Art smugglers, beware: New York’s sleuths are on your trail

New York, with its world-class museums and art galleries, has always been a major marketplace for antiquities. Most transactions are legitimate. A new crackdown will make illegal sales a lot riskier and less lucrative.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., whose prosecutors and detectives since 2012 have helped recover several thousand trafficked antiquities valued at more than $150 million, has created a new law-enforcement squad to combat theft of cultural property.

Man speaking at lectern with statues next to and behind him (© Andres Kudacki/AP Images)
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. stands by three ancient marbles being returned to Lebanon decades after their theft. (© Andres Kudacki/AP Images)

Returning stolen treasures to their countries of origin has long been a U.S. priority. The United States currently has agreements with 17 countries to protect and repatriate illegally exported cultural property.

“My office’s newly formed Antiquities Trafficking Unit is committed to stopping the trade of stolen antiquities from around the world,” Vance said.

The unit — made up of antiquities-trafficking analysts, lawyers, paralegals and police detectives — will gather information about trafficking networks and determine if artifacts were obtained illegally by dealers and collectors.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos leads the team, which will work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and foreign governments to seize and repatriate looted treasures.

As a Marine colonel in Iraq in 2003, Bogdanos led an operation to recover artifacts stolen from Iraq’s National Museum during the chaos at the Gulf War’s end. He hunted down the looters and oversaw the return of nearly 2,000 Iraqi antiquities.

As Vance’s deputy, Bogdanos — who holds advanced degrees in law and classics from Columbia University — has recovered stolen treasures from museums, auction houses, art fairs and homes of wealthy collectors who often didn’t know they had purchased stolen property.

Returning treasures to Lebanon

Headless and armless statue (© Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
A repatriated Phoenician statue at Beirut National Museum in Lebanon (© Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

The journey from theft to repatriation is often a long one. New York has just repatriated to Lebanon three marble statues excavated from a temple and stolen during its civil war (1975–1990). The statues, dating from the 3rd, 4th and 6th centuries B.C.E., are worth more than $5 million.

“When you put a price tag on these artifacts, it is all too easy to forget that these are not just valuable collectors’ items,” Vance said. “These are rare, celebrated remnants of entire civilizations’ culture and history.”

Lebanon’s consul general, Majdi Ramadan, and the lead investigator for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in New York, Angel M. Melendez, joined Vance at a repatriation ceremony.

These three pieces travelled through the underworld of art, before being recovered here in New York, Melendez said. “Now it is time that they are returned to Lebanon, their rightful home.”

The United States works with numerous other countries, including Egypt, to recover their stolen treasures.