Sunday, July 31, 2011

US Claims SLAM Lacks Legal Standing—Asserts That Mummy Mask is Illegal Contraband —Discovery Reveals More Information

In the latest round of papers filed in court last week, lawyers for the US Attorney’s Office in St. Louis sought to strike the St. Louis Art Museum’s legal claim in the federal lawsuit involving the mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer. Federal authorities sought forfeiture of the mask in March after the museum filed for a declaratory judgment in February seeking quiet title to the artifact. Both cases were filed in federal district court in St. Louis.

Federal attorneys, in their July 27 pleading, contend that SLAM’s “claim of ownership is legally impossible, and as such the Mask is effectively contraband in the hands of the Museum.” The government argues that Egypt’s patrimony law, which gives ownership rights of cultural property to the Egyptians, makes it impossible for the SLAM to own the mummy mask. Therefore, SLAM has no legal standing to assert that it can own the mask.

The government’s brief analogizes SLAM’s claim to the mask as similar to asserting ownership over cocaine—one cannot legally claim ownership. Since the mask cannot be owned by the museum, the museum lacks standing to claim ownership, the government argues.

SLAM says that it has standing to be a legal party in the case because it bought the mask and it possesses it.

The government first disputed SLAM’s legal standing in a July 7 motion. Government attorneys filed the pleading following the receipt of interrogatory answers by SLAM. While the museum wrote that it objected to having to answer questions about how it acquired title to the mask or having to identify documents that would support its claim to lawful ownership, SLAM, nevertheless, answered the interrogatories without waving these objections.

The museum supplied the following information:

• It purchased the mummy mask for $499,000 from Phoenix Ancient Art of Geneva, Switzerland around April 3, 1998.

• Phoenix Ancient Art warranted in a purchase and sale agreement that it had title to the mask and could properly transfer title.

• Phoenix provided provenance information to SLAM before the purchase. “According to Phoenix, in or about 1995, it had purchased the Mask from Ms. Zuzi Jelinek, who in or about the early 1960’s, had purchased the Mask from the Kaloterna (or Kaliterna) private collection,” the interrogatory answer relates.

• The museum conducted a provenance investigation to determine if the mask was stolen by contacting INTERPOL, the Missouri Highway Patrol, the Art Loss Register, and the former director of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, Dr. Mohammed Saleh.

• The museum conducted an investigation through Swiss legal counsel to determine if there were any liens or encumbrances on the mask. No encumbrances were found.

• Swiss legal counsel confirmed Jelinek’s address.

• The museum contacted Dr. Saleh, who advised SLAM to contact another US museum and who did not say that the mask was stolen or “advise the museum against purchasing the Mask.”

SLAM also provided a spreadsheet of 19 documents, which it claims supports the museum’s legal interest in the mummy mask. The documents can be categorized as a purchase agreement, a bill of sale, letters, and emails.

Missing from the documents list is a purchase or sales agreement between Jenilek and Pheonix Ancient Art. SLAM claimed in past court filings that such a transaction would have occurred in 1995. SLAM, nevertheless, includes on the list of documents a 1997 fax from Phoenix that purportedly attaches a letter of provenance from Jenilek.

Also missing from the documents list are shipping papers or import papers describing the mask’s entry into the United States. Import papers generally describe a package’s date of entry, location of entry, country of origin, value, and contents. The court papers suggest that the mummy mask traveled from Switzerland to the United States in 1998, but this information remains unclear. The mask must have been imported into the United States at some time and at a specific point of entry. But the question of whether papers exist documenting the importation of the Egyptian mummy mask, valued at several thousands of dollars, remains unanswered thus far.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Smuggling Arrest and the Law Governing African Elephant Ivory

Federal agents seized approximately one ton of elephant ivory smuggled over three years through JFK International Airport in New York. They arrested Philadelphia art dealer Victor Gordon for allegedly committing acts of conspiracy and smuggling and for violating the Lacey Act, which protects wildlife and other natural resources. He is charged with unlawfully importing and selling African elephant ivory. More details and photos of the extensive ivory haul can be found at http://www.blogger.com/www.justice.gov/usao/nye/pr/2011/2011jul26.html and cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/26/art-dealer-charged-with-smuggling-ivory-into-u-s/. Also see http://www.justice.gov/usao/nye/pr/2011/2011jul26.html.

The current charges remind us about the laws governing the trade and possession of African ivory. African ivory is a heavily regulated item because of the protections afforded the African elephant under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Endangered Species Act.

