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Top US prosecutor has art market in his sights

Actor Nicolas Cage’s return of dinosaur skull is latest victory in Preet Bharara’s campaign to police the art and antiquities trade

by Dan Duray  |  1 February 2016
Top US prosecutor has art market in his sights
A Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton (far left) that was smuggled into the US has been returned to Mongolia. Photo: Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP/Getty Images
A co-ordinated effort by the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has extracted a promise from the actor Nicolas Cage to repatriate a dinosaur skull to its native Mongolia. It is the latest success in a three-year effort by the US government to seize and return improperly removed fossils. It also represents part of a larger push by Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, to police the art and antiquities market.

Bharara’s office has overseen at least 15 high-profile art-related forfeiture cases—as the office refers to them—in the past five years. The cases include the return to Brazil last year of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hannibal (1981), which Edemar Cid Ferreira, the founder and former president of Banco Santos, had used in a money-laundering scheme; the repatriation in 2014 of a Cambodian statue that had been scheduled to be sold at Sotheby’s in 2011; and the prosecution of the New York-based art dealer Helly Nahmad for his involvement in an illegal sports gambling operation. Since Bharara took the job in 2009, almost every major case involving art has either passed through his office or been initiated by it.

Getting a taste for it

“Preet really likes these cases,” says Sharon Cohen Levin, who worked for 20 years in the office’s money-
laundering and asset forfeiture unit, which handles the majority of such cases. She most recently served as the unit’s chief before leaving last year to join the law firm WilmerHale.

Levin says that the turning point in prosecuting such cases came under one of Bharara’s predecessors, Mary Jo White. Under her leadership, the office pursued reparations on behalf of the Jewish Bondi family, who fled the Nazis and left behind Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally (1912). “At the time, it seemed crazy,” she says, referring to the concept of art forfeiture. Proceedings in the case began in 1998 but were not settled until 2010. Levin says that Bharara has given “a lot of support to the unit; by that, I mean personnel and resources. There are always priorities, and I think he made this a priority.” Her money-laundering and asset forfeiture unit underwent a name change around two years ago to reflect this, with “money-laundering” being added to its designation as a way of expanding its scope and indicating that it would take a more proactive approach. When it covered “asset forfeiture” alone, the office was more a place for junior staff members to learn the ropes.

The office of US Attorney for the Southern District of New York is a powerful one, both as a law-enforcement job and a political stepping-stone (the position was once held by New York’s former mayor Rudy Giuliani). The Southern District’s influence is disproportionately large because it deals with business conducted in New York, the largest city in the US.

Impressive track record

Bharara has made his name by going after Wall Street. One of his many victories was a $16.65bn settlement with Bank of America over its involvement in toxic mortgage assets, which led to the financial crisis of 2008. It would seem that his office’s attention has now expanded to include another market that many perceive as having lax regulations.

Georges Lederman, the lawyer whose client was jailed in the Mongolian dinosaur case, says the state attorney’s office is interested in the art world because it “is a largely unregulated market relative to others. The government is now seeking to change that.” He says that there is “both a federal and a state effort to take a very hard look at the business of the art world”.

Lederman’s client, the Florida-based fossil importer Eric Prokopi, has already served a three-month sentence for a case that involved several fossils, including a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton that was sold for $1m through New York’s Heritage Auctions in 2012.

Prokopi had earlier imported a separate Tyrannosaurus bataar skull, which Cage acquired for $276,000 at an auction staged by I.M. Chait in New York in 2007. The actor Leonardo DiCaprio was the underbidder. According to a 2013 story in the New Yorker about Prokopi’s trial, he and his wife conceived a child in celebration the weekend the skull was sold.

A spokeswoman for Cage states in an email that the actor “fully co-operated with the investigation”. The US Attorney’s Office declined to comment on this story and the Department of Homeland Security could not be reached after multiple attempts.

John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School in New York, says Bahara’s prosecution of the art market is consistent with his other interests. Coffee says: “Preet believes in accountability, and if he thought there was a major marketplace that was getting out of control, he would support a high-profile prosecution.”

Works returned to their rightful owners

August 2015, The Ames Stradivarius (around 1734).
The instrument was stolen from the violinist Roman Totenberg in 1980. It was recovered after an appraiser recognised it and alerted police 

March 2015, An Iraqi Assyrian head.
This was returned to Iraq after being looted following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003

February 2015, Tiepolo’s The Holy Trinity Appearing to St Clement and an Etruscan bronze statuette (†fth/sixth century BC).
The painting was stolen in Turin in 1982 and the statuette taken the Oliveriano Archaeological Museum, Pesaro, in 1964. Both were returned to the Italian government.

September 2014, Nine paintings by Miguel Cabrera.
Stolen in 2008, the paintings turned up in auction houses in New York and Iowa. They have been repatriated to Peru.

May and September 2014, Paintings formerly owned by the convicted money-launderer Edemar Cid Ferreira.
Works repatriated after being illegally smuggled into the US include Poliako™’s Composition abstraite (1969) and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Hannibal (1982), which was valued at around $8m.

April 2014, A case involving the New York-based art dealer Helly Nahmad.
Nahmad was sentenced for running an illegal sports gambling business. He was ordered to forfeit $6.4m and his right, title and interest to Raoul Dufy’s Carnaval à Nice (1937).

December 2013, The Duryodhana Cambodian sandstone sculpture (tenth century), valued at around $2m to $3m.
Allegedly stolen from the Prasat Chen sanctuary at Koh Ker in Cambodia, the sculpture had been scheduled for sale at Sotheby’s in 2011 before it was returned to Cambodia.

July 2013, Two antique books.
The books, both more than 300 years old, were returned to the National Library of Sweden. They had been stolen from the institution in the 1990s.

October 2012, Roy Lichtenstein’s Electric Cord (1961), valued at $4m.
The painting was returned to the widow of the art dealer Leo Castelli after going missing in 1970.

July 2012, Peruvian art (around 1700).
A Spanish colonial silver-gilt and enamel monstrance, originally from Cusco, Peru, was repatriated along with other plundered artefacts.

January 2012, Camille Pissarro’s Le Marché. Stolen in 1981 from France’s Faure Museum, the work surfaced in 2003, when it was consigned to Sotheby’s. It was returned to the French government in 2010.

October 2011, Jules Breton’s Une Fille de Pêcheur (1876).
The painting, which was stolen by German forces from the Douai Beaux Art Museum during the First World War, was returned to France in 2011.

July 2010, Eleven paintings taken by US servicemen during the Second World War. Taken from an air-raid shelter in Pirmasens in 1945, the paintings, which included From the Countryside and Herd of Cattle by Heinrich Buerkel, were repatriated to Germany.

February 2014 and September 2010, Two paintings by Julian Falat and one by Johann Conrad Seekatz, stolen by the Nazis from the Polish National Museum in Warsaw.
Falat’s O™ to the Hunt and The Hunt, and Seekatz’s St Philip Baptising a Servant of Queen Kandaki, were repatriated in 2010 and 2014 respectively.

July 2010 Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally (1912), valued at $19m.
Stolen from the Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi by the Nazis in 1939, the painting was given to the Austrian government. In 1953, Bondi told the collector Rudolf Leopold that the painting belonged to her, but after recovering it, he kept it. In 1999, the US began a civil action. The following year, an agreement was reached after the Leopold Museum paid the Bondi estate $19m.

November 2009, Hebrew Bible (around 1516). The Bible was returned to the Viennese Jewish community after being seized during the Nazi Kristallnacht in 1938.

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