A Geneva Court Has Found Antiquities Dealer Ali Aboutaam Guilty of Illegally Importing Artifacts

Following a lengthy, six-year investigation, a court in Geneva, Switzerland found veteran antiquities dealer Ali Aboutaam guilty of illegally bringing artifacts into the country accompanied, in some instances, by forged documents. The decision was handed down on January 10.

Aboutaam was given an 18-month suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay roughly $490,000 (CHF450,000) in legal costs, according to reports in The Wall Street Journal and earlier, in Paris Match. The sentence includes a three-year probation period. The Geneva Police Tribunal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Mr. Aboutaam is adamant about sustaining the antiquities world for future generations, has always favored the cultural value of ancient art by ensuring its preservation so that it can continue to be appreciated by the greatest number of enthusiasts,” said his attorneys Didier Bottge and Romain Stampfli, in a statement shared with Midnight Publishing Group News.

They added: “Within the legal imbroglio of national legislation and international treaties and conventions and their entanglement and inconsistency, [Aboutaam] has not always been able to align himself with the regulations in place, which is why the Geneva authorities opened an investigation against him.”

They continued: “Among the thousands of ancient artifacts examined, only 18 works appear to be documented in a questionable manner, namely below the legal requirements. That is 0.01 percent.”

Aboutaam himself characterized the latest development as “a deal to end a six-year exhausting investigation that resulted in vetting almost 16,000 antiquities for which the value will only go up,” according to an email.It historically cost us anywhere between between $2,000 and $25,000 to check a provenance with outside consultants, with contacting possible source countries.” He added that he has no plans to appeal the decision.

The Geneva court ruling said he relied on false documents to prove the origin of some of the artifacts he owned. He was also convicted of paying an intermediary in the four years between 2012 and 2016 to import antiquities into Switzerland, in breach of Swiss laws.

According to Paris Match, the indictment said that Aboutaam “in his capacity as administrator of Phoenix Ancient Art SA, has asked art experts, or has asked employees of Phoenix Ancient Art SA to obtain from art experts: produce and/or sign false invoices; and/or produce or cause others to produce documents indicating source that are contrary to reality, sometimes contained directly in invoices; and/or provide untrue source indications for use by others.”

Aboutaam also said: “The bottom line is that interpretations of paperwork can go either way after an ordeal of six years, but let the record be clear that, unlike with what one has been witnessing elsewhere, not a single piece was proven to have stolen or illegally obtained. On the contrary, the painstaking investigation ended up positively vetting 99.9 percent of the Geneva holdings.”

According to the ruling, 46 objects, including from Syria and Egypt, will remain in the custody of the Swiss government indefinitely. Aboutaam said it’s not known “what the Swiss authorities will do with the forfeited pieces since they have no knowledge as to their countries of origin and the pieces have not been claimed by anyone.”

Ali and his brother Hicham, run Phoenix Ancient Art Gallery in New York and Geneva. Phoenix has repeatedly been subject to police investigations in connection with illicit artifacts over the years. Hicham is not part of the Geneva investigation.

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U.S. Authorities Return Antiquities Worth $19 Million to Italy, Including 27 Objects Seized From the Met

Italy has welcomed home nearly 60 looted artifacts, receiving them from U.S. authorities, who recovered around half of the objects from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Collectively worth about $19 million, the relics were returned to the Italian authorities by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in July and September 2022, and earlier this week, were exhibited at a press conference in Rome. “For us Italians,” said Vincenzo Molinese, head of the Carabinieri art squad, “the value of these artworks, which is the value of our historic and cultural identity, is incalculable.”

Among the repatriated artifacts are a white marble bust of Roman emperor Septimius Severus, which was recovered in 2020, on the eve of it heading to auction at Christie’s New York; as well as the Marble Head of Athena, a 200 B.C.E. sculpture that was filched from a temple in central Italy, and a kylix or drinking cup, which dates back to 470 B.C.E., both among the 27 objects seized from the Met last year.

Also included is a fresco, dated to 50 C.E., depicting a young Hercules battling a snake. The work, which survived the 79 C.E. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was looted by tomb raiders from a villa in the ancient town of Herculaneum and illegally run into the U.S. Italy first asked for its return in 1997.

All 60 objects had been variously smuggled into the U.S. over the past five decades by traffickers Giacomo Medici, Giovanni Franco Becchina, Pasquale Camera, and Edoardo Almagiá, notorious for employing local looters to pillage archaeological sites across Italy.

While their criminal enterprises were frequently in competition with one another, all four sold artifacts to Michael Steinhardt, the billionaire who’d amassed a hoard of plundered relics, including the Herculaneum fresco for $650,000 in 1995. Following a multiyear investigation into his collection and illicit collecting practices, Steinhardt received a lifetime ban from acquiring antiquities in 2021.

