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Posts Tagged ‘ancient art

“Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do”*…

US Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, lead investigator in finding looted treasures from the Baghdad Archeological Museum, directs a presentation to the press in Baghdad, 16 May 2003. Bogdanos now heads the New York District Attorney’s antiquities theft task force.

On the trail of looted antiquities…

The best photos to come out of the Met Gala every year are always the ones where you feel like a voyeur. It’s a weird combination of intimacy, celebrity, modernity, and antiquity that’s hard to replicate and harder, I think, to ignore. A shot of Kim Kardashian leaning against an Egyptian coffin at the 2018 Met Gala by Landon Nordeman exposes his subject in a flash of light—though perhaps not the subject anyone expected.

Out of the thousands upon thousands who saw the shot, one happened to be more interested in the gold coffin than Kim’s (heavenly) body in gold Versace. He had looted the coffin seven years earlier but was never paid for his spoils. And it was now sitting in the Met. Angry and in possession of receipts, he fired off an anonymous email to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to tip them off about the buxom gold figure in the photo next to the Kardashian. 

A year later, the DA’s Office proudly announced that after being stolen during the revolution in 2011, the coffin of Nedjemankh was finally returning home to Egypt. Scorned criminals, ancient art, and the social event of the season—you can’t make this shit up

But aside from that star-studded sabotage, the coffin of Nedjemankh isn’t actually an outlier. And neither is the other antiquities scandal still surrounding Kim K (she purchased an allegedly looted ancient Roman sculpture with Kanye back in 2016). 

Stolen antiquities end up in museums, galleries, and private collections surprisingly often. It happens like this: Looters dig up artifacts, smuggle them to dealers, who then bounce them from port to port. Eventually, someone higher up the chain sells these artifacts to museums like the Met and wealthy collectors like Kim who are all too willing to overlook those pesky legal details.

And usually, they stay there, because most jurisdictions just aren’t interested in going after antiquities theft. But most jurisdictions don’t have an ADA like Matthew Bogdanos.

Bogdanos has been working with antiquities since 2003, when he led a mission to recover the thousands of antiquities lost after the sacking of the National Museum of Iraq. On the heels of a National Humanities Medal for his work in Iraq, Bogdanos returned to Manhattan in order to head the city’s first antiquities theft task force. It would take another 12 years of Bogdanos tackling antiquities theft largely on his own before the city established an official unit. Since its official inception, under Cyrus Vance, and now under new DA Alvin Bragg, the team has helped return something like 2,000 antiquities to their countries of origin.

Besides Bogdanos, who’s still regularly staffed on homicide cases, the small, tenacious team relies on the wide-ranging skills of three other assistant DAs, five specialists in art and archeology, two detectives, and a handful of Homeland Security agents. If you can’t find them in their office downtown, you can probably assume they’re knocking on the ornate doors of the Upper East Side. To paraphrase the man behind the raids, underneath the genteel patina of the upper-class art world is a solid core of criminal activity. The seized art actually occupies so much space that the DA’s storage facilities have been dubbed Manhattan’s best antiquities museum

Read on as Bogdanos guides Hannah Barbosa Cesnik (@HBCesnik) through his murky milieu: “Inside the Mind-Boggling World of the Antiquities Theft Task Force,” in Anne Helen Petersen‘s (@annehelen) wonderful newsletter, Culture Study.

* Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), The Wide Window

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As we pursue provenance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1873 that Jesse James and his gang staged the first train robbery (the world’s first robbery of a moving train), a mile and a half west of Adair, Iowa… the site of which is now commemorated as a county park.

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