Today in antiquities fencing news

A bust of Marcus Aurelius that was stolen from an Algerian museum 12 years ago was pried out of Christie’s dirty little hands right before it was about to go on the block. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials returned it to the Algerian embassy this past Tuesday.

Dating from the second century, the three-foot-high, 200-pound marble sculpture depicts Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled during the period when what is now Algeria was part of the Roman Empire. The marble head emerged in the international market of cultural antiquities and was spotted by INTERPOL, which alerted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that an antiquity in an auction catalogue might be a stolen artifact. ICE experts worked with Algerian scholars to verify the statue’s identity and then notified the U.S. auction house that the piece was subject to seizure. The seizure was not contested.

Yeah, I just bet it wasn’t contested. Note: Interpol was after this piece, it was stolen from a museum very recently, and it was listed in the London Art Loss Register, and yet, somehow, Christie’s was an inch away from selling it to the highest bidder.

See why I say that they’re all in on it, or at least craning their necks so far to look the other way that they might as well be in on it? There is no way these high-end auction houses with their platoons of appraisers and researchers could be so ignorant unless they meant to be.

Another interesting item from the ICE’s press release:

An 18th century colonial painting, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which was stolen from a church in central Mexico, was returned to Mexican authorities in August 2006 after a two-year repatriation effort involving Mexico, the U.S. Department of Justice, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. During the plundering of a church in San Juan Tepemasalco, Hidalgo, in 2000, thieves slashed the artwork from its frame, leaving tattered pieces of canvas behind. The restored artwork was acquired by the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) later that year from a private art dealer for $45,000.

What are the odds that neither major metropolitan museum nor the “private art dealer” noted anything fishy about the slashed-out-a-frame painting plundered out of a church 4 years before the sale? Best case scenario this is willful blindness.