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Arab Dealer is Arrested for Smuggling Stolen Iranian Artefacts to US


News Category:


 25 January 2004


An Arab by the name of Hicham Aboutaam, a principal in Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A., was arrested on 13 December, following an investigation by the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

An antiquities dealer with offices in Geneva and New York has been arrested for illegally importing a Mesopotamian object, described as “the most important representation of a griffin in antiquity,” and facilitating its sale to a private collector.

The dealer, Hicham Aboutaam, a principal in Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A., was arrested on 13 December, following an investigation by the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE), formerly the US Customs Service. The antiquity is alleged to have been part of the plundered Iranian Western Cave Treasure, much of which is said to have been looted and dispersed since 1992 around the world. Mr Aboutaam has been released on a $500,000 bond.

According to a complaint filed in the case in federal court seeking arrest and seizure warrants, in 2000, Mr Aboutaam knowingly imported a Mesopotamian rhyton into the U.S., using a fraudulent commercial invoice which falsely stated its country of origin as Syria. The silver griffin, dated to c. 700 B.C. and described by an expert as “in pristine condition,” is believed to have been used as a ceremonial drinking vessel. It was sold for $950,000, the complaint says.

Phoenix Ancient Art, a well-known antiquities firm with its principal place of business in Geneva, describes itself as “a leader in the international antiquities trade” specializing in “rare and high quality works of art from the Mediterranean region and Near East.” The gallery emphasizes ancient cultures, including Mesopotamia, Central Europe, Byzantium, and Islam. The business was founded by Mr Aboutaam’s father, the late Sleiman Aboutaam, who was originally based in Beirut. The government complaint identifies the gallery’s affiliate office in New York as the Bloomfield Collection. The gallery’s website says that its exclusive US agent is Electrum in Manhattan.

The complaint was based partly on information obtained by Customs from the “prominent” New York private collector who bought the object. In discussions about the purchase which began in 1999 in Geneva and included Mr Aboutaam’s brother, Ali, who is also a principal in Phoenix Ancient Art, Mr Aboutaam allegedly told the buyer that the griffin was originally from Iran. The object was hand-carried by Mr Aboutaam into the US from Switzerland in February 2000 with a number of other antiquities, the US says, with the importer of record listed as the Bloomfield Collection. The invoice declaring Syria as country of origin was issued by Tanis Antiquities, Ltd., an affiliate of Phoenix Ancient Art based in the Grenadine Islands, the complaint says. Syria and Iran do not share a common border.

Three experts confirm Cave Hoard origin
After the griffin was delivered to the purchaser’s Manhattan apartment, the parties reached a sales agreement in January 2002. The buyer had requested assurances as to the object’s authenticity, the complaint says, and three expert reports were obtained by Mr Aboutaam citing the Iranian Western Cave origin.

A Los Angeles metallurgist concluded that the griffin’s composition was within the range expected for objects from the 7th century B.C. in northwest Iran. An expert in Germany reported that the griffin was said to be part of the “Cave Find” and showed a construction method “fully in keeping with the other known silver objects” from the Hoard. The authentic object was “a particularly fine example of ancient Near Eastern silverwork,” the expert said.

In May 2002 an expert in Chevy Chase, Maryland noted similarities to Cave Treasure objects in the Miho Museum in Japan and said the object was reputed to be from the famous Treasure, the complaint says. The buyer wired final payment in June 2002.

The Western Cave Treasure
The complaint cites a visit in around 1989 by archaeologists from the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization to the Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, located about 15 kilometers northwest of Pol-e Dokhtar in the Luristan province of western Iran, near the Iraq border. The cave was believed to hold a cache of important artefacts dating from the 1st millennium B.C. and known as the Western Cave Treasure or Hoard.

From 1989 to 1992, before authorities could conduct a thorough inventory of its contents, the site was reportedly severely plundered and damaged by treasure hunters and villagers. Several hundred objects, including silver bowls, jars, vases, plates and zoomorphic vessels such as ibexes, lions and bulls, intended for making libations, are believed stolen, the government says.

Iranian authorities have sought since 1989 to retrieve the loot, and a number of recovered items are now housed in Iranian museums. But objects purportedly from the Treasure have reportedly been smuggled out of Iran, the government says, ending up in art galleries, museums, auction houses and private collections in Turkey, Japan, France, England, Switzerland and the US.

In 1993, Turkish authorities seized a number of objects believed by experts to have come from the Western Cave. Under US Iranian asset control regulations, the import into the US of goods of Iranian origin is prohibited. Mr Aboutaam’s case remains pending before the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

False statements to US Customs
In a successful confiscation lawsuit, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York succeeded in 1999 in obtaining the forfeiture of a 4th-century B.C. Sicilian gold libation vessel, which had been imported and sold for $1 million, on the grounds that material false statements had been made on US Customs forms identifying the country of origin as Switzerland. The object had been viewed in Italy, but the New York dealer took possession of it in Switzerland before bringing it to the United States. The false statements could have affected the importation process, by failing to alert Customs officials that the object might be subject to confiscation, the federal appeals court held.

Source : the Art Newspaper




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