Inside the stolen art trade of the Upper East Side

galleries, kim kardashian, met gala, stolen art, upper east side

Kim Kardashian (center) inadvertently brought attention to the shady world of plundered artifacts when she posed with the Coffin of Nedjemankh at the 2018 Met Gala. Other stolen pieces include Skanda on a Peacock (right), a red sandstone relief (top left) and the Benin Bronzes. NY Post photo composite

For decades, staggeringly valuable antiquities were a brisk trade in Manhattan, with posh antiques galleries lining Upper East Side avenues.

But that era is now screeching to a halt. “It’s a total turning point,” Ben Lewis, the British host of the podcast “Art Bust: Scandalous Stories of the Art World,” told The Post. “We’re in a moment where owning antiquities taken from the country of origin is much less acceptable than it was just 15 years ago.” As the world moves toward a reckoning with the history of colonialism, demands for the repatriation of historical art objects stolen from poor countries and sold into rich ones are multiplying at an unprecedented rate.

Lewis is quick to point out the positive side of the legal antiquities market. “It’s good that there’s lots of exchanges between cultures — you wouldn’t have art history unless people from one country saw art from another. That’s one of the great ways that art progresses. But that doesn’t mean it should be stolen — which a lot of stuff is.”

According to the Global Investigative Journalism Network, it is nearly impossible to pin down a valuation on the sprawling stolen antiquities market. But museums, galleries and private owners — many of which are located on the Upper East Side — are all facing intense scrutiny of their prized collections, particularly items with questionable or sparse documentation. According to a recent article in the Atlantic, “The enclave of old-money families along Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile is America’s worst neighborhood for antiquities crime.”

galleries, kim kardashian, met gala, stolen art, upper east side

The Met Museum paid $4 million for the Coffin of Nedjemankh, which was stolen and ultimately returned to Egypt.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the biggest antiquities busts was the focus of Lewis’ podcast this summer: The Met’s golden coffin of Nedjemankh, a glittering Egyptian treasure discovered to have been looted. In a stranger-than-fiction development, a gold-gowned Kim Kardashian posted on Instagram a photo of herself at the 2018 Met Gala with the treasure, which led to a tip from an incensed group of looters who hadn’t been paid for their find of the coffin. That tip would lead to the case being solved. For the episode, Lewis interviewed Matthew Bogdanos, head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit — the man who made the bust.

Bogdanos, Lewis said, may be the single biggest reason the world is now paying more attention to art looting. “He’s straight out of central casting, pure Scorsese,” Lewis said of the hard-charging Bogdanos. “Ethical, passionate and he’s got an edge.” Bogdanos has made it his mission to go after the heavy hitters in the illegal antiquities trade, and he’s already been instrumental in bringing down several stolen-art traffickers, including Upper East Side gallery owners Nancy Wiener and Subhash Kapoor, the latter of whom is currently on trial in India for his years of trafficking looted Asian goods.

Bogdanos got his start as an antiquities detective in Iraq; in 2003, as deputy director of the Joint Interagency Coordination Group, he led a several-months-long mission to protect Iraq’s national museum from looting, and garnered a National Humanities Medal from former President George W. Bush for his work.

galleries, kim kardashian, met gala, stolen art, upper east side

Matthew Bogdanos (right) an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, speaks with the Lebanese Culture Minister, Ghattas Khoury (left) as they stand next to the ancient sculpture “Bull’s Head” (center) during a ceremony celebrating the return of three works from the United States, at the National Museum of Beirut in Lebanon.

AP

Lewis said Bogdanos has been a key figure in changing the way the world looks at antiquities and their importance to their cultures of origin. Although the pillaging of valuable objects was once viewed as a “victimless crime,” Lewis said it’s anything but. He pointed out that looted antiquities have been connected to funding international terrorist organizations. The practice also destroys cultures, he said. “If you take away people’s history, you render them powerless. It’s a way to take away a national identity: You can’t build a functioning society unless that nation has ownership of its history.”

