Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Off-duty Carabinieri spot looted Roman statue in Brussels shop

Tuesday, April 13th, 2021

A marble statue of a togate man that was stolen a decade ago has been returned to Italy after it was discovered in a Brussels antique store by off-duty officers from Italy’s Carabinieri Art Squad. They were in Brussels on a business trip and after work one day they went for a stroll through the Sablon neighborhood of the historic upper city which is known for its many antique shops. The headless Togatus statue in one of the stores caught their eyes. It bore the telltale damage of excavation tools, the kind of sloppy work done by looters eager to get their payday out of the ground quickly.

The officers didn’t enter the store, but did take a photograph from the street. When they got home, they looked up the statue in Leonardo, the Carabinieri’s database of stolen antiquities, their suspicions were confirmed. A statue matching their picture was on the list as having been stolen in November 2011 from the Villa Marini Dettina, an archaeological park outside of Rome.

The statue dates to the 1st century B.C. The toga has stylistic features typical of late Republican figures: it is ankle-length instead of floor-length, draped comparatively narrowly around the legs and has a short arm sling that positions the right hand at the chest. The right arm, bent at the elbow and confined in the draped sling with only the hand emerging is the uniform pose of Republican togate statues.

Togate statues and reliefs were widespread in the Imperial Rome, especially in funerary monuments. Only Roman citizens were allowed to wear the toga, and a boy’s first toga marked his entry into manhood, so they were a powerful iconographic representation of Roman identity, freedman status and manhood. Statues from the Republican era, togate or otherwise, are much more rare. This one, headless, significantly worn and with simple draping, is worth an estimated $120,000.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office of Rome alerted Belgian authorities, and the statue was seized as stolen property. The investigation has revealed what looks to be an antiquities trafficking operation, not just a single dirty deal made without asking any questions. An Italian businessman operating under a Spanish alias is alleged to have received the statue in Italy and arranged for its smuggling to Brussels. He has been referred for prosecution, charged with receiving stolen goods and illegal export.

The Togatus was repatriated to Italy in February and is back at the Villa Marini Dettina.


Poussin looted by Nazis returned to heirs

Friday, April 2nd, 2021

A large-scale painting by Nicolas Poussin that was looted by the Nazis during World War II has been returned to its legal owners. Lot with His Two Daughters Serving Him a Drink was found in Padua, northeastern Italy, by the Carabinieri Art Squad.

Before the war, the 4×5-foot painting belonged to Strasbourg industrialist René Bloch, scion of an old Alsatian Jewish family who had lived for five generations in Alsace when it was part of France. The remained loyal to France even when Alsace-Lorraine was ceded to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War and by 1938 René feared that Germany’s ambitions, which had already swallowed Austria in March, would turn to Alsace. He asked a cousin in Poitiers to take in his large collection of decorative arts, including all his furniture. He fled to Brittany in 1939 and made it alive to the United States, only to pass away in 1942.

In late January, 1944, the Nazi occupiers swept through Poitiers, arresting and deporting 481 Jews to the death camps. René Bloch’s cousin was among them. Nazi troops then looted the properties of the deported Jews. The Poussin disappeared between February and August.

As soon as the war was over, René Bloch’s heirs began searching for the objects stolen from their house, but to no avail. It was put on France’s list of Nazi-looted artworks (published in numerous volumes and supplements between 1947 and 1949). A photograph of Lot with His Two Daughters appeared in Volume 2 of the publication. Neither hide nor hair of it was seen in public for 80 years.

It emerged again in 2017 when it was bought from France by an Italian antiques dealer. It was exhibited in Belgium at that time, and then again in 2019 at TEFAF Maastricht, the most important art and antiques fair in the world. It was there that a Dutch art historian, now resident in Italy, recognized it from the old photograph as the Poussin looted from Poitiers in 1944. The legal heirs of the painting, Block’s 98-year-old daughter who lives in Switzerland and a 65-year-old American man, filed a complaint in Italy last year, triggering a Carabinieri investigation into the ownership history of the painting. They searched the home of another Italian antiques dealer and confiscated the painting as stolen goods.