The rules governing the possession and trade of African elephant ivory in the United States can be summarized as follows:

- It is illegal to own, sell, or export crafted ivory that was imported into the United States after 1989 and which was less than 100 years old when the crafted ivory came across the US border.

- It is illegal to own, sell, or export uncrafted ivory that was imported into the United States after 1989. The age of the ivory does not matter.

- It is legal to own, sell, or export crafted or uncrafted ivory that was imported into the United States before 1989.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Salem Alshdaifat and his company, Holyland Numismatics

Holyland Numismatics is owned and operated by Salem Alshdaifat, the recently indicted co-defendant charged by a federal grand jury in New York with crimes associated with antiquities smuggling.  Court records indicate that he is a Canadian and Jordanian citizen who holds a US green card.  An indictment is not a finding of guilt.

Alshdaifat’s cached Facebook page indicates that Alshdaifat is the founder and president of the company since 2006. But Holyland Numismatic’s company web site states that the company was “[f]ounded in 2004 in Ontario, Canada, and moved in Michigan 2009, USA.”

Holyland Numismatics is apparently a sole proprietorship run out of Alshdaifat’s residence in Orchard Lake, Michigan. That community, near Detroit, is less than an hour from the Canadian border and less than 5 hours from Toronto.

Oakland County, Michigan records show that Holyland Numismatics registered its assumed business name on July 22, 2009, but discontinued that registration on December 15, 2009. The business owner was listed as Alshdaifat’s spouse, not Alshdaifat himself. But new registration papers filed on December 15, 2009 show Salem Alshdaifat to be the owner of Holyland Numismatics.

Holyland Numismatics’s web site lists a location in West Bloomfield, MI as its mailing address. That address is a Goin’ Postal mailbox store according to an internet search. The business location given by county records is an Orchard Lake, Michigan address, which is Alshdaifat’s residence. This business location is not displayed on the company's web site. Public property records for the Orchard Lake address reveal that it is a home owned in the name of a family member. The property appears to have been placed for sale as of June 2, 2011, but criminal court orders require the removal of this property from the real estate market since the house serves as collateral for Alshdaifat’s bail.

Holyland Numismatics’ web site remains active, suggesting that the company is operational. Since Alshdaifat is confined to his home under the terms of his bail and since his home appears to be his place of business, one reasonably can conclude that the business will continue to function as the case against Alshdaifat moves forward.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bail Set, Lawyers File Appearances in Khouli Antiquities Smuggling Case

A multiple count felony indictment against Moussa "Morris" Khouli, Joseph A. Lewis II, Salem Alshdaifat, and Ayman Ramadan charges the defendants with antiquities smuggling crimes. Three defendants are now actively engaged in their cases that are before the federal court of the Eastern District of New York. Ramadan remains at large.

Khouli has been released on a $250,000 bond. Lewis has been released on a $250,000 personal recognizance bond. Meanwhile, the prosecution and the defense agreed to place Alshdaifat on a $500,000 bond along with conditions that include house arrest, electronic monitoring, and a waiver of extradition from Canada.

Lawyers for the three defendants have filed appearances, including attorney Gerald Shargel for Khouli, the firm of Mintz Levin for Lewis, and attorney Henry Mazurek for Alshdaifat. Khouli’s earlier attorneys have withdrawn from the case. Meanwhile, the United States is represented by Karin Orenstein and Claire Kedeshian.

A June 23 press release shows that this is the second major case Orenstein has been assigned recently. She also serves as the prosecutor in a ten person Oxycodone distribution case.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Closer Look at the Case Against Mousa “Morris” Khouli and the Greco-Roman Coffin

A multiple count indictment publicly released last week implicates Mousa “Morris” Khouli and three others (Joseph A. Lewis, II, Salem Alshdaifat, and Ayman Ramadan) in an antiquities smuggling ring. Khouli is charged with conspiracy to smuggle, conspiracy to commit money laundering, smuggling as well as fraudulent importation and transportation (5 counts), and making false statements (2 counts).  Keep in mind that an indictment is simply a process that brings a person before the court. The government must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt before a person may be found guilty.

Those familiar with the case know by now that Khouli is a New York based antiquities and ancient coin dealer. Because he faces more charges than the other named co-conspirators—-nine criminal counts—-and because federal prosecutors looked to Khouli to provide information two years ago, his case bears some examination.

