I hold a particular place in my heart for news items involving some scruffy looking nerf herder who gets busted smuggling stolen antiquities, hence I found this article about a top secret warehouse in New York City so interesting. Check it out.
A sarcophagus sharing space with ancient terra cotta urns, bronze sculptures of Indian deities and a 2,700-year-old drinking vessel may not seem all that unusual in New York City.
But this is not a room at an august museum or fancy Madison Avenue gallery.
These antiquities and art objects — some 2,500 pieces — are wrapped up and tucked away in a nondescript Queens warehouse. In a locked and climate-controlled storage unit, the treasures sit as potential evidence in smuggling or forgery cases or await return to countries where they were pinched from museums or plundered from archeological digs.
The Post was given a rare look inside the warehouse used by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The location of the building could not be disclosed and no photos could be taken in the storage room itself. Because of ongoing investigations, the back stories behind the sarcophagus and other objects remain closely guarded secrets.
New York, as a capital of the art world, is a major center of the illicit art and antiquities trade, which has been estimated as a $6 billion a year business worldwide.
Nationally, ICE agents logged 63 antiquity seizures in 2009 and 46 from Oct. 1, 2009, through last Thursday.
When federal agents snare artifacts in the New York area, the Queens warehouse becomes the repository, often for years.
Among the hidden treasures is a griffin-shaped ceremonial drinking vessel known as a rhyton that dates to 700 BC. The vessel was looted from an Iranian cave and hand carried to the US in 2000 by an Upper East Side art dealer who deliberately misidentified it as a Syrian object to fool authorities. He sold the silver vessel for $950,000.
The dealer, Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art, pleaded guilty in 2004 to falsifying a commercial invoice. Aboutaam paid a $5,000 fine and remains in business. The rhyton, seized from its buyer, sits unceremoniously in the warehouse until US-Iranian relations normalize.
“This piece can’t go back,” said James McAndrew, the ICE senior special agent in charge of cultural property.
McAndrew said his group of seven agents scrutinize some 200 suspect pieces a day to determine their provenance, or ownership history, and whether they are legit.
Fishy-looking shipments may catch the eye of customs officers who look for phony countries of origin such as Babylon or suspiciously low values declared on packages.
Tipsters also alert McAndrew about particular shipments or smugglers. In one case, officials in India told him to watch for artifacts mislabeled as lawn furniture.
When a crate marked “garden table sets” arrived by ship in Newark, customs officers called McAndrew, who raced to the port along with a top official with India’s Consulate General in New York.
The crate was opened to reveal hundreds of statues of Indian deities looted from temples and private homes. McAndrew said he had a sense of satisfaction mixed with dismay. “At least call it trinkets,” he said. “It was such a blatant ruse.”
The 600 or so pieces, some dating to the 4th century, have been stored at the Queens warehouse for three years as an investigation went forward.
McAndrew said the New York dealer who was to receive the stolen goods claimed ignorance and was never charged because agents couldn’t prove otherwise. The artifacts are soon to be returned to the Indian government.
McAndrew also arranged the return to Iraq of a prized and priceless treasure that insurgents yanked by rope from the Baghdad museum as the city fell in 2003. The headless stone statue of Entemena, an ancient Iraqi ruler, dates to 2400 BC.
The sculpture was recovered in a Syrian farm village and shipped to New York City for authentication. Experts came to the Queens warehouse to ensure the piece was the real deal.
“Before I announced to the world that I had Entemena, I wanted to make sure it was the original,” McAndrew said.
The warehouse also held 79 vases, vessels, bowls and other ancient artifacts stolen from an Egyptian museum by a US Army helicopter pilot stationed in Cairo. Edward “Dutch” Johnson used his diplomatic status to ship the pieces out of the country and then sold them for $21,200 — some ending up in Manhattan galleries. He was arrested in 2008 and later pleaded guilty.
Archaeologist Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, visited the warehouse to authenticate the objects before they were returned to Egypt.
Returning stolen treasures to grateful governments is what McAndrew and his team work toward.
“The goal for all of us is not to keep it here forever,” he said, standing in the storage unit. “The idea is to give it back.”
From The New York Post