May-June 2009


The Black Swan
On June 3, a federal court in Tampa, Florida ruled against Odyssey Marine Exploration and ordered that 17 tons of gold and silver recovered from the wreck of the “Black Swan”, though to be the Spanish ship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes that was sunk by the British in 1804 off the coast of Portugal. The court ruled that the wreck and its cargo are the property of Spain (F. Govan, “Treasure hunters ordered to return £250m of loot to Spain”, Telegraph, June 4). Odyssey has objected that the cargo was a commercial one and thus not subject to Spanish ownership. (Odyssey Marine International, “Odyssey files objections to report and recommendation in ‘Black Swan’ admiralty case”, press release, July 22).
Greece and Italy
In May, Greece placed on display at the National Museum in Athens hundreds of looted artifacts that had been returned from Germany, Belgium and Britain (“Greece displays repatriated antiquities”, CBC News, May 19).
Also in May, Greece returned to Italy two medieval frescoes that had been taken from the Grotta delle Formelle chapel in Caserta, southern Italy, in April 1982. They were found in the home of Despoina Papadimitriou during the Greek police’s investigation of dealer Robin Symes. Italian authorities displayed the frescoes alongside 251 objects recovered as part of Operation Phoenix (Associated Press, “Italy recovers lost Byzantine frescos from Greece”, May 19). Phoenix Ancient Art of London and Geneva announced that they had returned the artifacts voluntarily as part of a settlement with the Italian government (Phoenix Ancient Art, “Phoenix Ancient Art voluntarily repatriates 251 antiquities to Italy worth $2.7 million”, press release, May 29).
In London, the Metropolitan Police announced the return to Iran of hundreds of decorative tiles that had been taken from the walls of the tomb of Sultan Shihab al-Din Sultan Ahmend, in Dyla, northern Iran. The tiles were acquired in Dubai and consigned for auction at Bonhams, where they were recognized and the police alerted (Metropolitan Police, “Tiles from Sultan’s tomb returned to Iran”, news release, May 29).
The Metropolitan Police also announced the conviction of David Hutchings for selling forged ancient and medieval coins. (Metropolitan Police, “Met Antique coin forger jailed”, news release, May 8).
It was announced in May that on April 27 Eton College had returned to Egypt more than 450 artifacts. The material, which had been donated to Eton in 2006, came from the collection of Peter Webb who had died in 1992. It had been acquired in Egypt over the period 1972-1988 but there was no documentation to confirm legal export (M. Bailey, “Eton College returns suspect antiquities to Egypt,”, May 27).
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on May 27 that it had recovered seven Egyptian artifacts from a Manhattan auction house. The artifacts had been stolen from the Bijbels Museum in Amsterdam in June 2007 (“ICE recovers Egyptian artifacts stolen from a museum in the Netherlands”, press release). Then, on June 1, ICE agents seized a Pompeiian wall panel fresco from a Manhattan auction house that had been stolen in Italy June 1997. Both seizures were the outcome of cooperation with the Art Loss Register (“ICE seizes a cultural artifact reported stolen in Italy almost 12 years ago”, press release, June 1). Also on June 1, ICE announced the recovery from Christie’s New York of a Corinthian krater dating to 580-570 BC. It is thought that the krater had passed through the hands of Giacomo Medici and had been sold at Sotheby’s London in 1985 (“Stolen Italian artifact smuggled into the United States found at auction house”, press release).
Not to be outdone, the FBI announced on June 8 that it was returning approximately 1,600 stolen objects to Italy. They were among 3,500 objects seized in April 2007 during a raid on the home of the recently deceased John Sisto in Berwyn, Illinois. Many of the objects were historical books or documents, but there were also hundreds of Etruscan artifacts. The FBI believes the objects were exported from Italy between the 1960s and 1980s by John Sisto’s father. The ownership of the remaining 1900 objects could not be determined and they were returned to estate of John Sisto. (FBI, “Stolen cultural artifacts found in Berwyn residence returned to Italian authorities”, press release, June 8).
On June 10, warrants were issued for the arrest of 23 people after a two-year undercover investigation into the excavation and trade of Native American artifacts in the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The investigation started in 2006 when a former dealer agreed to cooperate with the FBI. Most of the defendants are from Blanding Utah. The following day, one of the suspects, James Redd, commited suicide, and on June 19, so did a second Steven Schrader (K. Johnson, “23 people are arrested or sought in the looting of Indian artifacts”, New York Times, June 11; P. Henetz and B. Loomis, “Another suicide in Americam Indian artifacts looting case”, Salt Lake Tribune, June 20).
The latest trend in collectable artifacts is apparently “warbirds” – Second World War military planes. There are reports of planes changing hands for up to $7 million each. The “wreck-hunters” are focusing their activities on the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where hundreds of planes went missing during the war. The Pentagon MIA (Missing in Action) search unit has criticized these wreck-hunters for destroying crash sites and impeding efforts to recover and identify dead airmen (K. Baron and B. Bender, “Remains are lost in race for relics,” Boston Globe, May 25).
An appeal court in Sana’a found Hassan al-Dais guilty of illegally trading in antiquities. Four similar cases are pending. (Yemen News Agency (SABA), “Appeal court cancels sentence acquitting antiquities dealer”, June 8).
Thomas Hoving
Over on artnet (, April through June, Thomas Hoving published a personal memoir, entitled Artful Tom, A Memoir. Never one to leave the beans in the jar, he has revisited many of the museum and collecting scandals he was party to exposing during his time as editor of Connoisseur. In chapter 24, “Getting Restless”, for example, he recalls from his early days at the Metropolitan the activities of antiquities dealer John J. Klejman. Klejman sold the Lydian Hoard to the Metropolitan, but Hoving claims he was also a source of “smuggled goods” from Syria and Lebanon. One object the Metropolitan acquired from Klejman was “a lovely marble bust of a Byzantine noblewoman smuggled out of Syria dating to the 6th century”. The only piece matching that description on the Metropolitan’s collection database is no. 66.25, “Portrait Bust of a Woman with a Scroll, late 4th–early 5th century”, acquired from Klejman and said to have been possibly found in Istanbul. Hoving’s account extends beyond the Metropolitan, however, and the Cleveland Museum of Art will probably be pleased to learn that its “Jonah Marbles”, a group of 3rd century AD Roman sculptures (1965.237-241), are not “find-spot unknown”, as advised on the museum’s website, but were said by Klejman to have been plundered from a tomb in the centre of Antioch.