Suspects in Celtic gold heist arrested; melted gold lumps found

Four suspects in the shocking theft of a Celtic gold coin hoard from the Celtic-Roman Museum in Manching, Bavaria, have been arrested. The bad news is one of the suspects was carrying 18 gold lumps in a plastic bag at the time of his arrest. Micro-X-ray fluorescence analysis of the composition of the nuggets found they match that of the Celtic coins. Each lump amounts to four of the coins. So yes, these rats stole a historically priceless hoard of 483 Celtic coins from 100 B.C. and melted at least 70 of them down. There is no good news, but some small consolation can be found in authorities’ hope that most of the coins are still out there, hidden by the thieves to minimize chance of arousing suspicion while the heat was still on the investigation.

The estimated market value of the coins if they had been sold commercially was approximately $1.8 million. The gold value alone of the 3.7 kilos (8 lbs) of coins at the time of the heist was around $278,000. Both figures pale in comparison to the archaeological significance of the hoard, of course. Discovered in 1999 at the site of a Celtic settlement in what is now Manching, the hoard had been buried in a sack under the foundations of an ancient building. Analysis of the coins found the source of the metal was not local; it was Bohemian river gold. The hoard was the largest find of Celtic gold in the 20th century. It went on display at the museum in 2006 and was its signature attraction.

The theft was meticulously planned and executed in just nine minutes from break-in to getaway. At 1:17 AM on November 22, 2022, fiber optic lines were cut at the telecom hub nearest the museum, knocking out internet and phone service to the museum (and 13,000 other customers). With the museum’s security system disabled, thieves broke in through an emergency exit at 1:26 AM, busted the bulletproof safety glass encasing the hoard and were out the door with the loot at 1:33 AM.

Investigators from the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office (BLKA) searched the area around the museum thoroughly, recovering two crowbars, a pair of pruning shears, a wire cutter and a radio antenna. DNA traces on the tools of the crime connected the theft to eight similar ones in Germany and Austria. Months of dogged pursuit traced the suspects to northern Germany and the Ingolstadt public prosecutor’s office issued arrest warrants for them. Searches of 28 apartments, businesses, garden plots, a boathouse and vehicles found a panoply of burglary equipment.

One of the members of the gang is a telecommunications engineer, hence the fiber optic angle. The other three are an accountant, a shop manager and a demolition firm employee. Evidence ties the four suspects to 11 other thefts targeting supermarkets, a casino, gas stations and an ATM, but this was the first to target cultural heritage. Looks like they developed a taste for it, because investigators found that vehicles rented by the suspects this year had stopped near museums in Frankfurt, Idar-Oberstein, Trier and Pforzheim.

The suspects have not given over any information since their arrest. Authorities are searching for any surviving coins in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania where three of the four were arrested. The search will target other areas that have come up in this extensive investigation as well.

Italy returns looted funerary stele to Turkey

Italian authorities have returned a 2nd century A.D. funerary stele looted from the ancient city of Zeugma to Turkey. The stele, deemed by archaeologists to be of extraordinary historical and artistic significance, was given to officials of the Turkish embassy in Rome at the end of April, and this week it was welcomed home in a ceremony at the Gaziantep Zeugma Mosaic Museum.

The stele is carved from a solid block of limestone of a type found in the Gaziantep region. It was the primary stone used for statues and headstones in Roman-era Zeugma. It is a rectangle with a deeply inset arch. Inside the arched niche is the bust of a woman dressed in the traditional chiton of a Roman bride, her right hand over heart holding her veil, her left hand holding a spindle. An inscription in Greek on the base reads “Satornila, the wife who loves her husband, goodbye.”

It was seized from a house in Florence in an investigation by the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Venice last year. The suspect had purchased it in France then filed a fraudulent request for a temporary entry certificate, claiming the stele had originated in Italy. Had the certificate been granted, he would have been able to export the artifact without being bound by national cultural heritage protections for five years. Before they would grant the license, the Florence Export Office asked him for proof of legal ownership prior to 1909 (the year Italy’s protection of archaeological assets law came into effect) and legal documents proving its original removal from Italy was legitimate.

The suspect hastily withdrew his application, but his shadiness was in the cross-hairs now. The Carabinieri undertook to reconstruct the real transit history of the stele, with the aid of Turkey’s Culture Ministry, Zeugma archaeologists, Interpol and the Italian Culture Ministry’s database of illicitly stolen cultural assets. Meticulous research into the iconography, style, size, materials and soil traces found on the stele confirmed that it was from Zeugma, not Italy.

