Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Unique Ganymede statue stolen from Tunis museum

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

An extremely rare late Roman statue of Ganymede with his arm draped across the shoulders of Zeus in eagle form was stolen from the Paleo-Christian Museum of Carthage in Tunis the night of Friday, November 8th. The statue is 49 centimeters (19 inches) high and is made out of white marble. The museum has been closed to the public for some time but three guards monitor the building in shifts. Not exactly a daunting security cordon for a thief to break through at best, and at worst a handy way in the door.

“Police are conducting an investigation and they arrested members of the museum’s security personnel,” Adnane Louhichi, general director of the National Heritage Institute, told Tunisia Live.

“All scenarios are considered, including the complicity of the museum’s security staff,” Louhichi said.

I hope it’s not too little too late, but the National Heritage Institute has alerted all law enforcement local and international, including border, customs and airport police and Interpol. The Ministry of Culture held an emergency meeting on Monday in the wake of the theft to determine what immediate steps they can take to protect Tunisian cultural patrimony. They will cooperate with the Ministry of the Interior to increase monitoring of museums and archaeological sites and give additional support to a joint national committee of the ministries of the interior, culture and tourism dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage.

Looting is a major problem in Tunisia, as thieves step into the void left by ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was adept at pillaging his own country of its fabulous history to decorate his family’s homes. Open-air archaeological sites are being illegally excavated at a precipitous rate, an estimated 5-10 new digs open every day. Museum burglaries have increased exponentially. Not even the National Heritage Institute itself is immune; a hoard of coins from Hannibal’s time and a number of Roman sculptures were stolen from its headquarters never to be seen again.

The statue is highly recognizable. It has been thoroughly published and there are no other copies known to exist. Its uniqueness makes it virtually impossible to sell, so keep your fingers crossed that someone is approach to buy it and turns in the thieves.

The Ganymede group was discovered in 1977 by University of Michigan archaeologists excavating a cistern under the sumptuous House of the Greek Charioteers in the ancient city of Carthage. The statue dates to the fifth century A.D. and is a remarkable example of pagan iconography adorning the homes of the wealthy in Roman Africa long after Christianity became the dominant religion. It was found broken in 17 pieces in a layer of 6th century debris. Archaeologists believe it once decorated the villa’s triclinium or formal dining room.

Once the pieces were put back together, an almost intact representation of Ganymede emerged, missing only his right ankle. In Greek mythology, Ganymede was tending a flock of sheep on Mount Ida when he was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle and made the immortal cup-bearer to the gods (also possibly Zeus’ lover). The sculpture depicts Ganymede wearing only his characteristic Phrygian cap and a cloak draped over his arm, standing with his right leg crossed over his left and his arm around his eagle friend/abductor/boss/lover. At his feet are an extremely adorable little goat and a protective little dog attacking the eagle.

Carthage was a Phoenician colony that became the dominant power in the Mediterranean until it was destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C. after the Third Punic War, then rebuilt as the capital of the Roman Africa province. Carthage was conquered by Vandals in 439 A.D., by the Byzantine Empire in 533 A.D. and by the fifth Umayyad Caliphate in 698 A.D. after which the city was destroyed again. The remains of the ancient city are now in a toney suburb of Tunis.

Ganymede’s casual, friendly stance suggests neither the fear in some representations of the kidnapping nor the sensuality of others. Except for the angry dog who clearly suspects the eagle is up to no good, the sculpture has more of an Orpheus vibe to it. This makes sense given that it was made hundreds of years after Carthage became one of the main center of early Christianity and Orpheus, who could charm all living things with his music, was one of the more popular pre-Christian mythological figures to be integrated into post-Christian art.

This sculpture is a fine example of the complexities of late Roman society. While Rome and Italy were in steep decline, the Western Empire was still functional in Africa. Carthage continued to produce wheat for export, continued to have a high standard of living with the quality consumer goods, minted coins and infrastructure like maintained city grids, aqueducts and public buildings that had collapsed or were on the verge of it in Italy. Christian Carthage, the home of Church fathers Tertullian and St. Cyprian, the city where the biblical canon was established at a council in 397 A.D., was pagan Roman too.


Assyrian gold tablet taken by Holocaust survivor on trial

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

The fate of an ancient artifact looted from Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum at the end of World War II is now in the hands of the New York Court of Appeals. In a twist from the way these stories usually go, this piece was taken out of Germany by Holocaust survivor Reuven Flamenbaum who, according to family lore, traded a Soviet soldier two packs of cigarettes or a salami for it after his liberation from Auschwitz. The Soviets helped themselves to the contents of German museums during the final days and weeks of the war and they weren’t alone. German troops did the same, as did penniless and desperate civilians some of whom had taken shelter from the bombing, shelling and advancing armies in the museum itself. A tablet of Assyrian gold the size of a very large stamp or very small credit card is a highly appealing form of currency in a black market economy.

