Monday, 19 January 2009

Looking back to the al-Suwaysi case

Last week's news story about the reported arrest of a Swiss-based antiquities dealer in Bulgaria alluded to the story about the al-Suwaysi case. The case was mentioned in The New York Times (Barry Meier and Martin Gottlieb, "An Illicit Journey Out of Egypt, Only a Few Questions Asked", NYT February 23, 2004; see also Barry Meier and Martin Gottlieb, "Few questions are asked when rare Egyptian relic is offered", IHT February 24, 2004).

At about the same time as Hicham was arrested in New York, Ali's name was being read out in a Cairo courtroom, one of 31 people accused of being part of a long-running ring that had smuggled artifacts through Switzerland to Western dealers and galleries. The charges grew out of a raid last summer at the main Geneva free port.

The indicted included several high-ranking Egyptian police and government officials; the mastermind, prosecutors said, was Tariq al-Suwaysi, a politician and businessman whose lavish way of life had earned him the nickname "the Prince." Also among the accused were several members of the Farag family, the clan that had bought the stele of Pasenenkhons from the builders in Akhmim.

Egypt's general prosecutor, Maher Abdel Wahed, said Mr. Aboutaam had been indicted based on telephone conversations secretly recorded last year, along with other information that showed he had received smuggled artifacts through Mr. Suwaysi's ring. The prosecutor said the two men had been recorded discussing, often in code, the delivery of smuggled pieces.

"They were partners," he said.

After reviewing transcripts of the recorded conversations, Ali Aboutaam issued a statement saying he and his brother constantly received telephone calls from people seeking to sell them objects or claiming to be owed money by their father, Sleiman Aboutaam. The calls from Mr. Suwaysi, he said, fit into that category.

A Swiss lawyer for Mr. Aboutaam, Mario Roberty, said that while his client knew of Mr. Suwaysi, it was only because Sleiman Aboutaam might have dealt with him.

Added Ali, "I never bought from him, for sure."

A further raid in the Geneva Freeport is noted by Andrew Marton ("Kimbell negotiating refund for $2.7 million statue", Fort Worth Star-Telegram August 17, 2001).
Sources in Europe and the United States have indicated that the Aboutaam warehouse in Geneva was raided within the past six months by Swiss and Italian authorities. The raiders reportedly confiscated 70 to 80 terra cotta pieces, mostly vases, originating in Italy, in addition to documentation pertaining to the artwork.

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