Lewis isn’t entirely optimistic, despite a global turn toward undoing the damage of colonization, and the restoration of stolen objects. The trafficking market continues to flourish, he said. “The Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research organization reported that in the first few months of COVID, five new Facebook trafficking groups were set up in the Middle East and one acquired 12,000 new members in one month,” he wrote in an email to The Post. “My concern is that until examples are made in US court rooms of more dealers and collectors, the market demand will remain little diminished and the looting will continue.”

However, he said the allure of collecting shady artifacts has been, thankfully, permanently tarnished. There was a time, said Lewis, when an amateur collector might have bragged: ” ‘Look at this authentic pre-Colombian vase I bought off some bloke in Peru!’ Now it would be like, ‘Sorry, you’re not meant to have that, actually. If the feds heard, they’d probably come and take it.’ “

Coffin of Nedjemankh

galleries, kim kardashian, met gala, stolen art, upper east side

Kim Kardashian posed alongside a similarly gilded Coffin of Nedjemankh at the 2018 Met Gala.

Landon Nordeman/Trunk Archive

At the 2018 Met Gala, Kardashian was drawn to the glittering gold coffin of Nedjemankh, the star antiquity in the museum’s show that spring. The institution had, it was eventually alleged by Bogdanos, paid $4 million without asking too many questions about its documentation. The tomb of a high priest dating back to the first century B.C., it was found to have been dug up in the Al-Minyā region of the country during the Arab Spring, with the mummy inside unceremoniously dumped — except for a finger bone that was left inside the coffin — not a detail that solved the case, but a shoddy oversight that, one imagines, might have caused the Met to question the coffin’s provenance. The Met was not charged with any wrongdoing, but the museum still “ignored every red flag and warning sign you could have,” said Lewis.

As Lewis points out, geopolitical instability often spawns looting, with criminals taking advantage of cultural chaos to make off with literal buried treasure. “Every time there’s a war in the Middle East, you get a flood of antiquities,” he said. “There was a lot in the first Iraq War, and another huge explosion in the market since the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then the Arab Spring, and Libya, and Syria. And there’s just so much of this stuff buried in the ground.”

Benin Bronzes

galleries, kim kardashian, met gala, stolen art, upper east side

In June, the Met announced it would be voluntarily returning three brass plaques from its collection to Nigeria, including this one entitled “Junior Court Official.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Benin Bronzes are a group of metal plaques and sculptures, numbering in the thousands, looted from the medieval Kingdom of Benin (located in modern-day Nigeria) by British troops in the 19th century. They were subsequently dispersed across the globe, with the majority in Western Europe.

This June, the Met announced it would be voluntarily returning three brass plaques from its collection to Nigeria, including a 14th-century piece titled “Ife Head” and two plaques dating to the 16th century titled “Warrior Chief” and “Junior Court Official.” The latter two “entered the international art market at an unknown date and under unclear circumstances and were eventually acquired by a New York collector,” the Met said in a statement, adding that it supported the creation of the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, still in the planning phase. The Met joins other institutions in voluntarily returning their Benin Bronzes; a campaign to repatriate the collection has been in the works for many years — “since before Nigeria gained its independence” in 1960, according to Areo magazine. But the recent increase in calls for Western civilization to squarely face its colonialist past have galvanized the process. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art recently announced it was returning its collection of Benin Bronzes, and there is currently pressure on the Denver Art Museum to do likewise.

Skanda on a Peacock

galleries, kim kardashian, met gala, stolen art, upper east side

“Skanda on a Peacock” ended up with a New York-based collector, who had to turn it over to the feds earlier this year.

Department of Justice

In 1997, a 10th-century sacred statue of the peacock-mounted Hindu deity Skanda, the god of war, was looted from the Cambodian temple Koh Ker, the capital of the Khmer Empire of 928-944 A.D. It was acquired by British antiquities collector and expert Douglas Latchford, who wrote books about Khmer art history while simultaneously acquiring vast plundered riches, mostly from the temples of Cambodia, and selling them throughout the world – including to Kapoor and Wiener. (Latchford died in 2020, not long after being indicted for illegal trafficking.) Eventually, “Skanda on a Peacock” ended up with a New York-based collector. A civil complaint demanding it be forfeited by its owner was filed in New York on July 15 of this year.