Alhambra frieze returned by looter’s family 187 years later

Thursday, February 4th, 2021

Detail of intricate carving on section of Alhambra frieze. Photo courtesy the Council of the Monumental Complex of the Alhambra and Generalife.A long section of an intricately carved wooden frieze looted from the Alhambra Palace in Granada has been returned by the descendants of the man who looted it 187 years ago. The panel is 7’5″ long and was part of the ornamental ceiling frieze in the main room of the Partal Palace. It was taken by Richard Ford, a travel writer and art collector who stayed in the Partal Palace for two summers during his sojourn in Spain between 1830 and 1833. His descendants, brothers Francis V. and Richard A. Ford, contacted the Council of the Monumental Complex of the Alhambra and Generalife in September and arranged for the repatriation of the long-lost piece.

Built by the Nasrid Sultan Muhammad III of Granada (r. 1302-1309), the Partal oldest remaining structure in the Alhambra complex. The Alhambra suffered for centuries after the fall of Granada to their Most Catholic Majesties in 1492. It was pillaged, neglected, subject to destructive renovations, damaged in wars and used as impromptu housing for invading armies, brigands and squatters. The openwork carving and stylized calligraphy on the frieze is characteristic of Nasrid Dynasty art in the time of Muhammad III.

After years of decline and abuse, the Alhambra’s return to glory began in the Napoleonic Wars. It was used as a barracks by French troops under the command of Count Horace Sébastiani during the Peninsular War. Sébastiani ordered repairs be done to the roofs, walls and gardens. The only problem was he also ordered several of its towers blown up on their way out the door in 1812. Still, the Duke of Wellington was captivated by the palace, even in its derelict condition, and his stamp of approval sparked renewed attention among Grand Tourists.

Washington Irving lived in the palace for a few months in 1829 and he wrote about it in his collection of stories, Tales of the Alhambra, published in 1832. Irving, who a decade later would go on to serve as US ambassador to Spain under President John Tyler, had already achieved internationally renown as an author thanks to the success of his short stories and romantic histories. Tales of the Alhambra was another bestseller and his high praise for its beauty vaulted the palace into refreshed prominence.

Richard Ford’s highly influential travelogue, A Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845), cemented the revival of interest in the Alhambra. He somehow failed to mention the bit about helping himself to eight feet of it by way of souvenir, however, and nobody had any idea where the missing section was or even if it still existed. The only documentation of the loss was recorded during a 1923 restoration when the presence of a plain, uncarved panel in place of the original frieze section was recorded.

The prodigal frieze was radiocarbon dated and the results confirm it was made in the early 14th century. Conservators in the palace’s restoration workshop with clean, analyze and stabilize it. The conserved panel will then be reintegrated with its brethren on the ceiling of the Partal Palace.

The return of the looted section of freeze to the Alhambra Palace

Huge trove of antiquities seized from French looter

Thursday, December 17th, 2020

A total of more than 27,400 ancient coins and artifacts have been seized from a French metal detectorist. The collection of objects stolen from heritage sites in France is so enormous it makes him one of the greatest one-man looting operations in European history.

The story starts in September 2019 when a French national identified only as Patrice T declared to Belgian authorities that he’d discovered Roman coins while scanning an orchard he’d recently acquired in Gingelom, 40 miles east of Brussels. Flanders heritage agency archaeologist Marleen Martens expected him to present a handful of pieces. When he pulled two large plastic buckets filled to the brim with what turned out to be 14,154 ancient coins out of the trunk of his car, Martens’ spidey sense started tingling.

Initial examination of the contents of the buckets found a wide array coins dating as far back as the 1st century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D., a variety and significance that made the man’s orchard story highly implausible, to say the least. She inspected the supposed find site and found hard evidence that the story was a lie: the pit that supposedly held more than 14,000 Roman coins had been dug in a soil layer formed in the Middle Ages.

He had at least one glaring reason to conjure up a fairy tale discovery. Belgium’s cultural heritage laws allow landowners to keep any archaeological material unearthed on private property. Under French law, these types of finds are considered national patrimony and therefore property of the state.

