Arrest of Jerusalem antiquities dealers opens a smuggling Pandora’s Box
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Almost all artifacts sold nowadays were looted, expert says

Arrest of Jerusalem antiquities dealers opens a smuggling Pandora’s Box

Use of Israel as a way station to legitimize sale of looted artifacts to Hobby Lobby prompts Antiquities Authority to seek ban on all dealing

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Customers walk to a Hobby Lobby store in Oklahoma City, June 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
Customers walk to a Hobby Lobby store in Oklahoma City, June 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

With the opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, just around the corner, Chairman of the Board and Hobby Lobby President Steve Green is embroiled in an international antiquities smuggling scandal that is only becoming more fraught.

Early Sunday morning, Israeli police arrested five Israeli East Jerusalem residents on suspicions of unreported tax on sales, money laundering, and sales of looted antiquities to Green, to the tune of $22 million between 2010 to 2014, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby, which has in a settlement agreed to pay some $3 million in fines and to forfeit thousands of ancient artifacts from Iraq, is implicated by US prosecutors of — knowingly or not — participating in a smuggling scheme out of the Middle East. Among other ruses, antiquities dealers forged provenance and intentionally mislabeled imported looted items to the US as “tile samples.”

According to a Hobby Lobby statement, the company, new to the world of antiquities, “did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process… The Company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.” (The Museum of the Bible said in a statement that the artifacts in the settlement were never part of its collection.)

During Sunday’s operation, which involved the Israel Antiquities Authority, Israel Police and Israel Tax Authority, the East Jerusalem homes and businesses of five antiquities dealers — Arab Israeli citizens, the police confirmed — were raided, garnering previously unreported antiquities including ancient parchment pieces written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin, as well as ancient weapons, sculpture from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, pottery and bronze, silver and gold coins.

A report by NPR this week also listed among the items confiscated by police papyrus fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the bust of an Etruscan woman, and a fresco from Pompeii depicting swimming fish dating back thousands of years.

Cuneiform tablets that were falsely labeled as product samples and shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores. (US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York)
Cuneiform tablets that were falsely labeled as product samples and shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores. (US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York)

Israel Police spokeswoman Luba Samri confirmed the additional seizure of two black luxury Audi vehicles and more than $200,000 in cash on Sunday. Samri said the raid followed a joint investigation with American law enforcement agencies that had been informed of Israeli antiquities dealers who had issued fake receipts and invoices over the past seven years, sparking an undercover operation that exposed the scheme.

In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Eitan Klein, deputy director of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Looting, said the case is significant in that it highlights the fraudulent use of Israeli law in the dealing of artifacts looted across the Middle East.

As Israel is the only country in the region that legally allows antiquities commerce, dealers of looted antiquities and smugglers from neighboring countries make use of the Jewish state as a clearance point for resale in order to give their wares a veneer of legitimacy.

“In all other countries — Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq — it is illegal to deal antiquities. The problem is that the dealers that we gave permission to deal antiquities are using our law to deal in looted artifacts,” said Klein.

Israeli archaeologist Eitan Klein of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit stands next some of the 11 ancient coffins containing Jewish bones from the Second Temple period after they were recovered from thieves, on March 31, 2014 at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. (photo credit:AFP/GALI TIBBON)
Israeli archaeologist Eitan Klein of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit stands next some of the 11 ancient coffins containing Jewish bones from the Second Temple period after they were recovered from thieves, on March 31, 2014 at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. (AFP/GALI TIBBON)

The position of the IAA is that antiquities sales should be forbidden in Israel, said Klein, and it is in exploratory talks with the Justice Ministry to investigate legal options after twice failing in the Knesset to amend the existing law.

Most artifacts sold by Israeli antiquities dealers are looted

Back in 2009, Hobby Lobby’s Green began investigating the purchase of biblical-era artifacts, according to an early July civil complaint filed in New York.

By July 2010, Green had visited the United Arab Emirates, where he inspected more than 5,548 artifacts for sale. “Three antiquities dealers — two identified as Israeli, the other from the United Arab Emirates — were present as Green looked at tablets with ancient Mesopotamian writing, clay seal imprints and other items,” the NPR report said.

Come September 2011, a package containing about 1,000 clay bullae, an ancient form of inscribed identification, was received by Hobby Lobby from an Israeli dealer, accompanied by a false declaration stating that its country of origin was Israel, AP reported.

The IAA became involved in the investigation a little over a year ago, said Klein, when the US Department of Homeland Security sent a special agent who divulged that three Israeli dealers were being investigated in connection with suspicious sales to Green.

Deputy Director of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit Dr. Eitan Klein at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem on March 31, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Deputy Director of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit Dr. Eitan Klein, at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, on March 31, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I asked him to send me documents that he had succeeded in seizing in America from Hobby Lobby. I learned from them that the dealers had sold antiquities in the amount of $22 million and that all this money was never reported to the Israel Tax Authority,” said Klein. He then brought in the ITA and police into the joint mission, which resulted in Sunday’s raid.

Klein emphasized that the main issue in the current case against the dealers is unreported tax and forged documents on the sales, because over 90 percent of the sales were done abroad. The suspected purchase and sales of looted artifacts in Dubai that were then sent to America are not the purview of the IAA. However, sales that were sent through Israel directly to the US were allegedly made with forged documents, and those are being investigated by Israeli police.

The IAA is currently investigating the dozens of unreported artifacts found in the dealers’ houses and shops.

An ancient lion statue from Tell Ajaja, eastern Syria, confiscated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant after being looted in an illegal excavation. (photo courtesy of APSA/Abou Mouseb)
An ancient lion statue from Tell Ajaja, eastern Syria, confiscated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant after being looted in an illegal excavation. (courtesy of APSA/Abou Mouseb)

According to Israeli law, all found artifacts must be reported and turned over to the IAA within 50 days. The punishment for looting is incarceration for between seven months and a year, said Klein. Sales of items considered as looted by the IAA carries a punishment of up to two years in prison.

Klein noted that each year more than 40,000 antiquities artifacts are exported from Israel. The IAA estimates that some 99% of the artifacts sold today are purchased by dealers from looters.

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