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.

Royal jewelry looted by guy who threatened to sue me returned to Cambodia

A collection of 77 extraordinary jewels, including ancient Khmer royal crowns, has been returned to Cambodia by the heir of the late Douglas Latchford, an art dealer, avid collector and shameless trafficker of antiquities who once threated to sue your humble blogger.

Backstory: In a badly-formatted letter full of grammatical errors and contradictions, a law firm representing Latchford demanded that I take down this post or be sued for defamation. The post is still up, as you see, and the threat was empty, but I take it as a point of pride nonetheless that all of Latchford’s bluster would shortly thereafter blow up in his face as the cases against him piled up ever higher. For decades Latchford had commissioned looters to pillage Cambodian temples, starting during the civil war in the 1960s. The horrors of Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s were nothing but a boon to his pillaging operation, and his looters often had deals with the military to aid in their thefts. His minions were actively stealing and smuggling well into the 2000s.

A high-end dealer in the international antiquities market, Latchford supplied stolen Cambodian art to private collectors, auction houses, other dealers and museums around the world. He wrote books about Khmer art and garnered a reputation as one of the premier experts on the subject. His loot formed the backbone of several major Southeast Asian art collections in museums in the United States. He so adroitly bamboozled everyone that he even managed to secure the Cambodian equivalent of a knighthood for his donations of money and artifacts he had stolen to the national museum of the country he had stolen them from.

The dominoes started to fall in 2011 when Sotheby’s tried to sell the Duryodhana statue looted from the Koh Ker temple. Sotheby’s sale was blocked when Cambodia officially requested its return and after negotiations failed, the U.S. Attorney filed a forfeiture suit to confiscate the statue. Many lies about its provenance came out in the investigation, with Latchford playing a starring role, forging ownership documents and lying on customs forms about the statue’s origin, age and market value.

His legal team threatened me in 2014. Four years later in November 2018, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York indicted him on several counts of wire fraud, smuggling and conspiracy related to his decades of trafficking archaeological material. Latchford had UK and Thai citizenship and lived in Bangkok which was the hub of his smuggling operation for decades. He was very ill at the time of the indictment, so there was no attempt at extradition and he died at age 88 in the summer of 2020. The indictment against him was dismissed after his death.

His daughter Julia Latchford agreed to return his entire ill-gotten collection to Cambodia. In 2021 and 2022, she returned more than 125 stone and bronze statues to Cambodia. Last week, the jewels arrived home. They include crowns, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, amulets and belts from the Khmer Empire (9th – 14th c. A.D.) some of which appeared in Latchford’s 2008 book Khmer Gold: Gifts of the Gods. Many of them have never been seen before not even in photographs.

Cambodian researchers believe that some of the gold adorned the earliest Angkorian kings, who founded the Khmer Empire (802 to 1431) and built its majestic temples.

“We did not know these items existed,” added Touch, who was in London last week to help oversee the return of the objects. “This is much more than what is in our museum.”

By weight alone, officials said, the gold is worth more than $1 million. But Bradley J. Gordon, a Phnom Penh-based lawyer for Cambodia who negotiated the return of the items, said the value was difficult to estimate because Angkorian gold is rare, has never been lawfully exported from Cambodia and almost never appears on the market.

“We really don’t want to put a price on it,” he said.

Hundreds of artifacts, human remains seized from two homes

Police have recovered hundreds of archaeological artifacts, fossils and human remains in a raid on two homes in Alicante, southeastern Spain. With more than 300 archaeological objects and 200 bones, it is one of the largest collections of illegally acquired artifacts in the province.

Alicante was founded as a fortified town around 230 B.C. by Hamilcar Barca, Carthaginian general and father of Hannibal of elephants fame, but there is evidence of human settlement in the area going back to 5000 B.C. Greek and Phoenician traders had established several small trading ports in the area by 1000 B.C., and Punic power grew over the centuries. By the time Hamilcar built what he named Akra Leuké (Greek for “White Mountain”), Carthage was in a heated competition with Rome for control of the Mediterranean coast of the Iberian peninsula, a competition it would soon lose. Scipio Africanus defeated Carthage in the Second Punic War and conquered Carthaginian Iberia in 206 B.C.

With so rich a history, it is sad but not surprising that Alicante has drawn the attention of looters. This latest investigation began last November when authorities heard of a group of paleontological remains inside a private home. After the first raid, the owner collaborated with the police and threw another looter under the bus, leading to the raid on the second home. An even larger collection of archaeological artifacts and bones were found there. Among the pieces seized are amphorae of Iberian, Phoenician and Punic origin, Neolithic millstones, Roman-era loom weights, more than 1,000 tesserae from a Roman mosaic, large numbers of fossils and ceramics ranging in date from the Bronze Age through the middle of the 20th century.

