By Thaara S. Shankar* and the Center for Art Law Team

Heads or Tails

In December of 2017, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. attended a repatriation ceremony in which three statues were returned to the Lebanese Republic. These three statues Torso E1912, the Calf Bearer, and the Bull’s Head were all stolen during the Lebanese Civil War, from 1975-1990; they subsequently ended up in private collections, and the Bull’s Head was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2010-2017). Historically, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has already recovered antiquities that value over $150 million, pointing to how central New York is in illicit antiquity dealings. 

However, during the ceremony, Vance announced the creation of the new Antiquities Trafficking Unit, headed by Matthew Bogdanos. According to The Art Newspaper’s March Issue, earlier in the year Bogdanos, a world-renowned expert in investigating instances of cultural heritage looting, had about forty related open cases and the new Unit would proceed to work with foreign governments as well as Homeland Security to resolve these and new ownership disputes.

Apparent Idol

Bogdanos is probably best known for leading the United States Mission to recover looted artifacts from the Iraq Museum in 2003. His 2006 book, Thieves of Baghdad – One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasure, chronicles his experiences at the deputy director of the Joint Interagency Coordination Group (JICG), that helped restore the collection of the Iraq museum following its forty-eight hours of looting in 2003. Bogdanos traces the JICG involvement in the Iraq Museum efforts, and the ways in which his team worked with staff in the museum, including Dr. Nawala al-Mutwali, the museum’s director, and the community to retrieve many of the stolen objects. Living in the library of the museum. Bogdanos’ team went room to room, documenting what was still there and what had been missing. They later implemented an amnesty box for antiquities, allowing people to come forward to return stolen objects, without the threat of indictment. Throughout the process, Bogdanos’ team worked with Interpol and neighboring countries to monitor the borders. While not every object was recovered, Bogdanos’ efforts exemplified how the United States and other countries can actively safeguard cultural heritage.

What forms the basis for the Unit’s work? In 1970 the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The 1970 Convention established an international framework to combat illicit traffic in antiquities, highlighting in Article 2 that “international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country’s cultural property against all the dangers resulting there from.” It stressed the need for certification that exported cultural property follows regulations and provides guidelines for how objects shall be returned. This document provided parameters that have been adopted by many museum organizations, such as the Association of Art Museum Directors, which suggests using the 1970 date as reference tool for deciding whether or not to acquire an object with less than satisfactory provenance.

Recent History

Much of the work conducted to stop trafficking in looted antiquities is done outside of the public’s eye. But in 2016, in a very overt operation several objects displayed at the Asia Week were raided by ICE agents. They have been linked to some of the ongoing criminal cases on Bogdanos’ roster. Next year, a Persian lime-stone relief, valued at around $1.2 million, was seized at 2017 TEFAF New York based on the warrant issued by Vance and assigned to Bogdanos for investigation. The object was apparently illegally transported from Iran in 1933 by archaeologists from the University of Chicago, and was donated to the Quebec National Museum, where it was lost and then found, but ended up staying with the insurance company. Last year, the judge assigned to The People of the State of New York v. In the Matter of Persian Guard Relief, 30219/17 (Sup Ct NY, Dec. 18, 2017),  Melissa C. Jackson decided that the case belongs in civil court rather than criminal court, with the object currently still residing with the law enforcement. Incidentally, some criticize Bogdanos’ approach, arguing that his method, seeking forfeiture, etc, is too aggressive and is not a sustainable method. 

People on the Other Side

Two years after the Asia Week Raids and the Operation Hidden Idol, cases involving dealers affected by the raid — Nancy Wiener and Subhash Kapoor — are still on-going.

  1. Nancy Wiener owned Nancy Wiener Gallery, one of the most influential Asian Art Galleries in New York. In March 2016, three sculptures and reliefs, estimated value of one-million dollars, were removed from Nancy Wiener’s Gallery. This was not the first time Wiener’s dealings were subject to investigations. In 2014 it was discovered that a Buddha sculpture (the “2014 Buddha) sold by Wiener to the National Gallery of Australia, was illegally shipped from India via false paperwork. Eventually Wiener agreed to pay back the Australian museum their original purchase price of the sculpture. The 2014 Buddha apparently was connected to Subhash Kapoor, an infamous antiquities dealer, who worked in the United States and India. Following the Asia Week seizure, Bogdanos and ICE Special Agent Brenton Easter filled a criminal complaint, leading to Wiener’s arrest on December 21st, 2016. Per the complaint, Wiener was charged with criminal possession of stolen property in the first and second degree and conspiracy in the fourth degree, chronicling several objects and the ways in which she worked with con-conspirators to create false provenance and use restoration to disguise the looted objects. Bogdanos is representing The People of the State of New York. Nancy Weiner is represented by Pearlstein McCullough & Lederman, LLP. The matter is pending.
  2. Arrested in 2011/2012, Subhash Kapoor is one of the most famous illicit antiquities traders who has been subject of numerous investigations worldwide. Kapoor, a so-called “mastermind”  or “the kingpin of an international gang of idol thieves,” was behind a network of looters and smugglers. He engaged multiple people to steal objects from South Indian temples. Through a  series of networks. these objects were sold around the world and through other dealers – in fact, the Buddha sculpture that Wiener sold to the National Gallery of Australia had once passed through Kapoor’s hands. Operation Hidden Idol, a joint project between the Manhattan DA’s Office and the Homeland Security Investigations, were integral to uncovering Kapoor. He was put in custody in Germany in 2011 and now in custody by the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court in Srivillliputhur in the Virudghunagar district of Tamil Nadu, India.
  3. In January 2018, at least nine items were seized from the private home of Michael H. Steinhardt, presumably per Vance-issued warrant, executed by the Bogdanos’ Unit. As reported by TNYT, Steinhardt is “a hedge-fund manager and philanthropist, has been collecting art from ancient Greece for three decades and has close ties to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where one of the galleries is named for him.” It is worth mentioning that Steinhardt is not a stranger looted property disputes, investigations and seizures. The seminal case, decided after two appeals at the turn of the 21st century, US v. An Antique Platter of Gold, 184 F.3d 131 (2d Cir. 1999), involving a Phiale of Sicilian origin from 4th Century B.C., which was acquired by Steinhardt in 1991 and seized from him pursuant to a warrant in 1995. Phiale was returned to Italy in 2000.
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Ionian sculpture of a Ram’s head from the 6th century, one of the objects which was apparently seized from the Steinhardt collection in January, 2018.

Looking Forward

What does the the creation of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office symbolize? Is it a rebranding effort or a new consorted strategy to fight looting and illicit trade? Where as collectors are expected to become more sophisticated and ask questions before acquiring art and cultural valuables, the Unit’s mandate may suggest to the aspiring and emerging cultural heritage law experts that there is much more work yet to be done.

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About the Author: Thaara Sumithra Shankar is in her third year at Johns Hopkins University, studying the History of Art, Museums and Society, and Classics. She can be reached at tshanka1@jhu.edu.