The 17 page federal grand jury indictment recites that Khouli operated a business called Windsor Antiquities (sic), selling items both from his physical location in Manhattan and on the internet. He is alleged to have illegally imported antiquities and to have sold them to a collector whose home is in Virginia. From the available court documents, the specific item that appears to have begun the investigative probe in to Khouli’s activities is a Greco-Roman coffin.

The recently released indictment and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) press releases of July 14, 2011 describe that:

• Khouli sold Egyptian antiquities to Pharma Management Corp. CEO and Virginia collector Jospeh Lewis, II. The objects included the Greco-Roman coffin.

• Khouli bought the Egyptian antiquities from Michigan dealer Salem Alshdaifat of Holyland Numismatics and Dubai dealer Ayman Ramadan of Nafertiti (sic) Eastern Sculptures Trading.

• Around October 30, 2008 Khouli made a bank transfer of $10,000 into Ramadan’s bank account in Dubai. Then Ramadan had the Greco-Roman coffin shipped by air from the United Arab Emirates to JFK International Airport in New York, arriving on November 20, 2008.

• The Greco-Roman coffin was seized from Joseph Lewis’ home by federal agents on July 14, 2011.

• HSI special agents seized almost $80,000 and more than 200 smuggled antiquities from Khouli worth approximately $2.5 million. Other seizures from Khouli's store included a variety of antiquities and thousands of ancient coins valued at $1 million.

Additional unsealed court documents shed further light on the facts alleged in the indictment. Writing in a September 4, 2009 affidavit in support of Mousa Khouli’s arrest, an ICE special agent explained how, around November 2008, he discovered that a particular shipment entered JFK airport in New York. The Customs database told the agent that the shipment was described as “Wood Panels, Antiques of Age Exceeding One Hundred Years.” The database also listed the country of origin as the United Arab Emirates. The agent’s suspicions were aroused because "it is extremely unlikely that antique wood panels would originate in the UAE. The soil is almost entirely sandy . . . ,” he wrote.

Based on this information, the special agent met with Khouli on February 10, 2009. “Khouli then showed me five old, painted wood panels. I asked Khouli where the panels were from and he said they were Egyptian. When asked whether he had any merchandise originating in the UAE, Khouli responded that he sometimes imports from the UAE, but that the UAE is not the country of origin for any of his merchandise.”

Khouli signed a statement for the ICE agent that said that the wood panels did not originate from the UAE; they were imported from the UAE. The special agent noted in the affidavit that Khouli violated the law, particularly where fifteen of twenty imports over a five year period were claimed to have originated from the UAE. The ICE agent recited familiar cultural property law, specifically that the entry of cultural property in the United States in contravention of a foreign cultural patrimony law is punishable by the National Stolen Property Act, referencing United States v. Schultz. The agent also stated that lying about the country of origin on customs documents constitutes a material false statement in violation of the federal criminal code, citing United States v. An Antique Platter of Gold.

The court sealed the government’s affidavit and complaint because the case remained under investigation. Even after authorities arrested Khouli on September 8, 2009 the case remained under seal. Khouli apparently appeared for arraignment on October 22, 2009 as “John Doe” at the request of the US Attorney’s Office, according to now publicly available court documents.

The government charged Khouli in 2009 with smuggling cultural property into the United States. But federal prosecutors wanted Khouli as an informant. A previously sealed prosecution letter to the court dated October 19, 2009 explains: “Khouli has expressed an interest in cooperating proactively against others who deal in stolen cultural property . . . . These crimes are difficult to detect and prove because they are committed by falsifying importation documents and provenances. Khouli’s cooperation is therefore of great value to the government and will not only contribute to the investigation of others who smuggle and deal in stolen cultural property, but will enable the United States government to seize and repatriate stolen cultural property to the countries that own the property under applicable treaties and patrimony laws.”

The prosecution on December 16, 2009 moved to dismiss the criminal case against Khouli, perhaps for the purpose of utilizing Khouli as a cooperating witness but this information is unknown for certain. In May 2011, however, Khouli and the three co-defendants were indicted. The indictment remained under seal until last week. And on July 14, 2011, Khouli posted a $250,000 secured appearance bond.