Flamenbaum, originally from Poland, took it with him when he moved to the US in 1949, even using it as collateral to buy the liquor store on Canal Street where he worked. He took it to Christie’s in 1954 to have it appraised and they declared it a forgery worth no more than $100. According to his daughter Hannah, her father never wanted to sell it anyway. He kept the gold card, at various times on display on a mantel or in a red wallet, as a memento of his survival. She fondly recalls playing with the delicate 9.5-gram piece.

Reuven Flamenbaum died in 2003 and Hannah was named executor of his estate. Three years later, Reuven’s son Israel Flamenbaum disputed Hannah’s accounting of the estate and notified the Vorderasiatisches Museum that its long-lost gold tablet was in a safety deposit box on Long Island. The museum immediately filed suit to reclaim the artifact, asserting they held legal title since it was legally acquired and illegally removed. The Flamenbaum estate countered citing the spoils of war doctrine which purportedly made anything looted by Soviet troops their legal property and thus legal to sell for two packs of smokes, and the doctrine of laches, a legal doctrine that requires an owner “exercise reasonable diligence to locate” lost property. Their contention was that since the museum hadn’t told the authorities the tablet was missing or listed it on a stolen art registry after the war and hadn’t actively searched for it in the six decades since, it had given up its ownership claim.

Assuming Christie’s was wrong and it’s the genuine article, the tablet was unearthed by an archaeological team from the German Oriental Society excavating the foundations of the Ishtar Temple, a ziggurat in the Assyrian city of Ashur in what is now northern Iraq but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The temple was built by King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 B.C.). The gold tablet was inscribed in cuneiform with a dedication calling on all who visit the temple to honor the king’s name.

After the end of excavations in 1914, the tablet was loaded on freighter in Basra headed for Germany. The untimely outbreak of World War I forced the ship to change course and head for Lisbon instead. The vast trove of artifacts — they found 16,000 cuneiform tablets alone — had to be stored in Portugal while war raged. Finally in 1926 the tablet arrived in Berlin. It was put on display in 1934 only to be forced into storage again by another world war. The museum put it in storage for its own protection in 1939. They don’t know when exactly it was removed, which is why they can’t say for certain who stole it, but it was discovered to be missing when inventory was taken after the war in 1945.

The museum didn’t report the loss at the time because it was a drop in a very large bucket of pillaged antiquities and the divided authorities of post-war Berlin made for a chaotic legal environment. As for attempting to locate the tablet on its own, that would have been a needle-in-a-haystack job and the museum had so many missing needles in a world of haystacks.

In 2010, a Nassau County Surrogate’s Court found for the Flamenbaum estate, agreeing that museum had failed to make sufficient efforts to find the property as per the doctrine of laches. The Surrogate’s Court judge mistakenly believed that the museum knew from a tip received in 1954 that the tablet was in New York, but the museum denied knowing anything until it received Israel Flamenbaum’s letter in 2006. In 2012 the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court overturned the 2010 decision, agreeing with the museum that it held clear title and that laches didn’t apply because the Flamenbaum estate hadn’t demonstrated that the museum “failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet and that such failure prejudiced the estate.” The court noted that even if the museum had reported the artifact stolen to the police and listed it a stolen art registry, there’s no reason to believe they would have found the piece as a result.

The seven judges of the New York Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case on Tuesday. Their decisions typically take four to six weeks, so within the next two months we should know whether the tablet will remain with the Flamenbaums or return to the Vorderasiatisches Museum. If the court finds in favor of the Flamenbaum estate, they want to donate the tablet to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.


US returns silver griffin rhyton to Iran

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

The United States has returned a silver rhyton in the shape of a griffin to Iran 10 years after it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is a shocking development, to say the least. When I first wrote about the rhyton languishing forlorn in an ICE warehouse in Queens in 2010, the notion of repatriation was so remote as to seem impossible. ICE special agent in charge of cultural property James McAndrew put it bluntly: “This piece can’t go back.” Arranging for the return of looted artifacts is the kind of thing diplomats do, and the US and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

They still don’t, but there were some baby steps taken this week, including the first phone call between the two heads of state since 1979. On Thursday, September 26th, the US State Department took another step in the thawing of relations and returned the silver griffin rhyton. From the State Department’s announcement:

It is considered the premier griffin of antiquity, a gift of the Iranian people to the world, and the United States is pleased to return it to the people of Iran.

The return of the artifact reflects the strong respect the United States has for cultural heritage property — in this case cultural heritage property that was likely looted from Iran and is important to the patrimony of the Iranian people. It also reflects the strong respect the United States has for the Iranian people.

This was a relatively simple gesture to execute with a major payoff in goodwill. As soon as he landed in Tehran President Hassan Rouhani described the return of the rhyton to assembled reporters.

