Monday, June 1, 2009

Operation Phoenix: Ali Aboutaam "urges" others to repatriate antiquities

On May 19 it was reported that an unnamed Geneva dealer had returned 251 antiquities worth some €2 million (see earlier comments). My press release, "Looting Matters: Why Is Switzerland Featured so Frequently in the Return of Antiquities?", PR Newswire May 29, 2009 Friday 12:01 PM GMT subsequently noted:
"In May 2009 251 antiquities worth around 2 million Euros (US $2.8 million) were returned to Italy from a Geneva-based gallery."
One hour later another release appeared, "Phoenix Ancient Art Voluntarily Repatriates 251 Antiquities to Italy Worth $2.7 Million", PR Newswire May 29, 2009 Friday 1:00 PM GMT.
Phoenix Ancient Art, the world's leading dealer in rare treasures from ancient Western civilizations, announced today that it has voluntarily repatriated 251 antiquities valued at $2.7 Million (EU 2Million) to the State of Italy.
Why did it take ten days for Phoenix Ancient Art to make this statement? What prompted this latest move?

Ali Aboutaam was quoted in the release:
"We returned these ancient artifacts in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration with the international art world, and to demonstrate Phoenix's commitment to the preservation and repatriation of national treasures to their host countries ... We have, amicably settled the matter with the Italian authorities, and urge others in the art world to follow suit and also the lead of some of the world's great museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in repatriating antiquities whose provenance may be in doubt."
The press release suggests that the pieces were removed from archaeological contexts in Etruria and Southern Italy during the 1980s. It stress such looting was "unbeknownst to Phoenix"; in other words the pieces had been acquired in "good faith".

C. Michael Hedqvist, who is director of the Geneva gallery of Phoenix Ancient Art, is also quoted:
"To ensure the provenance of our items, we spend much of our time verifying an art work's pedigree. In our due diligence process we ask each seller of artwork for proof of identity, as well as for documents pertaining to how long the piece has been in circulation... The returned items were acquired by Phoenix a long time ago, without knowing of their doubtful provenance. Even though a court in Geneva in 2007 rejected the Italian claim and awarded title of the antiquities to Phoenix, proving that we were not at fault, we chose to return the disputed items to the Italian State."
Ali and Hicham Aboutaam have yet to explain their link with an antiquity returned from Princeton to Italy.

Aboutaam's urge that other institutions should "follow suit" and repatriate "antiquities whose provenance may be in doubt" will cause discomfort for two particular institutions:
Will these two museums be returning these two acquisitions in the near future?

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