“These 58 pieces represent thousands of years of rich history, yet traffickers throughout Italy utilized looters to steal these items and to line their own pockets,” Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., Manhattan District Attorney, said in a statement following the return of the artifacts. “For far too long, they have sat in museums, homes, and galleries that had no rightful claim to their ownership.”

At the event in Rome, officials on both sides stressed the ongoing need to crack down on the illicit trafficking of antiquities.

With this latest repatriation, Italy’s culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said that Italian cultural authorities are contemplating returning the artifacts to museums located close to where they were excavated. A special exhibition of the recovered objects (Italy inaugurated a Museum of Rescued Art last year to house recovered art), he added, is also being considered.

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A Spanish Collector Is on Trial for Forging Artworks by Chillida, Lichtenstein, and Munch—Then Consigning Them to Auction Houses

A Spanish collector is facing years of prison time for allegedly forging and consigning artworks by Roy Lichtenstein, Edvard Munch, and others. 

Guillermo Chamorro, aged 67, is being charged with intellectual property theft and fraud related to the falsification of 15 works of art, according to Spanish newspaper El País. The prosecutor’s office in Madrid, where the trial is taking place, is seeking a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence. 

A once respected collector and occasional artist, Chamorro has now been connected to dozens of suspected forgeries going back several years. 

An Austrian collector named Tomas Weber told El Pais that an Eduardo Chillida lithograph he purchased in the spring of 2019, from Hampel Fine Art Auctions in Munich for €3,900, was fake. The artwork had been consigned by Chamorro, to whom Weber reached out, demanding a refund.

Soon after, Weber told Spanish police that he had spotted two additional Chillida forgeries at the Setdart auction house in Madrid. Subsequent searches of Setdart’s facilities yielded more artworks believed to have been fabricated by Chamorro, including seven attributed to Chillida, two to Lichtenstein, and one to Munch. 

Of the 15 pieces Chamorro has been accused of faking, Spanish police have recovered 10. The remaining five artworks—four attributed to the Spanish painter José Guerrero and one credited to Saul Steinberg—were sold to collectors by Setdart in December 2018. 

It’s unclear if their owners have been notified about the artworks’ suspected authenticity. Chamorro, for his part, claims he only moved these pieces to Setdart for study, not sale.

Representatives from the auction house did not immediately respond to Midnight Publishing Group News’s request for comment.  

Hampel Fine Art is heavily implicated in Chamorro’s trial, too. El País reported that a Spanish-based representative for the company approached the accused forger in 2017 with the idea of selling some of his collection. Chamorro subsequently sent 29 artworks to Munich. Among the group were several iterations of Munch’s famous Scream scene, which the collector valued to be worth €250,000 to €300,000 in total.

After not being paid for the artworks, Chamorro reached out to the auction house and found out that they were being held at a local police station due to questions over their legitimacy. The whereabouts of those artworks are currently unknown.

An expert from the Reina Sofía Museum, José Manuel Lara, helped confirm the dubious status of many of the artworks connected to Chamorro. He spotted irregularities in the artworks’ signatures and pointed out that many of the pictures were made using inkjet printing processes. 

Lara concluded in court that if the pieces were not fake, they were at least “manipulations of authentic pieces.”  

Meanwhile, Francisco Baena, director of the José Guerrero Center in Granada, weighed in on the Guerrero artworks.

“Guerrero was always firm and sure, but in the ones that the police showed me, the painter hesitates, as if he knew he was forging,” Baena said at the trial.


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Three Members of an Infamous German Crime Family Have Confessed to Participating in the Green Vault Heist

Three members of a prominent German crime syndicate have admitted to playing parts in the historic Green Vault heist.

The confessions came in a regional court in Dresden, where six suspects are on trial for their alleged participation in the night-time theft of $123 million worth of jewels from the city’s Grünes Gewölbe—or Green Vault—museum in 2019.

As part of sentencing deal, one of the defendants, Rabieh Remmo, admitted in a statement that he and an unnamed accomplice broke into the institution in the early hours of November 25, 2019, according to the Associated French Press

“My contribution to the crime was larger than I first said,” Remmo said, alluding to a partial confession he gave last year. “I was, myself, in the rooms of the Green Vault.”

Inside, Remmo and his partner used an ax to smash a vitrine holding numerous prized jewels, many of which date back to the late 1700s and were once owned by Saxony’s 18th-century ruler, Augustus the Strong, who founded the museum.

The thieves stashed the jewels in a sack, then used a fire extinguisher to erase traces of their DNA at the scene. Remmo and his co-conspirator fled the scene with other accomplices, burned their getaway car in a parking garage, then drove to Berlin in a vehicle disguised as a taxi.