Flanders heritage authorities reported their suspicions to the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) who relayed them to the investigation branch of French customs (DNRED). Under questioning, the Frenchman confessed that he had in fact illegally excavated the coins from archaeological sites in eastern France over the course of years, that he had acquired the orchard in Belgium to launder his loot.

After a year-long investigation, DNRED agents accompanied by DRAC archaeologists raided the man’s house and discovered an unexpectedly diverse and valuable group of artifacts including Bronze and Iron Age bangles and torques, Roman fibulae, Merovingian, high Medieval and Renaissance belt buckles, pieces of statues, more Roman coins plus Gallic coins that can only have been looted from certain known archaeological sites. This guy even got his grubby hands on a Roman dodecahedron, an extremely rare artifact (only 100 are known to exist) whose purpose remains an archaeological mystery to this day. A total of 13,246 artifacts were seized in the raid on his home and from several safety deposit boxes he rented in Lorraine.

The man is now awaiting trial in the French courts. He could be sentenced to hundreds of thousands of euros in customs fines as well as prison time.


California man indicted for Roman mosaic looted from Syria

Saturday, August 1st, 2020

Four years after a massive mosaic looted from warn-torn Syria was first confiscated, its trafficker has been indicted in federal court. It’s not much of a charge for so bold a crime; just one count of entry of goods falsely classified, which he has admitted doing already.

The mosaic is 18 feet long, eight feet high and weighs one ton.  It depicts Hercules, the skin of the Nemean lion draped over his left arm, his club on the ground next to him, on his 11th Labour, stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides. In this scene he is shooting an arrow at the eagle coming to feast upon Prometheus’ endlessly regenerating liver. It is believed to date to the 3rd or 4th century A.D. and the style is consistent with mosaics found in Idlib, a city in northwest Syria near the border with Turkey.

The FBI seized the mosaic in 2016 in the home of Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi in Palmdale, California, as part of an investigation into looted antiquities. He had imported it through Long Beach in 2015 along with two other mosaics and 81 vases. The paperwork declared the mosaics to be “ceramic tiles” and the entire shipment, mosaics and modern vases, to have been been acquired in Define-Hatay, Turkey, and to be worth a total of $2,199. The raid on his house turned up another ginned up document which even more ridiculously claimed he had bought the mosaic rolled up like a carpet in a 2009 yard sale from a family who had owned it since the 1970s.

Alcharihi admitted to authorities that he had paid $12,000 for the objects and lied on the form to dodge duties. He also admitted that he knew the mosaic was ancient, not a vague assortment of “ceramic tiles.” The feds found emails from him to a potential buyer in which he said the mosaic had been lifted from a historical building in Idlib and which included photographs of the mosaic in situ in 2010.

In 2018, the US Attorney’s Office of Los Angeles filed an asset forfeiture complaint against the mosaic, alleging Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi had illegally imported it into the country using fraudulent documents. Only now have the slow wheels of justice ground out an indictment, meagre though it may be.


Stolen Van Gogh “proof of life” pics circulate

Monday, June 29th, 2020

A “proof of life” picture of the Van Gogh painting stolen from a museum in March has emerged. The photograph shows the painting topped by a May 30th issue of the international edition of the New York Times on one side and a book on the other. The book is Meesterdief by Wilson Boldewijn, a biography of one of the art thieves who stole two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. A second photograph shows the label on the back of the painting.

(The choice of book is obviously pointed, the art crime version of a weird flex. One of the two paintings stolen in 2002 was Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, a different scene of the same church where Van Gogh’s father was minister. Both paintings were found outside of Naples in 2016 after having been passed around as currency in a Camorra organized crime network for years.)

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in the Spring (1884) was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum outside Amsterdam in the early hours of Monday, March 30th, what would have been Van Gogh’s 167th birthday. The smash-and-grab raid targeted the painting which was on loan from the Groninger Museum. The thieves broke in through the glass door, took the painting and fled before the police could arrive.