“The Americans contacted us on Thursday [and said that] we have a gift [for you]. They brought this chalice to the [Iranian] mission with due ceremony and said this is our gift to the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said.

He said that the historical artifact was very precious to the Iranian nation and added it should be safeguarded as it is “the symbol of the ancient civilization” of the country.

Iran is justifiably proud of its magnificent history, and this rhyton is an exceptional piece of it that was illegally exported from the country in a particularly painful episode of looting. The ceremonial libation vessel was made around 700 B.C. during the pre-Achaemenid period before the founding of the first Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. It was stolen by looters from the Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, halfway up a cliff in the western highlands of Iran sometime between 1989 and 1992.

The details are nebulous because looters aren’t really into site documentation, and archaeologists weren’t able to explore the find before the vultures descended. Hundreds of artifacts, anywhere from 230 to 500 objects from the 3rd millennium to the 7th century B.C., were found in the cave, a vast compendium of Iranian material history of the highest quality. Silver bowls, vases, dishes, silver human masks from the Akkadian Empire, furniture fittings, some gold ears (probably originally attached to wooden statues of deities) and at least 20 silver zoomorphic figurines and libation vessels in the shapes of ibexes, lions attacking bulls, sheep, goats and one very special imaginary animal: the griffin.

Looters devastated the site, destroying the archaeological context in their thirst for salable treasure and leaving many unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions about the hoard and how it got there. One working theory is that this was part of the royal treasury of the last kings of Elam hidden from the Assyrians who sacked Susa, the capital of the independent Elamite kingdom, in 647 B.C. Another possibility is that these precious objects belonged to an important temple and were stashed in the cave by devotees to keep them out of Assyrian hands during the same period.

Iranian authorities have worked since 1989 on finding and seizing the stolen artifacts, and it has not been easy. Pieces of the Western Cave Treasure have been found in museums, collections, retail galleries and auction houses in the United States, France, England, Switzerland, Turkey and Japan. The recovered artifacts are now on display in several Iranian museums.

We don’t know what happened to the griffin rhyton for a decade after the discovery of the treasure. It surfaced for the first time in Geneva in March, 1999. It was shown to a private US collector there by antiquities dealer and accomplished loot pimp Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art. This prominent New York collector, who would later spill the whole story to the US Attorney, was very interested in the griffin, but refused to buy it without confirmation that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece.

In February of 2000, Hicham Aboutaam packed the rhyton into his suitcase and carried it to Newark International Airport by hand. He submitted a commercial invoice declaring it to be of Syrian origin to Customs, and then spent two years securing expert opinions to reassure the buyer that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece, specifically one of the artifacts from the great Western Cave Treasure. Three experts weighed in on the artifact, a metallurgist in Los Angeles, a German expert and one in Maryland. The metallurgist confirmed the composition of the silver was in keeping with objects made in 7th century northwest Iran; the German expert straight-up called it as one of the silver pieces from the Cave; the Maryland expert noted the many features it has in common with artifacts in Japan’s Miho Museum reputed to be part of the Cave Treasure.

The last expert (Maryland) signed off on his appraisal in May of 2002. In June, the New York collector wired Hicham Aboutaam the last payment and bought the rhyton for a grand total of $950,000. The Feds got wind of this dirty sale and issued a seizure and arrest warrant for the griffin and Aboutaam in December of 2003. The collector threw Aboutaam under the bus and was not prosecuted. On June 14th, 2004, Aboutaam pleaded guilty to a pathetic single misdemeanor count of presenting a false import claim. The maximum sentence was a year in prison and a fine of $100,000. He was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine. That’s it. This is why dealers keep selling goods they know to be looted. They literally have nothing to lose. Five grand is tip money to this … person who, let’s recall, made almost a million dollars from the sale.

Okay. Calming down. In with anger out with love. This is a happy day because the rhyton has been liberated from its sad warehouse limbo and been welcomed home where it will join its brethren from the Western Cave Treasure on public display in a museum.


Currency plate looted during Korean War returned

Friday, September 6th, 2013

A rare 1893 currency plate used to make some of the first modern Korean paper money was returned to South Korea 60 years after it was looted during the Korean War. U.S. Ambassador Sung Y. Kim presented it to Prosecutor General Dong-wook Chae in a repatriation ceremony at the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office in Seoul on Tuesday, September 3rd. This is the first time U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has returned an artifact to South Korea, and it took three years of cooperation between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), South Korea’s Supreme Prosecutor, the South Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, the South Korean Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. State Department to get here.

