In December 2010, Swiss Federal Customs Administration authorities, acting under new customs legislation to combat trafficking in works of art, requested access to the inventory of Phoenix Ancient Art SA., a major supplier of museum-quality antiquities, which stores ancient works of art at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève, a freeport located in a sprawling grey industrial building on the corner of a busy junction in southwest Geneva.
By Lynda Albertson, published March 24, 2017
For more information about freeports as a tax free haven to store art, please see a few of ARCA’s earlier blog posts here, here, and here.
At the time of the audit, authorities inspected the holdings of both Phoenix Ancient Art and its warehouseman and freight forwarder, Inanna Art Services. During this inspection, Swiss authorities discovered, but didn’t physically seize, a 1-2 ton, 150-180 CE Roman sarcophagus which depicted the twelve labours of the ancient Greek war deity, Hercules. According to customs information on file for the antiquity, the sarcophagus was imported into Switzerland in the name of Phoenix Ancient Art, which often used Inanna Art Services to store its goods or to transport works of art to and from other countries.
This extraordinary ancient funerary object, likely only one of four of this significant quality documented in the ancient art world, had little in the way of detailed provenance. For a piece of its quality to have nothing tying it to a previously known ancient art collection; no notations of its discovery or find spot, and nothing notable in the way of published scholarly examination of its style and iconography, rang alarm bells in Switzerland.
In a recent video, with Al Jazeera news, Ali Aboutaam claimed that the ancient funerary object had been purchased by his father and had been in their family for 25 years. While under their control, he indicated that the sarcophagus had always been stored at the Geneva freeport aside from when it was shipped to the UK for conservation treatment. Ali Aboutam added that in 2010 the object was sold to the Gandur Foundation as a donation to the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire in Geneva and according to Phoenix Ancient Art’s attorney Bastien Geiger, Sleiman Aboutaam purchased the object in the early 90s.
Phoenix Ancient Art had proposed the sarcophagus to billionaire Swiss tycoon and commodities trader, Jean-Claude Gandur in the spring of 2010 for an estimated $1 – 4 million saying that the firm was acting on behalf of a third party whom they interestingly refused to disclose. Gandur, who made a fortune during the 1990s buying oil concessions in Africa, has long been a powerful collector of ancient art, as well as a long term patron of the Musée d’Art et d’histoire in Geneva.
In consideration of the donation, Marc-André Haldimann, head of the archaeology department of the Musée d’Art ed d’Histoire of Geneva and the director of the museum, Jean-Yves Marin, went to the freeport and inspected the sarcophagus to carry out an appraisal for consideration. The pair however remained highly skeptical of the lack of established information on the ancient sarcophagus, which implied possible illicit origins.
- How could such a prestigious object emerge on the ancient art market having never been talked or written about previously?
- Wouldn’t the archaeologist who discovered such a masterpiece have mentioned this spectacular find in his or her field notes?
- Wouldn’t a scholar of some repute have compared it in an academic article with the other known artworks by the same signatory group of sculptures or other sarcophagi depicting Hercules?
The only documentation Phoenix Ancient Art produced which attested to the fundamental question of this exceptional object’s past, were independently established statements attesting that the ancient work of art was part of the Aboutaam collection from 2002 onward and a certificate from Art Loss Register attesting the object had been checked against ALR’s known stolen art database registry. Ultimately the sale to the Gandur Foundation was cancelled, in no small part because of suspicions that the object had been smuggled out of its source country.
In March 2011, the Specialized Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (FOC) issued a statement that they believed the sarcophagus had originated from the general area of the famous marble quarries of Dokimion in Phrygia, the present day Antalya region of Turkey. The Dokimeian white marble sarcophagus was likely sculpted sometime during the the second century, when the area was under Roman rule.
Based on the FOC’s examination, Swiss authorities alerted their counterparts in Ankara, and Turkey in turn, issued a demand for the restitution of the rare antiquarian work by a letter rogatory of July 2011. Turkey also sent a request for mutual assistance to the Geneva court and an inquiry was formally opened in Switzerland to look into alleged violations of the Cultural Property Transfer Act (LTBC). This act requires art market professionals keep a register for 30 years, in which the “origin of the cultural property” is to be documented.