It was, stunningly, a former looter who was instrumental in identifying and targeting the statue to bring it back to Cambodia. According to ArtNews, “Cambodian authorities were made aware of the alleged theft . . . when an unnamed looter accompanied them to Prasat Krachap temple to show the authorities where the statue had been taken from. The looter told them that a broker, who was also unnamed in the suit, sold the work to Latchford, who then allegedly sold the work to a New York-based buyer for $1.5 million. It was then inherited by another owner, who relinquished it to U.S. authorities.”

Etruscan Hare

galleries, kim kardashian, met gala, stolen art, upper east side

The Etruscan Hare was seized from the Upper East Side gallery Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd. in 2018.

Manhattan District Attorney's Office

A terracotta vessel in the shape of a reclining rabbit, dating back to 580 to 560 B.C., was seized from the Upper East Side gallery Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd. in 2018. The hare is described in an earlier auction as an Etruscan-Corinthian pottery figure “from an [sic] European private collection,” and a seizure warrant was executed for it by the Manhattan D.A.’s office. Two years after the Etruscan Hare was seized, the business partners behind Fortuna Fine Arts, Erdal Dere and Faisal Khan, were arrested by the FBI and charged with having been involved in a multiyear scam intended “to use false provenances to offer and sell antiquities. Dere is also charged with aggravated identity theft for misappropriating the identities of deceased collectors who he pretended were the works’ former owners,” ArtNet reported.

Shiva Nataraja

galleries, kim kardashian, met gala, stolen art, upper east side

This stolen bronze Shiva Nataraja sculpture, valued at $4 million, was finally recovered and displayed at NYC’s Indian consulate earlier this year.

AP

Art of the Past was a storied gallery on Madison Avenue and 89th Street. Its former owner, Subhash Kapoor, has now been in jail in India for nearly 10 years after raids in 2012 found more than $100 million in trafficked antiquities. One of Kapoor’s stolen treasures was the $4 million bronze Shiva Nataraja statue — a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva in his form as the “cosmic dancer,” according to Britannica.com — which had been listed in Kapoor’s catalogue in 2010 and 2011, and is alleged to have been stolen from a temple in India in the 1960s. Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance said the seizure and arrest “serves as a potent reminder that individuals who maraud sacred temples in pursuit of individual profit are committing crimes not only against a country’s heritage but also its present and future.”

Red sandstone relief

galleries, kim kardashian, met gala, stolen art, upper east side

NYC gallerist Nancy Wiener pleaded guilty to trafficking stolen items, including this sandstone relief from India.

New York City Criminal Court.

Nancy Wiener’s eponymous 86th Street gallery was a longtime hot spot for trafficked treasures, according to prosecutors in Manhattan Criminal Court, who said Wiener used her gallery to “buy, smuggle, launder and sell millions of dollars’ worth of antiquities stolen from Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, India, Pakistan and Thailand.”

Among the artifacts was an Indian red sandstone relief depicting a couple, dating to the second-century Kushan period, originally purchased by Wiener’s mother, Doris, who was also in the business. When the auction house Sotheby’s wouldn’t accept the documentation provided with the artwork, Nancy Wiener consigned it and other objects to Christie’s New York, which reportedly asked fewer questions about the legitimacy of the objects. According to NPR, “Christie’s did not ask for extensive documentation about where the Wieners acquired the art and sold the entire lot in 2012 for $12.7 million.”

Nancy eventually pleaded guilty to trafficking looted items, stating in Manhattan Supreme Court that “for decades I conducted business in a market where buying and selling antiquities with vague or even no provenance was the norm. Obfuscation and silence were accepted responses to questions concerning the source from which an object had been obtained. In short, it was a conspiracy of the willing.”

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