Fake art whistleblower charged with possession of stolen works

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George Lotfi was a rarity.

Ranking among New York’s most venerable antique dealers, he was also a prolific whistleblower – cooperating with the New York District Attorney’s Office to expose dealers and smugglers who peddled treasures that had been plundered, falsified or shelled. origin. He even created a document that shows law enforcement how smuggling operations work.

Turns out the 81-year-old really knew his stuff.

Earlier this month, New York City Criminal Court issued a warrant for Lotfi’s arrest. He is charged with 24 counts of possession of stolen property seized from a storage unit in Jersey City, NJ. The asset in question: Supposedly looted artifacts dating back over 1,000 years and valued at millions of dollars.

Among the allegedly illicit items confiscated from Lofti when authorities approached him last year is a Syrian artifact known as the ‘Mosaic of Iphigenia and Orestes’, which depicts an episode from mythology Greek and has a value of 2.5 million dollars; the so-called « animal mosaic », allegedly looted in Syria, dating between the 5th and 6th centuries, showing a panther and birds, worth $100,000; and the “Church Mosaic” with the names of church donors written in Greek letters and valued at $70,000.

In 2019, George Lotfi revealed that an Egyptian coffin at the Met had a false provenance.
AFP via Getty Images

The 24 items are each worth between $20,000 and $2.5 million. Referring to a $12 million marble bull’s head, previously released by the Met due to questionable provenance, the arrest warrant describes Lotfi as « the first documented possessor » of the rarity.

“Apparently, according to the warrant, Lotfi sold illicit antiquities,” Christos Tsirogiannis, head of illicit antiquities trafficking at the UNESCO chair at Ionian University in Greece, told The Post. « He was a dealer who received stolen antiquities, either dug up from the ground or dug up properly and stolen. He got them, sold them, made a profit. Apparently he’s part of a link in a chain illicit profits.

According to May Azoury, Lotfi’s attorney in Lebanon, “From a legal standpoint, the charges in this specific arrest warrant relate only to the 24 pieces seized from the client’s private warehouse in New Jersey. Ownership of each is claimed by Lebanon and there is an ongoing litigation for title, filed by the customer in a Lebanese court.

Authorities confiscated works allegedly looted or smuggled from Lotfi, including the Palmyra Stone, worth $750,000.
Authorities confiscated works allegedly looted or smuggled from Lotfi, including the Palmyra Stone, worth $750,000.
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

As for how these works come to market, Tsirogiannis explained, « You make a lot of money selling illicit antiquities that are looted from countries, often during unstable times. »

Five items that Lotfi is accused of wrongfully possessing are said to have left Lebanon during the civil war, which took place from 1975 to 1990.

“Then there are the illicit groups that dig archaeological sites at night [often in North Africa, Near East and the Middle East]added Tsirogiannis. “They loot and smuggle goods. Then they resell them abroad with false provenances. They easily earn a lot of money.

Lotfi was listed as the
Lotfi was listed as the « first document holder » of this 4th-century marble bull’s head, according to his arrest warrant. The Met published the work due to its questionable provenance.
AFP via Getty Images

Rather than try to hide what he is accused of, Lotfi signed a search consent form and gave investigators a key to his allegedly illicit hideout. He told them he had an ancient limestone sculpture known as the Palmyra Stone, weighing 1,500 pounds and valued at $750,000. This was retrieved last September.

« He thought they wouldn’t recognize the goods as illicit, » Tsirogiannis said, marveling at the behavior of a man accused in the arrest warrant of « creating a false paper trail. »

“How could it be that specialized police are admitted to a storage room and do not recognize it? This is what should happen [Lotfi getting busted]“said Tsirogiannis. “The question is why Lotfi would do it this way. I don’t understand what he was thinking.

This animal mosaic, dating from Syria between the 5th or 6th century and valued at $100,000, was among the allegedly looted works taken from Lotfi.
This animal mosaic, dating from Syria between the 5th or 6th century and valued at $100,000, was among the allegedly looted works taken from Lotfi.
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

Investigators have a pretty good theory, according to the warrant: « Defendant thought he could use his relationship [with law enforcement] to try to convince us that his false provenance was accurate and true.

Lotfi could not be reached for comment by The Post, but told The Times the works were all above the board.

Regarding his whereabouts, a former colleague – who describes Lotfi as « a funny guy who doesn’t always respond in a predictable way » – told the Post: « I don’t know where he is right now, but He’s not in New York. There’s a warrant for his arrest. [there].”

A Greek church mosaic worth $70,000 was among the confiscated treasures.
A Greek church mosaic worth $70,000 was among the confiscated treasures.
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

Lotfi, a collector and dealer who grew up in Lebanon, owns a villa in that country as well as an apartment in France, where in 2012, according to the arrest warrant, he had Libyan statues seized « by the forces of the ‘French orders on suspicion’. to have been plundered”. A former colleague described his homeland as « the place that is a crossroads for the hardware he buys and sells ». Lotfi earned his first fortune from a popular eponymous pharmacy in the city of Tripoli. Later, as a collector and dealer, he specialized in Middle Eastern antiquities.

« He’s charming, international, sophisticated, » a Manhattan gallery owner who knew Lotfi told The Post. “Instead of wearing a tie, he had a silk scarf tied around his neck and it came out of his shirt. It was his style. He wanted to convey that he was living a glamorous life.

In Manhattan, Lotfi resided in an apartment across from the Met and took a French woman as his wife. « He had a lot of friends, » the gallerist said. « Now, however, I don’t know if he still does. »

Many of the items seized were mosaics, such as the Telete mosaic, which an expert says is characteristic of Syrian mosaics from the 3rd century CE.
Many of the items seized were mosaics, such as the Telete mosaic, which an expert says is characteristic of Syrian mosaics from the 3rd century CE.
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

None of this warned people that Lotfi might be working quietly with law enforcement.

« It surprised me that he was a whistleblower, » the gallerist said. « I didn’t see it coming. Other collectors and dealers didn’t see it coming either.

Revealed in the Arrest Warrant is one of Lotfi’s greatest successes as an art world whistleblower. In 2019, he exhibited a collectible at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had built an elaborate exhibit around a gilded coffin dating to the first century BC. The ancient coffin, believed to have been purchased from a Parisian dealer with a false but convincing provenance, was later removed from the museum floor and returned to Egypt.

According to law enforcement officials, the mosaic of Iphigenia and Orestes, which originated in Syria, is valued at around $2.5 million.
According to law enforcement officials, the mosaic of Iphigenia and Orestes, which originated in Syria, is valued at around $2.5 million.
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

As for what could have motivated Lotfi to turn things upside down for the museum, the gallerist has an idea: « He may have been offered this piece, he didn’t get it and all of a sudden was a sum of $3. or 4 million plays at the Met. Then he was upset and decided to make sure no one [outside of Egypt] could have it.

Indeed, according to the arrest warrant, Lotfi « had the opportunity to buy » the coffin. Additionally, he states that he « refused to help further [in the coffin investigation] when he learned that the [investigation’s task force, including assistant district attorneys and antiquities trafficking analysts] does not pay for the information, despite its repeated requests over the years for financial rewards.

Although Lotfi claimed to be a collector and not a smuggler, Tsirogiannis remains unimpressed.

« Nobody should have these items, » he said. « But having it in the storage unit, with the officers arriving, you can’t be more obvious than that. »

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