These are almost certainly photographs of the authentic work. The image of the label on the back of the painting is particularly telling because as far as Andreas Blühm, Director of the Groninger Museum, knows, no photograph of the label has ever been published before.

The images were received by Arthur Brand, a private eye who specializes in retrieving lost art works. He is not naming his source, but he has extensive knowledge of and connections to the art crime underworld. He has seen more than these two pictures of the stolen painting, so it seems that the thieves are circulating these snapshots to find a buyer.

“In some cases when art is stolen, the thieves get nervous, they can’t get rid of it or they think the police is on their tail so they destroy it,” [Brand] told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “So these pictures show that we are dealing with professionals. So the painting is still alive, I wanted to say.”

Brand said he had shared the photos with police investigating the theft.

Police spokeswoman Laetitia Griffioen said the photos “are part of the investigation.” She declined further comment.

Professionals though they may be, they are not handling their cash cow with anything like appropriate care. From the photo, it looks like the painting is on a garbage bag and the newspaper and book are casually plopped on top of its unprotected surface. There is also a white mark in the bottom center just below the fence posts. It could be a scratch because the original painting was done on paper and later mounted on board.


19,000 trafficked artifacts seized in worldwide busts

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

A massive joint international law enforcement effort has resulted in the arrest of 101 suspects in the traffic of antiquities and the recovery of more than 19,000 works of art and archaeological artifacts. The investigations involved Interpol, Europol, the World Customs Organization and national police forces from 103 countries all over the world, including Spain, Colombia, Romania, Argentina, Chile, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Afghanistan and Italy.

This intricate global cooperation launched 300 individual investigations in a coordinated crackdown that focused on taking down organized crime networks that loot archaeological sites and museums and pillage  war-torn countries.

Spanish police busted three traffickers and recovered precious objects smuggled out of Colombia. The most unique among them is a gold mask made by the Tumaco people on the Pacific coast near what is now the border between Colombia and Ecuador. They thrived in the area between the 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. and are renowned for their goldwork, especially their 3-dimension gold figurines made of sheet gold. Tumaco figurines and finely decorated jewelry were among the confiscated objects. Another nine suspects were arrested in the Spanish operation and Roman archaeological materials  — a carved limestone lion, a architectural frieze and three columns — recovered.

While the busts were going down at Madrid’s Barajas airport and elsewhere in the country, police in Colombia worked the investigation on their end. Raids in Bogotá recovered another 242 pre-Columbian artifacts. It is the largest seizure of cultural patrimony objects in Colombia’s history.

In Argentina, the Federal Police Force seized 2,500 ancient coins by investigating one single online sale. The Latvian State Police took second place in the coin seizure stakes by confiscating 1,375 of them. Customs officers in Afghanistan intercepted and seized 971 cultural objects just before they were smuggled out of the country destined for Istanbul.

Law enforcement officers paid particular attention to the monitoring of online market places and sales sites, as the Internet is an important part of the illicit trade of cultural goods. […]

During what was called a ‘cyber patrol week’ and under the leadership of the Italian Carabinieri (Arma dei Carabinieri), police and customs experts along with Europol, INTERPOL and the WCO mapped active targets and developed intelligence packages. As a result, 8,670 cultural objects for online sale were seized. This represents 28% of the total number of artefacts recovered during this international crackdown.

“The number of arrests and objects show the scale and global reach of the illicit trade in cultural artefacts, where every country with a rich heritage is a potential target,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “If you then take the significant amounts of money involved and the secrecy of the transactions, this also presents opportunities for money laundering and fraud as well as financing organized crime networks,” added the INTERPOL Chief.

“Organized crime has many faces. The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks. You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generate big money. Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet – either as a source, transit or destination, it is crucial that Law Enforcement all work together to combat it. Europol, in its role as the European Law Enforcement Agency, supported the EU countries involved in this global crackdown by using its intelligence capabilities to identify the pan-European networks behind these thefts,” said Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s Executive Director.


Van Gogh painting stolen on his birthday

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

A painting by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from the Singer Laren museum just outside Amsterdam on what would have been the artist’s 167th birthday. At around 3:15AM on Monday, March 30th, thieves smashed through the glass door, stole Van Gogh’s Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring and made a quick getaway. The burglar alarm was triggered, but the perpetrators were gone before police arrived at the scene.

