WALL STREET JOURNAL: Prominent art family in ISIS antiquities-looting investigations
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 broader investigation of Aboutaam and his brother Hicham into whether they have handled Syrian and Iraqi objects looted under the auspices of the extremist group Islamic State (IS).
In separate investigations, law enforcement in Belgium and security services in France are also looking at the brothers in connection with the ISIS looting, officials in these countries say.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is scrutinising the Aboutaam brothers as part of an investigation into a number of US-based antiquities dealers to determine whether they trafficked in looted material, according to people familiar with the matter.
Neither of the Aboutaam brothers has been charged with any wrongdoing related to these investigations. A lawyer representing the family company, Phoenix Ancient Art, said it "has never knowingly purchased or sold any looted items, let alone items looted by IS".
The lawyer, Jeremy H Temkin, added: "Phoenix prides itself on its outstanding research of the provenance of items it buys and sells, its extensive due diligence, and its efforts to enhance transparency in the market."
The illegal trade in ancient coins, statues and relics has long been a vital source of funds for IS, security officials say. In December 2016, the Justice Department, for the first time, filed a civil complaint seeking the forfeiture of objects associated with IS, alleging the group markets and sells antiquities to finance its terror operations.
The items, which include a gold ring with a gemstone and a carved neo-Assyrian stone depicting a eunuch, are believed to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Justice Department said. Photographs of the items were discovered during a raid of a top IS official’s home near Deir ez-Zor, Syria, in 2015 according to the complaint, filed in Washington federal court. As is typical of a civil forfeiture case, the lawsuit named the pieces themselves as defendants, and it isn’t known who currently possesses them. No dealers have been implicated in the case.
The US, and particularly New York, is a major destination for stolen antiquities, American and European investigators say. More than 40% of the world’s art is traded in the US, according to Arts Economics, a leading consultancy on art markets.
"It’s still surprisingly easy to smuggle stolen objects here," said Domenic DiGiovanni, who handled more than 60 antiquities seizures as a customs officer in New York before retiring in 2014. DiGiovanni said that dealers use courier services and air cargo to smuggle antiques into US airports and are increasingly stashing objects in passenger luggage.
A 1970 UN convention banned all trade in antiquities taken without proper disclosure to the country in which they were found. In 2015, amid reports of widespread looting by IS, the UN Security Council banned all trade in Syrian antiquities and re-affirmed a 1990s ban on sales of Iraqi artifacts.
In Switzerland, owners of ancient art are required by law to be able to document the legitimate origin of their goods. Authorities in Switzerland were interested in the Aboutaam family even before the driver’s arrest in March, and had already placed Ali Aboutaam’s wife under surveillance, people familiar with the matter said. After the March car search, law-enforcement officials secretly watched as the wife, Biliana Voden Aboutaam, moved antiquities out of storage at the Geneva free ports — a maze of armoured warehouses in the city’s industrial zone where people can legitimately store high-value items without having to pay tax on them, these people said.
Even as IS is destroying antiquities in Syria, the militant group is also shipping them — to intermediaries working with buyers in Europe and the US. The Wall Street Journal revealed a pattern of plunder that takes priceless relics from the battlegrounds of Syria to art traders in the West.
Biliana Voden Aboutaam was detained in early March for about two weeks after also failing to produce the proper documentation of ownership and origin for some objects. She was ultimately released without being charged.
After his arrest in Geneva, the driver told investigators that he had traveled several times to New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport, carrying small antiquities in his hand luggage, and that a person working with the Aboutaams was there to greet him, according to the people familiar with the probe. "The situation involving Ali Aboutaam’s driver and wife pertains to the local VAT and is unrelated to any matters relating to alleged looting," their lawyer said.
A spokesman for the Geneva free ports said he wasn’t aware of the investigation into the Aboutaams and said the facility has tightened control of antiquities entering its storage space.
The Aboutaams’ father, Sleiman, founded the family trading business, Phoenix Ancient Art, in Beirut in the 1960s. The brothers, Lebanese nationals with Canadian citizenship, inherited the business when their parents died in a plane crash in 1998. The father taught Ali Aboutaam the trade by taking him to business meetings and the family later moved from war-torn Lebanon to Geneva, according to a person who knows the family.
Hicham and Ali Aboutaam have attracted attention from authorities in the past. A 2003 ICE investigation found they were "allegedly trafficking in illegally obtained art and antiquities," according to the US agency’s website. The following year, Hicham Aboutaam was fined $5,000 in New York federal court after pleading guilty to falsifying a customs declaration that declared a drinking vessel was Syrian when it was alleged to have originated from a plundered Iranian cave, according to court records.
A spokesman for the Aboutaams said the artwork was purchased in good faith and there is no evidence it was stolen or illegally excavated. The incorrect description was the result of a clerical error, he added.
In 2004, an Egyptian court sentenced Ali Aboutaam, in absentia, to 15 years in prison after he was accused of smuggling artifacts from Egypt to Switzerland. In a news release, Phoenix said Aboutaam was never invited to participate in the proceedings and learned about his conviction from the press.
According to written statements by Bulgarian authorities, the Egyptian conviction led to his arrest in Sofia, Bulgaria, under an international warrant in 2008. A spokesman for Phoenix said a ruling that year in the Sofia High Court had exonerated Ali Aboutaam and deemed the Egyptian accusations "false". Egypt’s antiquities authority didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Last January, customs officials in Belgium seized Syrian objects that had been sent from the Aboutaams’ Geneva gallery, according to a Belgian official and the spokesman of the Brussels Antiques & Fine Art Fair, where the art was heading.
The Belgian official said authorities are investigating whether they were excavated after the outbreak of Syria’s civil war rather than in 1956, as the art dealer’s documents claim. In an e-mail, Ali Aboutaam said the seizure was due to "malicious information" from a jealous Parisian art dealer and that both artifacts were traded before the war.
The Aboutaams are on a list of 15 dealers, including three based in the US, that French security officials are focusing on in connection with possible trading in antiquities looted by IS, according to a document seen by the Journal and to two people familiar with the probes.
French authorities are gathering information on what artifacts the Aboutaams and others sell, as well as on their suppliers, clients and international banking transactions, officials say.
The Aboutaams’ US gallery is located on a street off Madison Avenue. Visitors are buzzed into a discreetly lit, stone-floored room where about 24 unlabeled objects are displayed with prices that are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 2007, Hitcham Aboutaam was living in a narrow, elegant home near that gallery when a Journal reporter visited. The house was dotted with demure furniture and studded with marble sculptures, some on pedestals. Ali Aboutaam still lives in Geneva, in an apartment in one of the city’s most expensive neighbourhoods.
The brothers say they have sold pieces to some of the world’s biggest museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Met declined to comment. The Getty Museum said it "acquired one object in its collection from Phoenix Ancient Art, more than 20 years ago".
• Thomas MacMillan, Valentina Pop and Kelly Crow contributed to this article.