In order for the sarcophagus to have been in good standing in Switzerland under the LTBC, the dealers would be obliged to prove that the acquired object was in an old collection outside the source country prior to 2005 or to demonstrate that the object was not stolen or exported illicitly after 2005.
In October 2013, the case made its way through Swiss court. The Geneva Chief Public Prosecution Office and the Chief Public Prosecutor of Antalya conducted a comprehensive joint study with the Swiss magistrate in charge of the case traveling to Antalya, Turkey where Turkish Public Prosecutor Osman Şanal provided access to witnesses.
Testimonies were heard from Professor Haluk Abbasoğlu and Professor İnci Deleman who conducted excavations in the region where the sarcophagus was illegally excavated. The Swiss prosecutor also met with an unnamed imprisoned smuggler serving time on a separate smuggling charge in Elmalı prison. This smuggler allegedly confirmed that the artifact had been looted and smuggled out of Turkey.
Based on the evidence gathered, on September 21, 2015 Swiss authorities ordered the repatriation of the sarcophagus. But international legal proceedings move at a snail’s pace and the return of this one object, approved by the Geneva Court of Justice on May 2, 2016, was slowed again, due to a challenge by the Swiss Federal Court.
As stated in a press conference on March 24, 2016, this objection has been withdrawn and with it comes the withdrawal of the appeal. This means the object’s mandatory return has been made final, paving the way for the sarcophagus to finally be repatriated to Turkey.
More on the dealers involved in this repatriation case.
Phoenix Ancient Art operates a gallery in New York city as well as in Geneva Switzerland. Founded by Sleiman Aboutaam in 1968, the firm was incorporated in 1995. The second-generation family business is now managed by Sleiman’s sons, Hicham Aboutaam and Ali Aboutaam, who took over the firm’s operation after Sleiman’s death in 1998. The firm has been embroiled in a significant number of antiquities-related controversies.
A sampling (not a complete listing) of other instances of concern involving this firm include:
A third-century CE South Arabian alabaster stele the brothers attempted to sell in May 2002 via Sotheby’s auction house in New York for approximately $20,000 to $30,000 in which they listed the provenance for the piece as having belonged to a private English collection. Sotheby’s researchers conducting due diligence before the auction found published photographs of the stele indicating that this tablet, carved in low relief, with an image of the fertility goddess Dat-Hamin, had been stolen in July 1994 from the Aden Museum in Yemen’s port city during the country’s previous war. This object was forfeited to the U.S. government in December 2003 and eventually returned to Yemen.
Hicham Aboutaam was arrested in 2003 for smuggling a looted ceremonial drinking vessel from Iran into the US, claiming that it had come from Syria. Hicham pled guilty to the charges in 2004, paid a fine, and the vessel was returned to the Iranian authorities. Hicham Aboutaam stated that his conviction stemmed from a “lapse in judgment.”
The Egyptian authorities have accused Ali Aboutaam of involvement with Tarek El-Suesy (al-Seweissi), who was arrested in 2003 under Egypt’s patrimony law for illegal export of antiquities. Ali Aboutaam was tried in absentia, pronounced guilty and was fined, and sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Egyptian court in April 2004. To date, he has not served any of the Egyptian sentence.
The Aboutaams voluntarily repatriated 251 Antiquities valued at $2.7 Million to the State of Italy in May 2009 tied to one of Italy’s most notorious smuggling rings.
Advice on collecting ancient art
ARCA encourages its readers to remember that the only way to avoid looting is to pressure dealers and collectors to not participate directly or indirectly in looting through their sourcing and purchases. Collectors of ancient art are only the most current stewards of objects with long and telling histories. The provenance, or ownership history of a piece of art is important and should detail strong proof that an object has come from a legitimately traded collection.
Buying and trading in ancient works of art, without well documented collecting histories, simply for their beauty or for the purpose of rescuing them from countries in conflict, only encourages further looting and further laundering of smuggled illicit objects.
ARCA strongly discourages collectors and museums from buying or accepting objects that cannot pass the 1970 test or which lack a legitimate export permit from the actual and correct country of the object’s origin.