Monday 17 February 2014

Antiquities Collector Wins Dismissal of Charges in "United States v. Khouli et al."

Culturgrrl has a text about the dismissal of of of all federal charges associated with the case United States v. Khouli et al.  involving alleged antiquities smuggling and money laundering against Chesterfield County, VA cosmetics tycoon Joseph Lewis II  (CultureGrrl, '“Fight of My Life”: Antiquities Collector Joseph Lewis Wins Dismissal of Charges', February 17, 2014). Mr Lewis is a "collector of Egyptian antiquities (whose objects were displayed at several American museums)" and his troubles resulted from his associations with dealer Mousa Khouli of Windsor Antiquities, New York, “received a one-year suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty in April 2012 to smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the U.S. and making a false statement to law enforcement”.
"After 2½ years of legal wrangling and a seven-figure cost for his defense, a federal judge last month dismissed all charges against Lewis in New York [U.S. District Court, Eastern District]—one year after prosecutors and Lewis’ attorneys agreed to a 12-month “deferred prosecution agreement.” The agreement required Lewis to forfeit several artifacts he purchased that were seized in the investigation, provide documentation to a U.S. customs agent if he imported any other artifacts during the 12-month period and, finally, to stay out of trouble. The agreement essentially absolved Lewis of any responsibility or liability for the importation of the seized items or their false provenance. It was perhaps the best deal Lewis could hope for short of full exoneration by a trial jury—which Lewis said would have drained his bank account even more". (Mark Bowes of the Richmond Times-Dispatch cited after CultureGrrl)

CultureGrrl also cites Bowes' quote from Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (which in 2011 had eight objects on loan from Lewis’ collection) who said he
regards Lewis as “a very astute and determined collector. But he is also someone with great scruples and understands the intricacies of ancient materials and works that are legally excavated and imported. He’s very careful to stay clear of things that would be inappropriate.”
On reading my previous accounts of this case, I note I was rather sceptical of the strength of the evidence against the collector, as opposed to the more extensive incriminating paper trail concerning the dealers involved. To what extent the collector had been aware of the background of the antiquities he was buying and the care he actually took to "stay clear of things that would be inappropriate” will not now be heard in court, we may only imagine them. Rick St Hilaire has a useful piece on the beginning of this deferred prosecution agreement explaining its nature.  Lee Rosenbaum predicts that this (part of the) case "will undoubtedly be Topic A at the Apr. 10 cultural-property symposium in New York organized by the collector-friendly Committee for Cultural Policy", if so, it would be a shame if nobody points out the background of these charges in the dodgy dealings in antiquities that led to two convictions, leaving the alleged complicity of a fourth person (a non-US national) unresolved. A very messy and badly-handled case all round.

How can collectors avoid the risk of getting mixed up in any future antiquities case? What kind of questions should they be asking dealers, and how should they be documenting and curating the answers received? Perhaps that would be a better topic for the Committee for Cultural Policy symposium to discuss.

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