Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Another US 'Antique' Smuggling Case: Hardly "A museum by any other name"

There is another upcoming case now before a New York court which has very close, and telling, analogies with the smuggling and no-questions-asked trade in antiquities. This one involves not dugup artefacts, but the import of ethnographic artefacts from Africa as "tribal art". Let us start by looking at Julian Baggini's photostream on Flickr. There you will find a photo taken 17th January 2011 of the interior of a Philadelphia shop which he titles "A museum by any other name". Behind a crumbling store-front and advertised by its owner as "the most unusual shop in Philadelphia", Victor Gordon Enterprises is full of ethnographic-type material recently imported from (among other places maybe) western and central Africa. Here's what Bagini writes there about it:
It's mostly an extraordinary collection of genuine, old African art, with a sideline in vintage clock sales and repair. Wandering around its packed space, I thought of how the same artifacts, in a museum setting, would have people queuing and paying to see them. [...] in fact, the owner tells me the gems of the collection are going to become a museum collection soon.
This is the typical story isn't it? This is a shop, but its owner claims he's some kind of scholarly philanthropist "protecting the objects" in his "collection" and "making them available to the public". So how "old" are these items, and under what circumstances were they exported? Many of the states on the west coast of Africa have export regulations covering "old" artworks and ethnographic material (though not so-called 'airport art', made for the tourist market).

Victor Gordon Enterprises is in the news today as the art dealer is alleged to have been involved in an ivory smuggling enterprise which has been under Federal investigation for five years. The ivory was reportedly smuggled from or through Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, US officials said.

Nathan Gorenstein and Drew Singer, 'Philadelphia business imported illegal ivory carvings, prosecutors say', The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jul. 26, 2011.

Maryclaire Dale (Associated Press), 'Staggering amount of ivory smuggled into US', 3news.co.nz, 27 Jul 2011. (similar by same author: Feds: Pa. shop-owner smuggled ton of banned ivory)

Michael Hinkelman, 'Philadelphia man charged in major ivory trafficking probe', Philadelphia Daily News, Jul. 26, 2011.

The art dealer, Victor Gordon (68), was arrested Tuesday 26th July by federal agents and charged with the illegal importation and sale of African elephant ivory. Authorities said the alleged illegal smuggling took place from May 2006 to April 2009. In the course of the investigation, approximately one ton of ivory objects was seized, apparently one of the largest such seizures on record. Altogether, nearly 460 tusks and carvings of ivory from the endangered African elephant were seized in the Philadelphia area in 2009 and 2010, the indictment said. "The amount of elephant ivory allegedly plundered in this case is staggering and highlights the seriousness of the charged crimes," Loretta E. Lynch, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn is quoted as saying. US officials could not immediately estimate how many elephants allegedly had been slaughtered allegedly at art dealer Gordon's instigation. The art dealer was arraigned in federal magistrate court in Brooklyn and charged with conspiracy, smuggling and illegally importing ivory. Gordon pleaded not guilty and was released on $1 million bond secured by two properties he owns.
Authorities said Gordon paid an unidentified co-conspirator thousands of dollars to travel to Africa to purchase raw elephant ivory and have it carved to his specifications. He allegedly provided the co-conspirator with photographs and other depictions of ivory carvings to serve as templates for ivory carvers in Africa and directed the co-conspirator to stain or dye the ivory so the specimens would appear old. Gordon then planned and financed the illegal importation of the ivory from Africa to the U.S. through New York's JFK International Airport and sold the carvings to customers at his Philadelphia store, authorities maintain.
Trade in elephant ivory is forbidden by U.S. law and international convention, so most of the carvings seized from Gordon and his customers were passed off as century-old antiques from "old collections", which the current law allows to be sold legally in the US.
The carvings on display Tuesday in Philadelphia ranged from intricate designs incised on 4-foot-long tusks to small figurines a few inches high. They were laid out by Fish and Wildlife agents just as Gordon surrendered to federal agents in New York City. The carvings will be permanently confiscated by the government if Gordon is convicted. The carvings imitate traditional African art, said Edward Grace, deputy chief of the agency's Office of Law Enforcement. Many of the items on display were sophisticated, expressive art, while other items were more kitschy.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Salvatore Amato told reporters that the carvings had been smuggled into the United States by misrepresenting them as something else to avoid customs officers examining the shipments too closely. The ivory had been disguised by coating the objects with material to make them appear to be made of wood or clay, giving the investigation the code name "Operation Scratch Off". The current investigation was launched by the discovery of one such shipment by federal agents in 2006. Since then, eight people in New York have pleaded guilty or been convicted in the case.
During two raids in 2009, 428 ivory tusks and carvings were seized in Philadelphia. Other items were taken from customers of Gordon's shop. Carvings were seized outside New York City, in Bryn Mawr, and in Missouri, Kansas and Florida, among other locations.
Gordon's lawyer, Daniel-Paul Alva is reported as having said that "Gordon is a legitimate collector and dealer of ivory tusks who has documentation to show he was collecting them in the hopes of leaving them to a museum and who had no knowledge that any of them came from illegal poaching".

This, apart from the fact that it follows within a few weeks from the "Windsor Antiquities Bust" court case in the same jurisdiction, is an interesting case. Like the other one, it involves the stopping of a shipment of objects into the USA under what is reported to be an incorrect and misleading description, the passing of restricted goods off as something else. Like the "Windsor" case, it seems the Federal authorities went after the customers who bought the items no-questions-asked (buyers of 'unpapered' imported antiquities and coins beware, it could be you next). It is interesting that an attempt is being made to see the customer as in some way guilty of aiding and abetting, and while no mention is made (here, yet) of any of the customers being arrested and charged, at least it seems they had their collectables investigated and seized. Good for the investigating authorities, keep it up and collectors will think twice before buying things from dodgy dealers who do not offer proper paperwork with the purchased item. Mr Gordon says he has paperwork for his goods, and it will be interesting to see what kind when he brings it before the court. I wonder how many US dugup artefact dealers could match it?

Finally I sincerley hope that when Mr Gordon appears in court - whatever the verdict - there is a substantial picket of noisy animal welfare campaigners and conservationists outside the courtroom drawing attention to the horrors of ivory poaching and the ivory trade.

See in a separate post below: "Why it Matters"

Vignette: ivory "art" like that sold by Victor Gordon Enterprises, Philadelphia USA. It really angers me that an elephant, living breathing sentient being, is slaughtered cruelly by poachers just so some jerk can make make the worst possible kind of kitsch from its teeth, so another jerk (after he's paid off the poachers and smugglers) can make money convincing more jerks that this is some form of legitimate art.

Top photo, carved and painted kitsch pseudo-art made by slaughtering endangered elephants for could-not-care-less US collectors to decorate their pathetic homes with (Bill Butcher/AP)

Bottom photo: Just look at this crap , who would buy anything like this no-questions-asked? What kind of people would buy anything like this at all, even if it was properly 'papered'? (United States Attorney’s Office)

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