The stele is an outstanding example of artistic style of Zeugma in the Antonine Period, and archaeologists believe its inscription will shed new light on the history of the ancient city, especially the local families that adopted Latin names after becoming Roman citizens.

119 trafficked archaeological pieces found in Córdoba raid

Spain’s Civil Guard police have recovered 119 looted archaeological artifacts from a storage room in Baena (Córdoba). Objects include an exceptional Roman marble portrait bust, a silver denarius minted by Brutus after the assassination of Caesar of which only a handful of examples are known, and a rare type of Corinthian column capital from the 7th century. A married couple residing in Baena have been detained in connection with the raid and have been charged with crimes against Spain’s historical heritage, smuggling and receiving stolen goods.

The raid (dubbed Operation Plotina after Trajan’s wife) was carried out as part of Project Pandora VII, a massive international anti-smuggling operation led by Spanish police in cooperation with Interpol and Europol. So far, the wide-ranging Pandora investigation has resulted in 60 arrests and 11,049 cultural assets seized from several countries, 19 of the arrests made and 1,079 of the assets seized by the Civil Guard in Spain.

The stand-out object in the Plotina raid is the marble bust. It is a high-quality private portrait of a woman dating to the first third of the 2nd century. The hair style — braids woven into two crescents above the forehead and then coiled into a large bun at the back of the head — is typical of portraits of Salonina Matidia (68-119 A.D.), beloved niece of the emperor Trajan and mother-in-law of his heir Hadrian. Similar examples can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum. Only the heads of those portraits are original. The actual bust in the British Museum was a modern recreation. The Matidia-style portrait found in the raid is integral.

The Museum of Córdoba, under the direction of archaeologist Lola Baena, says that “it is an absolutely exceptional piece. It depicts a young woman dressed in a tunic and cloak, the folds and movement of which are carved with great skill. Her head is slightly tilted to the left, her neck is long and slender, and her features conform to a realistic idealized representation, a feature that characterizes Roman portraiture from the High Imperial period (1st-3rd centuries) from Augustus onward. The piece is unquestionably exceptional, and it is on par with the best second-century Roman sculpture made in Hispanic workshops, as well as close to the quality of those from Rome itself.”

The confiscated artifacts have been transferred to the Archaeological Museum of Córdoba for conservation and study.

15th c. altar panel returned to museum 44 years after theft

A 15th century altar panel stolen on November 13, 1979, from the York Art Gallery has been returned after turning up at auction. It was Duke’s Auctions’ experts who spotted the possible connection to the long-lost York panel and pulled it from the auction. They asked the Art Loss Register to look into its history, and they concluded that it was indeed the panel stolen 44 years ago.

Duke’s had come to auction off the panel after examining the contents of a house in the Southampton area, but the vendor knew nothing of the panel’s background, having inherited it from her father. Schwinge believes the original collector most likely bought it at a market or an auction house without knowing its provenance.

“We told the daughter that the painting was stolen 50 years ago and she was quite happy that it was simply returned to the museum,” Schwinge said. “No money changed hands at all. We are so grateful to her for being so straightforward about it.

The gold-ground double-sided painting of the Nuremberg School was one of a pair donated to the museum by Francis Dennis Lycett Green in 1957. He had acquired them from a London art gallery in 1956 and donated them to the York museum. He was its most important benefactor, having given the York Art Gallery his entire painting collection of 150 pieces in 1955.

The front on the altarpiece depicts three saint bishops against a gold background. The figure on the left is St. Nicholas. He is holding a book with three gold balls, representing Santa’s throwing gold into the windows of three impoverished women for their dowries. In the middle is St. James of Tarentaise. On the right is St. Germanus of Paris, holding the key given to him by St. Peter in a prophetic dream.

On the verso side is St. Lawrence holding a gridiron (representing his martyrdom by roasting) on the left. In the middle is St. Sebald, patron saint of Nuremberg, holding a model of the church that bears his name. On the right side is the Archangel Gabriel holding a furled banner with part of his greeting to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (Ave Maria Gratia Plena).

