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Antiquities dealer arrested for smuggling Iranian artefact from raided archaeological site into US

Hicham Aboutaam sold the antiquity to a New York buyer for $950,000; the US says it is part of a the looted Western Cave hoard

A Lebanese antiquities dealer with offices in New York and Geneva has been arrested in New York for illegally importing to the US an Iranian object, described as “the most important representation of a griffin in antiquity”, and facilitating its sale to a private collector, The Art Newspaper was told by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. 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.

According to the US Attorney’s Office, the drinking vessel, or rhyton, is in the custody of BICE after a seizure warrant was issued on 12 December. The antiquity is alleged to have been part of the plundered Iranian Western Cave Treasure, much of which, the US says, is believed to have been looted and dispersed around the world following its discovery in 1989. Mr Aboutaam has been released on a $500,000 bond, the US Attorney’s Office told The Art Newspaper.

According to a complaint filed in the case in federal court seeking arrest and seizure warrants, in February 2000, Mr Aboutaam knowingly imported an Iranian rhyton into the US, using a fraudulent commercial invoice which falsely stated its country of origin as Syria. The silver griffin, dated to around 700 BC, reportedly in “almost pristine condition” and apparently used as a ceremonial drinking vessel, was sold for $950,000, the complaint says.

The complaint refers to US Iranian asset-control regulations, pursuant to which the import into the US of any goods of Iranian origin, “either directly or through third countries” is prohibited. Under an April 2000 amendment, these regulations now allow the import only of carpets and other textile floor coverings as well as certain Iranian foods.

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” specialising in “rare and high-quality works of art from the Mediterranean region and Near East”. The gallery emphasises ancient cultures, among them Mesopotamia, Central Europe, Byzantium, and Islam, its website says. 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 cites information obtained by Customs from the “prominent New York art collector” who bought the object.

In discussions about the purchase that began in 1999 in Geneva and included Mr Aboutaam’s brother, Ali, who is also a principal in Phoenix Ancient Art, Mr Aboutaam told the buyer that the griffin was originally from Iran, according to the complaint.

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, noting that Syria and Iran do not share a common border.

According to the complaint, 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 in 2001 and 2002, three expert reports were obtained by Mr Aboutaam citing an Iranian origin, the first from a Los Angeles metallurgist who concluded that the griffin’s composition was within the range expected for objects from the seventh century BC in northwest Iran. An expert in Germany reported that the griffin was “said to be” part of the Cave Find, had a construction “fully in keeping with the other known silver objects” from the hoard, and was an authentic, “particularly fine example of ancient Near Eastern silverwork,” the complaint says.

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 come from the famous Cave Treasure”, the complaint says. The buyer wired final payment in June 2002, it adds.

The false statements made by Mr Aboutaams on the Customs forms when importing the rhyton into the US can in themselves constitute grounds for seizure and prosecution. In 1999, the federal appeals court for New York approved the confiscation of a fourth-century BC 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 listing the country of origin as Switzerland. The object was illicitly excavated in Italy but came to the US via Switzerland. The false statements were “material” because they could have affected the importation process, the court held, by failing to alert Customs officials that the object might be subject to confiscation under foreign national ownership laws.

Mr Aboutaam’s case remains pending before the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Correction

Due to a subbing error, an article about US government allegations in the arrest of an art dealer, Hicham Aboutaam (March 2004, No.145, pp. 8-9) stated that the dealer “sold” an antiquity, and referred to “The false statements made” on Customs forms. The article and headline should have stated that the antiquity was “allegedly” sold and should have referred to “allegedly” false Customs statements.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Antiquities dealer arrested for smuggling Iranian object'