It all began in April of 2010 when Midwest Auction Galleries in Oxford, Michigan, listed an “exceptional inscribed Korean bronze plaque” for sale. Auction house owner James Amato was selling it on behalf of the family of deceased U.S. Marine Lionel Hayes who had fought in the Korean War and brought back a large collection of artifacts. Along with the plaque, more than 130 pieces Hayes had taken from the grounds of Seoul’s Deoksu Palace in 1951 after the ouster of North Korean and Chinese troops were on sale at the auction. Most of the pieces were relatively low value decorative objects, ceramics, furniture, etc., from the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. The plaque, on the other hand, was Korean and it stood out in quality and historical importance.

The South Korean Embassy alerted the U.S. State Department that this object could have been removed from the Republic of Korea illegally. HSI identified the bidder as a woman from Flushing, New York. Officials from the embassy and State Department contacted the bidder and Amato warning them the sale might be illegal under the National Stolen Property Act. Amato chose to continue the sale, something even bigger auction houses do all the time because, conveniently for them, they have a far more rigorous standard of proof when it comes to suspending sales of questionable artifacts than they do when researching their ownership history.

The bidder turned out to be a proxy. She was a front for South Korean national Wong Young Youn. When she got the call from the consulate, she alerted Youn who told her he would deal with the consulate and that she should go ahead and bid as planned. She purchased the plate at the auction for $35,000.

Youn was pleased. He told the bidder that this purchase was the equivalent of winning the lottery. Since the Korean government had made it clear they valued the piece highly as an object of cultural heritage, Youn figured he could negotiate with South Korea to return it for a tidy profit. The fact that this was basically blackmail and that he would have the law of two countries all up in his business was no deterrent, apparently, and it really should have been because Youn was in the United States illegally. Hiding his identity behind a proxy bidder was hardly an impenetrable ruse, especially since he actually went on Korean television in May of 2010 to talk about the plate.

In December of 2010, Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration provided evidence that the so-called plaque was actually a Hojo currency plate made in the late Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1897), a very rare and historically significant artifact from the dawn of paper money in Korea that is one of only three known to survive. Emperor Gojong, 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, released the first paper bills in 1893. They were called Hojo Taehwangwon. “Hojo” was the royal treasury and “taehwangwon” means convertible note, indicating they were to be used to convert coins into bills. The notes were printed in denominations of five, 10, 20 and 50 yang. The plate sold at auction printed 10-yang notes.

The money these plates were used to print never made it into the hands of the public. Japanese firms were given printing rights to all Korean currency. They confiscated all the initial runs of banknotes and burned them before the bills went into general circulation. They then introduced new banknotes that bore the Japanese imperial insignia.

While the Korean agencies were investigating the history of the plate, the HSI was investigating the seller and buyer. In June of 2012, HSI issued a customs summons to the auction house. In response, Amato submitted an invoice claiming the artifact had been bought by a certain Weng Liang from Hunan, China, for $9,990. In August of that year, an independent expert submitted an affidavit that the currency plate was “historically and culturally significant.” The expert also found a YouTube video of the plaque. There was a man in that video which HSI agents identified as Youn.

Later that year, HSI contacted the proxy bidder again and she admitted to having been a middleman for Youn’s purchases, setting up accounts on auction house websites to buy Korean artifacts in her name only to be reimbursed by Youn. On January 9th, 2013, HSI charged Wong Young Youn with violating the National Stolen Property Act. Youn collaborated with the authorities and threw Amato under the bus, assuring HSI officials that he bought the currency plates himself for $35,000 and that he has no knowledge of this Weng Liang Amato had claimed to be the buyer. On February 12th, Amato was arrested by HSI agents for making false statements, transporting stolen goods and for the sale or receipt of stolen goods.

Both men entered into plea agreements with HSI renouncing their ownership claims. Youn’s deal required him to voluntarily leave the U.S. and return to South Korea which he did on July 31st. Amato deal was for him to serve 90 days of supervised release, pay a $35,000 fine and do 40 hours of community service. I’m sure the bottom line works out just fine for him over time. Why be scrupulously honest when they only get busted one in thousands of times and then get a slap on the wrist? A couple of weekends collecting median litter and a fine that’s the equivalent of the price paid for the stolen artifact is not exactly a powerful deterrent. At the very least they should get the IRS to take a look at his books since we know for a fact that he invoiced a $35,000 sale at $9,990. There’s a lot of daylight between those two figures.

Anyway, the good news is this was an unprecedented collaboration that worked out in the end. Now South Korea gets its currency plate back so it can go on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul.


Panels stolen out of medieval rood screen in Devon church

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Thieves stole two painted oak panels from a rare 15th century rood screen in the Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, Devon, southwestern England, sometime between July 22nd and August 9th. The two stolen panels depict Saint Victor of Marseilles and Saint Margaret of Antioch in rich jewel tones and gold paint. They were pushed out of their casings from the front and somehow, an adjacent third panel of an unknown female saint was also damaged, leaving a large shard missing from the left side.