The panel’s pair, which is still in the York Art Gallery, depicts Dominican saints. Against the gold background are St. Catherine of Alexandria on the left, St. Barbara in the middle and St. Dominic on the right. On the other side are St. Catherine of Siena on the left, St. Ursula in the middle and St. Thomas Aquinas on the right.

There is no ownership information about the panels before 1930 when they first appeared at auction in London. German scholars attribute the panels to the workshop of Hans Pleydenwurff, one of the pre-eminent artists working in Nuremberg in the late 15th century. The York panels began as the wings of a larger altarpiece, perhaps the Catherine of Siena altarpiece made by Pleydenwurff’s workshop for the Dominican convent in Nuremberg.

The panel is now undergoing examination and conservation at the York Art Gallery. When the work is complete, the prodigal panel will be reunited on display with its sibling.

Record-breaking EID MAR aureus looted from Greece, now repatriated

The EID MAR aureus that set a new world record when it was sold at auction for $4.2 million in October 2020 has been confiscated and repatriated to Greece whence it was looted. The owner of Roma Numismatics, the London-based auction house that sold the aureus, has been arrested and charged with grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property, conspiracy and scheme to defraud.

The coin caused a sensation when its sale was announced, because it is one of only three known examples in gold of the coin struck by Marcus Junius Brutus celebrating the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March. (There are 85 or so examples of the EID MAR silver denarius, so still rare and highly coveted in numismatic circles.) This aureus had never been published before and is by far the most pristine of the three, in near mint condition.

According to Richard Beale, owner and managing director of Roma Numismatics, the aureus’ provenance was as impeccable as its condition. It had an ownership history going back centuries. Sure, its documented history began with a private Swiss collection, but not the laughably fake kind. This was the renowned collection amassed by Baron Dominique de Chambrier in the 1700s.

The only problem was that it was all a lie, the “documented history” forged by Beale and coin expert Italo Vecchi who found the aureus and secured it for Roma Numismatics. They had tried to sell it before at the 2015 New York International Numismatics Convention, but at that time all they had in terms of ownership history was the laughably fake kind. Potential buyers heard the classic cover-up phrase that it was from “an old Swiss collection” and ran the other way. So Beale and Vecchi ginned up a glamorous and unimpeachable provenance. Coupled with an authentication certification by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, the EID MAR aureus was now on its way to breaking the world record as the most expensive ancient coin ever sold at auction.

The house of cards started to collapse in 2022 when Beale attempted to sell five coins that were known to have been looted from Gaza. That drew suspicion on his whole operation, and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) began to investigate the sale of the EID MAR aureus in collaboration with several foreign law enforcement agencies. They found that Beale had paid for the falsified ownership history. One informant said he’d been offered $107,000 by Beale to sign the fake documents but he refused.

The EID MAR was seized in February from an undisclosed location. On Tuesday, March 21st, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office officially repatriated the aureus and another 28 looted antiquities in a ceremony at the Greek Consulate in New York City attended by Greece’s Minister of Culture and Sports Lina Mendoni. The oldest of the objects is a Late Neolithic (5000-3500 B.C.) family group of carvings looted from the island of Euboea and trafficked through Switzerland into the private collection of Leon Levy and Shelby White.  Details of where the coin and other artifacts were looted from have not been released, just that the pieces were the products of illegal excavations in Macedonia, Epirus, Central Greece, the Cyclades and Crete.

I love this statement made at the ceremony by Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and the founder and director of the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

New York Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos, referring to the daily efforts he and his colleagues make to combat the illegal trafficking of cultural goods, noted characteristically: “The Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni has placed two outstanding members on our team, Mrs. Papageorgiou and Vlachogiannis. We all work together, long hours, through the night, and on weekends as a family, like a good Greek family, and we are passionate about discussing what the next goal will be because we all share the same vision. To return the cultural heritage to where it was born and belongs. While archaeologists and other scientists study these ancient artifacts and wonder how they were found, this particular group will work together, as one man, for the next goal.

Bogdanos’ father Konstantine was a Greek immigrant who owned and operated a Greek restaurant in lower Manhattan and it was very much a family business. Matthew and his siblings all waited tables there, so he knows whereof he speaks. Among his many accomplishments, Bogdanos has a master’s degree in Classical Studies as well as a law degree, which is why he is so uniquely suited to head the Antiquities Trafficking Unit. He advocated for its creation for four years, finally achieving that goal in 2010 when Cyrus Vance Jr. became District Attorney.