Defendants sit next to their lawyers at the Higher Regional Court in Dresden, eastern Germany on January 10, 2023, prior to a hearing in the trial over a jewelry heist at the Green Vault museum in Dresden’s Royal Palace. Photo: Jens Schlueter/Pool/AFP via Getty Images.

Authorities in Germany announced last month that they retrieved 31 items stolen in the Green Vault heist after being pointed to their location as part of a deal with the suspect on trial. Other historically significant objects stolen in 2019—including the 49-carat Dresden White Diamond—remain missing. 

“I didn’t keep the loot. I didn’t have access to it,” Remmo said in court. “I don’t know what happened to it. I did all I could to ensure that what was left came back to Dresden.”

Two other suspects on trial, Wissam and Mohamed Remmo, also confessed to aiding the robbery. In statements read by their respective attorneys, the men explained that they didn’t enter the museum but instead waited outside as lookouts. 

A fourth defendant is expected to present a statement of his own in court this week, as part of a sentencing deal. Another suspect rejected the deal, while a sixth and final suspect on trial claims he did not participate in the theft. 

The defendants, all members of the extended Remmo crime family, have been on trial since January 2022. They face charges related to aggravated gang theft and serious arson, according to Dresden’s public prosecutor’s office.

Last week, the court recommended jail sentences that ranged in time from four years and nine months to six years and nine months. Hearings will continue later this week.

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The U.S. Has Returned Its First Looted Antiquity to Palestine: A Disgraced Collector’s Iron-Age Spoon

A nearly 3,000-year-old ivory spoon is back in Palestine following a repatriation ceremony held in Bethlehem in the West Bank, marking the first time the U.S. has restituted a looted cultural artifact to the Middle Eastern nation, according to authorities.

Dating to approximately 800 to 700 B.C.E., the cosmetic spoon would have been used by the Assyrian civilization to pour incense. Experts believe looters stole it from an archaeological site in the Palestinian village of Al-Kum.

“This artifact is important as it acquires its real scientific and archaeological value in its authentic location,” Palestinian minister of tourism Rula Maayah said in a statement. “Based on information from the U.S. side, the investigations they conducted showed that the artifact was stolen from Khirbet al-Koum area in Hebron.”

The Iron Age spoon is one of 180 stolen antiquities, collectively valued at $70 million, that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office seized from billionaire collector Michael Steinhardt. He purchased the repatriated cosmetic spoon in January 2003 from Gil Chaya, an Israeli antiquities dealer. News of its return was first reported by the New York Times.

Michael Steinhardt at the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in New York City. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Michael Steinhardt at the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in New York City. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

When the multi-year, multi-national investigations into Steinhardt concluded in December 2021, authorities hit him with an unprecedented lifetime ban preventing him from collecting cultural antiquities. The severity of the penalty reflected the fact that Steinhardt spent decades working with smugglers to knowingly acquire stolen art.

“His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection,” then-Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement.

One of the world’s leading collectors of ancient art, Steinhardt had looted artifacts from 11 countries in his illicit holdings.

Michael Steinhardt purchased this pair of Gold Masks (ca. 5000 B.C.E.) from Rafi Brown, an illegal antiquities dealer, in March 2001. The U.S. repatriated the masks, now valued collectively at $500,000, to Israel in March. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

Michael Steinhardt purchased this pair of Gold Masks (ca. 5000 B.C.E.) from Rafi Brown, an illegal antiquities dealer, in March 2001. The U.S. repatriated the masks, now valued collectively at $500,000, to Israel in March. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

Over the last year, the Manhattan D.A. has been busy returning them.

In January alone, five artifacts worth $688,500 went back to Iraq; a $1.2 million marble head returned to Libya; and 14 antiquities were restored to Turkey. The following month, the U.S. returned 47 looted objects to Greece, plus a $200,000 helmet believed to belong to Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, to Bulgaria.

In March, the U.S. repatriated 39 objects worth more than $5 million to Israel, and nine artifacts went back to Egypt in September (along with six from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art). There were also two rounds of restitution to Italy, in July and again in September.

Michael Steinhardt purchased this Stag’s Head Rhyton (ca. 400 B.C.E.), a ceremonial vessel for libations, from Merrin Gallery for $2.6 million in November 1991. The U.S. repatriated the it, now valued at $3.5 million, to January in January 2022. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

Michael Steinhardt purchased this Stag’s Head Rhyton (ca. 400 B.C.E.), a ceremonial vessel for libations, from Merrin Gallery for $2.6 million in November 1991. The U.S. repatriated the it, now valued at $3.5 million, to January in January 2022. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

“It is impossible to put a value on the cultural and historical significance of looted antiquities and I thank our talented team of attorneys and investigators who are continuing their incredible work of returning these objects to where they rightfully belong,” D.A. Alvin L. Bragg Jr. said in a statement.

In 2022, the office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit repatriated more than 1,100 antiquities, worth nearly $115 million altogether, to 15 countries.


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