Manhattan DA’s Office Is After Its Own Antiquities Trafficking Informant
In a cinematic twist to a saga that would have already made a box-office hit, one other participant was charged in a world crime ring that has trafficked looted antiquities into a few of the world’s highest profile museums. On August 3, the Manhattan District Lawyer’s (DA) Office issued an arrest warrant for longtime informant Georges Lotfi — a Lebanese pharmaceutical mogul with houses in New York, Lebanon, and France — who has been charged with legal possession of stolen property.
In 2018, Lotfi tipped off the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU) to the murky provenance of the Met’s first-century BCE gilded Egyptian coffin, which was returned in 2019. Lofti put the ATU in touch with an unnamed trafficker of the coffin, in keeping with the search warrant. In accordance with a 2019 letter from the DA to the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, the primary documentation of the coffin appeared in images despatched to Roben Dib, a German-Lebanese gallery proprietor who was certainly one of three leaders of the trafficking ring. One other of the leaders, Christophe Kunicki, was arrested in 2020 for cash laundering and fraud.
That ring has unraveled rapidly over the previous couple of months. In March, French authorities arrested Dib, who had brokered an $8.5 million antiquities sale to the Louvre Abu Dhabi; in Might, they charged the previous president of the Louvre in Paris with antiquities trafficking; and in late July, they took two assortment advisors for the Louvre Abu Dhabi into custody, alleging that they’d put “an excess of confidence” into Kunicki.
In New York, the Manhattan DA’s Office seized $3 million price of smuggled antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork in late Might.
Lotfi’s legal exercise, nonetheless, has been on the radar of the Manhattan DA’s ATU since 2017, when a $12 million 2,300-year-old bull’s head on the Met was first suspected to have been looted from Eshmun, Lebanon. (Within the Met’s provenance info, Lotfi was listed as the item’s first proprietor.) That very same yr, a $10 million historic marble torso surfaced on the market. The ATU found that the torso and the bull’s head had each been looted from Eshmun within the Nineteen Eighties, throughout the Lebanese Civil Battle. The Met returned the bull’s head to Lebanon and the DA seized the torso from Lotfi’s Fifth Avenue condominium. Afterward, the Lebanese authorities found a 3rd object — scavenged from that very same web site — which Lotfi had despatched from New York to Tripoli, Lebanon.
In a 2018 e-mail to the ATU, Lotfi defined that he bought the three artifacts within the Nineteen Eighties from a “well-known licensed dealer” in Lebanon who was “qualified for conservation of archaeological objects.” In accordance with the search warrant, reviewed by Hyperallergic, the DA’s workplace wasn’t satisfied.
Homeland Safety agent Robert Mancene wrote within the warrant: “[Lotfi] has demonstrated not only his intimate knowledge of the illegal trade in antiquities from the Middle East and North Africa, but also his acute awareness of the hallmarks of looted antiquities from his extended involvement in buying, selling, or otherwise dealing in antiquities — thereby revealing to me his awareness of the stolen nature of his own antiquities.”
The affidavit provides that Lotfi was in touch with the top of the ATU Matthew Bogdanos “for the better part of a decade, with the Defendant often serving as a valuable source of information on numerous antiquities-smuggling investigations.”
In 2018, when he tipped off the ATU to the gold coffin, Lotfi requested for cash for his info, a request that the ATU has denied.
“Is there any financial reward if a [sic] serious information will lead to the discovery of a valuable looted artifact?? I am not asking this for my personal interest,” Lotfi wrote in a 2018 e-mail, explaining that his alleged third get together might present paperwork, images, names, and routing info that would uncover false provenance.
In the meantime, Lotfi himself amassed an expansive assortment of antiquities. He apparently deliberate to promote the objects or donate them to museums, and beginning in 2017, he made “repeated requests” to the ATU to look at his assortment.
“In his mind, any investigation by the ATU that did not result in the seizure of the antiquities would permit him to sell or donate (for tax benefits) these otherwise unsalable items,” reads the warrant.
In 2017, Lotfi signed a “Consent to Search” kind and gave the ATU the important thing to certainly one of his two New Jersey storage models.
“Based on my conversations with the Defendant over the last several years,” wrote Mancene within the affidavit, “I believe the Defendant thought he had laundered the antiquities so well and had created such good (albeit false) provenance that he did not think the ATU would be able to determine their true origin.”
Final February, the ATU inspected Lotfi’s storage unit, photographing and documenting the objects they discovered. In July of 2021, they obtained a search warrant and seized 24 antiquities (22 from the storage unit and two from an artwork delivery firm).
“I was fighting with them for 10 years to stop illicit trading, and they turned against me,” Lotfi told the New York Times.
The seized artifacts embody an expansive assortment of mosaics, most of which have been looted from Lebanon and Syria and bought by Lotfi within the Nineteen Eighties. The objects additionally embody the “Palmyra Stone,” a Syrian funerary aid from the second-century CE.
“Informant #2,” who the warrant identifies as a “smuggler of looted antiquities,” advised authorities that he noticed the work in Lotfi’s Dubai warehouse in 2010 or 2011, a very damning timeline given that in this time interval, the Islamic State was looting Palmyra and promoting antiquities on the black market.
In accordance with the search warrant, Lotfi nonetheless has antiquities on the market which have but to be seized.