Rood screens are large tracery partitions, usually the width of the church, that separate the nave (the main part of the church where the parishioners attend services) from the chancel (the front of the church where the altar is). They were made of wood or stone and were elaborately carved and decorated. This was a common feature in late medieval churches, but most of them were destroyed during the upheavals of the Reformation and under Cromwell because their decorative elements, especially figurative painting like the saints on Holy Trinity’s rood, were seen as idolatrous and because the partition represented a Catholic hierarchical divide between priest and church-goer. Holy Trinity’s piece is a rare survival and one of the best examples remaining, which makes the loss of the panels particularly painful.

The rood was built between 1460 and 1470, carved in elegant peaked Gothic arches that mimics the tracery of the stained glass windows. At the bottom of the structure are 40 oak panels 17 inches high and six inches wide, each painted with different saints and dignitaries of the church, some of whom have no other known surviving medieval representations. The quality of the painting is very high, probably the work of a master craftsman. There is evidence that the images were once whitewashed, which might explain how the rood survived the iconoclastic zeal of the Tudor and Civil War eras. Parts of it — the painted wood screens inside the arches rather than panels at the base — were removed and either destroyed or recycled to construct a pulpit that stands in front of the rood.

The entire church is a gem of historical preservation. It was built in its entirety in one two-decade effort between 1450 and 1470 and wasn’t subjected to later additions to alter its character. Its high medieval design and many original elements — even the original 15th century oak benches are still there, albeit encased in later box pews — have garnered it a Grade I listing, a designation that marks it as a building of exceptional historical interest.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time the rood screen has been the target of art thieves. Four of the saint panels were stolen in the 1990s and another three were ripped off in 2003. None of them have been recovered. The Church of England gave the church to the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a national charity that cares for 340 at-risk historic churches that are no longer in use as parish churches, in 1997. It is still consecrated ground, but now it is dedicated primarily to tourism and special events.

CCT churches are maintained exclusively by volunteers and needless to say, there is no money for security or monitored CCTV cameras. The church is open to the public during the day, and the key is kept by a neighboring volunteer. That’s why they don’t know when exactly the theft occurred. A maintenance contractor noticed the missing panels and alerted the trust.

Whoever stole them is unlikely to make much money from them. All auction houses, galleries, museums and antiques dealers have been alerted to the theft. They won’t want to touch so unique a property, especially since the thieves chose two rarely seen saints instead of more obvious figures. CCT chief executive Crispin Truman fears the panels will wind up being sold in some grubby back alley deal for a tenner. Their value, which is incalculable because of their rarity, lies in their proper context: the rood screen in Holy Trinity Church. Unmoored on the black market, they are unlikely to bring in a big price.

The Devon and Cornwall police have launched an appeal for information about the missing panels. They believe the pieces may have been taken out of the county in an attempt to sell them somewhere where they are less known. Thanks to all the publicity, police think that any attempt to sell them in the UK will be thwarted at this point, but they could be shipped out of the country or worse, dumped in a gutter somewhere that they’ll never be found until they decay beyond retrieval.

The CCT asks that anyone with information about the panels contact Laoise Bailey at, land line: +44 (0)20 7841-0415, cellphone: +44 07831 873-515. They have received many calls already from the general public and from art dealers so let’s hope one of them results in the return of these precious medieval artifacts.

This video shot in 2011 is a walk through the church. You can see the thick wooden doors, the rood screen, the pulpit, the pews, the windows, the vaulted ceiling and just the overall loveliness of this 15th century treasure.

EDIT: The video has been marked private and is no longer viewable.


Roman head stolen from church facade recovered

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

Police have recovered a Roman marble head that was stolen from the facade of the Church of San Pedro in the village of Quintana del Marco in the northwestern Spanish province of León. Attached to a bust via a noticeably fractured neck, the sculpture was embedded in a niche 45 feet up the church bell tower in the 18th century. In a daring nighttime caper this February, thieves scaled the church facade and broke the head off at the fracture point, leaving behind harnesses, climbing ropes and pulleys.

The origin of the bust is unclear; experts believe it was discovered at one of several barely-explored Roman archaeological sites in the area. The sculpture dates to the fourth century A.D., but its identity is not known. The bust is most commonly referred to as the emperor Marcus Aurelius because of the beard and hair, but that was a common style at the time and could just as easily be a local dignitary who wanted to depict himself in imperial fashion. Village folklore associated it with Saint Peter which is why it ended up decorating the bell tower. According to Luis Grau, director of the Museo de León, the sculpture is the best preserved Roman head in the region of Castile and León.

Hence its lure to the thieves. Quintana del Marco has a population of approximately 500 souls and a Roman head in excellent condition sitting out in the open air proved so tempting even a 45-foot night climb was no deterrent. Selling it, however, proved to be a more arduous that scaling a church facade.