“I feel incredibly angry and now I’m starting to feel sadder too,” Jan Rudolph de Lorm, director of the Singer Laren Museum, told Reuters in an interview.

He appealed to those who had taken the painting to treat it with care “so that sooner or later it can be shown to the public unharmed”.

Van Gogh painted this piece in 1884 when he was living with his family at the vicarage in Nuenen where his father was pastor. This was a formative early period in his artistic life. It was Nuenen’s peasants and weavers who were the subjects of his seminal The Potato Eaters. He drew and painted the vicarage and its grounds a number of times, capturing it in different seasons. At 9.8″ x 22.4″, it is uncommonly wide.

De Lorm described the painting, which depicts a woman in a garden with red-flowered bushes and with a church in the background, as “an image of silence, of reflection and of tranquility, which undoubtedly offered him comfort and inspiration”.

“Through him, it gave us and our audience the same emotion,” de Lorm added.

The oil on paper on panel work was part of the museum’s Mirror of the Soul. Toorop to Mondrian exhibition focusing on works displaying the inner life of Dutch artists at the turn of the century. It’s a collaboration with the Rijksmuseum and was inspired by a book on the topic written by the Rijksmuseum’s senior curator of paintings. It features more than 70 paintings, drawings and watercolors from artists world-famous and relatively little known. It was fully insured, of course, and the insurers had inspected the museum’s security measures before the exhibition began.

There are works from the Singer Laren’s collection in the show, but the stolen Van Gogh was not among them. It was on loan from the Groninger Museum, a modern and contemporary art museum with an ecclectic permanent collection that contains exactly one Van Gogh. The painting has been in its collection since 1962 and its loss is incalculable, far beyond monetary value which is easily in the millions.

The theft is being investigated by local police and by Interpol.


Ring gifted by Oscar Wilde found 20 years after theft

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

An 18-carat-gold inscribed gold ring that was a gift from Oscar Wilde to a friend during his undergraduate days at Magdalen College in Oxford will be returning to its alma mater 17 years after it was stolen.

The inside is engraved “O.F.O.F.W.W & R.R.H. to W.W.W., 1876,” the initials of gifters and receiver: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, Reginald Richard Harding and William Welsford Ward, respectively. The three were close friends as undergraduates in Magdalen’s classics program. Ward was a year ahead of Wilde and he sort of took him under his wing, introducing him to his friends, to Freemasonry, going on rides through the woods where they argued about philosophy so vigorously that Wilde often fell off his horse. It was Ward, known as “Bouncer,” who introduced him to Harding, aka “Kitten.” Wilde’s nickname in this crew was “Hosky.”

Ward took his final exams in November 1876 and while he did well, he did not receive the First he expected. Instead of returning to Oxford as a fellow, Bouncer decided to go walkabout and travel to Italy. Hosky and Kitten had the friendship ring made as a memento of their happy trio. The inscription on the outside read in Greek: “Gift of love, to one who wishes love.”

The ring was part of the extensive collection of Oscar Wilde memorabilia held by his alma mater, Oxford University’s Magdalen College. It was stolen in the wee hours of Thursday, May 2nd, 2002, by one Eamonn Andrews aka Anderson, a former Magdalen cleaner and handyman who, fortified with copious quantities of whisky downed at the college bar, broke into the Old Library through a skylight on a drunken mission to find evidence his estranged wife, the head gardener at Magdalen, had had an affair with another man.

At some point he broke in, this harebrained half-scheme got even more stupid and morphed into the incredibly random theft of two rowing medals — the 1910 Henley Royal Regatta Grand Challenge Cup medal and a 1932 silver and a bronze medal. The alarm sounded but while the college porter was investigating, Andrews stole the gold ring from a display cabinet in another part of the college.

