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Lebanese antiquities dealers prosecuted in US and Egypt

Hicham Aboutaam has pleaded guilty in the US to a Customs misdemeanour while his brother, Ali, is seeking to have his conviction by an Egyptian court nullified

Hicham Aboutaam, a Lebanese principal in the antiquities dealers Phoenix Ancient Art, of Geneva and New York, was sentenced on 20 July in Manhattan federal court to one year’s probation and a criminal fine of $5,000 for falsely representing that an antique silver drinking vessel, which he imported into the US and then sold through his gallery to a private collector, originated in Syria.

The silver vessel, decorated with a griffin and dated about 700 BC, was sold by Phoenix Ancient Art to a collector for $950,000, but it has now been seized by US authorities and is in the custody of the US Department of Homeland Security.

According to the complaint, which the government initially filed at the time of arrest in December 2003, the vessel, of a type known as a rhyton, was, in fact, Iranian.

Mr Aboutaam pleaded guilty to the misdemeanour charge on 23 June, and could have faced possible imprisonment of up to 6 months. The fine imposed was the maximum allowed under the law.

When being sentenced, Mr Aboutaam said, “I am very sorry about all that happened,” while the assistant US attorney, Evan Barr, said, “The case may seem small, but it is obviously an important case in the context of the antiquities trade. False statements on Customs forms impede the ability of the Customs Service to do its job with respect to this particular market”.

The complaint had charged illegal importation, the more severe crime of a felony.

In an unrelated case, Hicham Aboutaam’s brother, Ali Aboutaam, also of the antiquities dealership Phoenix Fine Art, is appealing against an Egyptian court verdict that sentenced him in absentia to 15 years’ imprisonment. Ali Aboutaam was one of 25 defendants, including nine foreigners, sentenced along with the Egyptian businessman, Tariq Suissi (The Art Newspaper, No.149, July/ August 2004, p.45) for smuggling antiquities.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Ali Aboutaam said he has instructed a lawyer to seek to have the verdict nullified. “I received no notification from the Egyptian court before the trial, no documents, and then I read about the verdict in the newspapers. I have never even met Suissi. I have nothing to do with this affair. I just don’t understand it and I am very upset about this for my reputation, and that of my family.”

Asked by The Art Newspaper why he thought the Egyptians had prosecuted him, he said, “Perhaps because there were so many Egyptians involved, the authorities wanted to include some foreigners”.

For a report on a Greek bronze statue sold by the Aboutaams to the Cleveland Museum of Art, see p.10