see the subject about which I write as far more than just pieces of "art". That is the point of what I write.

5) Writing this blog is not my "job".

6) I do not think I am under any "obligation" to attempt to write about everything going on everywhere, otherwise I'd be at my computer all day.

As I said, if you want to spread scandalous gossip about your enemies, fine. But do it under your own (real) name on your own website. I'll discuss it, with a link to the source, if I think it interesting. At the moment unverified "exclusive" information repeated verbatim from one unverified source to another about something that "might" have happened to one Swiss dealer is not very interesting to me.

Paul Barford said...

"Mabrouk", comment rejected.

[Insulting me is not really the best way to inspire belief in your story].

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