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Crime & Litigation

Painting looted by Nazis causes US extradition fight

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Written by TOM HAYS, Associated Press   
Thursday, 21 May 2015 14:20

A similar example of Antoine Pesne's work, 'Girl with Pigeons,' 1728, at Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. Image courtesy of

NEW YORK (AP) – A Russian art dealer living in New York is fighting extradition to Poland to face charges accusing him of refusing to turn over an 18th-century painting taken from a Polish museum by the Nazis during World War II.

Lawyers for Alexander Khochinskiy were in federal court in Manhattan on Monday to ask a judge to throw out an extradition complaint charging him with possessing stolen property. They argued there wasn't enough evidence to show Khochinskiy knew the 1754 painting – Girl with a Dove by Antoine Pesne – was stolen, as required by an extradition treaty, and that he's the legal owner anyway.

Prosecutor Katherine Reilly conceded there were unanswered questions about how the painting ended up in Khochinskiy's hands. But she argued there was still probable cause for granting extradition.

“I doubt that anyone knows quite what happened to it, and I don't think we need to know,” Reilly said.

Khochinskiy, 64, was arrested at his lower Manhattan apartment in February. He was later freed on $100,000 bond.

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff said he wanted to hear further arguments before ruling. He set another hearing for June 17.

The Third Reich took Girl with a Dove in 1943 from the National Museum in Poznan, Poland, according to court papers. At the end of the war, the Red Army recovered the painting and took it to a repository in the Soviet Union, the complaint says.

In 2010, Khochinskiy contacted the Polish Embassy in Moscow in 2010, saying he had discovered that the painting was on the list of missing art objects, according to court papers filed by the government. He also suggested that it could be returned in exchange for a cash payment compensating his family for land his mother lost during the war, the papers add.

Polish officials, once authenticating the painting at Khochinskiy's gallery in Moscow, demanded that Khochinskiy return it without compensation in 2011. After not hearing back from him, Russian authorities agreed to try to seize the painting. But when they went to his gallery, it was gone, court papers say.

Khochinskiy admits he still has the painting stored at an undisclosed location. His lawyers have argued in court papers he became the legal owner of the painting after inheriting it from his father, a former Soviet soldier who brought it home from the war and hung it for years in his apartment in Leningrad before his death in 1991.

The lawyers also claim Russia prohibits exporting cultural valuables obtained from Germany and its allies during the war unless the owner gets fair compensation and Russian officials authorize it.

A review of law shows “there is simply no crime here,” the lawyers wrote. “There is only a civil dispute between competing, good-faith claims of ownership to a painting in the Russian Federation.”

Neither side has given an estimated value for the painting.

Copyright 2015 Associataed Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-05-19-15 0018GMT

Last Updated on Thursday, 21 May 2015 14:29

Italian police arrest Tunisia museum attack suspect

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Written by Ella Ide for AFP   
Wednesday, 20 May 2015 09:32

The Carthage Room of the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. Image by Alexandre Moreau. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

ROME (AFP) - Italian police said Wednesday they had arrested a Moroccan suspected of taking part in the March attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in which 21 foreign tourists were killed.

Abdel Majid Touil, 22, was arrested on an international warrant by Italy's anti-terrorism DIGOS police in the northern town of Gaggiano, officers told a press conference.

Touil, who is wanted for premeditated murder, kidnapping and terrorism, was detained on Monday evening. He was living with his mother, a carer, and two older brothers in the town near Milan.

The Bardo attack on March 18 killed 22 people, including a Tunisian policeman and tourists from Italy, Japan, France, Spain, Colombia, Australia, Britain, Belgium, Poland and Russia.

Tourists getting off buses outside the museum were gunned down by two black-clad gunmen with automatic weapons, who then took hostages inside the building.

Many people were shot in the back as they tried to escape. After rampaging through the museum for several hours, the two gunmen were killed in an assault by security forces.

Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi said a few days after the attack that a third gunman was on the run.

Police said Touil had been in Italy before the attack. They said he entered illegally in February with a boatload of 90 migrants, before being issued with an order to leave.

The officers did not specify whether he had been expelled or, if he had, where he had gone to.

They said investigators had been able to trace Touil because his mother had reported his passport missing.

The news that the suspect had sneaked into Italy by boat sparked an immediate outcry among right-wing politicians, with the head of the anti-immigration Northern League party, Matteo Salvini, calling for the Schengen agreement allowing free movement between most continental European states to be suspended.

"Libyan intelligence says boats are arriving with Islamic State terrorists. Today in my Milan a North African was arrested for involvement in the Tunisian massacre. Close the borders before it's too late," Salvini told Italian media.

Hard-right politician Daniela Santanche from Silvio Berlusconi's Go Italy party also slammed the government.

It is "unbelievable that this government, instead of defending us from cutthroats, has transformed Italy into a useful platform for terrorists," Santanche said.

Authorities in Tunisia have arrested nearly two dozen suspects in connection with the attack and fired senior police officials over alleged security failures.

On March 29, Tunisian forces killed nine men allegedly belonging to the jihadist group accused of being behind the shooting, the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade.

Lokmane Abou Sakhr -- an Algerian who allegedly masterminded the attack -- was killed along with at least eight others from the notorious brigade.

The Bardo tragedy was met by global outrage, with leaders from Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to France's President Francois Hollande and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas travelling to Tunis to take part in a march to denounce terrorism.

Tunisia has seen an upsurge in Islamic extremism since the overthrow of longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.    Authorities say as many as 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Iraq, Syria and Libya to join jihadist ranks, raising fears of returning militants plotting attacks.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 May 2015 09:42

Guggenheim vs. Guggenheim in French court over art treasures

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Written by AFP wire service   
Monday, 18 May 2015 09:30

The Peggy Guggenheim museum, as seen from the Grand Canal. G. Lanting image. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

PARIS, (AFP) – The descendants of famous heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim will Tuesday launch a court appeal over her sumptuous collection of works housed in an 18th century palace on Venice's Grand Canal.

