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Crime & Litigation



US returns dozens of smuggled ancient artifacts to Egypt


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Written by Associated Press   
Friday, 24 April 2015 12:32


On Sept. 8, 2009, HSI New York recovered the 2,600-year-old nesting sarcophagus from a garage in Brooklyn, New York. One year later, on Sept. 24, 2010, following leads from the Brooklyn case, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport seized a shipment of smuggled Egyptian goods, including a funerary boat model and figurines. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement images.

WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. officials have returned dozens of illegally smuggled artifacts to Egypt, including a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus.

The items were repatriated to Egyptian officials Wednesday at the National Geographic Society in Washington. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said its investigation has identified a criminal network that smuggled and imported more than 7,000 artifacts from around the world.

U.S. officials say the sarcophagus was recovered in 2009 from a garage in Brooklyn, New York. A year later, border patrol agents seized a funerary boat model, figurines (below) and other goods at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. In a related seizure, agents recovered 638 ancient coins from different countries. Of those, 65 were repatriated to Egypt.





To date, the investigation has resulted in four indictments, two convictions and 16 seizures totaling about $3 million.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-04-22-15 1833GMT

Last Updated on Friday, 24 April 2015 12:53
 

Prosecutor claims convict offered to sell art stolen in 1990 heist

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Written by MICHAEL MELIA, Associated Press   
Wednesday, 22 April 2015 10:34


The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, Rembrandt van Rijn. Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990.

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – A reputed mobster told an undercover FBI agent that he had access to two of the long-sought paintings stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and could negotiate a sale of each for $500,000, a prosecutor said Monday.

Robert Gentile, a 79-year-old convict who was released from a year ago, allegedly made the offer within the last several months to an agent posing as a drug dealer looking for help with a large-scale marijuana operation, prosecutor John Durham said.

The subject of the biggest art heist in U.S. history arose at a hearing Monday, where the judge ordered Gentile detained following his arrest Friday on allegations that he sold a handgun for $1,000 to a convicted murderer who wanted it to collect a drug debt.

Gentile's attorney, A. Ryan McGuigan, said his client began working with the FBI three years ago to help find the stolen artwork. But because the FBI believes Gentile has not been forthcoming with everything he knows about the heist, McGuigan said, the agency has set up his client for arrests twice in the last three years.

“It's my argument that a crime isn't committed if it's not orchestrated by the FBI,” said McGuigan, who said his client is not withholding any information.

Over the last 25 years, the FBI has chased thousands of leads around the world in the investigation into the theft of works worth an estimated $500 million, including Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Gentile's alleged assertions would suggest significant new evidence, but it's unclear what came of the offer to negotiate the artworks' sale, and the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on how it was interpreted by investigators.

On March 18, 1990, two men posing as police officers stole 13 pieces of art including paintings by Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Johannes Vermeer. The paintings have never been found and nobody has been charged in the robbery.

Two years ago, the FBI in Boston said investigators believed the thieves belonged to a criminal organization based in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. They believe the art was taken to Connecticut and Pennsylvania in the years after the theft and offered for sale in Philadelphia. After that, the trail went cold.= The museum is offering a $5 million reward for the return of the artwork, and the government is offering immunity from prosecution.

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

AP-WF-04-20-15 1912GMT

Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 April 2015 10:50
 

Items looted from Saddam’s palaces turning up for sale

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Written by MICHAEL MELIA, Associated Press   
Tuesday, 21 April 2015 10:46


View of the front of the Iraqi Republican Palace prior to removal of the 'Saddam the Warrior' bronze heads from the rooftop. Image by Jim Gordon. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – As the elected Iraqi government seeks diplomatic respect and struggles to save its ancient sites from the rampages of the Islamic State group, American military members, contractors and others caught with culturally significant artifacts they brought home from the war there are going largely unprosecuted.

