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In early March, Swiss law-enforcement officials pulled over a vehicle on a Geneva road and, after a search, discovered an ancient oil lamp, people familiar with the matter say. When the driver failed to provide documentation proving the object’s provenance to the officers’ satisfaction, he was arrested on suspicion of evading VAT, the people say. The arrest accelerated an investigation that authorities hope can shed light on one of the art world’s best-kept secrets: how ancient objects plundered in the battle zones of the Middle East end up in posh art collections thousands of miles away. The driver, who hasn’t been identified publicly or charged, works for Ali Aboutaam, the elder brother of one of the most storied families in the international antiquities business, which owns galleries off New York’s Madison Avenue and in Geneva, according to Swiss authorities. The Swiss say they already had the driver under surveillance when they made the stop, and that it was merely a step in a b...

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