The police found the thieves by tracing the climbing gear they left at the church to a shopping center in Seville. The suspects live in the Alcolea del Río neighborhood of Seville where police set up a surveillance team in an attempt to catch them in the act of attempting to sell their ill-gotten gain. The team noticed that whenever the suspects appeared to be meeting with potential buyers, they would take measures to evade surveillance and shake anybody who might be following them. This behavior only confirmed police suspicious that they were engaged in illegal activities.

It all came to a head (yuk yuk) in June when police not directly involved in the surveillance operation pulled over the suspects’ car in Córdoba. They found an ancient Roman head in the trunk, an ancient Roman head that the occupants had no documentation for to prove legitimate ownership. Since León police were looking for just such a head, the connection was promptly made.

With the evidence obtained in the car search and over the course of the wider investigation, in mid-July police raided seven homes in the Seville area, six in Alcolea del Río and one in the Brenes neighborhood. They found more archaeological material, computers, climbing equipment, various relevant documents and more than 6,000 euros in cash.

For your amusement, here is raw footage of the recovery of the head and the arrest of the looters. I really enjoyed it because they look like total losers. :love:



Thief steals 12th c. bishop’s ring; repents just in time

Friday, July 5th, 2013

On Monday, June 24th, staff at the museum of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bremen noticed there was a ring missing from a locked display case. It was a gold and amethyst bishop’s ring made in the 12th century which had been discovered in the cathedral crypt during archaeological excavations under the nave in the 1970s. Authorities were baffled by how the theft was accomplished. The display cases are custom-made, light-proof to preserve the artifacts and secured with an alarm system.

The ring’s monetary value is considerable but insignificant compared to its historical value. It was part of the episcopal regalia found in the graves of eight medieval bishops, a collection of rings, insignia of staff, silver chalices, mitres and vestments from the 11th to the 15th centuries discovered in remarkable condition. The vestments, among them a remarkable 13th century dalmatic (the richly decorated wide-sleeved tunic bishops wear over the robe) with an Arabic inscription on a trim above the seam which translates to “the mighty sultan,” were painstakingly conserved by historical textile specialists in Stockholm, and then the whole collection was put on display when the Cathedral Museum opened in 1987.

Concerned that the ring could be broken up and sold for the materials, the museum offered a 3,000 euro reward for its return, but it was absolution the thief sought. Just two days after the theft, a 47-year-old addict turned himself in for the theft. Remorse at having stolen from the finger of bishop who died almost 1,000 years ago drove him to contact a lawyer and confess to the authorities. He told them he had stolen the ring and sold it to a coin dealer in Bremen. If he told them how stole from a locked display case, that information has not been released.

Police served a search warrant on the coin dealer’s shop and found the ring. In two days it had gone from looking like this:

to looking like this:

Looks like that wave of remorse hit the thief just in time to stop this historical artifact from being sold as a scrap of gold and a light, cloudy amethyst. Obviously there was no plan to sell it intact on the antiquities market.

Police returned the ring to the Cathedral museum on Friday. Museum director Henrike Weyh says “The damage is great, but I think it can be repaired.” Experts will need to examine it further before determining how and when to attempt any restoration. The museum will spend the time wisely, by auditing its security systems.


Police recover huge trove of looted Etruscan artifacts

Friday, June 28th, 2013

The Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities) revealed on Thursday that they have recovered a massive trove of looted Etruscan artifacts. The stand-out pieces are 23 travertine funerary urns from the 3rd to 2nd century B.C., identified from their inscriptions as having all been stolen from a single Etruscan tomb in Perugia, in the central Italian region of Umbria, belonging to the patrician Cacni family. Most of the urns are decorated in high relief with battle scenes, tauromachia (bullfighting), friezes and representations of the myth of Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon so that his fleet could sail for Troy.

An astonishing 3,000 more artifacts were recovered in this sting, dubbed Operation Iphigenia. Other Etruscan pieces from the Cacni tomb include a sarcophagus lid from the 4th century B.C., a bronze helmet, greave, shield, strigil and an extremely rare bronze kottabos, a Greek drinking vessel used to play a game popular at feasts and symposia involving the throwing of the wine lees at a target. Not all the artifacts are Etruscan; police also recovered thousands of other antiquities and ceramic fragments from the Middle Ages.

Officials call it without exaggeration the greatest Etruscan find since the last hypogeum — the Cai-Cutu tomb also in Perugia — was discovered in 1982, and it came very close to disappearing forever into the black market before anyone knew the artifacts existed. In fact, seven of the 23 urns were already in private hands when the police tracked them down, sold by the looters through middlemen to collectors practiced in the asking of no questions.

Operation Iphigenia started two years ago in Rome with the confiscation of a small travertine head and a picture. A person known by the police to traffic in black market antiquities was attempting to sell an Etruscan urn. He was shopping around a picture of the urn and the little head, removed from the urn in a creepy kidnapper way to prove to potential buyers that he was in possession of the artifact. The head was examined by an expert at the University of Rome Tor Vergata who identified its likely origin as an Etruscan tomb in the Perugia area.