Years after the war, swords, artifacts and other items looted from Saddam Hussein's palaces are still turning up for sale and in some cases U.S. agents have traced them to American government employees, who took them as souvenirs or war trophies.

The materials are often returned once they become known, but defenders of the country's historical sites and artifacts argue that won't change anything. Smuggling cases are difficult to investigate, and prosecutors and courts generally have been satisfied to take them no further than forfeiture, said Patty Gerstenblith, director of DePaul University's Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law.

“Just giving the object up is not a deterrent,” she said.

No one is suggesting that U.S. service members removed cultural items en masse, and the souvenirs are not on par in value with the destruction wrought by the Islamic State group, which among other things has blown up parts of the ancient Iraqi Assyrian city of Nimrud. But the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, said last month that Baghdad is committed to preserving its heritage, and that the return of looted archaeological items is a national project.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency does not know how many items have been brought here by government employees. Defense Department spokesman Mark Wright said the Pentagon does not track cases involving Iraq war trophies and has no indications of any related courts-martial. Such cases, he said, were not considered a major concern in the years after the invasion as the military dealt with a bloody insurgency.

The Iraqi Embassy said Faily was unavailable to comment this week and deferred to the U.S. government.

McGuire Gibson, a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago, said he knows of only one prosecution, and that was a civilian: author Joseph Braude, who was caught carrying three ancient marble and alabaster seals when he returned from an Iraq visit in 2004 and ultimately pleaded guilty to smuggling. Braude, a Middle East expert who had assisted the FBI and CIA earlier in his career, was sentenced to six months of house arrest.

“That's the only one. It's a slap on the wrist,” Gibson said. “I suspect that that's the tiniest tip of the iceberg.”

Internet searches and anecdotes about rugs and other items from the Republican Palace turning up in stores suggest much more material came back from Iraq with Americans, Gibson said. The Oriental Institute, a museum at his university, is launching an effort to track down Iraqi artifacts, he said.

In a recent Connecticut case, federal investigators got a tip that gold-plated items from Saddam's palaces were up for sale and traced them to an American man who had been in Iraq as a defense contractor. Confronted by investigators, the man acknowledged taking the water urn, door-knocker and soap dish.

The suspect's background as a decorated U.S. military veteran and his forfeiture of the items factored into prosecutors' decision not to charge him, said Bruce Foucart, the agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New England.

“There absolutely was some egregiousness on our guy's part on this,” Foucart said. But that contractor remains unidentified and unpunished.

The artifacts were returned at a ceremony at the Iraqi consulate last month with dozens of other pieces, including an Iraq government seal representing Saddam's initials in Arabic that a civilian U.S. employee had shipped to a home in Maryland in 2004. That employee told Homeland Security Investigations agents in Baltimore last year that he did not realize he needed authorization to take the seal. The case was presented to the federal prosecutors, but they declined to file charges, ICE said.

The offices of the U.S. attorneys in Connecticut and Maryland declined to comment.

There is a long tradition of soldiers taking prizes home from war. In the past, some soldiers have faced larceny charges, and as concerns grew over imported weapons, the military in the Vietnam War era tightened restrictions on war trophies, which cannot be taken without approval from a service member's chain of command. Civilian U.S. law also prohibits the import and sale of culturally valuable material that rightfully belongs to foreign governments.

More recently, the recovery of such items has become hugely important, now that Iraq has its own elected government and it's in the U.S. interest to encourage global respect for it. Most recovered Iraqi valuables, including the most precious antiquities, are believed to have come into the U.S. through art smuggling rings. But with hundreds of thousands of troops and U.S. civilians having served in Iraq, there was plenty of opportunity for others.

A U.S. Marine, for example, bought eight ancient, looted stone seals from a street vendor in Iraq in late 2003. The FBI said that once he was back in the U.S, the Marine discovered their value and in 2005 turned them over to the FBI, which gave them back to Iraq.

The aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion made clear that the government has little interest in prosecuting service members, Gerstenblith said.

