NEW YORK – Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., announced on Friday the formation of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s first-ever Antiquities Trafficking Unit and the return of three ancient statues to the Lebanese Republic during a repatriation ceremony attended by the Consul General of Lebanon in New York, Majdi Ramadan, and ICE Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Special Agent-in-Charge Angel M. Melendez.
“Since 2012, my Office has recovered several thousand trafficked antiquities collectively valued at more than $150 million, including the beautiful stolen statues being returned to the Lebanese Republic today,” said District Attorney Vance. “When you put a price tag on these artifacts, however, it is all too easy to forget that these are not just valuable collector’s items—these are rare, celebrated remnants of entire civilizations’ culture and history. My Office’s newly formed Antiquities Trafficking Unit is committed to stopping the trade of stolen antiquities from historic sites around the world. I thank our partners in foreign governments and law enforcement, including HSI New York, for their support.”
Consul General of Lebanon in New York Majdi Ramadan said: “I sincerely appreciate the efforts of the District Attorney of New York and his Office for their efforts to enforce the rule of law, to eliminate the illicit trafficking of antiquities, and to repatriate the three ancient statues to Lebanon.”
Angel M. Melendez, Special Agent-in-Charge of HSI New York, said: “These three pieces have traveled through the underworld of art, being recovered here in New York. Now it is time that they are returned to Lebanon, their rightful home. The trafficking of cultural property and art is a lucrative criminal enterprise that transnational criminal organizations seek to partake of to make a profit; nonetheless, the cultural significance and worth of these returned treasures is beyond any monetary value.”
This year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office seized several artifacts pursuant to search warrants and an ongoing joint investigation with partners in local and international law enforcement into the trafficking of stolen antiquities, including:
• Torso E1912: In November, a marble torso, circa the 4th century B.C.E., was recovered from a private owner who acquired it after the statue was excavated in the 1970s from the Temple of Eshmun, an ancient place of worship near Sidon in southwestern Lebanon. The item was subsequently stolen during the Lebanese Civil War and sold by an antiquities dealer before being shipped to New York.
• The Calf Bearer: In October, another marble torso, circa the 6th century B.C.E. and valued at approximately $4.5 million, was recovered from a private owner who acquired the artifact after it too was excavated from the Temple of Eshmun in the 1970s, stolen during the Lebanese Civil War, and sold to private collectors.
• The Bull’s Head: In July, a marble bull’s head, circa 360 B.C.E. and valued at approximately $1.2 million, was recovered from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was on loan for display by a private collector who acquired the statue after it was also was excavated from the Temple of Eshmun in the 1960s, transferred to the Byblos Citadel in Jubayl, stolen during the Lebanese Civil War, and sold to private collectors.
All of the items were seized pursuant to judicially authorized warrants, but were thereafter forfeited once the owners were presented with evidence that the artifacts had been stolen from Lebanon.
Antiquities Trafficking Unit
To date, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has recovered several thousand stolen antiquities collectively valued at more than $150 million, many of which have been returned to their rightful owners and repatriated to their countries of origin. These items include a Roman mosaic excavated from the Ships of Nemi; bronze figurines and pottery pieces; an Etruscan relic stolen from the site of a historic necropolis known as the “City of the Dead”; a marble sarcophagus fragment; a Buddhist sculpture stolen from an archaeological dig site; and a set of ancient Greek coins, among others.
The formation of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit formalizes the collaborative processes and partnerships that led to these successful recoveries. When a new matter is brought to the attention of the assistant district attorneys, analysts, and paralegal who staff the unit, a team is assigned to collect information about the origin of the item in question, potential criminality with respect to its possession, and the trafficking network, where applicable, associated with the movement of the artifact. From there on, members of the unit work closely with partners in law enforcement and foreign governments to gather the evidence needed to seize the item, prosecute criminal offenders, and return the artifact to the rightful owner.
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, Senior Trial Counsel, and Assistant District Attorney Christopher Hirsch handled the recovery of the artifacts, with the assistance of Antiquities Trafficking Analysts Mackenzie Priest and Alexa Marino, and Paralegal David Chardack.
District Attorney Vance thanked the following agencies and individuals for their assistance with the matter: the Consulate General of Lebanon in New York; HSI, and in particular, Special Agents John Paul Labbat and Robert Mancene; the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and in particular, Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Orenstein; Professor of Art Law Leila A. Amineddoleh at Fordham University School of Law, St. John’s University School of Law, and New York University; Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition Terressa Davis; Professor Rolf Stucky, former Head of the Department of Classical Archaeology at the University of Basel, Switzerland; and Director of the National Museum of Beirut, Anne-Marie Afeiche.