Perugia was one of the 12 major Etruscan cities and is rich in funerary remains, most famously the Palazzone necropolis, a vast network of subterranean tombs dating from the 6th-5th century B.C. onwards. The Hypogeum of the Volumnis is an elaborate family tomb containing a number of cinerary urns similar in style to the one in the photograph. With the collaboration of the Superintendence for Archaeological Goods of Umbria, police focused their efforts on finding the source of the pictured urn in Perugia.

Investigations kicked into high gear last February when Perugian court prosecutor Paolo Abbritti coordinated increased surveillance of several people in the construction industry thought to be connected to the traffic in antiquities. The construction guys turned out to be more than just involved in the sales; they made the initial finds during work on a villa 10 years ago.

Instead of reporting the discovery to the authorities so the site could be properly excavated and the artifacts claimed by the Perugia archaeological museum, at least one crew member and the boss conspired to keep the pieces for sale on the black market. (It’s a little looter karma that it took them 10 years to sell just seven of the 23 urns and got caught in the attempt to sell the eighth. Yet again, thieves find it’s a lot harder to make a killing from the illegal sale of antiquities than they imagined when they first looked at an ancient artifact and saw dollar signs.)

The 16 urns not in private hands and the other Etruscan artifacts were found by authorities still hidden in the tomb. The find site is now in the process of being excavated by archaeologists from the Superintendence of Perugia. They expect to find more subterranean tombs connected to the Cacni chamber so this one discovery, already so hugely significant, is likely to lead to even more.

Five men have been arrested and charged for the looting and trafficking. One is the construction firm owner, another a construction worker and three middlemen who arranged the sales. It sure would be nice if those seven jerks who bought the urns felt the sharp kiss of the legal lash, but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda right now.


1500-year-old Chinese tomb murals salvaged

Monday, June 17th, 2013

In the summer of 2008, experts from the Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Shanxi Museum found a tomb in the ancient Fanwangsi Cemetery of Shuozhou City, a town in Shanxi province 200 miles southwest of Beijing, China. Built 1,500 years ago in the Northern Qi Dynasty, the tomb had been repeatedly looted and the only grave goods left were fragments from lower quality pottery figurines and glazed vessels. Besides those pieces, some wooden structural elements and a few iron nails that were probably once part of a canopy over the coffin were the only contents of the tomb remaining. Even the fan-shaped architrave over the doorway had been pried off.

Archaeologists were just in time, however, to save the true crowning glory of this tomb: richly colored murals painted on plastered walls and ceilings. Looters had already marked them for removal. There were blue lines drawn dividing the murals into discrete sections to guide the cutting tools and gauze fabric stuck to the murals in order to keep them from falling apart during the theft. Between June and August, the archaeological team excavated the tomb. In order to keep the paintings safe, to repair environmental and human damage and to ensure their rare ancient color remained brilliant, archaeologists decided to remove the murals. By the end of the summer, 860 square feet of murals were being restored at the Center for the Preservation of Cultural Relics of the Shanxi Museum.

The murals begin on the walls of the passage tunnel leading into the main burial chamber. There are red ochre clouds on the vaulted ceiling and armed guards and cavalry troops on both sides of the tunnel. There’s a single door guard on the west wall leaning against his sword and a pair of honor guards inside the door frame. They too lean on their swords as they face each other. Approaching from a distance are three units of cavalry troops. The same types of figures are on the east wall, the only difference being the orientation of the cavalry.

Passing from the tunnel through the doorway into the tomb chamber, the murals cover the floor to the ceiling in three sections. The domed ceiling is painted with a sky map. A dark grey background symbolizes celestial infinity and the silver river winding through the grey is the Milky Way. White dots on both sides of the Milky Way are stars. On the east side of the heavens is a solar orb with a crow in the middle. Across from it on the west side of the ceiling is the moon with the Lunar Hare and toad inside.

Beneath the sky map are the Four Supernatural Beings — the Green Dragon, White Tiger, Scarlet Bird and Black Tortoise — each guarding one of the cardinal directions. Beneath the Supernatural Beings the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac frolic counter-clockwise in a band around the dome.

Human figures come back into prominence on the walls of the burial chamber. On the north wall a man and a woman sit underneath a canopy at a banquet. These are probably images of the occupants of the tomb. On one side of the canopy female attendants stand, on the other male and female musicians entertain. The women attendants and the hostess wear their hair in the distinctive flying bird style.

The banquet is guarded by more cavalrymen and honor guards on the east wall. Of particular note is a tall light red horse in the center of the image. A line of honor guards stand in front of the horse and attendants carry equipment while in the distance two lines of cavalry approach. It’s a proud display, a procession moving from south to north.