“It was virtually explicit that there was no appetite for prosecuting servicemen. There just wasn't,” Gerstenblith said. “It's ironic that there is still a lingering sense of war booty, spoils of war kind of thing, and that servicemen are entitled to take whatever they want.”

Culturally valuable items do not always come into Americans' hands improperly. A ceremonial sword from Saddam's office in Baghdad that was recovered in New Hampshire by federal agents and returned to Iraq in 2013 had been presented as a gift to the soldier, according to ICE.

When service members do face prosecution, it's generally over weapons possession.

One Marine, Sgt. Leonardo San Juan, was arrested and prosecuted in civilian federal court in California after his fiancé told a gun range instructor he had “AKs in her garage.” He agreed to plead guilty in 2008 to possession of an unregistered firearm, an AK-47 brought back from Iraq two years earlier.

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

AP-WF-04-17-15 1327GMT

Last Updated on Tuesday, 21 April 2015 10:59
 

Paintings stolen from Sam Simon Foundation in California

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Written by Associated Press   
Friday, 17 April 2015 14:10


Sam Simon with Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA (People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals). Image courtesy of PETA

MALIBU, Calif. (AP) — Authorities are asking the public's help in finding two paintings — one of them by famed American Roy Lichtenstein — that were stolen from a Malibu foundation established by the late co-creator of "The Simpsons."

City News Service says the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department issued the call Wednesday as it tries to find artworks valued at $400,000. They were reported stolen last Friday from the Sam Simon Foundation.

Simon was 59 when he died in March from cancer. He left "The Simpsons" after its fourth season under a deal that rewarded him with ongoing royalties from the show.

He then channeled much of his personal fortune to philanthropy. His foundation rescues dogs from animal shelters and trains them to assist the disabled.

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

Last Updated on Friday, 17 April 2015 14:24
 

Thieves score 5 million euros in jewels in Paris smash-and-grab

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Written by AFP Wire Service   
Thursday, 16 April 2015 10:38


South portal of the Tunnel du Landy in Paris. Copyrighted photo by Akiry, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

PARIS (AFP) - French police are hunting a trio of thieves who made off with a handbag containing five million euros worth of Chanel jewels in a smash-and-grab on the highway between Paris and Charles De Gaulle airport.

A Taiwanese art collector was traveling in a taxi Wednesday afternoon through a long tunnel notorious for robbery attacks on tourists stuck in traffic, when the thieves smashed the car window and snatched her handbag.

It was unclear whether the perpetrators were just petty crooks who hit the jackpot or knew in advance that the woman's handbag was filled with valuable jewelry, such as a ring worth 1.7 million euros ($1.8 million).

Police are not ruling out any options as they probe the theft of the gems, which the woman said were to be presented at the Paris Museum of Modern Art, a source close to the investigation said. But the museum later denied they were to be given the jewels.

The unique and numbered items will be very difficult to peddle without a specialized network, police said.

"Either it was an order or they are in the shit," a source with a specialized police unit said ironically.

The 1.3km (0.8 mile) long Landy tunnel is taken by most people arriving at the Charles De Gaulle airport and heading into Paris and is the ideal spot for smash-and-grabs.

"It is often local delinquency. They aren't afraid of anything, know the area and escape through emergency exits," said the source.

A driver distracted and talking on his cellphone, a handbag left on a passenger seat, or luxury cars carrying tourists with possibly wads of cash on them are all easy targets.

In February 2010, Christina Chernovetska, the daughter of the then-mayor of Kiev, was the victim of a similar robbery when a bag she said contained jewels worth 4.5 million euros was stolen from her.

Saudi prince Abdul Aziz Bin Fahd, the multimillionaire son of the late King Fahd, fell victim to a spectacular armed raid on his convoy in Paris last August in which 250,000 euros and diplomatic papers were stolen.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 16 April 2015 11:12
 
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