The owner of the second home claimed he had inherited everything from a deceased relative, and it seems like he wasn’t lying about a good portion of the collection, at least. But even so, the deceased relative had no legal title to any of this. This was confirmed in said relative’s own hand because he kept handwritten notebooks with maps noting the exact locations where he had stolen the items. Looters don’t usually take assiduous notes, from what I’ve seen, so this is a pretty remarkable record that is sure to be of enormous use to archaeologists.

The two men are under investigation for misappropriation of objects of historic, cultural or scientific value. The objects are currently being stored at the Archaeological Museum of Dénia. Researchers hope the notebooks documenting the finds will aid in identifying the objects’ ages and histories, and perhaps lead to the discovery of previously unknown archaeological sites.

Green sarcophagus repatriated to Egypt

A wooden mummiform sarcophagus lid painted with a vibrant green face that was long on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences was repatriated to Egypt on Monday. The sarcophagus is 9.5 feet long and dates to the Late Dynastic Period (664-332 B.C.) of Egypt. It is covered with hieroglyph inscriptions painted in gold. It may have belonged to a priest named Ankhenmaat, but part of the inscription was lost so the name cannot be confirmed.

Most of the artifacts that have been repatriated to Egypt in recent years were trafficked in the aftermath of the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. One salient example is the gilded cartonnage coffin of the Late Ptolemaic priest Nedjemankh, bought in 2017 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from a shady dealer for $4 million and repatriated less than two years later when it was found to have been looted and trafficked with forged export documents.

At the time of the repatriation of Nedjemankh’s coffin, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. told the press that the investigation into its real origins had traced its movements from the initial theft in October 2011 to the United Arab Emirates to Germany (where it was restored) to auction in France where it was sold by dealer Christophe Kunicki to the Met and shipped to New York. This was orchestrated by a sophisticated multi-national organized crime network with active conspirators and shills in the high-end art and antiquities markets. Vance shared this information deliberately — usually the authorities are tight-lipped about on-going investigations — in order to put the museum industry on alert that they were going to have be pay attention to ownership history with a much sharper eye because this criminal organization’s loot was everywhere and more significant artifacts were going to be seized in the months and years to come.

That was both a threat and a promise, to paraphrase a line from every single action movie ever. Three plus years after Vance warned of what was to come, his successor Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg determined that the green sarcophagus was stolen and trafficked by the same criminal network that had targeted the gilded coffin, but the green coffin was looted before the uprising. It was looted from the Abu Sir Necropolis in North Cairo, smuggled into Germany in 2008 and from there into the United States. A private collector acquired it and then loaned the lid to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 2013.

Judge hits Herefordshire Viking hoard looters where it hurts

George Powell and Layton Davies, the metal detecting looters who stole the Herefordshire Viking hoard, will have to pay through the nose for their greed. Convicted of theft and concealment in 2019, Powell and Davies were sentenced to long prison terms (10 years and 8.5 years respectively). Now a judge has ordered them to cough up more than £600,000 apiece within three months or an additional five years will be added to their sentences.

The hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins, jewelry and silver ingots, buried in the late 9th century, was discovered in 2015 in a field in Eye, near Leominster, Herefordshire, on private property which Powell and Davies did not have permission to scan. They hid the find and made arrangements to sell this archaeological treasure on the black market. By the time authorities became aware of it (thanks to these clowns posting a picture on a metal detecting website of the hoard in situ), most of the coins and all but one ingot were scattered to the four winds. Only 29 of the estimated 300 coins were recovered, a tragic loss considering that the few remaining coins contain extremely rare “Two-Emperor” pennies commemorating an alliance between Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia.

Coin dealer Simon Wicks who fenced some of their loot was also convicted of concealment and sentenced to five years in jail. Judge Nicholas Cartwright believes the that Powell and Davies are still holding out on the authorities, that they are still hiding the 270 missing coins or that they at least know where they are. That’s why he’s hitting them in the only place they care about: their wallets.

When the men were sentenced, the judge said that if they had obtained the correct permission they would have gone on to receive up to half the £3m value of the hoard between them.

He said he rejected their accounts that the items were with other people and an auction house in Austria and said the men deliberately stole items.

“They acted together dishonestly. They jointly stole the items and jointly intended to split and sell the bracelet,” Judge Cartwright said.

The 29 coins, one silver ingot, a gold arm bangle with a clasp in the shape of a beast head, a rock crystal sphere encased in an ornately decorated openwork gold frame-like cage believed to be of Frankish manufacture and a gold octagonal ring with black niello inlay are what remains of the hoard at this time. The group is currently on display at Hereford’s Museum Resource and Learning Centre and thanks to a successful fundraising campaign, it will stay in Herefordshire. Funds have been allocated to redevelop the Hereford Museum and Art Gallery (HMAG) into a state-of-the-art cultural destination and the Viking hoard will be its centerpiece.