On the west wall is a procession going in the other direction, north to south. In the center of this panel is an ox cart with an arched canopy and awnings. The ox is being driven by two non-Chinese men, so identified by their curly beards. Female attendants with flying bird chignons follow the cart, and yet another honor guard of five men on horses holding pennants are painted above the ox.

The last wall, the south wall, has the doorway in the middle. Around the entrance are two symmetrical sets of musicians. They stand side by side facing each other as they hold long horns so they cross each other at the top.

Such an elaborate set of murals suggest this was the tomb of a high-ranking official. Researchers believe he may have been the local militia leader under the Northern Qi Dynasty, a turbulent period of less than 30 years (550 to 577 A.D.) in which military leaders would have been very highly valued indeed. There are few records covering the history of Shuozhou City during the Northern Qi, and very few archaeological remains have been excavated. This was the first proper scientific excavation of a Northern Qi tomb in Shuozhou and is thus an invaluable source of information about an obscure period.

It took four years of work to restore the murals. They are now divided into 31 sections on aviation aluminum panels so they can be dismantled and transported for exhibition.


Documents stolen by collector returned to museums

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Some of the thousands of historical documents stolen by collector, historian and presidential inauguration expert Barry Landau and his accomplice Jason Savedoff are making their way home to the museums, libraries and historical societies from which they were pilfered. After Landau and Savedoff were caught in the act by a staffer at the Maryland Historical Society on July 9th, 2011, the FBI found 10,194 stolen documents and ephemera in Landau’s New York City apartment.

By the time the thieves pled guilty and went to prison in February of 2012, researchers from the National Archives and Records Administration had traced 4,000 of the artifacts to 24 institutions nationwide burgled by Landau and Savedoff. Since then, the rest of the documents have been identified, but because they were evidence in a trial, the documents couldn’t be returned right away even after they were matched with their home institutions.

The return process has begun in earnest now. The Maryland Historical Society received 21 of the 60 pieces stolen on Monday, May 13th.

Among the items recently returned to the Maryland Historical Society on Monument Street were a 1920 Democratic National Convention ticket stub and admission passes to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. Each document was encased by clear Mylar, carefully placed inside the envelopes and categorized by four-digit penciled numbers by investigators.

In a folder marked number 2977 from Box 22 and dated 8/12/11 was a small, index card-size ticket that read “Admit the bearer May 26th 1868,” to the gallery for Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. But on the back was a new mark, Savedoff’s small, penciled mark “W2,” which stood for “Weasel 2.” Landau referred to himself as “Weasel 1,” according to court documents.

Another folder held a narrow, white piece of paper with elegant cursive detailing Lincoln’s funeral procession in Vermont.

The oldest document stolen from the library by Landau and Savedoff was an invitation for the “Baltimore Assembly” dance, held on Nov. 5, 1793.

You can see video of the “W2” Savedoff penciled on the back of the Johnson impeachment ticket in this news story. Weasel 1 and 2 also wrote “shoot” on the back of documents they intended to steal. The Maryland Historical Society has no intention of removing the thieves’ annotations. There are no conservation issues that would require the removal of a few pencil marks, and now they’ve become a part of the history of the documents. In the case of the MHS, where a staffer unimpressed by their gifts of cupcakes and smarmy bonhomie caught the Weasels in the act and finally stopped their reign of thievery, those pencil markings are a badge of honor.

Overall, authorities say about 20% of the stolen documents have been returned to their legitimate owners with the rest slated to be returned within the next few months. The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford has received almost all of the several hundred documents and memorabilia stolen by Landau and Savedoff over four visits. It’s hard to be certain, however, because the ephemera collections are not inventoried in as much detail as the more important document archives. Their unique, historically significant pieces like a letter from George Washington to Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, Jr. and a letter for Marie Antoinette were easier to trace and return than the tickets and programs and invitations.

It took a lot of research to identify the memorabilia. Some of the targeted museums were able to provide records and the Weasels both volunteered information as part of their plea bargains, but the National Archives and Records Administration had to dig deep to find the proper owners. Theme matching was helpful. Institutions known to have strong collections in certain areas were the likely sources for documents in that category. For instance, documents about former Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore were traced to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania which has a vast collection of Moore’s correspondence and papers.

Many of the institutions subjected to the Weasel depredations have revised their security policies in light of the thefts. Staffers at the Maryland Historical Society now check bags and notebooks for any pilfered documents before visitors are allowed to leave, and they’ve rearranged the chairs so visitors can’t hide away and steal their hearts out unseen by librarians. Even the National Archives has added layers of security, with searches of all people leaving the building and regular training for employees to introduce them to the ever-evolving ways thieves devise to steal stuff.

Landau is currently serving a seven year sentence for the thefts. Savedoff was sentenced to just one year.





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