At the age of 13, Peggy Guggenheim inherited unimaginable wealth when her metal magnate father Benjamin went down on the Titanic, money she used to collect and display contemporary art.

After amassing a collection including works from – among others – Cocteau, Picasso, Miro, Matisse and Salvador Dali – she bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Venice Grand Canal and began to display the priceless pieces.

As she neared her death in 1979, she handed over the palace and the collection of 326 works to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation based in New York and run at the time by her cousin Hardy Guggenheim.

But now, one of Peggy's grandsons, Sandro Rumney, has launched a court battle over how the collection is managed, calling for it to be restored to its original configuration.

Lawyer Olivier Morice said it was about "respecting the wishes of Peggy Guggenheim to see the collection intact."

The plaintiffs complain that works from other collections are now being displayed at the Palazzo, diluting Peggy's work.

They hired bailiffs to analyze the displays, finding in 2013 that there were 94 pieces from the Guggenheim collection and 75 works from the Schulhof collection, put together by a couple of American art collectors.

This "breaks with the original arrangement that Peggy wanted and which should be respected after her death," the plaintiffs argue.

They want the collection's original state restored, as well as "protection" in the palace garden around a plaque marking Peggy's ashes – a "grave" they believe has been desecrated.

The appeal is taking place in France because Rumney and his children live there, but they already suffered a setback in July when a lower court threw out the case.

The Paris lower court said the case had already been settled in the 1990s when it was ruled the collection could not be considered as "protected."

The Guggenheim Foundation said it was "proud to have faithfully respected the wishes of Peggy Guggenheim for more than 30 years by keeping her collection intact," restoring the palace and running the "most visited modern and contemporary art museum in Italy."

Last Updated on Monday, 18 May 2015 09:48

Boston art museum offers new $100K reward for stolen item

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Written by Associated Press   
Thursday, 14 May 2015 13:42

Degas' 'La Sortie de Pesage' was one of the artworks stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. FBI image

BOSTON (AP) – Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is offering a new $100,000 reward for information leading to the return of one of the items stolen during a notorious 1990 art heist.

The museum says it hopes the reward will help it recover the Napoleonic finial – one of the least recognizable of 13 works stolen by thieves posing as police officers.

Gardner Museum experts say the item should be easy to identify. The 10-inch gilded bronze eagle originally was affixed to a flagpole of Napoleon's Imperial Guard and dates to 1813-14.

The reward announced Tuesday is separate from an additional $5 million offered for the filial and paintings by Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Johannes Vermeer.

Anyone with information should contact museum security director Anthony Amore at 617-278-5114 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-05-12-15 1932GMT

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 May 2015 13:54

UNESCO director condemns destruction of Mideast historical sites

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Written by HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press   
Thursday, 14 May 2015 13:26

The Deir ez-Zor Museum in northeast Syria keeps thousands of antiquities collected from nearby archeological sites in Northern Mesopotamia. The museum has been looted during the Syrian civil war. Image by Zoeperkoe. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

CAIRO (AP) – The chief of the U.N.'s education and culture agency launched a dramatic appeal in Cairo on Wednesday, saying that the destruction and looting of archaeological sites in the Middle East – such as the rampage perpetrated by the Islamic Sate group in Iraq – should be condemned as a “war crime.”

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria also told the inaugural session of a conference that opened in Egypt that the theft and destruction of antiquities in the region was a tactic of war.

The conference is being held in response to the destruction of ancient temples and artifacts in Iraq by the extremist Islamic State group as well as the looting and smuggling of antiquities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya.

“The stakes are high,” declared Bokova. “The destruction and looting of archaeological sites and museums have reached unprecedented levels. The destruction of cultural heritage, the cultural cleansing, is being used as a tactic of war to terrify populations, to finance criminal activities and to spread hatred.”

“We must consider it for what it is: A war crime,” she stressed at the gathering of 10 Arab nations in Cairo.

Recent videos on social media showing Islamic State militants destroying ancient artifacts in Iraq's museums and blowing up 3,000-year-old temples and forever destroying priceless heritage have sent shockwaves through the archaeological community and international organizations.

In some of the videos, militants can be seen taking sledgehammers to the iconic winged-bulls of Assyria and sawing apart floral reliefs in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud before the entire site is destroyed with explosives.

Experts speculate that the large pieces are destroyed with sledgehammers and drills for the benefit of the cameras, while the more portable items like figurines, masks and ancient clay cuneiform tablets are smuggled to dealers in Turkey from where they make their way to the antiquities' black market.

The Islamic State controls large swathes of territory in Iraq and neighboring Syria, an area that is home to priceless historical treasures. Deborah Lehr of the Antiquities Coalition, the group behind the Cairo conference, said the militants' trade in artifacts smuggled out of Syria and Iraq was valued at billions of dollars.

The extremists, Lehr said, were posting these images to “intimidate those who enjoy beliefs that are contrary to their very narrow views and to fund their nefarious causes.”

The problem is not restricted to Iraq and Syria.

Lehr said estimates put at $3 billion the value of historical artifacts looted or produced from illegal digs and smuggled abroad in the four years of turmoil since the popular uprising in Egypt that toppled the rule of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Libya, which has been in much worse turmoil since the revolt against dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, is thought to be suffering from the same problem, but there were no estimates of the value of its illicit trade in antiquities.

Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-05-13-15 1316GMT

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 May 2015 13:41
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