Thursday, 14 July 2011

Egyptian Antiquities Allegedly Smuggled From Dubai to US

"This office will continue to vigorously enforce cultural property laws that restrict the unauthorized movement of antiquities, Antiquities dealers and collectors are on notice that the smuggling of cultural patrimony will not be tolerated." U.S. Attorney Loretta E. Lynch

Four people have reportedly been charged by US authorities today with illegally trafficking in Egyptian and Greco-Roman antiquities (as well as money laundering). The antiquities concerned were allegedly smuggled past US Customs and Border Protection officers including a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a unique three-part coffin set belonging to Shesepamuntayesher from the Saite period (26th Dynasty, c. 664-552 B.C.) as well as Egyptian funerary boats and limestone figurines. In addition to Egyptian antiquities, other Middle Eastern and Asian artifacts along with more than a thousand antique coins have been recovered. They were exported from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in a scheme that spanned from October 2008 to November 2009 and packed to avoid official scrutiny at American ports, officials said. US customs law allows for less stringent inspection standards for goods valued at under $2,000. Although the artifacts were worth more than that, the consigners lied to customs officials about their origin and value. They were mislabelled as “antiques", "wood panels” or as a “wooden painted box”. A middle sarcophagus and part of an outer sarcophagus arrived on board a cargo ship at Port Newark in 2009 where they were seized by law enforcement agents, officials said. A civil complaint seeking forfeiture of Egyptian sarcophagi, Iraqi artifacts, cash, and other items seized in connection with the government's investigation was also unsealed this morning in Brooklyn federal court.

Unusually for cases of this nature, the four people charged by Brooklyn federal prosecutors with conspiring to smuggle antiquities into the US have been named. Several sources state that the allegations concern:
Mousa Khouli, Salem Alshdaifat, Joseph A. Lewis, II and Ayman Ramadan
Mousa "Morris" Khouli, 37, is the owner of Windsor Antiquities (website currently offline?) on E. 56th St. in New York. The gallery specializes in Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian and Near Eastern antiquities and ancient coins dating back to 1000 B.C. This dealer features on the recommended dealers list disseminated through Tim Haines' Yahoo "Ancient Artifacts" discussion group - recommended for what though? Readers of this blog might recall the dealer selling one of the "Wenneb" shabtis I was discussing a while back, that story potentially takes on a new significance now, especially as one of the other defendants in this case was also selling them at the same time.
Agents recovered a sarcophagus in Khouli's Brooklyn home, which he falsely claimed was part of his father's collection and "that he had owned it for a long time," court papers state. Federal prosecutors say Khouli purchased that coffin from Ramadan in 2009 and are seeking the forfeiture of all the items so they can be returned to Egypt.
Khouli, 37 will be arraigned Thursday before Magistrate Judge Andrew Carter in Brooklyn federal courthouse. The case is U.S. v. Khouli, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, no. 11-340. (For the U.S.: Assistant U.S. attorneys Karin Orenstein and Claire Kedeshian. For Khouli: Gerald Shargel of the Law Offices of Gerald Shargel.)

Joseph A. Lewis II, a collector from Virginia has been mentioned in this blog (and Looting Matters) as the individual that is reported to have attempted to import an Egyptian sarcophagus (of Imesy) from Spain, and when it was challenged, apparently abandoning it (the coffin has now been returned by US authorities to Egypt). See here, and here. Initially the man was named (by two Florida lawyers) as Joseph A. Lewis III, but in a later draft of their paper they amended it to Joseph A. Lewis II, their carelessness leading to some confusion). A search of his home in Chesterfield Virginia by ICE agents reportedly revealed a Greco-Roman sarcophagus, Egyptian funerary boats and limestone figures, these were seized.
"Lewis allegedly purchased a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a nesting set of three Egyptian sarcophagi, a set of Egyptian boats and Egyptian limestone figures (collectively, "Egyptian antiquities") from Khouli, who purchased those items from Alshdaifat and Ramadan. Each of these antiquities was exported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and smuggled into the United States. Khouli allegedly provided Lewis with false provenances which stated that the Egyptian antiquities were part of a collection assembled by Khouli's father in Israel in the 1960's when, in fact, both Lewis and Khouli knew that Khouli acquired the Egyptian antiquities from other dealers"
This is precisely why collectors who buy objects trusting they are from an "old collection" are unwise to even consider the transaction before ascertaining that this claim can be verified, documented and proven. Lewis will apparently be arraigned Thursday before Magistrate Judge Andrew Carter in Brooklyn federal courthouse. It is reported that he is represented by Peter Chavkin and Bridget Rohde of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo.