DNA analysis of blood traces found at the scene of the crime led to the arrest and incarceration of Andrews. He admitted his culpability and described the theft as an impulse, not premeditated or even a tiny bit thought through. He claimed he had no idea of the objects’ value and had sold them to a London scrap dealer for £150. He was sentenced two years in prison for the theft, to be served concurrently with the six years he had begun to serve for an earlier robbery.

Magdalen kept the news of the theft quiet in the beginning, hoping police would be able get the artifacts back. A week later, they announced the loss of the ring and offered a £3,500 reward, the equivalent of a tenth of its insured value, for any information leading to the its return. None was ever forthcoming.

More than a dozen years passed, and the ring was feared melted down. In 2015, Dutch art investigator par excellence Arthur Brand heard some scuttlebutt on the mean streets that a gold buckle-shaped Victorian ring with a “Russian” inscription had surfaced in the black market. Brand recalled the theft of the unusual Wilde ring and wondering if that “Russian” writing might actually be Greek.

The Dutchman then started to put out feelers.

Together with a London-based antiques dealer named William Veres, their enquiries eventually led them to George Crump, a man whom Brand described as a “decent man with knowledge of the London criminal underworld because of his late uncle, a well-known casino owner.”

Through Crump, Brand and Veres finally managed to track down and negotiate the safe return of the stolen ring.

It’s possible the ring only surfaced because it was stolen AGAIN, this time in the Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary, at an estimated  £200 million in jewelry stolen the largest burglary in English history. That burglary, perpetrated by a gang of septuagenarians, took place in April 2015 and after that gossip was rife in the demimonde that a bunch of previously stolen goods had been found in the vault.

The ring is now in a secure location in England. It will be officially returned to Magdalen College in a ceremony at Oxford on December 4th.


Today in People Are the Worst news

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

On the night of Sunday, November 3rd, three complete and utter douchebags strapped a tree trunk to the hood of their car and rammed through a medieval side door of the UNESCO World Heritage Oloron-Sainte-Marie cathedral in southwest France. Once inside, they cut through steel bars protecting the chapel using a power grinder to create a large enough opening to go through. The sparks thrown by the power tool ignited a curtain in the chapel, but thankfully nothing else burned. They then smashed the display case glass and emptied it of its contents: gold chalices, monstrances, crosses, an 18th century nativity scene and a precious set of white and gold liturgical garments donated to the Bishop of Orlon by Francis I of France (r. 1515-1547). The church’s collection of vestments from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were found dumped unceremoniously in a pile on the floor. A statue and vase that were not stolen appear to have been deliberately vandalized.

These objects survived the orgy of anti-religious and anti-monarchical iconoclasm that saw so much of France’s cultural patrimony destroyed during the French Revolution. They are of inestimable historical value and were being kept in very fine condition by the church. The textiles were recently treated and being kept in conservation conditions.

The attack took place around 2:00 AM Monday. A neighbor heard the ruckus and reported it shortly before 2:30 AM. The gendarms and mayor arrived on the scene quickly, but the thieves had already escaped with the loot. They left the car which was damaged in the ramming behind and fled in a second vehicle. Props to the sturdiness of medieval wood doors for inflicting a small hit of instant karma on those jackasses.

The collection was insured, but authorities won’t comment on the assessed value because they don’t want the thieves knowing anything about what the objects might be worth. There is CCTV footage capturing the assault. The perpetrators were wearing hoods so their faces were not recorded. Police are looking at their arrival and departure on the footage to track where they might have gone.

The church is technically no longer a cathedral. Once the seat of the Bishopric of Orlon until its suppression in 1801, today it is the Church of Sainte-Marie even though it’s still commonly known as the Orlon cathedral. Built originally in the 12th century, much of the church was rebuilt over the centuries after riots, fires and the 16th century Wars of Religion took their toll. The 13th century nave, 14th century sacristy (where the thefts took place), 14th century choir and apse, 15th-16th century side chapels remain, but its crowning glory is the original 12th century Romanesque portal carved by an artist known solely as the Orlon Master who would begin his career and there before setting up shop in Spain. The church was granted World Heritage status in 1998 as part of a group of significant sites along the ancient pilgrim Route of Santiago.





August 2022


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