According to the records of the New York Department of State, Division of Corporations, Khouli’s business was actually known as Windsor Antiques, Inc. Created on September 28, 1995, the public records show that the business dissolved on December 27, 2010. Khouli was listed as the CEO, with an address in New York, NY and a principal office located in Brooklyn. A new company, Palmyra Heratige (sic), Inc., emerged on May 28, 2010 according to the corporation division’s records, listing an address located at the Manhattan Arts and Antiques Center. Khouli is associated with both Windsor Antiques and Palmyra Heratige (sic), Inc.

Although the Palmyra Heratige (sic) web site is down, a Yahoo! search revealed the following cached web autobiography as of July 11, 2011 (http://www.vcoins.com/palmyraheritage/store/info.asp?page=AboutUs):

“I am Morris Khouli. I moved to New York City in 1992 with my family and opened a gallery in New York City in 1995. My father had a gallery in Damascus for 35 Years, and he learned the business from my Grandfather who was in the business as well. I am the third generation in this business. Thanks to my dad, he taught me the business and I learned to love ancient coins and antiquities ever since I was a little boy.

Many collectors and dealers know me since I do a lot of shows in New York, California, Maryland, Florida, Illinois, and the ANA show, wherever it is since 1993. You may visit my gallery in the heart of Manhattan in the beautiful Manhattan Art and Antiques Center. We are open to the public Monday through Friday 10:30 AM to 5:00 PM. Located at 1050 Second Avenue between 55 and 56 streets Gallery Number 16 New York NY 10022 Tel 212-3191077 and fax 212-3191169.

We guarantee all of our items to be authentic and if for any reason you are not happy with the item, you can return it for a full refund. Try us--you will be happy.

Thank you,
Morris Khouli”

Palmyra Heratige (sic) apparently sold various types of antiquities. The Manhattan Art and Antique Center lists a web page for Palmyra Heritage at http://www.the-maac.com/Streamline?p=viewPage.jsp&id=61&gid=123. It displays two ancient coins, an Apulian amphora, a Roman bust, and an Illyrian bronze helmet.

As the case continues through the federal court system some important questions that perhaps may be answered include:

• how the Greco-Roman coffin was originally acquired and who facilitated its acquisition and transfer;

• who packed and transported the coffin to the UAE, how was it done, and which countries did the coffin pass through;

• which foreign government authorities failed to detect the movement of the coffin and why;

• how much money was paid for the coffin and how was the money transferred;

• whether the coffin was conserved or restored and who did the work if it was;

• how the coffin got from JFK airport to Lewis’ home, who packed it, and who transported it;

• why HSI waited two years to seize the Greco-Roman coffin (which is a good decision if it served to further HSI’s investigation, of course); and

• who are the unnamed co-conspirators in this case?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Antiquities Conspirators Charged

This week federal authorities publicly released a sealed indictment charging four men with antiquities trafficking. A federal grand jury in New York alleges that an antiquities trafficking ring conspired to smuggle ancient artifacts from Egypt, engaging in money laundering and false statements in the process.

The multiple count indictment charges
• collector Joseph A. Lewis, II, president and CEO of Pharma Management Corp. in Virginia.
• Mousa Khouli of Windsor Antiquities in New York,
• Michigan coin dealer Salem Alshdaifat of Holyland Numismatics, and
• dealer Ayman Ramadan of Nefertiti Eastern Sculptures Trading from Dubai.

The indictment alleges, in part, that Lewis illicitly bought Egyptian antiquities, which were illegally imported into the United States through Dubai. The indictment also alleges that the four conspired together and with unidentified “others” in an antiquities smuggling operation.

ICE issued a July 14 press release stating that it "seized Egyptian antiquities to include but are not limited to a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a unique three-part coffin set belonging to Shesepamuntayesher from the Saite period or 26th Dynasty, approximately 664-552 B.C. In addition to Egyptian antiquities, other Middle Eastern and Asian artifacts along with more than a thousand antique coins have been recovered.”

U.S customs agents executed a search warrant at Lewis' home on July 13 in Chesterfield, VA. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that they "recovered the Greco-Roman sarcophagus, the funerary boats and the limestone figures" there. The newspaper also reports that Lewis was convicted of illegal importation of wildlife in 1991, a charge plea bargained down from a felony to a misdemeanor. He reportedly served 30 days in home confinement, paid a $7500 fine, was placed on probation for 5 years, and was sentenced to perform community service

Ramadan remains a fugitive as of this writing.

Meanwhile, no indictments have been handed up thus far that involve the coins or Asian goods.

It should be noted that an indictment is not a finding of guilt.  A criminal defendant is presumed innocent unless the prosecution can prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.