Now Salem Alshdaifat is an interesting name. He is a V-Coins dealer (Holyland Numismatics, West Bloomfield, MI), also an ACCG Benefit Auction donor dealer. I have raised the question here of where the coins he deals in have come from, and it is interesting to see his name brought up in this context. With or without his name figuring in court, one might legitimately wonder about for example about a recent offer on V-Coins (you know, the "ethical" one?):
"500 uncleaned coins from the Middeleast and Egypt,
1,000.00 COINS available.

uncleaned coins, Greek, Roman, Judaean, Provencial, Byzantine, Islamic, and some rings. some small coins might have some Rare Emperors, we found befor Johannes, Leo, Zeno, Marcian and rare Vandalic coins in such lots, this lot is mostly uncleaned completly and some are cleaned in the edges or completly cleaned. plz note that just for this lot, we will ship only to USA, shipping will be Via Registred mail only.
Old collection, no doubt. As are the other bulk lots of Alexandrian and Ptolemaic coins he has on offer tonight. Some other Ptolemaics here too. None of the ones I looked at say which old collection they were in before they arrived in the coin shop - so where and how did they "surface"? Alshdaifat was arraigned Wednesday before a federal judge in Detroit Federal Court.

Now "Holyland" is a "wholesaler", that is somebody who has supplied bulk lots of soimilar coins to dealers. A number of his offerings on V-Coins are clearly marked dealer lots, and the "items sold" section of his V-Coins shopfront contains many more. So basically, if a dealer has bought one of these bulk lots and split them up into individual sales, sometimes sharing them with business partners, there must be a large number of collectors who have in their homes and cabinets coins originating in "Holyland Numismatics" dealer lots, and therefore sharing with them any issues of the provenance. Alshdaifat quite clearly has had access to high volumes of antiquities, especially coins, so where did they come from? A lot of them (but not all) are types that could well have been found in Egypt, particularly in the northern part of the country. The question has to be asked, how would they have left the source country in bulk?

Ayman Ramadan, a Jordanian national living in the United Arab Emirates, is a bit of a shadowy figure. He is noted by the newspapers as "an antiquity dealer from Dubai, United Arab Emirates". It turns out he runs the outfit I mentioned in an earlier post here, Nafertiti Eastern Sculptures Trading Co " (P.O Box: 111301 Bar Dubai, Dubai. United Arab Emirates). He is now is considered by (US) authorities to be a "fugitive".

Of course at a time when the question of artefacts looted from Egypt in the wake of the recent political disturbances there is very sensitive, this is not a good time for somebody to be caught with freshly-surfaced Egyptian antiquities on their hands. Note that also seized seem to be some from Iraq.

ICE Special-Agent-in Charge James Hayes, Jr., called the investigation "ground-breaking", he says this is "the first time an alleged cultural property network has been dismantled within the United States". Indeed it probably is. Most of the time antiquities stopped at the border are seized and sent home with fanfare, reaping political and foreign relations kudos, but rarely investigating the sender or addressee to any degree that would comprise any kind of investigation of the links in the illicit transfer of ownership of the artefacts concerned. Let us hope this case is a harbinger of a more pro-active policy on prosecuting the illicit artefact trade. It is gratifying to see that it involves coin dealers, as it is this milieu that has been most vociferous in recent years about so-called "collectors' rights" to material obtained and transported in defiance of cultural property laws. I doubt though that the investigation and seizures will give them pause for thought (indeed, I'd be very surprised to find them even discussing it at all on their forums and blogs). In any case, although "if convicted, the defendants each face a maximum of 20 years in prison", we all know that the four will just get slapped wrists from the court and told (asked nicely) not to do it again, like the Four Corners two dozen - if the American judicial system can't even deal with archaeological looting in their own country, what hope is there that they will actually deal with a case involving looting and smuggling outside the US? I do not see how Mr Ramadan can be brought to a US court.

ICE News Release: July 14, 2011 - "ICE makes arrests and seizes cultural artifacts stolen from Egypt Set of Sarcophagi more than 2,000 years old" 14th July 2011.

Mitchel Maddux, 'Feds bust 4 in Brooklyn-based Egyptian antiquities trafficking ring', New York Post 14th July 2011.

John Marzulli, 'Feds bust group trying to smuggle Ancient Egyptian mummy coffins', New York Daily News, 14th July 2011.

Jessica Dye, 'Feds accuse 4 of smuggling Egyptian artifacts', Thomson Reuters News & Insight, 14th July 2011;

Kate Tayl o r, '4 Charged in Smuggling Egyptian Antiquities', New York Times July 14, 2011;

Keith Johnson, 'Alleged Antiquities Smugglers Busted', Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2011.

See Also: Looting Matters, Dealers Charged Following Egyptian Seizures

Vignette: A pair of bronze inlays (from a sarcophagus?) representing eyes sold by
Holyland Numismatics, where did they come from?
[yes, the dealer photographed them upside down]

1 comment:

Damien Huffer said...

wow, this is huge!

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