Antiques dealer arrested over sale of looted 3,500-year-old Egyptian sculpture

Artefact worth $202,000 was sold by a Spanish dealer with connections to trade in antiquities from Middle East war zones, say police

The 3,500-year-old sculpture was put up for sale at an art fair due to false documents, authorities say. Photo: Policia Nacional
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An antiques dealer illegally sold a looted ancient Egyptian sculpture worth €190,000 ($202,000) using fake documents, police said.

The Spanish gallery owner is alleged to have bought the artefact, which dates from 1450BC, from a company in Thailand, knowing it had been stolen.

Spanish National Police said a Swiss gallery offering the sculpture for sale at an art fair in the Netherlands was tipped off that it had originally been bought from the Barcelona-based dealer.

The unnamed suspect had links to the antiques trade in conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa, the police said. The Swiss gallery bought the sculpture from a gallery in Germany, they added.

The Swiss gallery, which was selling the item at The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) in Maastricht, told Dutch police of their concerns and they, in turn, alerted Spanish authorities, who arrested the antiques dealer.

The dealer showed paperwork that claimed the sculpture was acquired legitimately, but the National Police said “investigators, after the checks carried out, were able to prove that it was a false document”.

Art crime expert Christopher Marinello told The National he was “surprised” the antiques dealer was arrested over false documentation.

“There has been a lot of publicity about US antiquities dealers being arrested for falsifying provenance but this Spanish dealer apparently didn't get the memo that you can’t get away with this,” said Mr Marinello, founder of Art Recovery International.

When it came to the police action, he said it was a “really encouraging development that law enforcement was working so well” in this case.

“What stands out is that the police in the Netherlands worked really well with the Spanish police, so it was good to see international co-operation, which happens very rarely,” he said.

Mr Marinello said the item had been able to make it to the floor at the fair due to the fake documents.

“They have one of the strictest vetting committees, which goes through every object and reviews the complete provenance. But you have to give Tefaf a little bit of a break because they’re not really equipped to review false documentation.”

Spanish investigators were able to establish the Egyptian sculpture was bought in July 2015 from an “international company based in Bangkok”.

The Barcelona gallery owner provided documentation that claimed the sculpture belonged to a Spanish collection from the 1970s. But they had merely used the details of a similar piece to “falsify the origin of the sculpture”, police said.

“The arrested person was perfectly aware of the illicit origin of the Egyptian bust seized in the Netherlands,” said the Spanish National Police.

The dealer then acted to “create a past that would hide the piece's true origin in order to introduce it into the legal market”.

The suspect was arrested in connection with money laundering, smuggling and document falsification offences.

This illicit theft and sale of Middle East antiquities has been fuelled by war, colonialism and civil unrest. Egypt's uprising in 2011 led to a surge in looting that persists to this day.

By some estimates, in 2020 global sales of art and antiquities reached more than $50 billion and experts estimate illegal trafficking of cultural property may separately total up to $10 billion every year – a figure Interpol says has risen over the past decade.

Egyptologist Monica Hanna, who campaigns for the return of ancient artefacts in her native Egypt, said she was “looking forward to knowing if this came out of illicit digging or theft from a museum”.

“It’s important because we are losing heritage all the time and we need to understand how these items are leaving Egypt,” said Dr Hanna, associate professor and dean of the College of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport.

She welcomed the seizure of the sculpture. “Who is involved and what is happening is something we need to understand,” she added.

The arrest in Spain comes as a collector in Germany is being investigated after he was found with an artefact dating from 2350BC that had been stolen from a museum in Syria during the civil war.

The tablet, inscribed with cuneiform, a system of writing used in the ancient Middle East, was taken from a museum in Idlib and is believed to have been illegally imported into Germany.

Tefaf has been approached for comment.

Updated: April 17, 2024, 7:22 AM